J. P. Gerber, Ph.D.

The Shape of Traits

Should others ever get to define me?

Don't be afraid, personality psychology has long had a freeing truth for you

Posted Dec 31, 2017

Sometimes we want to know who we are. However, do you realize that knowing yourself often requires being thoroughly and completely un-modern? Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am”, locating much knowledge firmly in our own observations. Personality psychology has often acted the same. We use self-report to define our personality, or we compare informant reports (e.g. a friend, a parent) to check if they are accurate against self-reports. Again, Jung argued that fundamental personality types (e.g. introvert, extrovert) are internal to us. This internal-definition approach is very amenable to any culture that supports any of the following statements:

a) I am the maker of my own destiny
b) I can be who I want to be
c) I get to define myself

However, defining our personality by ourselves misses a whole lot of traits that we really care about, such as being annoying, funny, deep or boring. These traits (and many others) are other-defined. What is annoying? It is that others classify you as such. What is funny? Others laugh at you. What is boring? Others fall asleep around you. What is deep? Other people love to hear your thoughts.

Some of the traits that we really wish to have or to change are things that only others can define for us.

I love David Funder’s work. In The Personality Puzzle, he says that informant data (where others rate us) is useful for four reasons: there’s lots of it, it’s based in the real-world, it uses common sense judgments, and it has causal force. Only the last of these four reasons gets close to what I’m talking about. By causal force he says that informant data is about reputation and that these reputations can lead to interactions which either change our personality or confirm it.

That’s true enough but it’s simpler than that, sometimes others simply define who we are. I don’t need to have met Jim Carrey to know whether he is funny or not. Jim Carrey’s funniness is defined by us, not by him.

I hope that’s not too much of a shock. Jung says it’s highly offensive to have your personality defined for you and I this is extremely true for traits that should be self-defined. However, Jung misses the fact that some traits have to be defined by others, so this offense is somewhat unavoidable. Perhaps, you’ve been described as something and wonder if others get to define you. I often get described as hard-working and I’ve never really understood it. There are worse ones too! But, I had to learn to accept that others do get the say on who I am.

There are two writings in history that seem to understand my point well.

The first is Allport & Odbert (1936). In this seminal work on personality, all English trait-names were listed in various columns. The third column was for socially-evaluated traits. So, if there’s a trait you’re interested in knowing about, first check if it’s in the third column of Allport & Odbert. Boring, funny, annoying and deep are all there. If the trait you’re interested in is in the third column, maybe ask some friends where you stand on that trait.

The other writer is Andy Warhol who said “It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are.” I think Andy Warhol well understood that we can be quite uncomfortable in our skins yet have a different life external to that. Hopefully, this is a freeing truth. Perhaps we really are hardworking, perhaps we really are funny or deep or winsome or loving. You mightn’t feel it, and you can’t actually fake it til you make it, you just are because people say you are.


Funder, D. F. (2012). The personality puzzle (6th edition). Norton & Co.

Allport, G. W., & Odbert, H. S. (1936). Trait-names: A psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47

Warhol, A. (1977). The philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. Harvest.