Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Traits and Types
Gordon Allport (1897-1967) is the psychologist who found 50 definitions of personality. He is known for vigorous arguments on behalf of trait theories.
A trait, he said, is a predisposition to act the same way in a variety of situations. Traits are as real as height, weight, or eye color, he said, not just concepts.
Allport (1961) gave an example of how a trait could affect an individual's personality. He offered the example of an American citizen in the 1950s whose dominant trait was fear of communism.
Such people were well known in Allport's time. They typically regarded any intellectual, liberal, college professor, African-American, Jew, or peace organizer as a "communist sympathizer," whether this was true or not. All triggered the same reaction of hatred and fear.
Such a trait could be long lasting and influence a lot of behavior. A person obsessed with the Communist Conspiracy might think about their fears a lot.
Such a person might use the concept to evaluate people met for the first time, bring it up a lot in conversation, and more. The distaste for communism and everything connected with it could become a focal point of the individual's personality structure.
What was a "trait," to Allport? Did Allport believe that traits could change?
This example also shows that Allport regarded traits as learned and culture-specific rather than inherited. Could traits change? Yes. Anything that could be learned could be unlearned.
Allport wrote, "Any theory that regards personality as stable, fixed, or invariable is wrong" (1961, p.175). If the person preoccupied with a fear of communism in the 1950s were alive today, he or she might not have any fear of communism but might be preoccupied with other fears or imagined conspiracies.
Would a "tendency to be fearful and believe conspiracies" be a trait? Yes, and it might apply both to Allport's 1950s anti-communist and today's conspiracy believer. As noted on the previous page, anything measurable can be a trait.
If your goal was to highlight what anti-communists of the 1950s and conspiracy theorists today have in common, you could define a trait that includes both (such as the "paranoid style in American politics," pointed out by Richard Hofstadter, 1964). If you focused specifically on anti-Communism in the 1950s, like Allport, you might define that by itself as a trait.
The Trait Stability Debate
In 1968 Walter Mischel started a debate that lasted 20 years. He wrote:
"With the possible exception of intelligence, highly generalized behavioral consistencies have not been demonstrated, and the concept of personality traits as broad predispositions is thus untenable." (Mischel, 1968)
That was taken as a major challenge to the whole idea of scientific research into personality. Traits are supposed to be things that are distinctive or diagnostic of individual personalities. If they do not stay the same over time...there is no science of personality.
Mischel wrote later that he did not intend to attack the whole concept of traits. He was only pointing out that situational variables had to be taken into account, as well. But that was not how his critique was interpreted when it first came out (and that is not how the passage above reads).
What statement of Mischel's started a 20-year debate? What did Mischel later say that he really meant?
Mischel's 1968 book is now looked upon as the beginning of a debate between situational and dispositional explanations of behavior. Situational explanations look to the context of behavior for explanations; dispositional explanations look for personality traits or dispositions. One seeks the explanations for behavior outside, the other seeks them inside.
What are situational vs. dispositional explanations of behavior?
Psychologists agree that both influences are important, but they often disagree about which is most important in particular cases. Allport was usually a dispositionalist; he attributed most behavior to traits that people had within themselves, not to situations.
As an example of situational variables, consider the following student essay.
Sometimes I really wonder about myself. I ask whether I'm weird or normal. I seem to be different in different situations. For example, when I play sports, I'm very hard on my opponent, and kind of mean.
One mind or personality seems to come out. Then when I'm not playing sports, I am sort of shy and silent in everyday life, very unlike the sports personality.
When I'm playing sports I yell and scream so hard that at times I hurt my vocal cords. I really don't understand how I can have these two different personalities. Am I normal, or am I a split person? [Author's files]
How does the student's essay illustrate Mischel's point?
The student is normal, of course. This is just the sort of situation-dependency that Mischel was talking about. Allport, normally a dispositionalist, would not disagree that this happens. Allport said in 1937 (p.331), "Traits are often aroused in one situation and not in another."
As long as context-dependency was added in, Mischel had no trouble with the concept of stable personality traits in humans. He wrote in 1979:
No one seriously questions that lives have continuity and that we perceive ourselves and others are relatively stable individuals who have substantial identity and stability over time, even when our specific actions change across situations (Mischel, 1968, 1973, 1977)
Why was Mischel exasperated?
With his multiple self-citations, Mischel (1979) was pointing out that he wrote the same thing previously in 1968, 1973, and 1977. Yet, as he noted with exasperation, his original criticism of the trait idea sank in while his corrections did not.
People continued to believe Mischel meant, "There is no such thing as a personality trait." Perhaps this was a valuable misunderstanding.
Personality researchers responded to the supposed challenge from Mischel with a burst of research in the 1970s through 1990s. They endeavored to prove that lasting traits were a reality, and in so doing, they revitalized the trait approach to personality theory.
Traits vs. Types
Traits are durable characteristics of a person that produce an effect on behavior. Types are collections of traits that occur together in some individuals.
For example, we might define the macho type as a person who tries to be tough, independent, courageous, and (in general) masculine, as interpreted by that person's culture. Those are four traits of the macho type, and you might be able to add more.
What is the difference between traits and types? What are problems with the type approach?
There is little doubt that traits exist. However, it is risky to assign an individual to a type because, almost by definition, this involves overlooking the individual's unique characteristics.
