A lengthy debate in the field of psychology has raged for decades between two major camps. The first camp posits that human personality can be arranged into discrete types, with each type displaying a unique and readily identifiable set of behavioural characteristics. The second camp fundamentally disagrees with the first camp’s proposition and instead holds that behaviour is a natural continuum, rather than a binary A/B. For almost a hundred years now, these two camps refuse to meet eye to eye on this contention subject.

The objective of this article is to outline the inherent differences between these two philosophies of psychology and outline the relative advantages and disadvantages of these competing models. I will also provide a brief overview of the academic evidence in this field, hopefully allowing you to make your own evidence-based decision on what you feel best describes the structure of human personality.

What are traits and types?

Personality types, perhaps most famously outlined by the Myers Briggs type indicator (MBTI), the enneagram test, and other type based models, hold that every person can be defined by a specific personality type. Individuals within a specific personality type will share key behavioural characteristics which are common under that type. Additionally, certain types will be more similar than others, having significant implications for interpersonal communication, group dynamics and teamwork. Types will be underpinned by specific dichotomies within their type along with particular aspects of personality. For example, in the Enneagram model, an Enneagram type 1 is defined as being “extraverted”, making them forthright and exacting, and an Enneagram type 5 can be described as being “introverted”, being more solitary and individualistic. Types are therefore collections of these dichotomies, which in aggregate explain the variation in personality along a number of dimensions.

Personality traits however are quantitative continuums of personality, whereby everyone exists on a number of personality scales. Rather than thinking about individuals as “Extraverts” or “introverts” in an absolute sense, instead, everyone exists somewhere on that continuum and is thus best presented by numerical scores rather than discrete categories. Naturally, some people are neither true extravert nor true introverts, and would instead be a partial mix of the two, resulting in a middling score on an extraversion scale. Personality scales are particularly diverse, with potentially hundreds of possible scales, each measuring unique aspects of personality within an overall personality questionnaire. As a result, this makes trait-based personality questionnaires psychometrically more akin to ability tests, such as verbal, numerical, and inductive reasoning tests.

Research evidence

When it comes to academic research evidence, the vast majority of studies in this field lend support to the trait-based model of personality, rather than the type-based model. This is because personality traits tend to show a “Normal Distribution” statistically, with the vast majority of people scoring around the middle of the continuum, rather than the extremes. As a result, few people are actually strong extraverts or introverts, most people would be considered middle of the range, and this appears consistent across all personality dimensions. This suggests that human personality is indeed distributed along a continuum, rather than into discrete binary categories.

Additionally, within the specific models themselves, there is just more academic evidence to support trait-based models in terms of the number of studies. Models such as the Big 5 model of personality were derived explicitly from academic research in the field of psychology and were discovered using the statistical technique of factor analysis. Type based models, such as the MBTI and Enneagram, however, were largely the result of introspection from non-psychologists, and thus were developed with less academic rigour. Because of his, academics are more included to utilise trait-based models, which are more supported by the academic literature.

Practical application

Although trait-based models are more academic and are more closely aligned to the science, there are practical benefits of a type-based personality model. When using assessments for personal development, it often isn’t helpful to present scores for personality traits. For example, lay people may simply be interested in knowing whether they are more introverted or extraverted, they may not understand what a z-score of 0.82629 on an extraversion scale means in practice. As a result, it just makes sense to simplify these data into discrete types, providing a more digestible set of information for which to make personal development decisions.

However, in high-stakes settings, such as occupational or clinical settings, trait-based assessments should always be used. Due to the lack of academic rigour associated with type-based assessments, making high-stakes decisions such as hiring decisions should only be made using well validated assessments. This is both for practical and legal reasons, as type-based models are both more effective for short-listing candidates, and will stand up to greater scrutiny if challenged in an employment tribunal.

Conclusion

Although the debate rages on regarding the structure of human personality, between academics in psychology, a consensus has almost certainly been reached. Trait-based models simply measure personality more accurately, better capturing the complex nature of human personality than type-based models. However, these advantages become inherent disadvantages when working with lay-people, who can quickly become overwhelmed with the complexity of trait-based assessment. And some limitations of the trait-based model are bridged with hybrid types, like Enneagram wing types, such as type 1w9 or type 2w1. Instead, type-based models represent a simpler and more easily digestible alternative, providing key information quickly and with less confusion.

