Valuing Form versus Substance as a Personality Trait
Depending on the kind of person you are, you will view this story very differently. People who value form over substance will say the late person is more in the wrong. People who value substance over form will say that it is never appropriate to demean a friend, and therefore the person yelling is more in the wrong.
I am using the notion of “substance over form” to identify two kinds of people with drastically different relationships with reality. It is a principle that I’ve borrowed from the field of accounting that refers to emphasizing the overall reality of the situation at hand rather than on the legal or technical details. Note that in my application of this principle to personality traits, subtance people hold conveying truth as the standard in communication, seeking to learn from others. Form people, in contrast, hold making a desirable impression as the standard, seeking to maintain their superiority over others. Because only the substance people are oriented toward learning, this post aims to help them understand the form people.
It is often said that the world has two kinds of people: givers and takers. But that dichotomy is different from those who emphasize form versus substance, and is not nearly as helpful in predicting how a given person will behave. For example, at times the most selfish “taker” in your social circle will pick up the dinner tab for everyone. Conversely, the most generous “giver” might refuse to give even a dollar to someone on the street begging for money to buy his first meal in days. If you do not understand the motives behind a person’s generous acts, you could end up being exploited. In fact, the form person might see taking advantage of you as a valuable lesson for you.
I contend that knowing whether a person values form or substance more will allow you to understand and predict a great many of that person’s behaviors. Because their communication goals are so different from yours, the behaviors of individuals who are not of your type can be baffling. Form people feel compelled to present themselves in a positive light, just as defense attorneys must put a positive spin on their clients. My analysis to follow is based on Lee and Ashton’s new research on the personality factor or super-trait they call Honesty-Humility (1).
These researchers factor analyzed many observations from countries including Japan, Germany, and Italy (2). They found that, across cultures, the sincere individuals tended to be fair-minded, non-greedy, and modest; whereas the deceptive people tended to be exploitative, greedy, and arrogant. Lee and Ashton (1) have described these facets of the overall Honesty-Humility factor as follows:
“The Sincerity scale assesses a tendency to be genuine in interpersonal relations. Low scorers will flatter others or pretend to like them in order to obtain favors, whereas high scorers are unwilling to manipulate others. The Fairness scale assesses a tendency to avoid fraud and corruption. Low scorers are willing to gain by cheating or stealing, whereas high scorers are unwilling to take advantage of other individuals or of society at large. The Greed Avoidance scale assesses a tendency to be uninterested in possessing lavish wealth, luxury goods, and signs of high social status. Low scorers want to enjoy and to display wealth and privilege, whereas high scorers are not especially motivated by monetary or social-status considerations. The Modesty scale assesses a tendency to be modest and unassuming. Low scorers consider themselves as superior and as entitled to privileges that others do not have, whereas high scorers view themselves as ordinary people without any claim to special treatment” (Lee & Ashton, 2004, Table 1).
As the authors have acknowledged, the labeling of this personality factor “Honesty-Humility” is a judgment call. I have chosen to characterize people at the high versus low ends of this Honesty-Humility factor as those who value substance over form versus those who value form over substance, respectively. My rationale for applying this new label is that it captures a difference among individuals that is fundamental to all four facets. As compared with the Honesty-Humility label, I believe that it will allow a greater understanding and prediction of how people think and act toward others. Keep in mind, however, that just as people fall on a continuum from high to low in Honesty-Humility; people will fall somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes I describe next.
FORM People Manipulate Others
Years ago, when practicing psychotherapy in Iowa, I had a particularly memorable session with a client named “Al.” As a gay man in his late twenties, Al reported that he did not feel close to anyone, and yet wanted a romantic relationship very badly. He said that he’d had many anonymous sexual encounters, with never any follow-up. We agreed on a treatment plan of interpersonal therapy. Specifically, I would comment on behaviors and feelings tied to the immediate interactions between us in order to shed light on building intimacy in his social relationships. As the therapy sessions went on, Al was able to identify that whenever I would convey that our communication seemed more straightforward and that I was beginning to truly understand him, he felt powerless. He admitted that he preferred keeping me guessing about his motivations and actions. By the final session, I told him that like the director of a play, he was managing the distance from others that had seemed to come from them. Al smiled and seemed to like that idea.
