A Neurotic Introvert Looks At Personality

by Mary Hrovat

It could almost be a question on a very meta personality quiz: Do you prefer the Myers-Briggs typology or the Big Five personality traits? The Myers-Brigg Type Inventory is a popular tool that was developed outside of the scientific establishment by two women who did not have credentials in psychology. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative, and in the past decade or so, it’s been criticized as meaningless or unscientific. The Big Five taxonomy is widely accepted in academia and is the basis of much current personality research. It’s quantitative; in fact, it’s based on statistical analysis. Am I rejecting science if I continue to prefer the Myers-Briggs system as a key to understanding my own personality and those of others?

A quick refresher: the MBTI evaluates where you fall along four dimensions describing human preferences. Very roughly, these are introversion/extraversion, reliance mainly on sensory data or on interpretation, favoring intellectual analysis or feeling, and a preference for making decisions or for keeping options open. Your four-letter type identifies which end of each spectrum you are closest to; it doesn’t mean you’re 100% one or the other, but that you generally lean more toward one than the other.

A Big Five–based test, on the other hand, gives you a numerical score for each of five traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits emerged from lexical research in which words related to personality were extracted from an unabridged dictionary. The assumption behind the lexical approach is that languages will contains words to describe the aspects of personality that matter to people, and that the most important aspects will be captured by a single word. A statistical technique called factor analysis is applied to identify groups of words that are related. Several systems based on lexical analysis have been proposed since the first study using this technique appeared in 1936. Over time, the five traits we know today emerged from the analysis. Further research using psychological tests confirmed that people seem to be talking about the same things when they use each of these words. Each of the Big Five traits has specific aspects called facets.

Despite its scientific credentials, I have a number of problems with the Big Five. From my first introduction to it, the use of “neuroticism” as a personality trait has always bothered me. Yes, I tend to score high on this trait, and I feel unfairly judged because this label is generally pejorative. In addition, the facets for this trait include depression and anxiety. Are these really traits, or are they predispositions, afflictions, or responses to experience (or some combination of all four)? I’m also bothered by the fact that the term seems confusing. Freudian psychology uses it in a specific technical sense, but in popular culture it has a much broader meaning with negative connotations.

Evidently the use of this label is something of a historical accident. Because the concept of neuroticism was already used in the study of personality, the term was an obvious choice when the trait it currently describes began to emerge from the lexical research. I suspect, though, that although the word has a long history in psychological research, its meaning in the Big Five differs significantly from the original meaning. An alternative and less loaded label, negative emotionality, has been proposed. Because it’s the only trait named for the negative end of the spectrum (also essentially for historical reasons), some personality psychologists have suggested relabeling this trait emotional stability so that it’s named for the positive end.

I’m also bothered by the limited description of people given by the Big Five. To me, these traits don’t add up to a well-rounded whole, as I would expect from a widely accepted model of personality. Agreeableness, extraversion, and arguably conscientiousness are essentially about interacting well with others. The facets provide some subtlety and nuance; agreeableness includes trust, altruism, and cooperation, for example. Still, these three traits seem to be essentially about how easily someone fits into the social world. Specifically, they strike me as the concerns of people in a large complex industrial society who need to evaluate strangers or near-strangers. They’re the kind of things you’d want to know about a new co-worker or potential employee. Incidentally, to the degree that the traits are perceived as valuable in the job market, the test is easy to game, because the desired responses seem obvious if you’re taking the test as part of a hiring or promotion process.

Openness to experience, with facets that include imagination, artistic interests, and intellect, balances this focus on fitting in somewhat, but I think we need more than neuroticism, however it’s conceived, to fully round out the picture. So many things are missing—a tendency to seek or shun power, for example, or an orientation toward the past or the future, toward Apollo or Dionysus; being more of a lumper or a splitter, a fox or a hedgehog, an appreciator or an improver.

Complaining that the traits are lopsided in their focus may be beside the point, though, because they weren’t based on a theory of personality; they arose more or less naturally out of a survey of the language. I say “more or less” because critics have noted that interpretation was inevitably involved in some of the choices that were made during the analysis. At best, the traits seems to provide a greatly simplified picture of how humans talk about each other. This isn’t the same thing as providing a key to personality, and I suspect it also glosses over many of the complexities and biases of language.

