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Interpreting “Personality” Taxonomies: Why Previous Models Cannot Capture Individual-Specific Experiencing, Behaviour, Functioning and Development. Major Taxonomic Tasks Still Lay Ahead

Abstract

As science seeks to make generalisations, a science of individual peculiarities encounters intricate challenges. This article explores these challenges by applying the Transdisciplinary Philosophy-of-Science Paradigm for Research on Individuals (TPS-Paradigm) and by exploring taxonomic “personality” research as an example. Analyses of researchers’ interpretations of the taxonomic “personality” models, constructs and data that have been generated in the field reveal widespread erroneous assumptions about the abilities of previous methodologies to appropriately represent individual-specificity in the targeted phenomena. These assumptions, rooted in everyday thinking, fail to consider that individual-specificity and others’ minds cannot be directly perceived, that abstract descriptions cannot serve as causal explanations, that between-individual structures cannot be isomorphic to within-individual structures, and that knowledge of compositional structures cannot explain the process structures of their functioning and development. These erroneous assumptions and serious methodological deficiencies in widely used standardised questionnaires have effectively prevented psychologists from establishing taxonomies that can comprehensively model individual-specificity in most of the kinds of phenomena explored as “personality”, especially in experiencing and behaviour and in individuals' functioning and development. Contrary to previous assumptions, it is not universal models but rather different kinds of taxonomic models that are required for each of the different kinds of phenomena, variations and structures that are commonly conceived of as “personality”. Consequently, to comprehensively explore individual-specificity, researchers have to apply a portfolio of complementary methodologies and develop different kinds of taxonomies, most of which have yet to be developed. Closing, the article derives some meta-desiderata for future research on individuals' “personality”.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The term “personality” put in quotation marks indicates that its definitions vary and that different researchers use this term to refer to different kinds of phenomena (see Uher 2014a, b in this trilogy).

  2. 2.

    To appear in the Annals of Theoretical Psychology, vols. 12, 13.

  3. 3.

    The term “non-physical” is put in quotation marks in the TPS-Paradigm because it denotes properties that are not simply contrasted against the physical but are complementary instead (see Uher 2014a).

  4. 4.

    The terms morphology and physiology denote the organismal structures and functions, in and of themselves, rather than the scientific disciplines that explore these kinds of phenomena.

  5. 5.

    The meaning of the term mediation in the TPS-Paradigm refers to the Latin mediare, to be in the middle, not to the meaning established in statistics (where it is differentiated from moderation).

  6. 6.

    Digital data can be conceived as immaterial; however, as they can be perceived and used only through the material phenomena to which they are systematically related and bound (e.g., computer screen and other hardware), this specification is irrelevant for the issues explored here.

  7. 7.

    The term “trait” has very different meanings that require careful differentiation. In biological research on individual differences especially in animals, “trait” primarily denotes a single datum encoding the occurrence of a particular behavioural event in an individual. In psychology, by contrast, the term “trait” denotes a construct of individual-specificity summarising multiple data of occurrences of various kinds of events in many individuals. These terminological differences have caused profound conceptual misunderstandings between biologists and psychologists (Uher 2011a). But also within psychology, connotations of “trait” vary. Some psychologists refer to “traits” as descriptive summary constructs denoting individual-specificity in phenomena that are directly perceptible (McAdams 1992; Westen 1996), whereas others refer to “traits” as individual-specificity in phenomena that are internal to individuals and causally underlie their perceptible properties (McCrae and Costa 1997; Matthews et al. 2003). To avoid misunderstandings and to refrain from implying a-priori assumptions about causality and stability commonly attributed to “trait”-concepts, some psychologists who interpret taxonomic constructs as descriptive summary constructs therefore refrain from using the term “traits” (e.g., Goldberg 1982; Saucier and Goldberg 1996).

  8. 8.

    Translated original: “La représentation linguistique est une transformation d’une représentation perceptive, et c’est lors de cette transformation que les structures propres de la langue vont produire la forme finale en imposant leurs propres contraintes sémiotiques” (Lahlou 1998, p. 94).

  9. 9.

    See, for example, the name of the author’s research group at FUB: Comparative Differential and Personality Psychology.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the editor Jaan Valsiner for the invitation to write this trilogy and I also thank him, Jochen Fahrenberg and six anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous draft. The views expressed herein are mine and should not be attributed to any of the persons who provided commentaries. I gratefully acknowledge support from a research grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG (Grant Number UH249/1-1).

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Uher, J. Interpreting “Personality” Taxonomies: Why Previous Models Cannot Capture Individual-Specific Experiencing, Behaviour, Functioning and Development. Major Taxonomic Tasks Still Lay Ahead. Integr. psych. behav. 49, 600–655 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-014-9281-3

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Keywords

  • Personality functioning and development
  • Phenomenon-methodology matching
  • Between-individual and within-individual differences
  • Scientific quantification
  • Nomothetic and ideographic approaches
  • Standardised questionnaire methods
  • Traits
  • Big Five Model and Five Factor Model
  • Compositional structures and process structures
  • Personality model and taxonomy