People of the form type enjoy manipulating others. These individuals can be, at times, very generous and hard-working. But as their family and friends inevitably discover, these form individuals prefer choosing the terms of their generosity over accommodating the requests of others. They often do not like being asked to do a favor because their goal in helping is to look helpful rather than be helpful; and favors that are they good at and offer spontaneously make them look more helpful. This image is what gives them the leverage to call in the chips for a return favor from family and friends—many times over.
Form Person’s Version of “Truth”
The relationship that form people have with the truth can be perplexing and vexing to their loved ones. They view themselves as savvy and sophisticated individuals to be held in high regard, with honest people seen as naïve suckers. They sometimes make outrageously deceptive statements, all the while claiming that they never lie. For instance, a woman in her sixties told her (adult) firstborn son that she was baffled over why her other son would not talk to her. She said that, after all, “I never say a bad word about anyone.” The firstborn son’s jaw dropped upon hearing her claim, given that his mother had—without fail—talked badly about family members and friends during every phone conversation he could recall ever having with her.
What she is claiming about herself makes perfect sense once you understand that these form individuals give little-to-no thought to whether their claim is true, but rather to whether it can be defended as true. For instance, they will condemn an ex-spouse that they caught having an affair, without considering their own undetected extramarital affairs to be relevant. And sometimes they do make honest disclosures. These come when the truth coincides with how they want to appear. Once you understand their goals and logic, you can see why they express indignation when you do not believe their lies. In the absence of absolute proof—an impossible standard—you have an obligation to believe them, as they see it.
Becoming involved in a romantic relationship with a person of the form type can be disheartening for the substance person. As one form man explained to his substance lover, his objective with women in the past had been not just to get them to have sex, but also to get them to fall in love with him. Obtaining their consent for sex was merely “a job” to raise his “numbers” and/or to teach a particularly beautiful woman a lesson for her arrogance. When he did not want an additional sexual encounter with a woman, he would make her believe that the rejection was because of something she did. After listening to this account, his substance lover asked flatly, “What did having all these women fall in love do for you, when you were not interested in them?” He simply stared at her and did not answer.
The purpose of this man’s self-disclosure was to make himself sound desirable and highly sought-after, and even noble in his delivery of justice. Answering his lover’s question would have given her too much leverage over him. A truthful answer—from his point of view— might have been something like, “The fact that so many women still want me demonstrates that I’m important. When they think that the end of the relationship—which I had determined from the start would be short-lived—is their fault, their minds will continue to wrestle with where they went wrong. They will feel the sting of knowing that I was out of their league. Some of them will call me 10, 20, or 30 years later.”
Because these form individuals are not particularly deep, the form of relationships serves as a substitute for their own lack of substance. What they value is a punctual, rich, physically fit partner with perhaps also a very nice car. They implicitly demand thank-you cards or tokens of appreciation. They might say or privately agree with the following statements: “Whatever works”; “The ends justify the means”; “What they don’t know won’t hurt them”; “You have to praise your spouse, stroke his ego, and make him feel like a man”; “A person should never have to say I’m sorry”; “Accept no excuses”; and “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I base these examples on research that has linked being low on honesty-humility (i.e., what I am calling a FORM type) with Machiavellianism, or the tendency to manipulate and exploit others (3).
Form people see others as either useful or not useful. They take pleasure in and feel they have right to cajole people into meeting their needs. Seeing growth and maturing in others threatens them. Because they have a poor understanding of reality, they don’t know what to make of the changes. They might comment on the changes, describing them in negative terms to keep the other person under their control. They refer with bitterness to times when they were disrespected, while they themselves say disparaging things about their “inferior” associates. Finally, they might find more enraging the friend who informs them that their spouse has cheated, than the spouse who cheated.