For one thing, the same behavior can be described using different words: one person’s rude is another person’s forthright, for example. It also seems obvious that most traits or behaviors are valuable at some times and not at others. This is at odds with the fact that the Big Five traits are described along a positive/negative continuum. Clearly you can be too conscientious, too agreeable, or too open to experience. You can also be agreeable at times when you should argue or speak up. These subtleties are recognized in some discussions of the Big Five, particularly at the facet level, but I don’t think that having your agreeableness score, or even your score broken down by facet, will help you much in figuring out whether you’re a pushover, a jerk, or somewhere in between.

The one trait that doesn’t seem to necessarily be identified as having positive and negative poles is extraversion. However, when you look at the facets (cheerfulness, friendliness, and assertiveness, for example), it seems clear that there’s a value judgment here too. One online description notes that extraverts are fun-loving. These descriptors sound to me like they reflect an extravert’s misconceptions about introversion. The idea that warmth and cheer are related to how much you talk or how much time you want to spend with other people is, in my view as an introvert, incorrect but not uncommon, and this bias is surely reflected to some degree in the language we use.

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I prefer the Myers-Briggs system in part because it fits my sense that most human traits and behaviors are sometimes useful, sometimes neutral, and sometimes detrimental. It’s inherently nonjudgmental. The types are all described in positive terms because the idea is that every personality has a useful place. The original motivation for the system’s development was the observation of personality differences in families, and I think this may be important. Except for your spouse, you don’t choose your family, in particular your children. You certainly see their faults, but you don’t evaluate your children the way you would a potential employee. Ideally, the point of figuring your kids out (to the extent that anyone ever figures anyone out) is to get along with them, to learn how to guide them, and to help them figure out where they fit into the world.

The Big Five taxonomy offers a very high-level view and seems to favor universality over context. In contrast, much of what has been written on the Myers-Briggs system is about context: how your traits play out in the context of your life and how specific combinations of traits work together. The underlying theory doesn’t resonate for everyone, but for many people it helps them make sense of themselves. The flip side of having areas where you’re more comfortable and competent is that other things are harder for you. Everything I’ve read about the Myers-Briggs system also suggests that people have a certain amount of flexibility in how they behave and can move along each of the four dimensions to some degree. Given its description of my personality, I can better decide what’s possible for me, whether and how much to push beyond my preferences, and how to find a place where my strengths will be useful.

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For what it’s worth, professionals also criticize the Big Five. People who understand the statistical treatment much better than I do have concerns about the methodology that was used. The limited scope and lack of a theoretical basis have been noted, and there’s some debate about whether there might be a sixth factor. It appears that the Big Five might be less useful for predicting behavior and for clinical use than the facets. This jibes with my sense that on the personal level, the Big Five is not as helpful for exploring individual personalities, your own or others’.

The question of whether to favor the Big Five or Myers-Briggs is not really a question of your personality but of your purpose. The Big Five traits are not geared toward individual discovery because that’s not why they were developed. Researchers study the connections between the traits and workplace dynamics, human evolution, and the DSM; they look at high-level questions of human behavior. The Myers-Briggs system seems like a valuable complement at the individual level. Interestingly, although the Big Five seems so focused on interpersonal interaction, the Myers-Briggs approach seems to have much more potential for improving human interactions by explaining people to each other. Conversely, even though the five traits can seem like a summary of the characteristics that employers use for screening, the MBTI is a proprietary tool widely used by corporations.

Personality tests seem to be popular in part because people want to understand themselves. But maybe any reasonably rigorous and widely accepted personality questionnaire is going to be used to grade and evaluate people for the grader’s benefit rather than to foster self-development that’s helpful to those being graded. In any event, the more I learn about personality traits and personality research, the more I think we’re still blind men exploring an elephant. I suspect that personality may always be a mystery, not in the sense that it can never be understood or that its origins can’t be observed and analyzed, but in the sense that it’s so complex we won’t ever truly codify or summarize it as a whole. Personality may be the kind of mystery you solve, to the degree you ever do, by living with it.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.

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