A lengthy debate in the field of psychology has raged for decades between two major camps. The first camp posits that human personality can be arranged into discrete types, with each type displaying a unique and readily identifiable set of behavioural characteristics. The second camp fundamentally disagrees with the first camp’s proposition and instead holds that behaviour is a natural continuum, rather than a binary A/B. For almost a hundred years now, these two camps refuse to meet eye to eye on this contentious subject.

The objective of this article is to outline the inherent differences between these two philosophies of psychology and outline the relative advantages and disadvantages of these competing models. I will also provide a brief overview of the academic evidence in this field, hopefully allowing you to make your own evidence-based decision on what you feel best describes the structure of human personality.

What are traits and types?

Personality types, perhaps most famously outlined by the Myers Briggs type indicator (MBTI), the enneagram of personality, and other type based models, hold that every person can be defined by a specific personality type. Individuals within a specific personality type will share key behavioural characteristics which are common under that type. Additionally, certain types will be more similar than others, having significant implications for interpersonal communication, group dynamics and teamwork. Types will be underpinned by specific dichotomies within their type along with particular aspects of personality. For example, in 16 personality-based models, 8 types are defined as being “Extraverted”, making them personable and gregarious, and 8 can be described as being “introverted”, being more solitary and individualistic. Types are therefore collections of these dichotomies, which in aggregate explain the variation in personality along a number of dimensions.

Personality traits however are quantitative continuums of personality, whereby everyone exists on a number of personality scales. Rather than thinking about individuals as “Extraverts” or “Introverts” in an absolute sense, instead, everyone exists somewhere on that continuum and is thus best presented by numerical scores rather than discrete categories. Naturally, some people are neither a true extravert nor a true introvert, and would instead be a partial mix of the two, resulting in a middling score on an extraversion scale. Personality scales are particularly diverse, with potentially hundreds of possible scales, each measuring unique aspects of personality within an overall personality questionnaire. As a result, this makes trait-based personality questionnaires psychometrically more akin to ability tests, such as verbal, numerical, and inductive reasoning tests.

Research evidence

When it comes to the academic research evidence, the vast majority of studies in this field lend support to the trait-based model of personality, rather than the type-based model. This is because personality traits tend to show a “Normal Distribution” statistically, with the vast majority of people scoring around the middle of the continuum, rather than the extremes. As a result, few people are actually strong extraverts or introverts, most people would be considered middle of the range, and this appears consistent across all personality dimensions. This suggests that human personality is indeed distributed along a continuum, rather than into discrete binary categories.

Additionally, within the specific models themselves, there is just more academic evidence to support trait based models in terms of the number of studies. Models such as the Big 5 model of personality were derived explicitly from academic research in the field of psychology and were discovered using the statistical technique of factor analysis. Type based models, such as the MBTI and Enneagram, however, were largely the result of introspection from non-psychologists, and thus were developed with less academic rigour. Because of this, academics are more included to utilise trait based models, which are more supported by the academic literature.

Practical application

Although trait-based models are more academic and are more closely aligned to science, there are practical benefits of a type-based personality model. When using assessments for personal development, it often isn’t helpful to present scores for personality traits. For example, lay people may simply be interested in knowing whether they are more introverted or extraverted, they may not understand what a z-score of 0.82629 on an extraversion scale means in practice. As a result, it just makes sense to simplify these data into discrete types, providing a more digestible set of information for which to make personal development decisions.

However, in high-stakes settings, such as in occupational or clinical settings, trait-based assessments should always be used. Due to the lack of academic rigour associated with type-based assessments, making high-stakes decisions such as hiring decisions should only be made using well validated assessments. In other words, it’s best to use trait-based personality tests during the hiring process. This is both for practical and legal reasons, as type-based models are both more effective for short-listing candidates, and will stand up to greater scrutiny if challenged in an employment tribunal. Additionally, it is also recommended that this be accompanied by other psychometric tests.

Conclusion

Although the debate rages on regarding the structure of human personality, between academics in psychology, a consensus has almost certainly been reached. Trait-based models simply measure personality more accurately, better capturing the complex nature of human personality than type-based models. However, these advantages become inherent disadvantages when working with lay people, who can quickly become overwhelmed with the complexity of the trait-based assessment. Instead, type-based models represent a simpler and more easily digestible alternative, providing key information quickly and with less confusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published

error: Content is protected !!