Forget Personality Types: Think in Terms of Personality Thresholds


Introverted. Extroverted. Detail-oriented. Assertive. Expressive.  We use these words to define this thing that we call a person’s “personality.”  Psychologists (and their ancestors, going back all the way to pre-history) have developed certain standard measures of personality, and these measures can be, well, measured.

Yet, how useful are these personality measures (or “traits”) really?

I’m wondering if the question isn’t whether a person is “detail-oriented,” nor is it a question of how much “detail-orientation” they have, but rather, under what circumstances or towards what ends they become “detail oriented?”

Steve Jobs would be a classic “out there” creative/expressive personality, which according to many personality typing models would have him as someone who couldn’t care less about details.  Yet, Steve Jobs is famous for his obsessive (and sometime tyrannical) attention to detail…   that is to say, the details that matter to him.  So maybe Steve Jobs does sacrifice certain details after all — other people’s details.  In any case, using a classic low-attention-to-detail / high-attention-to-detail personality typing profile on Steve Jobs would be of little use. By this analysis, I wonder if it really makes sense to use “detail oriented” as a personality descriptor for anyone at all.

Here’s another example:  A hypothetical “shy, quiet, cute, nerdy chick” and her level of reserved-ness (measured in amount of clothing worn), according to this great little GraphJam:

Have you ever seen an introvert suddenly connect with someone that “gets” them? Provided the right combination of circumstances and individuals involved, people may undergo what seems like a complete personality transformation.  I think that many key life experiences in different cultures —  teenage summer sleep-away camp, freshman year at college, army basic training — are built on this phenomenon.   

The notion of a “personality type” seems to be a gross approximation of an important aspect of human behavior:  The situations that we find ourselves in — and the values that we bring to those situations — massively affect the way we behave. 

So, is the difference between personality type and personality threshold just a difference of semantics?   Does the idea of personality thresholds give us a more operationally useful set of models to work with, versus a model that uses personality types?

What about using personality thresholds as a framework for improved self-understanding? Compared with the old “types” paradigm, do “thresholds” create a stronger sense of individual control and responsibility for one’s actions?

Going back to the “detail oriented” concept:  All too often I’ve seen both ends of that “personality type” spectrum used as an excuse for people to treat others badly, by selective caring (or not caring) about certain details, at the expense of other details.

What about using personality thresholds — instead of types — as a tool for interacting with (or managing) others?

Finally:  What would a simplified model of personality thresholds even look like?  What are the key vectors?  Approach/Avoidance?  Fight/Flight?  What else?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 31, 2010, in Learning, Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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