Types tend to be the product of a particular culture. When reading descriptions of personality types from Adler, reflecting Germany of the 1930s, the traits (extraversion, etc.) sound familiar, but the types seem strikingly out-of-date or just unfamiliar, like something from another time and place.
Examples of types from American culture of the mid to late 20th Century included nerds, valley girls, hippies, greasers, GenXers, gangsta rappers, goths, and geeks. With time, each type passes into history and becomes emblematic of an earlier era.
Flappers are symbolic of the 1920s. They were young ladies, decked out in the fashions of the time, typically with a hat and short hair, often seen in early newsreels dancing the Charleston. The represent the "roaring 20s" much the way hippies represent the 1960s.
Allport did serious work on types, notably the authoritarian personality. His book The Nature of Prejudice (1954) focused on this type, studied intensely in the aftermath of World War II.
Research on the authoritarian type came about because psychologists wanted to understand why so many people were swayed by Hitler and Mussolini. A group of researchers (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford) authored a 990 page book about it: The Authoritarian Personality (1950).
Here is a list of the traits included in the authoritarian personality type, from psychologistworld.com.
- Blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong
- Respect for submission to acknowledged authority
- Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different
- A negative view of people in general–i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity
- A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power
- A belief in simple answers and polemics, e.g. The media controls us all or The source of all our problems is the loss of morals these days.
- Resistance to creative, dangerous ideas. A black and white worldview.
- A tendency to project one's own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group
- A preoccupation with violence and sex
Adorno and colleagues developed the "F scale" (fascist scale) to detect these traits. It was a set of questions like, "People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong." A person could agree or disagree on a six-point scale.
A description of the authoritarian type raises many questions. Is it really a distinct type of person? Do they continue to exist in our own times? If so, what causes this pattern?
Adorno and colleagues used Freudian concepts to try to explain authoritarianism. Allport, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954) advanced his own theories. He thought authoritarians were suffering from feelings of insecurity and fearfulness: "ego weakness."
Personality types, in general, provide good material for discussion. They might be seriously analyzed in a sociology, anthropology, or political science class.
Types are manifestations of human culture, temporary but distinctive. The problem with types is that they are too easy to create. All you need to create a type is a checklist of traits.
Mass media can be analyzed to detect stereotypes of popular culture. These are clusters of traits that "go together" in some pool of data such as news feeds.
Types, as product of particular cultures, go in and out of fashion. They go in and out of existence. They morph and blend. They are what they are: recognizable patterns for at least a time, the fingerprints of a culture.
As a scientific way of measuring personality, the F-scale had many drawbacks. For one thing, for every question on the F-scale, agreeing with it resulted in a higher rating of tendencies toward fascism.
This made the F-scale like a disguised test of cultural sophistication. The items formed a pattern that any knowledgeable person at the time would have detected. Only an ignorant or defiant person would say Yes to all the questions, building up a damning profile of fascist tendencies.
Value judgments were involved from the start in the concept of authoritarian personality. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality had a certain goal in mind when they started (how to detect Nazi types) and they created the authoritarian personality construct to accomplish that purpose.
The authors had good reason to be biased. They were Jewish refugees from Germany, former members of the Frankfurt School of sociologists. They had been traumatized by WW II.
As Martin (2001) put it, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality were making an "attempt to empirically verify the existence of a 'type' of person whom the researchers thought dangerous and with whom they did not empathize." They developed a "theoretically rich critique of the authoritarians" but were not interested in analyzing or criticizing people who agreed more with their own point of view.
"This combination led to an intrinsically biased interpretive project that could not help but accumulate damning evidence about authoritarians." (Martin, 2001) In the end, Martin saw the project as a "cautionary example" for political psychologists. It showed how scientific rigor went out the window when a type of person was defined as undesirable.
Authoritarianism as a trait, rather than a type, is not as controversial. As a trait, it can be recognized as part of a "cultural mindset" (for example, in China, which has a strong history of respect for authority) or blended with other traits to make a new type. As a trait, authoritarianism is simply belief in obedience and submission to authority.
As a trait, authoritarianism is not necessarily used to make a value judgment. It is a distinct attribute a person can have, it can be measured, and it may correlate with other important things (it may have predictive value).
For example, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the trait of authoritarianism was the "single statistically significant variable" that predicted whether a voter supported Donald Trump (MacWilliams, 2016). That data does not involve a value judgment, just a measurement of a correlation.
The take-home lesson from study of authoritarianism is twofold: (1) identifying a type is risky. It invites bias and value judgments, and it is likely to describe a stereotype found only in particular cultures.
However, (2) identifying a trait is (by comparison) less subject to premature value judgments and biases. It is just a measurement. It might or might not prove to be reliable or valid as a predictor of important behavior.
Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper-Row.
Allport, G. W. (1955). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Hofstadter, R. (1964, November) The paranoid style in American politics. Harper's Magazine. Retrieved from: https://harpers.org/
MacWilliams, M. (2016, January 17) The one weird trait that predicts whether you're a Trump supporter. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.
Martin, J. L. (2001) The authoritarian personality, 50 years later: What questions are there for for political psychology? Political Psychology, 22, 1-26. doi:10.1111/0162-895X.00223
Mischel, W. (1968) Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.
Mischel, W. (1979). On the interface of cognition and personality: Beyond the person-situation debate. American Psychologist, 34, 740-754.
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