• Robb G. Best

The Personality Puzzle

Since the days of Hippocrates, science has struggled to quantify human personality, and group the seemingly infinite combinations of traits into a number of discrete “types”. However, it’s difficult to design a personality-sorting scheme that produces replicable results. In the case of the now oft-derided Myers-Briggs, even beloved systems have earned harsh criticism from the scientific community.

Now, from Northwest University, a new study led by Luís Amaral of the McCormick School of Engineering has crunched data from more than 1.5 million participants to devise a brand-new way to categorize personality.

The subjects were a self-selecting group of internet users willing to answer one of several different online questionnaires developed over the years. These surveys contained between 40 and 200 questions, designed to measure the degree to which each respondent demonstrated five widely agreed-upon personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. These data points were then plotted out, leaving the scientists to look for clusters: the larger the cluster of similar results, the more likely it could be argued for as a specific personality type.

The results? Drum roll, please:

According to the new Northwest study, you are either “average”, “reserved”, a “role model”, or “self-centered”.


These participants scored high in neuroticism and extroversion, but low in openness. “I would expect that the typical person would be in this cluster,” said Martin Gerlach, the paper’s first author. More women than men fall into this category.


Those termed reserved scored as somewhat agreeable and conscientious, but not open, extroverted, or neurotic. They were characterized as emotionally stable.

Role Model

Subjects labeled role models were low in neuroticism but high in everything else. They were more likely to be older, and more likely to be female. “These are people who are dependable and open to new ideas,” said Amaral.


Then there are those dubbed “self-centered,” who scored high in extroversion, but low in openness, agreeableness, or conscientiousness. Essentially, these are not team players. “These are people you don’t want to hang out with,” explains co-author William Revelle.

A few caveats:

On one hand, the sample size was very large, which is excellent. A recurring gripe on this blog is scientific studies which only gather data from, say, forty people. This leaves a data set vulnerable to distortion from an outlier or two.

On the other hand, the sample was self-selecting, and consisted of people computer-savvy enough to encounter and fill out an online survey.

Additionally, a more useful personality system would surely strive for value-neutral language. Tell a person with high extroversion and low openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness that they’re scientifically considered “self-centered” and watch what happens. Are they more likely to say, “Oh gosh, what a useful tool or self-discovery” or “What a load of garbage!”

For that matter, of what practical use is a personality index that labels most people as “average”? Think of everyone you know particularly well; how many of them would you describe as having an “average” personality?

Finally, the researchers repeatedly described people as moving from one group to another with age. For instance, teenage boys were more likely to score as self-centered, while the likelihood of scoring that way decreased dramatically with age, regardless of gender. If these categories remain fluid throughout one’s life, can they truly be considered personality types at all?

Is this the final chapter in the book on personality, or just another footnote? Only time can tell.

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