How can personality be classified?

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How can personality be classified?

Andrew Garza

Many people think of personality as the combination of qualities that make people who they are. Since the beginning of the earliest large human civilizations people have been hypothesizing about what factors influence personality and how to categorize different personalities (1). Not only have these understandings about personality helped satiate people's curiosity about how the world works, but they have also served to help people predict others' behavior. Modern science has addressed some of the ancient personality-related riddles by showing us that both past experiences and hereditary genetic factors play highly important roles in shaping our personalities (2). Now the challenge has become to find out which particular factors influence the formation of different personalities and how these factors interact with each other.

One of the most common popular assumptions about personality seems to be that it is stable. If someone is considered to be a nice guy, he can be counted on to treat others respectfully and to not be rude, right? People who understand personality through the lens of the trait approach would strongly agree with the assumption about the stability of people's personalities. The trait approach to understanding and classifying personality basically says that human personalities are composed of a set number of traits that become the "ingredients" of personality. Everyone exhibits the individual traits to varying degrees, and the combinations of these characteristics form our personalities. Within the trait approach there are a variety of hypotheses that try to explain personality, but the framework that is supported by the widest body of evidence is called the Big Five (3). The Big Five is a taxonomy that classifies personality types based on the extent to which people exhibit each of the following five factors: extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Proponents of the Big Five argue that the traits are so universal that a study by Weiss, King and Figueredo has even shown them to influence the personalities of non-human animals like chimpanzees (3).

However, one of the major limitations of the Big Five and other prominent trait approach evaluation methods is that they have limited power to actually predict people's behavior in specific circumstances. It has been shown that expectations of people's behavior that are predicted based on Big Five evaluations of their personalities only correlate with their actual behavior 30% to 40% of the time (3). Although this range does show that the model has some power to predict behavior, it can't be considered to anticipate behavior very strongly. McAdams (4) suggests that one reason why the model doesn't have strong predictive power is that the categories are so broad that they can't account for all the important nuances of personality, and thus they can't predict behavior.

On the other hand, Mischel explains the low predictive power by emphasizing the importance of another factor that I think is often missing from the popular conception and certainly to an extent the academic conception as well of what personality is. He states that the main explanation for why the Big Five model fails to account for so much behavior is that behavior isn't just determined by people's traits, but rather also by how people react to the particular moment-by-moment situations in which they find themselves (3). One experiment by Hartshorne and May (5) demonstrates that at least some aspects of personality are much less fixed than we may have originally thought. The researchers gave tests designed to measure honesty to about 11,000 school children between the ages of eight and 16. The tests which focused on sentence completion and math were administered to the children in a variety of settings. Sometimes the kids took them in supervised classrooms, while other times they were given the answer key and asked to grade their own tests under minimal supervision. Still other times, they were given the test to take at home and bring back the next day. The idea behind the study was that the researchers could measure the amount of cheating that was taking place by comparing the test scores of exams that were strictly administered (with little room for cheating) versus tests taken in situations in which children had ample opportunity to cheat. It turned out that the scores in situations where cheating was easy were on average about 50% higher than the results produced in situations where the kids were strictly supervised. The researchers' fascinating analysis of the outcome reveals that there weren't clearly defined groups of cheaters and honest students. Many students cheated at least a little bit, but they often did it in different circumstances. For instance, some were more likely to cheat on math tests taken at home than on similar tests taken under loose supervision at school, while the reverse was true for other students. So the way a student acted under one set of circumstances wasn't necessarily an accurate predictor of how he or she would act in another context (5). The key points here are 1) that personality is not quite as stable across a variety of situations as many of us might think it is and 2) that personality is not only determined by past experience which is what I think people often mean when the use the term "experience" and genes, but also certainly influenced by situational conditions. It is more than possible for the same person to exhibit two totally different behaviors when that person is faced with different situations.

One reason why people might be naturally inclined to think about personality through the lens of the trait approach rather than giving strong weight to situational factors as well is that people often make the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) (5). The FAE says that people will generally overestimate the importance of character traits in explaining other people's behavior and underestimate the importance of situational factors. At the same time, we also have the tendency to attribute our own actions, especially if they are negative, more to situational factors than to personal traits. So for instance, if you are late to an important committee meeting you would probably attribute that tardiness to traffic or something external, while people who see you at the meeting would be more likely to think, "Wow, he's less responsible than I had thought". But if you were the person sitting in that meeting when somebody else came in late, it is likely that you would make the same assumption "Gosh, that's a tardy person."

Given the fact that situational factors are crucial in predicting how a person will act on a certain occasion, it is fundamental that situational influences be better integrated into a personality model that also includes traits. Mischel and other researchers have noticed that, although people do act differently in various situations, there are also patterns for how people act in certain kinds of situations (3). In order for a truly comprehensive theory of personality to emerge, more research will have to be done to determine which combinations of attributes are likely to make people act a certain way in a given situation. Clearly it would not be possible to create a taxonomy that shows how people with different combinations of Big Five traits would act in every possible situation, but researchers could try to find patterns of behavior across various situations and group some of these situations into larger categories. For instance, openness and conscientiousness are more important than extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism when trying to predict how neat someone's room and work area will be (6). The ideal goal would be to reach the point where situational and trait factors are so well understood that people's dispositions to act a certain way in given situations can be understood through the framework of traits. Research of this nature will undoubtedly also shed light onto other important issues related to personality like the extent to which the I-Function operates similarly and differently for people with various combinations of traits.


1)Survey of Beliefs about Personality, Ellen Whyte describes some of the past and present beliefs about how personality works.
2) Web Paper, This paper gives good examples of beliefs about personality that rely complete environmental causality and total genetic determinism. It also cites an interesting and solid study that supports the notion that personality is determined by a mix of experience and genes.
3) Gleitman, Fridlund & Reisberg. "Personality." Psychology. Sixth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. This psychology textbook offers an excellent overview of a variety of personality theories, including the Big Five system.
4) Academic Critiques of Big Five, Several analyses of the Big Five.
5) Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: First Back Bay, 2002. This book offers several good examples of how situational factors play a large role in influencing how we act.
6) APA Article, Beth Azar addresses the interesting relationship between the tidiness of bedrooms and certain characteristics of people.

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