About Personality Research

Some people are surprised to learn that personality psychology is an active field of scientific research and that this research is regularly applied in industrial, organizational, clinical and educational contexts (to name a few). It's not a large field, but it is surprisingly diverse and dynamic. Beyond the basic theoretical work, personality and differential psychologists have pioneered several sophisticated statistical techniques and employ a broad variety of data collection methods. None of those topics are addressed here because this site is designed to provide only a basic introduction to the science of personality. But, it's important to recognize that many of the nooks and crannies in personality research are worth exploring further. If you're looking for more advanced or technical readings, try the Personality Project, which provides references to many former and current scholars on the subject.

A very brief review

Many people have an intuitive sense for personality. This likely stems from the fact that we're all sensitive to differences among the people around us. In fact, it's hard not to be -- individuals differ on just about every identifiable characteristic and, whether we know it or not, we tend to be quite good at spotting these differences. The most basic examples include physical characteristics like height and weight. But it's also common for individual differences to be grouped together for the sake of convenience. If we stick with physical qualities for a moment, an example might be the tendency to think of an individual as more or less "attractive." This short-hand saves us the difficulty (and embarrassment) of having to describe all of the singular qualities that contribute to an individual's appearance. Unfortunately, as you may have already realized, this short-hand also introduces some uncertainty. For one thing, the quality of attractiveness is not usually well-defined -- it depends somewhat on the context or "situation" (this same consideration relates to personality as well). A more subtle problem stems from the fact that many individual differences can contribute to an evaluation of attractiveness (or lack thereof). In other words, there are many different ways in which two different people can be viewed as equally (un)attractive. Ditto for the many aspects of personality. Despite these problems, convenience usually carries the day, as is obvious from the widespread use of ambiguous adjectives (like "nice," "mean," "friendly," "weird," "pretty," and so on).

Anyway, it turns out that the relationship between individual differences and personality is fundamentally important. They're not synonymous, but individual differences are, to some extent, the fundamental units of personality. Without them, personality would not exist. To be clear, this doesn't mean that all individual differences are relevant for personality. Personality psychologists tend to focus only on those differences which are "psychological" in nature, but this is hardly an absolute distinction. Certainly, pseudoscientific beliefs about the relationship between personality and ambiguous physical attributes (like bodily fluids, cranial features, or even body types) have been widely discredited. But, it's also the case that historical beliefs about the supposed separation between mind and body were misguided. After all, it's fairly well-established that the brain is located inside the body (let's not get into the distinction between mind and brain). So, personality psychologists tend to focus on individual differences which are "psychological" but everyone basically agrees that this is more of a guideline than a rule. Other relevant individual differences often include things like: (1) biological features which are not usually considered psychological (age, gender, health status, etc.), (2) demographic characteristics (like socioeconomic status, ethnicity, education), and (3) the socio-cultural environment in which the individual exists (their family, their social relations, their cohort or generational peers, broader cultural factors, etc.). To study personality is to study the ways that individual differences relate to one another.

Not everyone would agree with that last sentence, but we'll stand by it because it helps to frame the primary challenge facing personality psychologists over the last 100-125 years: the identification and organization of all those individual differences. To address this question, personality researchers have embraced a profoundly important hypothesis that was developed near the end of the 19th century by Sir Francis Galton. The so-called Lexical Hypothesis generally states that all of the important features of personality should be codified in language. Most of the research done on personality over the last several decades has used this hypothesis in one form or another to develop lexical-based organizational frameworks (the most widely accepted is known as the Big Five model, which we'll talk about more in the Temperament section). In essence, researchers have been trying to figure out the best way to organize the adjectives we use to describe one another -- a task that is considerably more difficult than it sounds.

This being science however, the lexical hypothesis will never be truly "proven," and many researchers are reluctant to concede that all the important features of personality can be distilled down to a list of adjectives. A number of useful and intriguing conceptualizations have been proposed and several of these are now the focus of their own lines of research. A short list of the bigger ideas might include: acknowledgement of the fact that personality is a function of perspective (the observed reputation vs. the internal identity), the emerging use of narrative methodologies to evaluate the development of identity, and the recognition of various "characteristic adaptations" that result from the interface between an individual's innate traits/dispositions and the idiosyncratic features of their environment. Of course, these ideas are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be thought of as alternatives to the lexical approach. The presumption is that they all relate to slightly different aspects or levels of personality. This last point -- the abstract suggestion that personality operates at distinct but interacting levels -- has been a feature of multiple "integrative" models of personality proposed over the last two decades (McAdams, 1996, McAdams & Pals, 2006, Roberts, 2006, Roberts & Jackson, 2008, Hogan, 1983, 1991, 1996, McCrae & Costa, 1999, McCrae et al., 2000). While these models differ from one another considerably, they all assert that personality is broader than the scope of traits covered by the lexical hypothesis.

