The Personality Paradox

David Brooks has written yet another wonderful column on the mind. This time he explores the nagging gap between our intuitions about personality - we each express a particular set of character traits, which can be traced back to our early childhood - and the scientific facts, which suggest that the vague personality traits measured by the Myers-Briggs are too vague to mean much of anything. Here's Brooks:

In Homer's poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct.

In this view, what you might call the philosopher's view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate.

These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous.

The psychologists say this because a century's worth of experiments suggests that people's actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call "cross-situational stability."

The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don't have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context.

One of the first (and fiercest) critics of the fixed trait model of personality - this idea that character is quantifiable, like an IQ score of the soul - is Walter Mischel. I wrote about his groundbreaking research in a recent New Yorker article:

In 1958, Mischel became an assistant professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. One of his first tasks was to develop a survey course on "personality assessment," but Mischel quickly concluded that, while prevailing theories held personality traits to be broadly consistent, the available data didn't back up this assumption. Personality, at least as it was then conceived, couldn't be reliably assessed at all. A few years later, he was hired as a consultant on a personality assessment initiated by the Peace Corps. Early Peace Corps volunteers had sparked several embarrassing international incidents--one mailed a postcard on which she expressed disgust at the sanitary habits of her host country--so the Kennedy Administration wanted a screening process to eliminate people unsuited for foreign assignments. Volunteers were tested for standard personality traits, and Mischel compared the results with ratings of how well the volunteers performed in the field. He found no correlation; the time-consuming tests predicted nothing. At this point, Mischel realized that the problem wasn't the tests--it was their premise. Psychologists had spent decades searching for traits that exist independently of circumstance, but what if personality can't be separated from context? "It went against the way we'd been thinking about personality since the four humors and the ancient Greeks," he says.


One of Mischel's classic studies documented the aggressive behavior of children in a variety of situations at a summer camp in New Hampshire. Most psychologists assumed that aggression was a stable trait, but Mischel found that children's responses depended on the details of the interaction. The same child might consistently lash out when teased by a peer, but readily submit to adult punishment. Another might react badly to a warning from a counsellor, but play well with his bunkmates. Aggression was best assessed in terms of what Mischel called "if-then patterns." If a certain child was teased by a peer, then he would be aggressive.

Mischel's favorite metaphor for this model of personality, known as interactionism, concerns a car making a screeching noise. How does a mechanic solve the problem? He begins by trying to identify the specific conditions that trigger the noise. Is there a screech when the car is accelerating, or when it's shifting gears, or turning at slow speeds? Unless the mechanic can give the screech a context, he'll never find the broken part. Mischel wanted psychologists to think like mechanics, and look at people's responses under particular conditions.

So if personality is so context-dependent, then why do we believe so fiercely in the constancy of character? Why does everyone know their Myers-Briggs score? The answer returns us to the biased brain, and a mental flaw known as the fundamental attribution error. It turns out that when we evaluate the behavior of others we naturally overemphasize the role of personality - we assume people are always aggressive or always dishonest or always sarcastic - and undervalue the role of context and the pervasive influence of situations. Nobody, it turns out, is always anything.


More like this

The fundamental attribution error makes sense. Often when I interact with someone they display a consistent behavior towards me, because I am a part of the context in which they behave that way. And the flip side, the actor-observer bias, makes sense because I know my behavior alters in different circumstances.

This is a very interesting post-- this view of personality makes a lot of sense to me. Not only because of my job (I study customer behavior), but personally, as well.

The last personality test I had to take (Insights), I struggled to answer the questions because though the word pairings were opposites/contradictory, I didn't view them that way. To me, it really depended on the circumstances, the context. I felt I was equally 'this' vs. 'that'. The results don't reflect the various aspects (& nuances) of my personality.

On the upside, it's a nice little parlor trick to be able to put people into personality categories; some companies are making obscene amounts of money off the premise that personality traits are constant/fixed.

The problem comes in assuming that fixed personality traits always result in a certain predictable (and easily characterized) type of behavior. I see no reason to expect that to be the case.

Brooks is a sanctimonious liar, and everything he writes is right-wing plutocrat propaganda. The purpose of this particular article is to rehabilitate the reputations of the right-wing moral degenerates who spent the last forty years looting and destroying the United States.

