[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Do you like being judged and put into a box? Do you like being told you can’t change things about yourself that limit you from living the best life you can? Do you like it when these categories have no scientific basis?
Personality traits, types, and dispositions are models that I don’t find helpful.
A model to free yourself from being categorized: personality types and traits have little to no validity
I’m sure people will attack me on this belief. When my psychology teacher taught it to me in college I didn’t believe him. It seemed obvious some people were extroverted, others introverted, some conservative, others liberal, some type A, others not type A, and so on.
As overwhelming the evidence for traits seemed, his brief explanation got me skeptical. Then looking at the world with the new perspective yielded just as much evidence that so-called traits or personality types didn’t explain anything meaningful about people. Rejecting that view also improved my life by suggesting I could change myself more than I believing it suggested.
The more I and people I knew grew and changed beyond what believing in types would have allowed, the more I came to adopt a new model.
Besides its consistency with my observations, and the blatant inconsistency of the trait model, not believing in traits improved my life tremendously. It liberated me to change more than I would have otherwise and to expect more of others. Since I try to change my life for the better, the new model allowed me to improve my life.
New Model: So-called traits, types, and dispositions aren’t meaningful
People behave according to their abilities and always try to do their best based on their perception of their world. They can learn new abilities and change their perceptions by changing their beliefs.
Take introversion and extroversion. Believing in traits leads you to believe a consistently introverted person is introverted. It says you’re just that way, discouraging you from doing anything about it. Believing in traits, through this discouragement, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Other would-be traits that could sound plausible but don’t endure: all other Myers-Briggs categories and all the ones in the list on this Wikipedia page on “trait theory.”
Believing in the no-traits model is consistent with what trait theory explains, suggesting that everyone who can behave introverted and thinks it’s the best thing to do will. People who don’t know how to act extroverted never will — but that doesn’t mean they can’t. It only means they haven’t learned to or they think the same behavior best in different situations.
The no-traits model also suggests people can change. It says introverted people can learn extroverted skills. The other way around, as well as for any other trait. The more they do, the more their behavior will change, eventually to feel more and more natural to them.
So when someone says they’re introverted or whatever psychological trait, they aren’t telling you what they are, they’re telling you what they haven’t learned to do. If they stopped believing in traits, they’d also be telling you how they could improve their lives — by learning the skills opposite the trait they say they have.
As Wikipedia says about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
The MBTI is not recognised as being scientifically valid, and is largely ignored within the field of psychology. The statistical validity of the MBTI as a psychometric instrument has been the subject of criticism. It has been estimated that between a third and a half of the published material on the MBTI has been produced for conferences of the Center for the Application of Psychological Type (which provides training in the MBTI) or as papers in the Journal of Psychological Type (which is edited by Myers-Briggs advocates). It has been argued that this reflects a lack of critical scrutiny.
or as it says about The Big Five personality traits
A frequent criticism is that the Big Five is not based on any underlying theory; it is merely an empirical finding that certain descriptors cluster together under factor analysis.
I find traits and types not based in nature — just made-up beliefs that constrain people from improving their lives.
When I use this belief
I use the no-traits belief when someone tells me they are just that way and can’t change something about themselves that I’ve seen others change about themselves.
I tend to see descriptions of people’s types more like their horoscopes — accurate to the extent the person’s belief in them motivates them to act accordingly and continue to believe in them.
What this belief replaces
This belief replaces the constraining belief that you have to be what someone categorizes you as, that you can’t change some things about yourself that you can.
Where this belief leads
Believing that what look like traits actually describes a person’s abilities and beliefs points you to examining your beliefs and learning new abilities to improve your life. Traits and types discourage this introspection, learning, and growth.
If you want to lead, not believing in traits will allow you to influence people, and yourself, more than believing in them.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book