Benjamin In The LensUnderstanding personality types is very useful, not just for self awareness, but also for working in team environments, especially where social software, social media or any form of technology-mediated communication is in play.

This post is for Lobelia and others, in response to her blog post on personality types “personality types, can you be sorted?“. The aim is to provide some background on individual differences and, hopefully, some insight in part II.

Personality type inventories seem to be one of those things that have entered into the popular conciousness – I was surprised at how many people had their MBTI(R) listed in their profiles on Twitter (Update, August 2009: There is now a Facebook application the publishes people’s MBTI as well). However, we are not normally that aware of our own personality type, and rarely have an accurate view of it.

The study of personality pre-dates psychology itself, by a long long way, but first became more academic with Jung’s work (and this is what the popular Myers Briggs MBTI(r) draws from).

There are two major approaches to looking at personality. One looks at the individual as a unique person (the idiographic approach), and is the basis for psychotherapy and self-discovery tools. The second approach (nomothetic) looks at personality across groups and populations, looking for ‘similarities in differences’. More properly, looking at personality traits that can be used to group similar personality types together.

Trait theories of personality are popular in business, since they can identify people suited to particular roles, at least in theory, by making use of psychometric tests – essentially closed questionnaires that aim to produce reliable results – ie valid and repeatable. They are built from a lexical approach, looking at the words we use to describe ourselves/other people’s behaviours and traits. Similar traits are grouped (eg friendly and sociable might be put together) into dimensions of personality. The ones that appear (by the magic of statistics) to be most significant across populations are then labelled as personality factors. These personality dimensions are the basic structure of personality.

Cattell’s16PF(r) model (sixteen personality factor) is probably the most widely used, but I frequently enounter Myers Briggs, with its four bipolar dimensions ( (I)ntrovert/(E)xtrovert, (S)ensation/i(N)tuition, (F)eeling/(T)hinking, (J)udging/(P)erceiving). When people cite results in the Myers Briggs model, they are crushed down into ‘either or’, eg I or E, N or F, resulting in 16 ‘distinct’ personalities. However, these are dimensions, and people (including yourself!) could be anywhere on those scales. My point here is that people don’t fit into neat boxes, these are just constructs to make it easier to digest the subtleties of personality. Even though Cattell used computers to identify his sixteen personality factors, it is a fairly analogue thing, and sometimes the outcomes can be surprising, if not puzzling (as you’ll see in part II).

OK, that’s the hard bit over, apart from one side note. Most of these theories were developed within the English language (an etic approach). Spot a problem? If you are Spanish, Italian, …, you might choose different words, or have different personality groupings in your culture. These could, quite literally, be lost in translation. Because of that, some psychologist have started to work within each language (an emic approach), the most famous of these is Goldberg. We’ll come back to him in a minute, as he’s a useful chap, Internet-wise.

So, what do we know so far? Well, you have your unique personality, and in that there are some key factors which you have in common with other people. The more dominant factors link to personality traits, which in turn lead to behaviours, beliefs and biases. What we are looking at is things that remain fairly consistent over time, and can form patterns across different groups of people. How did we get these personality traits, and what can we do about them?

This is the nature, nurture debate. There have been some biological theories of personality (Eysenck and Gray), with varying degrees of success. One one hand, our central nervous system might account for extroversion/introversion, and there are also theories with regard to the effect of our sensitivity to particular neurotransmitters (dopamine and the like). On the other side, there is evidence from studies of separated twins, that environment is more key – although that isn’t straight forward either, since we are partially responsibly for creating our environment, and everyone’s environment is completely unique to them as an individual.

There are problems on all sides, but it is probably fair to say our biology does not totally determine our personality. However, the heritability of major personality factors is probably around 20-30%. In other words, you can blame your parents for around a third of the nature of your strongest personality attributes (plus a little bonus responsibility for their control of the environment they put you), but the majority is down to your environment and what you did and do with it.

In our early years, personality evolves rapidly, but by the time we reach our 30’s it is fairly stable, although still open to gradual change and major life events. So, by the time someone is established in the work place, they are “who they are” – That means being aware of your own biases and behaviours, and being able to accommodate other people’s, is key to being effective and productive. You are unlikely to change them, and they are unlikely to change you, so best make the most of the situation.

A little self-awareness goes a long way (he says, knowing he has some way to go! I appreciate those that have accommodated me over the years). Now, I said I’d come back to Lewis Goldberg, so I better had do. The 16PF(r) has been popular for a long time in industry. While dealing with 16 different personality factors might be useful, having something simpler and more cross cultural would also be useful too.

Goldberg came up with a five factor model (often called the Big Five) and independently so did Costa and McCrae (the OCEAN model – for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neurotisism). While most personality inventories are closed, commercial products, Goldberg has provided his out to the world. There are pros and cons of this approach. Some would argue there is reason to control access to the tests in order to stop them being misused by the untrained, or cheated on by people trying to reverse engineer answers.

I better come off of the fence for a minute and point out that I am a bit of a fan of the OCEAN/Big five model (they differ in one dimension – openness versus intellect – but may eventually converge with more research). I can grasp the five dimensions in my head, and it is a practical way to understand how to deal with myself and others:

  • Openness – How will I/this person deal with change. Will help and encouragement be needed, or is it “dive in” time.
  • Conscientiousness – Will I/they get it done or do I need to flag for follow up and add gentle reminders.
  • Extroversion – Do I/they need to plan in time away from other people, or is the hustle bustle needed.
  • Agreeableness – What sort of negotiation is required? Am I being fair.
  • Neurotisism – This isn’t a bad thing. A neurotic hand glider pilot will live longer! Do I/they need time to think it through?

You can take the Big 5 Personality Test yourself on the out of service web site (not actually out of service, that is just what it is called).

When you think about these dimensions and a team of people working on a wiki or a blog/blog network, you start to get a sense of the dynamics that can take place, and your own part in them. Before part two and some interesting stats from twitter, I’ll leave you with this quote, adapted from Kluckhohn and Murray:

“Every person is in certain respects like all others, like some others and like no other.”

Continued in Personality Sorters and Social Media Part II