From my point of view, the fundamental attribution error is more of an empirical fact than an explanation. Are we really so stupid that "we do not take into account behavioral and situational information simultaneously to characterize the dispositions of the actor" as it proposed by "lack of effortful adjustment" theory? Or why do we overlook the situation?

Some behavioral traits are inherited, some are learned, all are malleable. But shyness for example is consistent, even though many of us learn to override it - in effect to convincingly act as if we weren't shy. Introversion and extroversion persist as well.
Sociopaths, for another example, can act as if they are honest as the day is long, yet have no moral constraints when dishonesty will better serve their purposes.
Bottom line, you can predictably trust some people in certain specific ways and not others, and that's where the consistency of character is found, if only through our unconscious perceptiveness. We can be wrong, but in general, the world works because we are more often right in these assessments.

As usual a thought provoking post. However, I have to disagree with some of the conclusions. Yes, it is true that stability of personality can be overblown and misinterpreted by many-- thus, the million dollar testing industry so loved by human resource departments across the country. It is a pretty weak argument to use the Myers-Briggs as an exemplar of personality testing--considering that within academic circles it is hardly given much attention.
Yes, context certainly matters when predicting behavior. However, this does not mean that certain aspects of personality do not show some long-term stability. It is still common to raise Mischel's famous critique and forget that several decades later their are hundreds of studies showing that certain traits--e.g., extraversion and neuroticism-can be used to predict a host of outcomes, from health to well-being. As mentioned in your book, Jonah, it was Mischel himself who demonstrated that based on a simple task of emotional regulation, you could make statistical predictions about these individuals years later. Of course, these predictions are not the same things as divination-- although it might seem like it at time, psychologists are not in the business of fortune telling. This still doesn't mean that across time, people can behave in consistent ways. Be it greek hero or common man, if we are often concerned with the traits of individuals, it is for good reason: they sometimes tell us who they are.

Being a psychologist whom constantly observes behavior, I have always been drawn to Lewin's field theory, Behavior=fx(Person)(Environment), to generally describe behavior...with the idea that person (P) is a collection of malleable tendencies. I have found that this helps mitigate my fundamental attribution error, as well as consistently effect long term behavior change.

Frans de Waal had a great account in "Good Natured" about young monkeys of one species (forget which one) being socialized with slightly older monkeys of a less aggressive species. Surprisingly, the more aggressive ones gradually skewed less aggressive as they modeled the behavior of their older and therefore dominant and influential peers. So even personality traits thought to be carved into a species' basic make-up turned out to be malleable, which I guess could be considered context-specific.

This isn't a defense, and I may be mistaken, but I don't believe the Myers-Briggs surveys such behaviors/tendencies as "aggression, dishonesty, and sarcasm."

Furthermore, while it seems quite evident that any individual may, given a certain context, be aggressive, dishonest, or sarcastic it does not follow that static personalities therefore do not exist.

Humans absolutely do attempt to categorize all sensory information, including the behavior of people they encounter, but again, this does not mean that people don't have static personalities.

Having said that, static personalities are certainly contextual. It's not uncommon for a child to be incredibly verbal and impulsive at home, but quiet and reserved at school and vice versa.

Furthermore, we know that personalities can change over time, although not without great effort or, typically, a momentous event/tragedy playing a key role.

To suggest that individuals do not have static personalities is absurd. If every time you talked to your spouse, a parent, or your child and they acted completely different, we'd feel like we were in the Twilight Zone.

Again, this does not ignore the fact that we do have the human tendency to pigeonhole people around us; We filter out the stuff that doesn't fit our beliefs about a person. Yes, that does occur as well. And this does not ignore the fact that spouses and parents change, mature, and grow... or sometimes act surprisingly aggressive.

If anything, this research calls for a better understanding of the dynamics of personality, not an understanding that the personality doesn't exist.

Research by Donald W. Mackinnon "The Personality Correlates of Creativity: A Study of American Architects" undertaken back in the 60's at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, University of California Berkeley led him to write:

"If I were to summarize what is most generally characteristic of the creative architect as we have seen him (sic), it is his high level of effective intelligence, his openness to experience, his freedom from petty constraints, and impoverishing inhibitions, his aesthetic sensitivity, his cognitive flexibility, his independence of thought and action, his high level of energy, his unquestioning commitment to creative endeavor, and his unceasing striving for creative solutions to the ever more difficult architectural problems he constantly sets for himself". end quote. While nobody is suggesting these are evident in all architects or contexts they provide useful aspirational markers in the education of young architects. Perhaps that is where character traits are today - context dependent aspirational markers.