When you receive a gift from a form person, you might be shocked to see that it is torn, stained, or past its expiration date. Your specially-ordered birthday cake might have someone else’s name on it. You don’t dare complain, however, because its giver will call you out for being so petty and shallow. And if you give a gift like that in return, you will likely be rejected for being so thoughtless! Don’t expect your friends to band together and back you up in the name of truth—they all seem to know that any perceived slight against the form individual could mean that their neck is next on the chopping block. After all, the form person has made a habit of proclaiming, “I am so thankful for my wonderful friends!” The friends know down deep that this proclamation is merely a substitute for the intimacy of a friendship founded on truth.
Substance Person’s Shield and Sword: Truth
The substance person is so very different from the form person. Substance people do not like to exploit others and strive to communicate straightforwardly. These individuals want fairness and enjoy seeing others fulfill their own self-determined potential. They applaud the maturation and changes they see in others. Because they have a broad perspective, at times they behave in unconventional ways. They embrace that they are going to die someday and strive to make the most of their social connections. They value truthfulness greatly, seeing it as essential to intimacy. They revel in being understood, and want to understand others. They acknowledge the importance of the opinions of close relations.
The form person, in contrast, will say that others’ opinions don’t matter. Yet, ironically, they can only feel that they themselves matter if they are seen as admirable and important. The form person’s goal behind self-disclosure is to create a certain impression, not to show who he or she is. Whereas telling the substance person, “I believe you” when others have doubted him or her can bring tears of joy; it can cause the form person to say, “That is irrelevant”.
Although the form person wants to avoid commenting on the reality of the shallowness of the relationship, the substance person is better served by facing it. The substance partner accepts the grim reality that the form partner often prefers communicating non-straightforwardly and sees others as inferior pawns. Telling the form person, “I understand you” can make him or her feel boring, predictable, and no more special than that pawn saying it. Thus, the form person might choose to keep others in the dark on purpose.
By recognizing these differences, the substance person can fend off the inevitable feelings of emptiness and worthlessness tied to spending time with the form person. The substance person can avoid being exploited, too. The key is to identify “generous” behaviors or gifts that have an agenda and avoid accepting them. Keep in mind that the form person was “generous” in order to trap you into giving something in return. Because that person is not constrained by reality or logic, you don’t have to be either! When he or she gives you a present and—after a strategic delay—asks for a return favor that you don’t want to do, just say no. If the person brings up the gift, you can say that the present does not count. Or you can give it back, saying that it would not be right to keep because you cannot accommodate their request now.
In closing, as an author and scientist who has long been baffled by the motives of people who lie so readily, I am very excited to share insights from this new personality research with you. It suggests that those individuals who manipulate and lie might or might not have had abusive family situations. Calling them pathological liars who have learned to cope with a bad situation might be way off-base. It is possible that they were born genetically predisposed to build their image, rather than to discover and convey truth. And they might be perfectly honest in situations where the truth makes them look good.
Author’s note: This post is the first of several that I aim to write before the end August as I complete my book on my Science of Honesty project. The posts to follow include, “Defining the Lie”; “Understanding the Form Person’s Reality”; “Sure-fire Ways to Detect the Form Person”; and “The Truth-Health Connection.” Please do post your comments! I am still learning as write the book (of course).
This post stems from Anita Kelly’s Science of Honesty project, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
I am so very grateful to Anita Payne Miller and Mercedes Kelly for their insight comments that helped me on this post. I’m also thankful to Sheryl Gates Westerman for her editing.
1. Lee, K., & Ashton, M. C. (2004). Psychometric properties of the HEXACO Personality Inventory. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 39, 329–358.
2. Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., Perugini, M., Szarota, P., de Vries, R. E., Di Blas, et al. (2004). A six-factor structure of personality-descriptive adjectives: Solutions from psycholexical studies in seven languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 356–366.
3. Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & Son, C. (2000). Honesty as the sixth factor of personality: Correlations with Machiavellianism, primary psychopathy, and social adroitness. European Journal of Personality, 14, 359–368.