Trait theory and personal construct

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The psychological study of individual differences traditionally has roots in the clinical, psychometric and experimental traditions (Butt,2007). Trait theory is based in the experimental approach. More recently the phenomenological perspective has made headway into the study of individual differences, as demonstrated by personal construct theory (PCT). This essay will start by describing trait theory and PCT, highlighting the important differences between the two approaches. An evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the two theories will follow. Finally, each approach will be discussed in respect to the agency-structure dualism. This dualism is concerned with individual ability to change and whether this is as a result of personal agency or social/biological structures.

Trait theory was developed by Eysenck and Rachman (1965,cited in Butt,2007) and belongs to the mainstream, experimental approach to individual differences (Butt,2007). The aim of trait theory is to produce general principles of why people behave differently in different situations. Questionnaires, for example Eysenck’s Personality Inventory (EPI), are used to produce psychometric inventories, which are a measure of personality traits. This is a scientific approach, facilitating prediction of how a particular person will react in a specific situation. Other trait theorists (e.g. Kant) considered traits to be categorical. Their understanding was that each individual could be assigned to one particular category; no one could be a mixture of two or more categories. However, Eysenck’s use of criterion analysis discredited this belief in categorization, and suggested a continuum of traits. His understanding was of individuals being measured along a two continuums; extraversion-introversion and neuroticism-stability. He proposed that a person’s score on these continuums allows prediction of how they will react in a particular situation.

Trait theorists believe traits are biologically determined and genetically inherited (Butt,2007). For example, Eysenck’s (1947,cited in Butt,2007) study of soldiers in battle helped him identify his two, unrelated, personality dimensions: extraversion and neuroticism. He believed these dimensions were “behavioural expressions of differences in biologically-based temperament” (Butt,2007,p.190). Traits are therefore considered to be fairly stable differences between individuals that are unlikely to change over time or situation (Butt,2007). Eysenck believed that the level of extraversion and neuroticism displayed by individuals is due to differences in cortical and autonomic arousal.

Personal construct theory (PCT), as developed by Kelly (1955,cited in Butt,2007) is a markedly different approach to individual differences. PCT is based in phenomenology, and therefore places an emphasis on how each individual views the same thing differently (Butt,2004,cited in Butt,2007). The aim is to gain an understanding of lived experience, personal meaning making and the different world views held by individuals. This approach sees individuals making sense of the world by developing a set of personal constructions, based on their individual experiences (Butt,2007). Kelly had no interest in how individuals score on personality dimensions, instead, the focus of this approach is on recognising the value of differing world-views.

In opposition to the trait theorist’s belief that traits are fixed, PCT views constructs as being flexible (Butt,2007). This is not to say that constructs can be changed with ease. Indeed, Kelly believed since individuals invest a great deal in their constructions they often actively resist change, and as a result it can be difficult to adjust constructions. Kelly designed the repertory grid to help assess personal constructions. Much construing occurs without the individual realising it, but the repertory grid acts as a tool allowing individuals to convey and assess personal meanings, which would normally be out with their reach.

Salmon applied the principles of Kelly’s PCT to teaching and learning in schools. Salmon believed that schools need to acknowledge children’s existing constructs and use these to encourage personal development. For this to be successful, children must be aware of their own constructs, so tools like Kelly’s repertory grid are very useful in this context. She went on to develop the ‘Salmon Line’, which provided an effective method for children to define their own meanings about their progress.

Trait theory has been around for more than a century and has been subject to a great deal of critique. PCT has not yet been put under such scrutiny, so it is possible its weaknesses have not yet been fully explored. Trait theory is widely understood due to its similarities to how people assess others in everyday life (Butt,2007). In addition to this, measurement tools, such as the EPI, are objective measures of personality, allowing comparisons to be drawn between large samples of individuals. The findings of these studies can be useful to the government and retail/campaign organisations who want to identify general trends (Hollway,2007). Although highly criticised, categorisation in the form of traits is useful in certain situations, for example, in researching attitudes to smoking in an attempt to promote behavioural change (Butt,2007).

However, trait theory has been highly criticised (Butt,2007). Skinner (1974,cited in Butt,2007) points out that traits merely identify trends in behaviour; they cannot explain behaviour. He believed measuring traits simply re-describes behaviours, which is not very helpful. Nonetheless, trait theories make good sense as most people have noted that people react differently in the same situation, and often show consistency across situations (Butt,2007). Yet Mischel (1968,cited in Butt,2007) argues there is very little evidence for this consistency in traits, proposed by Eysenck. He pointed out there is much evidence showing that people can, and do, change with experience. In addition to this, Mischel suggests that rather than waiting to be discovered psychometrically, traits are constructed by the rater. He believed personality traits reflect the world-view, society and culture of the rater, rather than anything about the personality of the individual being rated.

There are important power issues with trait theory, as with any theory which has roots in the experimental approach (Salmon,2003,cited in Butt,2007). A great deal of power is invested in those who measure and those who put the measurements into practise, for example, in creating hierarchies in schools. Trait theory has also been subject to misuse by so-called ‘experts’ who judge people against norms and competence hierarchies (Butt,2007).

Although objectivity can be viewed as a strength of trait theory, it is also a weakness. Objective knowledge is stripped from its context, so neither the power of the experimenter nor that of society is acknowledged (Butt,2007). The principles of trait theory mean it does not recognise potential for change, as traits are biologically controlled. This limits its ability to be used to assist change, so this is a less practical approach than PCT. Another major criticism is that causation cannot be inferred by correlation alone. It is likely that social structures may influence the biology of an individual, but trait theory does not take this into account.