I do not think it's the fundamental attribution error that accounts for why we think of personalities as fixed. We think of our own personalities as fixed much of the time. How often do we say to ourselves "I'm so lazy" or "I am terrible at this or that."

I believe we think of people as fixed because we think of identity as fixed and we think of people as objects with that identity that have particular characteristics, i.e. we fix identities because it is the way we conceptualize and remember people. It's not dissimilar to how we think of any other object, say a tree or a stone. In fact, we may "fix" people in our minds even more than physical objects because we name individual people and thus we associate the particular name with the particular characteristics and qualities. And, as you point out in the beginning, one-dimensional people are much more memorable than thinking of someone as an open, fluid concept without fixed attributes. I believe that we associate "Batman" with "heroic self-sacrifice" is not dissimilar to the way we associate "Joe Schmidt" with "depressing" or "Albert Einstein" with "genius." How would we remember Einstein or Batman or Mr. Schmidt if we didn't remember qualities?

I do not think the question is whether character traits or personalities are fixed or context-dependent, but why we need to consider these qualities at all. It strikes me that the purpose of utilizing qualities or personalities is to know how to predict and interact with individuals. Without "fixing" characteristics in some form or another (based on context or context-independent) it seems like there would be no way to "know" a person. To me, this is starting with faulty premises and shooting for a flimsy way to understand a human being.

By Michael Felberbaum (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

Royniles, in my personal experience, I think I disagree with both your main points about normal people (I'm not going to touch discussions of psychopathy as it's something I have no experience or training in). In my own personality, shyness is overwhelming to the literal point of agoraphobia in many situations. However, I'll willingly shoot my mouth off in an academic situation, and I'm very confident with animals and small children. Similarly, I know people who are shy in most circumstances, but quite comfortable in specific areas or situations (perhaps with family, or in a performance context). Even more obvious are the peer-group-confident people who crumple when faced with unfamiliar situations. On the introvert-extrovert front, most of my friends show very strong trends in both directions, depending on circumstances, and occasional middle-behaviour in a few situations - I've only ever met a couple of people who were clearly strong extroverts or strong introverts only, or even primarily.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

I'm just finishing my day at work and will have to read an consider the comments made here again later.... so I may completely contradict myself in a little while.
so anyway...

I think of MB type indicators in the same terms as Newtonian physics.
Are Newtonian physics the most accurate way of describing the universe? No. We have means of measuring and levels of understanding that have grown drastically since that time.

Are Newtonian physics valuable? Yes. In some areas or for some levels of discussion they are near perfect descriptions of their subjects; and they were a necessary step in the growth of our understanding.

Newtonian physics can only be viewed as wrong when viewed as a static snapshot in a changing world. They are not, nor were they intended as, a unified theory of everything.

MB personality descriptions are similarly a tool of measurement and a method for modeling segments of an enormously complex system.
They are not a unified theory of personality, and reasonable advocates (such as Keirsey and Bates) do not express them as such.

They are tools for modeling motivation not predicting behavior. They are in fact very adaptable tools, built to adjust interactively. No person is defined simply as Introverted or Extroverted, those descriptors are treated as 1 of 4 coordinates on a Venn diagram of our subconscious.
Taken collectively those coordinates clarify a segment of the picture of us; so that someone like myself can have a better understanding of why I am "energized by social interaction" (extroverted) yet work best when I can be detached and isolated.

So, ultimately is MB a flawed system? Yes, of course it is.
Is it a valuable system? It can be, I have found it a good method for increasing self awareness.

Treat MB as a tool, understand what it describes, and understand how to interpret it; and you will know it's value, it's weaknesses, and it's degree of accuracy.
Treat an FMRI machine as a tool, understand what it describes, and understand how to interpret it; and you will know it's value, it's weaknesses, and it's degree of accuracy.

"When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail", you will always think it is the right tool for the job; conversely when you don't know how to use a hammer it will never seem to be the right tool for the job.

