Traits Are Alive and Well

Every once in a while scholarly journals devote an entire issue to single topic. When the Journal of Personality came out in February with an issue devoted to trait theory—that on which my career is based, you can understood that it got my attention!

Thomas Kuhn made the point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, The University of Chicago) that every field of knowledge is based on a set of assumptions, and that when one or more of those assumptions is proven invalid, that field experiences a crisis and the way they do “business” changes.

As I read through the nine articles in this special issue, I looked for evidence that might challenge any of the major assumptions of trait theory, which are:

  • the structure of personality is comprised of traits
  • these traits account for differences both within and among individuals
  • they can be measured and exhibit orthogonality—that they are relatively independent of one another. “Ortho” meaning straight, like teeth (orthodontist), grass (Ortho week killer), or religion (orthodox)
  • that the level of a trait–e.g., very extraverted, or not very extraverted (i.e., introverted), or somewhere in between (i.e., ambiverted)–is consistent, both moment-to-moment and day-to-day, and over the lifespan, subject to the influence of life events that nudge (or force) one into temporarily adapting
  • that behavioral traits stem from biological structures and processes with a strong genetic origin
  • that the same traits appear in all cultures

And the answer is? Affirmation for all six assumptions. Yes, as one’s biology changes (such as levels of hormones, density of the brain, levels of neurotransmitters, and so forth), so do levels of our traits. And, yes, life events can increase or decrease one’s levels of a trait—especially “beginnings.” Chaim Potok wrote that “beginnings are hard.”  So hard that they affect trait levels. For example—starting college or a new job tends to

Come Hell or High Water, by Michael Pinsky, 2006. CCBY2.0
Come Hell or High Water, by Michael Pinsky. 2006. CC BY 2.0

increase cooperation (called Big Five Accommodation, or Agreeableness), discipline (Big Five Consolidation, or Conscientiousness), and curiosity (Big Five Originality, or Openness). In another arena, starting a romantic relationship tends to increase outgoingness (Big Five Extraversion) and sensitivity to others (Big Five Accommodation, or Agreeableness).


Having affirmed the assumptions that undergird our mission in life, that is no reason to rest on our accomplishments and our accustomed ways of doing things. We must be ever vigilant in scanning the landscape for serious challenges to our assumptions, our infrastructure, so that our beach property doesn’t sink as the sand succumbs to rising waters.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying change is unwelcome—I just want to make sure that we recognize the need for change. In the past we have experienced the death of several assumptions that had driven our business:

  • In the 1970s-80s, the four factor Myers-Briggs Type Indicator informed the paradigm for personality assessment. Research by the Baltimore Longitudinal Study demolished that assumption and urged the Five-Factor Model. We were eager, glad, and able to make that shift.
  • In the early 1990s, we learned that first-person questionnaire items (as in “I enjoy talking”) and 1-to-5 Likert scales were less robust than third-person questionnaire items (as in “Enjoys talking”) and -2 to +2 Likert scales, and we made both changes.
  • In the late 1990s, we could see that paper administration of our tests and surveys was “buggy whip” technology and needed to yield to computer-based, online administration. We made those changes.
  • In the mid-2010s, we realized that our brand did not reflect our business purpose. We initiated a rebranding process that started with soul-searching and resulted in Paradigm Personality Labs.

We stand now like Janus, with a proud head gazing on our past and an exploring head constantly scanning for weak assumptions that need attention. Some of the future challenges that we have in our planning portfolio:

  • The use of DNA samples to measure baseline levels of traits.
  • The use of monitors/chips to measure changing daily levels of traits.
  • The expansion of personality assessment to include more than traits. (We have already expanded in the assessment of values, and are preparing for measuring cognitive abilities, physical characteristics, and experience)
  • Dynamic, personalized, and interactive formats for reporting and publications.
  • Alternatives to Likert-type scales, such as conditional reasoning, rater only formats, situational judgment tests, rapid response measures, and others.

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