What makes our personalities unique?

There's more to it than just 5 traits...
28 November 2022

Interview with 

Sam Gosling, University of Texas




It’s interesting to think, isn’t it, that a 20 minute questionnaire could tell you so much about who you are. Or can it? Somewhat unsatisfied, I reached out to Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, to take a step back and tell me how sturdy our scientific understanding of personality really is…

Sam - Ordinary, lay conception of personality captures much more than what the scientists study. The scientists really focus on what you could call personality traits, which are these regularities in our behaviours and our thoughts and feelings. But some people in the field have really said, that's a very superficial take on somebody. Would you want to choose someone to marry, or to become your roommate purely on the basis of, say, their big five personality traits? And the answer is probably not, because you don't really get a sense of who that person is. And so you'd need to dig a little deeper to what some researchers call personal concerns. So that would be somebody's attitudes, their values, their goals, their roles. You take something like their values, it's like what's important to them? Do they value wisdom? Do they value power? Do they value becoming rich? And those sorts of things aren't the kinds of characteristics that will show up in a big five test. And then, if you really want to get a sense of who somebody is, you have to dig even deeper to what you could call identity. And you think of identity as the narrative story we tell about ourselves, about how we became the person we are today. It takes those events in the past and it's how we make sense of them to form this conception of the self, which also has implications for who we think we are going to be in the future too - those sort of deeper things, those values. The identity isn't captured by things like the Big Five and other dispositional constructs. And one of the reasons is they're much more difficult to measure.

James - I'm glad we've clarified that, but if I now bring us back to thinking about the Big Five, can you see the usefulness of personality testing as a way of determining what jobs we might be interested in?

Sam - Yeah, I think personality has a tremendous role to play in determining what jobs we might good at. I think if you ask most people what would make somebody a good salesperson versus a good truck driver versus a good nurse versus a good teacher, then they're not going to just say intelligence. It's not that intelligent people are better at all of those things. It will be other things too. And so it might be how much they enjoy interacting with others. If you enjoy interacting with others, then being a salesperson is good, but being a truck driver isn't so good. Is somebody reliable? Are they trustworthy? Are they friendly? Are they curious? Those are all personality traits, so I think it makes good sense to try to assess those in some systematic way. By doing so, it in fact helps fairness too, because we're unlikely if we have these test scores to rely so heavily on our stereotypes or our preconceptions of what somebody's likely to be like. I think a good example is, if somebody's introverted, they say less. And so then we get to learn less about their other qualities too.

James - Can I ask you, Sam, what you see as the main limitations of using personality tests to determine our potential roles?

Sam - I see the main limitation as being the fact that it's really focusing on such a small element of personality, that it's missing out on these deeper constructs like values and goals and our identity. And - I don't know this because, to my knowledge, the research hasn't done - but I suspect there are some things (how good a teacher you are, or how good a CEO you are) where it is those values, or it is this sense of who you are that is actually where the gold is, where the action is in predicting how well you do that job.

James - Within reason, are people not quite capable... perhaps it's even healthy, that people are not entirely different in their personal and professional lives, but that they're capable of separating it and have a slightly different personality.

Sam - Yeah, that's quite possible. I think it's important to say that when we say that somebody has a certain personality, that doesn't mean that their behaviour is invariant. So both an introvert and an extrovert will both be more talkative at a party than when they're at the library. But, in both of those contexts, at least in theory, the extrovert will be more talkative than the introvert. So I think it's important to understand that we're not saying behaviour is invariant. Now there has been some research that has tried to separate these things out. So there was some research which would essentially take a normal personality questionnaire, something like "I am talkative" or "I enjoy trying new things", those sorts of personality items, and what they did was they added to the end of those items "at work" or "at home." And what they found was you do get slightly different answers if you do that. And the answers to those tests do predict better performance at work, but the differences aren't very big.


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