The Science Behind Personality Types

Wondering just how accurate your personality test results are? Dr. Kerry Schofield explains more about the science behind personality types.

Humans like classifications and categories. It’s a feature of the way our brains function – we have limited processing capacity, so we group things together in order to simplify information. This has a lot of problems associated with it – including prejudice, jumping to conclusions, and inflexible thinking – but it also has its uses.

This kind of heuristic (i.e. rule of thumb) thinking lets us modify our behaviour in contexts where we have very little information to go on. And it allows us to process a lot more general concepts and ideas than we would have room for if we had to worry about every individual detail. This tendency towards heuristic processing lies behind our fascination with typologies, such as the personality types  – it gives us a shorthand for interacting with the world, and other people.

The truth is, very few people will in practice be textbook Masterminds,Strategists, Idealists or Inventors – these personality types are only a template, and no typology can account for the unique complexity of each individual human being. What they do is give us a starting point for communication.

For example, if I know that I’m an Idealist and you’re a Strategist, that tells me something about how to interact with you – what we’re likely to have in common, where we might clash, how best to share ideas with each other. It gives us a framework to understand what we might otherwise see as faults in others, and helps us to accept, embrace, and use our differences to complement each other.

How did personality types come about?

Oddly enough, typologies are not commonly used in pure academic psychology – they’re the province of applied psychology: recruitment, team optimization, cultural fit, life coaching, and so on. Individual differences researchers are usually more interested in factors – the dimensions which make up a personality.

The basis of modern psychometrics can be found in the work of Hans Eysenck, who posited three dimensions by which he believed personality could be completely described: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. In fact, versions of all three of these factors can be found in our psychometric model!

Eysenck was interested in the biological basis of personality, and he and other pioneering individual differences researchers such as Jeffrey Gray, Marvin Zuckerman, and Robert Cloninger constructed various (similar) models of aspects of personality which appear to be hard-wired. For example, extraverts and introverts respond differently to chemical intervention! Modern work, such as that of Robert Plomin, incorporates findings from behavioral genetics to further explain the biological basis of personality.

Another complementary approach to understanding personality comes from lexical-statistical models, and it is from these that modern psychometrics mostly stems. The earliest models, developed in the early 1930s, simply involved very long lists of adjectives, to which people would respond on a rating scale – for example, “How sociable are you?” or “How imaginative are you?”

Huge numbers of responses on these long lists were processed using data reduction methods, which examine which adjectives co-varied – for example, if a person said they were very sociable, they would be likely to also say they were very friendly, talkative, and outgoing. All these words boil down to the same thing: a factor researchers usually call extraversion.

How much of my personality does this really encompass?

There is ongoing debate about how many of these factors are sufficient to explain personality. Eysenck, as we have seen, thought there were three. Other researchers have suggested more. For example, Cloninger went for seven, including four temperament (biologically based and hard-wired) traits and three character (more environmentally informed, higher-level, and changeable) traits. Raymond Cattell, another giant in the individual differences field, plumbed for 16 factors. However, by far the most widely accepted model today is the ‘Big Five’ model, developed in the early sixties by US airforce researchers Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, and popularized in the eighties by Costa and McCrae – probably the best-known proponents of the modern form of the model.

The modern ‘Big Five’ model argues that our pattern of scores on just five dimensions – our old friends extraversion and neuroticism (emotional stability), plus agreeableness (similar in some ways to Eysenck’s psychoticism dimension), onscientiousness, and openness to experience.

All five of these factors are represented formula; however, as the Big Five is designed as a general personality measure, our model uses a unique rotated and expanded version of the factors to better capture personality in the specialist environment of the workplace.

As you can see from taking our survey, we assess what you could call the ‘Big Six’: Innovation, Energy, Reliability, Drive, Authority, and Empathy. All these factors are based on a combination of empirical research from the ‘pure’ academic side, plus the more intuitive and applied results from fieldwork in industrial/organisational and vocational psychology.

Each of our archetypes has a unique pattern of scores on the dimensions we assess. Why 16? The simple answer is, why not 16? In theory, we could construct a typology of far more, or less, archetypes. For example, we could classify people in only five ways – based on their highest scoring factor. Or we could break it down and classify people a hundred ways, based on an every-increasingly-complex pattern of scores on factors and sub-factors.

The key is in the balance between accuracy – requiring many archetypes – and practical usability – requiring fewer archetypes. Our belief is that to have too many would defeat the object of creating classifications in the first place, as there would be too much information to be usable.

Typologies like ours are popular because humans like classifications, but also because humans like to belong. Group identity is a major driving factor, and it’s also behind the importance of cultural fit. People are proud of the groups they belong to, and hopefully they will be proud of their archetypes too. And they should be! Unlike most group identifiers – gender, country, which team you support – these archetypes are not accidental, or arbitrary: they’re you.

Being proud of your archetype is to be proud of what and who you are, and by knowing more about your archetype, and those of others, you can learn about yourself – your strengths and weaknesses, how to use them, but also how to change them to work towards the person you want to be.

Because your personality type might describe you, but it shouldn’t constrain you. It’s a rule of thumb, a starting point for self-understanding, and more clued- in interaction with others. Not a restrictive label, but a map, a guide, and a key for unlocking your potential.

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