One of the goals for the SAPA Project is to evaluate some of these models across very large and diverse populations. Based on the data collected so far, it appears that there are at least two domains of individual differences that are psychologically-oriented but not well-described by the lexical models. These are the Abilities and Interests domains which are described below, right after we discuss Temperament.


The Temperament domain is what most people think of as personality. It's also very well-described by models based on the lexical hypothesis (see above). The most broadly accepted framework of Temperament is known as the Big Five model, which basically claims that there are five broad, dimensional factors of personality: Extraversion, Emotional Stability, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Intellect. These factors are sometimes defined a bit differently by various researchers (you may hear the labels "Neuroticism" and "Openness" instead of Emotional Stability and Intellect, respectively). The description of the factors as dimensional is very important. This means that these are not "yes or no" factors but rather that all individuals are described by each factor to some extent. In other words, the dimensions describe the variability among people. You can be a little bit or a lot more (or less) Extraverted than average, but it wouldn't be accurate to say that you have no Extraversion.

While the validity of the Big Five model has generally held up over the last 20+ years of testing, more recent evidence suggests that it performs less well across cultures. Part of the problem seems to be that five is not the "right" number of factors for many cultures (six and sometimes seven is more appropriate). Another issue stems from the fact that the organization of factors themselves seems to vary subtly from one culture to the next. So, most researchers agree that, while the Big Five represents a monumental accomplishment, there are still several important details to be worked out. Feedback on the SAPA Project is based on six factors (the five listed above plus an additional factor for "Honesty and Humility"). Purists might argue that the addition of a sixth factor changes the make-up of the other five factors, but... that's an advanced topic for another time.

There is a lot more to be said about Temperament, but the most important idea for users of the SAPA Project relates to the fact that Temperament can be organized at many levels of detail besides the Big Five. This makes good sense (and it relates back to the observations made at the beginning of this personality overview). There are many different ways that two individuals might end up being equally Extraverted, for example. This suggests that it is often wise to break each of the broad dimensions into more narrowly-defined components. Unfortunately, this can get a little messy for several reasons, but the key point is that it's possible to increase the specificity of personality dimensions. In fact, it is a good idea to do this when trying to develop hypotheses about relatively narrow behaviors. We give feedback based on three levels of specificity: the six factors described above, the 12 aspects (these result from splitting each factor into two component parts), and 3 higher order groups (this comes from pairing the most closely related factors). While we have a reasonable basis for doing this, we make no claims that this is absolutely the best method.


In general, the work of personality psychologists in the United States has not addressed individual differences in cognitive ability over the last few decades. There are some excellent exceptions to this claim and, it should be noted, that researchers in Europe and elsewhere have explored cognitive ability in greater numbers. There's no denying that it's a controversial topic, especially among those who value an egalitarian outlook. Yet, the reality is that cognitive abilities are not only a readily visible source of individual differences but they're also highly predictive for a huge number of life outcomes.

Given this problematic dynamic, one of the priorities for the SAPA Project is to evaluate the relationships between the domains of Temperament and Ability. This will allow researchers to proceed on an empirical basis. If, for example, cognitive ability assessment failed to provide useful information about individuals beyond the assessment of Temperament, then this might support the argument that cognitive ability research is relatively less important (spoiler alert: this is not panning out -- cognitive abilities do seem to be distinct from Temperament, unless one uses an unusually broad definition for Intellect).

It's worth noting that cognitive ability research has a very long history among psychological topics. In fact, intelligence assessment was arguably the first "big" contribution of the psychological field. Despite this, many questions persist about its structure, in part because cognitive abilities are difficult to assess in large samples. Individualized assessment, though more precise, tends to be very time-consuming (no one wants to be responsible for giving out unreliable reports about someone's intelligence). One of the goals for the SAPA Project is the development of measures which place less emphasis on individual precision but are still valid across broad populations. In other words, don't over-analyze the feedback we give you on the cognitive ability items.


Interests are an important source of individual differences in terms of day-to-day activities. They are arguably a function of both Temperament and Ability in the sense that what we want to do is partly driven by how we typically behave (Temperament) and what we are capable of doing (Ability). Interests would fall squarely among the "characteristic adaptations" described earlier as few people would argue that they are innate.

Research on the structure of interests has been an important contribution from the field of vocational psychology, though the majority of this work has focused on the occupational correlates of vocational interests rather than the broader range of avocational interests (think hobbies and pastimes). An important goal for the SAPA Project is to determine whether interests ought to be considered a separate domain of personality. The argument against this idea is obvious -- as we already mentioned, many feel that Interests are (at least partly) driven by Temperament and Ability. The argument in favor of separating Interests is based on the idea that they provide a window into other innate features of personality that are outside of Temperament and Ability. These would presumably include topics that have proven elusive to measure, such as motivation, values and character. We aren't currently giving feedback on Interests on the SAPA Project because the data are still coming in. At some point in the future, this will likely change as we get a more clear understanding of the relationship between Interests and other individual differences.

This page last modified on May 24th, 2013.