Personality Typology and the Secret to Knowing a Person

All personality models are wrong. Some are useful.

Posted Apr 20, 2019

In ancient times, Hippocrates of Kos, a Greek physician during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and Galen of Pergamon, a Greek physician and philosopher during the second century A.D., divided people into types. These types were based on, according to them, a person's levels of what they identified as four vital bodily fluids necessary for nutrition, growth, and metabolism, primarily originating in the digestive process. These doctors believed that excessive levels of any of these fluids in a person resulted in certain, moderately predictable character flaws and strengths.

During the early 1900s, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung found great interest in the fact that he and his colleagues Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud reviewed the very same clinical and scientific material and came to very different conclusions, which he wrote about in his book, Psychological Types. He sought to reconcile Freud's and Adler's theories and developed his own model in which a person is characterized by first assessing preference in their general attitude (i.e. introversion vs extraversion), then by preference between two functions of perception (i.e. sensing vs intuition), and finally by preference between two functions of judging (i.e. thinking vs feeling).

Joshua Earle/Unsplash
Source: Joshua Earle/Unsplash

Nearly 100 years have passed since Carl Jung distilled the thinking of the ancients into the profound and soul-searching nuance of a (more) modern psychological model, yet Jung's typologies have never been proven empirically. He based his theories on observation and anecdote and criticized academic science.

Jung wrote,

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. (Jung, 1916)

Trait dichotomies and the storied self

Isabel Briggs Myers, a researcher and practitioner of Jung's theory, added a fourth dichotomy to Jung's model (judging vs. perceiving) in her immensely popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Dichotomies are divisions representing opposites, tending to lead us toward identifying ourselves with either one trait or another. Most popular personality typologies rely heavily on trait dichotomies at some level, yet there is a one-dimensionality to such partitions. Jung himself once asserted that anyone who is only an introvert or an extravert would naturally be admitted to a lunatic asylum.

Personality psychologist Dan P. McAdams has been critical of any approach to understanding individuals in reductionistic terms and especially of characterizing a person purely in terms of personality traits. In reality, people often contradict the categories models place them in. McAdams (1995) wrote, "A person cannot be known without knowing traits. But knowing traits is not enough." He contended, "personality psychologists must seek first and foremost to know persons" (McAdams, 1996).

In doing so, according to McAdams, we would best traverse through three layers of assessment, starting with an assessment of general personality traits, which he calls "Level 1" personality assessment, "the first level of knowing a person." Modern personality psychologists utilize empirically tested sets of trait measures, such as the Big Five Inventory, which assesses extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, negative emotionality (often called neuroticism), and open-mindedness (a.k.a. openness to experience).

From the initial trait level, McAdams says, an astute assessor moves into the second level, knowing personal concerns:

"[Personal concerns] speak to what people want, often during particular periods in their lives or within particular domains of action, and what life methods people use (strategies, plans, defenses, and so on) to get what they want or avoid getting what they do not want over time, in particular places, and/or with respect to particular roles" (McAdams, 1996).

Dmitry Ratushny/Unsplash
Source: Dmitry Ratushny/Unsplash

At "level three," we gain insight into a person's sense of unifying meaning and purpose, their own conception of self-identity that comes out especially in the ways that they share stories about themselves. McAdams (1996) explained, "[Modern men and women] construct...more or less coherent, followable, and vivifying stories that integrate the person into society in a productive and generative way and provide a purposeful self-history."

Models are wrong but potentially useful

The commercialization of psychology inevitably reduces and therefore corrupts. Consequently, as members of a commercialized society, we are ever at risk for creating caricatures of ourselves. Yet personality assessment can be a useful predictor of behavior. At the least, it can help in normalizing anxieties about why we often feel, think, and behave in particular ways.

The great storytelling British statistician George Box famously argued, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Typological models help us understand the continuums of personality. We simply must be careful not to assume their precision, or worse, horoscopic meaning. On the other hand, human personalities are not merely irreducible one-offs. Many popular personality tests are indeed pseudoscience, but we must be careful not to confuse that fact with the false notion that personality is a myth. It is not. The fact of the matter is that personality is a thing. It is not fixed, but it is relatively stable, readily observable, and quite consequential.

Even the hard sciences build and utilize models themselves, engaging necessarily in their own forms of reductionism. Box (1979) reasoned,

It would be very remarkable if any system existing in the real world could be exactly represented by any simple model. However, cunningly chosen parsimonious models often do provide remarkably useful approximations. For example, the law PV = RT relating pressure P, volume V and temperature T of an 'ideal' gas via a constant R is not exactly true for any real gas, but it frequently provides a useful approximation and furthermore its structure is informative since it springs from a physical view of the behavior of gas molecules. For such a model there is no need to ask the question 'Is the model true?' If truth is to be the whole truth, the answer must be 'No.' The only question of interest is, 'Is the model illuminating and useful?'

The secret to knowing a person

In the end, the point is that models have their limitations. Almost assuredly, the very best way to come to know the layers and distinctiveness of one's own, actual personality—and another's—is through friendship.

Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash
Source: Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash

Psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggested, “It is in the company of friends that we can most clearly experience the freedom of the self and learn who we really are.” Friendship brings out different parts of ourselves. C.S. Lewis (1960), author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote about how friendship enlivens particular aspects of who we are: "In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets."

But friendship not only helps us know ourselves; it helps us become ourselves. Lewis (1960) posited, "It makes good men better and bad men worse." Among Lewis's closest friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, who was not only one in a fellowship of friends (the Inklings, they famously called themselves) whose indelible influence shaped Lewis, but who also poignantly depicted in his epic, The Lord of the Rings, the formative role of a fellowship of friends in the course of fulfilling a calling greater than themselves. I, for one, enjoy exploring personality models, especially with friends, and I believe that such enjoyment has merit in-and-of-itself.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Box, G.E.P. (1979). Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building. In Launer, R.L., & Wilkinson, G.N., Robustness in statistics. Academic Press, pp. 201-236.

Jung, C. G. (1916). New paths in psychology. In Collected papers on analytic psychology, edited by C. E. Long. London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox.

Jung, C.G. (1921/1971). Psychological types. In Collected works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

McAdams, D.P. (1995, September). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality 63(3): 365 - 396.

McAdams, D.P. (1996). Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295-321.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Lewis, C.S. (1960). The four loves. London: Geoffrey Bles.