Trait theory does not account for richness of personality in the way PCT does (Butt,2007). PCT uses phenomenological principles to focus on uniqueness of individuals, describing their subtle differences. This theory acknowledges both the individual’s ability to change, and the capability of society to change an individual, enhancing understanding of how and why people change over time and situation. Not only does this approach acknowledge that change is possible, it provides a framework for further change. For example, Salmon (2003,cited in Butt,2007) adapted Kelly’s PCT to facilitate learning. The Salmon line helps individuals to set goals and make the changes required to attain them.

In addition to this, the qualitative interview methods of this approach help avoid the power of the researcher from affecting the findings (Salmon,2003,cited in Butt,2007). The interviewer should not summarise or assume individual’s constructs. Instead they use tools such as the repertory grid to help the individual convey and assess their own personal meanings. Furthermore, Salmon (2003,cited in Butt,2007) challenges the labelling of individuals by traits, which effectively empowers individuals to be just that; individual.

However, PCT also has its critics (Butt,2007). Some would argue that without the sort of classification gained by trait theories, those with serious conditions, for example autism, may not receive the help they need. Additionally, Kelly’s phenomenological approach suggests researchers need to put themselves in the shoes of their participant, in order to help them convey their constructs, and subsequently effect change. However, this would be very difficult, if not impossible in some circumstances, for example if working with a psychopath. It has also been argued that PCT is a less influential approach than trait theories, as the findings are unable to be generalised to wider populations.

The agency-structure dualism is an important consideration within all social psychological perspectives (Hollway,2007). Agency relates to the extent to which individuals are capable of exerting personal choice to make changes in their lives. Structure refers to the extent that biological or social factors determine an individual’s life-world. Biological structure suggests that genes and innate physiological attributes control our lives. Social structure suggests social factors, such as gender or social class, control our worlds. This dualism is linked to the extent to which personality is considered to be fixed (Butt,2007). If personality is entirely controlled by biological structure then it is unchangeable, so agency is not acknowledged in such theories. Some theorists suggest an interaction of agency and structure determine an individual’s life-world. For example, individuals are considered to have freedom of choice to change their bodies with diets; however, social structures such as financial circumstances constrain these choices (Finlay and Langdrige,2007).

As previously mentioned, Eysenck’s trait theory suggests personality is entirely defined by biological structure (Butt,2007). Traits are biologically inherited and determined. This therefore suggests traits are fixed, and people cannot change throughout their lifespan, regardless of their social environment. There is no room for personal agency in trait theory. Individuals cannot chose to make changes to their personality as biological traits are innate and cannot be changed willingly.

PCT considers it impossible to divide agency and structure, as the individual is viewed in relation to their social world (Hollway,2007). In keeping with the phenomenological perspective, Kelly views individuals as products of society, thus emphasising consideration of the social world in which individuals are constructed (Butt,2007). People are thought to actively create their worlds through experiences and relationships. Understandings and constructs are derived from the social world, which suggests structure can restrict agency. Kelly’s PCT therefore views individuals as having partial agency but also as being partly determined by social structures. Agency and structure appear to interact in complex ways.

This understanding of individuals being constructed by the combination of agency and structure means personality is viewed as changeable (Butt,2007). PCT suggests individuals constantly change and adapt in response to their social environment. Individuals are considered capable of consciously and actively constructing meaning and reflecting upon this to allow them to continually make adjustments.

PCT views agency and structure as complementary (Butt,2007). Whilst individuals are capable of changing themselves and their social worlds, social structure also clearly influences behaviour. Individuals have freedom to choose meanings from their experiences, to use in building personal constructs (Butt,2007). However, agency is a product of society and whilst individual constructions of the world vary, they are restrained by social structure. Individual constructions are therefore viewed as varying within a range set by the society in which they are immersed.

Salmon’s (2003,cited in Butt,2007) application of Kelly’s PCT to learning in schools provides a good example of the complex interaction between agency and structure. Personal change is required for learning and Salmon acknowledged this is difficult for most individuals, because they invest a great deal in their constructions. Learning can threaten their personal constructions of the world. She used the Salmon line to help individuals reassess their constructions and prepare to change, allowing them to achieve their goals. This involves a great deal of personal agency, as the individual actively chooses to learn. This example can also help us understand how social structures interact with agency. For example, British schools tend to place children into hierarchies, effectively controlling what they can choose to learn. This clearly shows how society can restrict the agency of individuals.

Trait theory, as developed by Eysenck and Rachman (1965,cited in Butt,2007), is based in the experimental tradition and relies on psychometric testing to measure people’s personality traits on a continuum (Butt,2007). This approach views personality as biologically determined leaving no opportunity for agency or change. The findings of these studies are however very useful to the government and organisations, by identifying trends which can be generalised across populations (Hollway,2007). Kelly’s PCT has roots in the phenomenological approach, and is concerned with revealing rich, detailed accounts of people’s personalities (Butt,2007). In contrast to trait theory, this approach acknowledges ability to change throughout life. It proposes these changes occur through interaction of personal agency and social structures. PCT not only recognises capacity for change, it has also been used to help design tools such as the repertory grid and Salmon line, to help individuals change their constructions, for example when learning new things.

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