Trait Theory is the Astrology of Psychology
I’m sure you’ve heard of these two things, and can immediately assign a context and a meaning to them: Introvert and Extrovert, and heard people use them to say such things as: “My husband is an extravert but I’m an introvert. We are opposites in that sense, but you know what they say!”
But what does it MEAN to say one is an Extravert? Well, classical definitions would say it is how we energise ourselves. An Introvert will go off to a room and sit alone to recharge their batteries, whereas an Extravert will seek out company.
You might also have heard of OCEAN. It is the most common acronym used to describe the most-used Trait-based system – the Big Five – (McRae and Costa, 1987). It stands for: Openness to experience; Conscientiousness; Agreeableness; Extraversion; and Neuroticism.
So let’s look at just one of them for now: the facets that make up the dimension of Extraversion in the Big Five are: Gregariousness (sociable); Assertiveness (forceful); Activity (energetic); Excitement-seeking (adventurous); Positive emotions (enthusiastic); Warmth (outgoing).
How old are you? Don’t tell me. But consider this: what does “gregariousness” mean to you right now at your current age? Now go back 15 years, and what do you think it meant to you back then? Of course, you can’t remember. Why would you? Do you think you are more “gregarious” now than you were 15 years ago, or has age jaded your perspective as life has taken its obvious toll?
What I’m asking is: what do you mean when you think of the word “gregarious”? Does that meaning reflect the same meaning you would have made 15 years ago? Whether you replied yes or no, how can you be sure?
What if the “thing” being investigated in all these Trait studies, from Allport and Odbert (1936) to Cattell (1943) and McRae and Costa, (1987) right up to date with Bartram (2005) and Wubbels, (2015), is not a “trait” at all, but the meaning one creates at various ages for a nominalisation such as “Openness” or “Extraversion”?
15 years ago I might have said I was more Extraverted because the meaning I gave it was to be more sociable, more involved with other people and more interactive in my need to fit in. I felt a sense of community that suggested I do things for others because the meaning I gave to “gregarious” influenced how I behaved in context.
But today, I don’t feel those same needs. My need to fit in has diminished as my self-authored thinking has increased. The meaning I give to “Extravert” today is completely different to 15 years ago.
Testimony to this perspective is the idea that trait can be one thing at one moment in life and entirely different 15 years later (Bannister and Fransella, 2013). And this idea leads on to something entirely different.
I’ve touched on it already. It’s not about traits: it’s about the meaning we create. And meaning is derived from our social-emotional and cognitive complexity, as defined by Kegan and Laske.
When we look at the underlying reasons given to explain Traits in context, there is always a complexity perspective that has been missed. For example: one could attribute being in academia to having a childhood focus on education and strong familial guidance (Borkenau et al., 2001). What is missed in this definition (of Ideas, Aesthetics, Actions and Values) is the underlying complexity built up in the thinking capacity of the student over time. What this focus on education has given the child in later life is the capacity and capability to think at a more complex level than someone who was not exposed to the same multiple perspectives, or the different influences that helped to shape their thinking in their youth.
There has been no injection of “Traits” for the person in the above paragraph. Their Central Traits, such as intelligence and honesty, are not traits at all, but reactions to the external influences experienced throughout their childhood where meaning was created, appropriate to their age and experience, and different at each stage of their developing complexity over time.
According to Charvet (1995): “Trait is the filter that also becomes a compass to apply the instance of thought, which is found in interaction and language.” But again, she misses the complexity angle. How complexly one thinks will directly influence the filter mentioned, and a person at the lower complexity end of the scale will have a completely different meaning-making than a person at the higher end of the scale.
And therein lies my point. Without the underlying complexity capabilities and capacities being taken into account at each stage of a person’s thinking – and life – any definition of any “Trait” is futile. You might as well say that this person is a Gemini because they express dualistic behaviours in context that demonstrate their Neuroticism is strong whilst their Conscientiousness is weak.
Without understanding complexity, Trait is effectively, meaning-less!