I'm only going to address the Myers-Briggs issue as Mr. Lehrer seems to misunderstand it at a fairly basic level. As stated in the introduction to the 1985 MBTI manual (Myers, McCaulley) "The purpose of the MBTI is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. Jung...understandable and useful in people's lives"(p.1). To then paraphrase, the theory is about the preferred manner by which people gather data (perception) and how they make decisions (judgment), where one draws one's energy from (extraversion/introversion) and finally how one interacts with the world.
A key to understanding the indicator is the word 'preference' -- I can always act outside of my preference. If I'm left-handed I can learn to write with my right hand, and in many Catholic schools in the 40s and 50s kids were forced to do just that, but my preference remains. And Jung maintained that as an individual matures he/she should naturally become more adept at using the non-preferred style of doing things. If my job requires me to sit quietly in front of a computer screen all day crunching data and I have a preference for extraverting then at the end of the day I'm going to be tired from working outside of my preference and presumably in need of recharging.
MBTI does not predict one's aggression, tenderness, cunning, anger or any other trait. One of the many books on MBTI (I believe it is called "I'm not crazy, I'm just not you") has a quote along the lines of saying "I'm like all others in my four letter type, I'm like some others in my type, and I'm like no others in my type." MBTI assumes great individual difference.

While one of the posts states MBTI is ignored in academic circles, I could look in almost any psychology or education journal and find hundreds of studies based on MBTI data because it is reliable, valid, and normed across millions of users. Fundamentally it remains a theory, but one which I have used for more than a decade in leadership development and find to be useful for the participants.

stripey_cat, it seems by your own self-description, your persistent shyness is not simply a situational trait - and your ability to overcome it in particular situations is consistent with my contention that such traits are indeed malleable. Shyness of course involves excessive anxiety when anticipating, or confronted with, certain unfamiliar situations. Experience can teach us to deal with that anxiety.
And you're certainly entitled to your opinion about introversion versus extroversion, but in my view, most people, and especially professionals, find ways to successfully mask any signs that they are less than confident, capable, cooperative, and yet competitive, when these appearances are important to their professional images

A key to understanding the indicator is the word 'preference' -- I can always act outside of my preference. If I'm left-handed I can learn to write with my right hand, and in many Catholic schools in the 40s and 50s kids were forced to do just that, but my preference remains. And Jung maintained that as an individual matures he/she should naturally become more adept at using the non-preferred style of doing things. If my job requires me to sit quietly in front of a computer screen all day crunching data and I have a preference for extraverting then at the end of the day I'm going to be tired from working outside of my preference and presumably in need of recharging.

It is interesting to hear all of the various theories and ideas on this subject. The interpretation of the scientific data presented and the comments posted all tend to have a level of subjectivity. The very fact that humans possess an ability to use behavioural adaptability as a mechanism for self-preservation psychologically means that the debate will rage on. It is no great surprise that context becomes an issue. Each person is unique in some way, and it is impossible to duplicate the conditions that create context perfectly. Therefore results are always going to vary to some degree. The argument that this in some way negates the value of establishing ânormsâ is short-sighted, then again assuming that the ânormsâ are enough and can be applied without giving due consideration to the individual is insulting to the individual and humankind. Fascinating isnât it.

I used to believe that personality tests like the MBTI were useless at worst and entertaining at best. They provided vague insights like a zodiac horoscope does. The book "The Cult of Personality" by Annie Murphy Paul has really changed my outlook--and I can now see these tests as the potentially harmful, useless things they are. It saddens me that otherwise intelligent people cling to such notions.

I am skeptical about anyone who charges money for "the answer." That is simply my nature. Frankly, I believe, human thought and behavior are subject and object points where integration is both a discrete and continuous process of action and counter interactional positioning of response.

I believe we can be effectively "mapped" up to a point fortunately. But only if the person or persons doing the "mapping" take into account the fact that all individuals have an equally inherent qualitative capacity counter interactional to, with and because of, an equally probable quantifiable result, which, thank the supreme Being, remains variable, without ever actually needing to be equal.

Just a simple Thought from,

Do individuals have preference tendencies? Yes.

Does specific individual behaviour depend at least substantially on context? Yes

Do personality tests capture this interaction adequately and reliably? No.

Personality is a tendency, it is not a fixed absolute. Personal preferences or tendencies in behaviour, including ethical preferences, can be and frequently are overridden, and skewed in another apparently contradictory direction. That is the most interesting and important fact about 'personality', or at least, behaviour.

I am pretty unimpressed by the amount of work that notions of personality are pressed into in clinical practice. Totally unjustified.

By NyteFlier (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

Where do you see yourself in 50 years?