Cui Bono

Human behavior unpacked

Trait-Haters, Inc.

Why do some people hate personality traits?

Big Five Personality Test

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I think that most people are eager to learn more about their personality traits. Evidence for this is the popularity of my online personality inventory (as well as the numerous other online tests out there). More than half a million individuals have completed the inventory on my own web site, which tells them where they stand on the five major personality traits and on 30 narrower traits. Ordinary people have no problem thinking in terms of personality traits--in fact, they are enthusiastic about discovering how to describe themselves and others in terms of the five-factor model of personality traits. As a personality trait psychologist, I obviously share this enthusiasm, and I enjoy teaching people about the impact that their unique constellation of personality traits is likely to have on their lives.

No personality profile allowed

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However, not everyone in personality and social psychology is fond of describing people in terms of personality traits. Some absolutely loathe the whole idea. I call these people: Trait-haters. Many personality trait psychologists consider Walter Mischel to be the father of all trait-haters. Today, Mischel claims that his early writings were misunderstood and he denies ever being a trait-hater. Perhaps he was misunderstood because his critique of personality psychology was difficult to understand. In the words of personality trait psychologist David Funder, "a small cottage industry sprang up within personality psychology during the 1970s, the main activity of which seemed to be to figure out what Mischel did and did not actually say."

Although the fine points of Mischel's labyrinthine writings were sometimes hard to follow, his main claim was clear: people are simply not consistent enough to describe them in the language of ordinary personality traits. His argument went like this. Possessing a personality trait or disposition implies that a person will behave consistently across a variety of situations. For example, a "neat" person will dress smartly, keep his or her house clean, and maintain an orderly desk at work. If the trait of neatness really exists, then scores on a neatness personality test should predict differences in neatness in any situation. Mischel's 1968 book and a number of other writings were devoted to demonstrating that people behave inconsistently across situations and that personality tests were poor predictors of behavior. In my opinion, this makes Mischel a trait-hater.

Other psychologists jumped on Mischel's trait-hating bandwagon during the 1970s. A school of thought in social psychology known as attribution theory concluded that behavior depends more on the situation than it does on personality traits and that people who insist on explaining behavior in terms of personality traits are committing the "fundamental attribution error." Another trait-hating position known as the semantic similarity hypothesis proposed that the traits we perceive in people are artifacts based on similarity of word meanings rather than consistencies in behavior. Still another trait-hating viewpoint came from social constructivists who claimed that traits are mere mental constructions--properties of the perceiver's imagination rather than real characteristics of persons. From the 1970s through today, professional trait psychologists were besieged by trait-haters.

Naturally, my fellow trait psychologists and I presented counterarguments to the views of the trait-haters. We told Mischel that he was looking for the wrong kind of consistency, and that if you study people over periods of time, they do show recognizable patterns of personality. We also presented evidence demonstrating that personality tests can be powerful predictors of many important life outcomes. Various replies to the attribution theorists, semantic similarity proponents, and social constructivists were made. But after all the arguing, I observed something interesting: Nobody seemed to be convinced by any argument. I don't know of a single trait-hater who converted into a trait lover, nor do I know of any trait psychologist who lost the faith and became an a-traitist.

In science, evidence is supposed to settle disagreements. So why is it that after decades of arguing and presenting evidence that personality trait psychologists have not converted the trait-haters? I have a hypothesis: I am sure you are familiar with the idea that when people are having an argument, sometimes the argument is actually about something else that isn't being acknowledged. You know: When a couple is having an argument about something trivial like putting a plate in the sink when in reality the question is something huge such as whether they are compatible enough to keep their marriage together.

I think the trait-haters have a huge and largely unacknowledged issue about traits: Personal freedom. (I think the same thing is true about nurture proponents in the nature-nurture debate, but that is a topic for another time.) Trait-haters desire to be free to be any kind of person they want to be, and, to them, possessing traits means being trapped into being a certain way. Trait-haters think of traits as relatively fixed, unchanging patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that place limits on their freedom. Mischel himself hinted at times that freedom was his concern when he wrote things such as, "My intentions in writing that book were . . . to defend the individuality and uniqueness of each person against . . . the tendency to use a few behavioral signs to categorize people enduringly into fixed slots on the assessor's favorite nomothetic trait dimensions." The key phrase here is "enduringly into fixed slots." To Mischel, describing people with traits was like putting them into jail and throwing away the key.

Complete Idiot's Guide to Toltec Wisdom

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But I found an even better example of seeking freedom by denying traits in a book by Sheri Rosenthal, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Toltec Wisdom. (A very interesting book, by the way, and I will blog about it another time.) Here is one of the goals of the Toltec path according to Dr. Rosenthal: "The end result of losing the human form is no longer having to be us anymore. In other words, we no longer automatically react to life in the way we have been programmed to. We don't have to identify with the personality that we used to be so attached to, nor are we attached to our doings. Yes, we can remember reacting from our programmed mind, but we don't have to be like that. Without a human form, we are free to choose who we are and how we react to each situation in every moment. As a result, it's no longer necessary to identify with any kind of limiting definition or conceptual box. So I no longer have to call myself Caucasian, a doctor, a Toltec, a daughter, a friendly person, or use any kind of adjectives to define myself. Although I understand what those words mean, I know the real me is no-thing, and those words do not express the truth of me. I no longer say that I am anything, nor do I want to define myself with concepts that no longer have truth for me." (pp. 271-272).

Dirty Harry
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Breaking away from the limitations of all personality traits would be one way of seeking freedom. This is a pretty radical goal, aptly captured by the Toltec phrase, "losing the human form." To be human is to be limited, and as Harry Callahan said, "A man's got to know his limitations."

Does being a trait-lover mean that a person has to hate freedom? Absolutely not! There is a different way to think about traits and freedom. If you accept that your traits define who you are, freedom can be seen as having opportunities to express your traits. An extravert will feel less free than an introvert if not given the opportunity to socialize. Agreeable people will feel free when given opportunities to cooperate, while aggressive people will experience freedom when given opportunities to compete. And so forth.

If your desire is to be unlimited, you may indeed hate traits. But if you are willing to accept yourself as you are, including your limitations, you can still experience freedom to find and create opportunities to be yourself--traits and all.

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

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