Modeling personality

Saucier, G. & Srivastava, S.. (in press). What makes a good structural model of personality? Evaluating the Big Five and alternatives. In M. L. Cooper & R. Larsen (Eds.), Handbook of personality and social psychology: Personality processes and individual differences (Vol. 3). APA Books.

Personality psychology is challenged with the task of identifying the joints at which to carve a person, some minimally comprehensive set of attributes, processes, or other characteristics of a person that serves to describe them, predict behavior and events, and distinguish one person from another. This is Allport’s “unit problem.”

When a psychological researcher identifies units for describing personality, what have they done? There are at least three options:

  • The researcher has (at least potentially) uncovered real, biopsychosocial aspects of a person (the realist’s perspective)
  • The researcher has revealed little more than their aims and biases; there is no potential in the endeavor for construct validity (the constructivist’s perspective)
  • The researcher has (potentially) identified valid and meaningful personality attributes, but these are not independent of social function. Lay persons and researchers alike seek to categorize personality towards certain ends, and these aims cannot be ignored when considering the taxonomies (folk and formal) that we create (the functionalist’s perspective)

Assuming that either the first or third of these options fairly characterizes a successful model of personality, Saucier and Srivastava provide us with 8 dimensions on which we might assess whether a particular model is “good”

  • social importance
  • predictive power and validity
  • comprehensiveness
  • reliability and cross-time stability
  • generalizability across types of data
  • generalizability across cultures and languages
  • causal basis
  • theoretical underpinnings

Lexically-derived taxonomies of personality traits (like the Big 5), enjoy relatively high marks on the first six of these criteria. The authors spend the last several pages of the chapter discussing the difficulties in and opportunities for the use of these taxonomies in seeking causal bases and developing unifying, explanatory theories. I rather like Srivastava’s functionalist account, stressing that we should not necessarily expect factors composed of lexical items to describe people to map onto specific bio-psycho aspects of a person, because the words we select to describe people may be as influenced by the purposes of our description (evaluation as an employee, a helpmate, a romantic partner, etc.) as with the actual characteristics of the person we are describing.

What happens when we employ lexical investigations of personality terms cross-culturally and cross-linguistically? We see a variety of factor-based models emerge.

Factors Nature of factors
One The most common factor structure, cross-culturally. A single evaluative factor, with culturally defined positive and negative poles. This may not tell us much uniquely about perceptions of personality, outside of maybe the evident truth that we make global judgments about people’s personalities (as we make global judgments about so many things).
Two One factor is generally dynamic, individual Agency (“getting ahead” after Hogan, 1983) and the other about social Communion (Hogan’s “getting along”); Agency and Communion are from Bakan’s (1966) model. These may be evaluations of social stimulation and social safety, respectively.
Three Often labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. The first is roughly Agency or dynamism from above; the second and third combine as Communion (Agreeableness is more about sharing values, and Conscientiousness about sharing the load).
Five Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism. Neuroticism and Openness seem to enjoy little evidence of cross-cultural/cross-linguistic universality, especially when you leave the Germanic language family.
Six Leave Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Openness unchanged, but rejigger elements of the others into Emotionality, Agreeableness, and Honesty/Humility.

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