Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Nomothetic Study of Personality

  • Khairul Anwar MastorEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_477-1



Nomothetic is derived from a Greek word “nomos” or law or general law. Thus, nomothetic study of personality is an approach to establish general principles or law about human personal attributes and characteristics which, through many and acceptable research work, lead to the formation of a theory.


During early period of studies on human personality, the focus was on understanding the nature and characteristics of people – with the assumption that people seem to possess personality basic templates or traits that are common, shared, and universal among different cultures globally. Nomothetic approach was introduced by Allport in 1937 to identify general pattern of personality across different groups of individuals. The approach is more of quantitative in nature because in order to explore universal law of personality, the method should be valid, reliable, and replicable. Statistics were used as the major analytical tool where significant results become the acceptable and valid evidence of generalization of specific aspects of personality and individual differences among groups of persons (Kline 2013). Correlational and experimental studies are among designs of study that are nomothetic in nature.

Along, but different, with nomothetic is idiographic approach. It opposes to the notion that human personality is universal and shared human properties. Instead, idiographic approach posits that humans are special individuals and possess specific personality templates and characteristics that are culture specific (Kenrick and Braver 1982). Case study design is among methods adopting the idiographic approach. This section, however, focuses on the nomothetic approach in personality.

Characteristics of Nomothetic Approach

A basic and fundamental aspect of nomothetic approach is that it is a between-person-centered analysis, not within-person which is more of idiographic approach (Grice 2007). It means that the information about the personality of individuals are generated from the accumulation of data and systematic analysis of aggregate statistics. Common tools in nomothetic research work are instruments or questionnaires that are tested to be valid and reliable prior to the administration of the instruments. These instruments are administered among the targeted samples, and the data, treated as a group data, are then subjected to the statistical analyses.

In normal practices, one important assumption for the analyses is the normality of data distribution. If the data is normally distributed, the parametric analytical approach would be employed. In contrast, the nonparametric analyses would be used for data not normally distributed. In either both approaches, the findings are generally based on the aggregate analyses across individuals – such as computing means, standard deviations, correlation, factor analysis, regression and other analyses. Lexical studies is one example of nomothetic research in which scores of adjective terms are aggregated and subjected to further analyses like exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. The number of the extracted factors is the targeted findings to be generalized and become the “law” of universal structure of personality traits across cultures. Lexical approach has been widely used in studying diverse cultures. Recent development in methods in personality psychology indicates the focus has gradually been shifted from between-individual to within-individual analyses (Beltz et al. 2016). New advances in analytical research tool such as multilevel modelling or hierarchical linear modelling analyses has been used to study intraindividual or within-person individual structure and dynamics processes besides continuing the existing between-person analyses.

Application of Nomothetic Approach

Nomothetic approach has penetrated and has been applied in many aspects of personality research (Cone 1986). It allows theories to be tested through systematic empirical observation, and this helps psychology to develop. In this section, three aspects of personality are selected to describe the application of nomothetic approach: personality trait structure and dimensions, assessment of personality traits, and predictive function of personality traits.

Personality Trait Structure and Dimensions

Nomothetic approach has been used to study the underlying personality structure and dimensions among different cultures around the globe. Two major types of research methods are commonly used in investigating personality structures: etic and emic. Etic approach refers to the use of concept and constructs derived from the culture of its origin and then imposes upon the targeted local cultures. A clear example of etic-nomothetic approach is the cross-cultural study of Big Five or five-factor model of personality (FFM) or Big Six HEXACO as the universal dimensions of personality (McCrae and Costa 1996; Ashton et al. 2014).

In the cultural study of Big Five, items of the NEO PIR were translated into the targeted language authorized and validated by the original authors of the instrument (Boudreaux 2016). Translation involved some modification of items to suit the targeted cultures. Exploratory factor analyses (EFA) were normally used to explore whether five factors were extracted. If five factors were retrievable and factor congruences were high in many cultures, then the existence of Big Five or FFM became stronger. In the Personality Profiles of Cultures (PPOC) project, both adult and adolescent studies supported the existence of Big Five factor of personality in more than 50 countries (McCrae and Terracciano 2005; Terracciano et al. 2005). This is based on generalization principle embedded in nomothetic approach.

Assessment of Personality

Nomothetic approach allows assessment of personality which involves measuring and assessing personality variations between individuals. Various psychometric methods are used to study the inter-individual variation such as mean scores comparison, personality profiling, group comparison, and other quantitative methods which are nomothetic in nature. Studies to compare gender, age, and cultural differences in personality traits have been widely conducted. Most of the studies use large number of samples so as to establish valid findings and generalization such as in the global studies on world views (Saucier et al. 2015). Such analyses are widely used in the analyses of personality reports, even though its assumption of homogeneity across people and time might be violated. On contrary, case studies, interviews, unstructured observation, and other qualitative methods are idiographic and person-specific in nature – not looking at culture-specific phenomenon. The idiographic approach focuses on an individual personality testing to conduct individual case studies and determine the scope of personality characteristics unique for each person (Weiner and Greene 2017).

Predictive Functions of Personality

Since personality traits normally considered as stable and enduring characteristics influence behavior, most studies conceptualized the personality traits as antecedents or independent variables. In other words, the nomothetic model attempts to find independent variables that account for the variations in a given phenomenon. Nomothetic assessments give evidence to the influence of individual personality on life experiences (Martin 2005; Roberts et al. 2007; Carducci 2009). Analysis of group similarity allows suggesting specific behavior patterns and reactions to different situations and social events. Using nomothetic findings, researchers not only suggest of behavior patterns but peculiar to particular personality traits, which allows predicting responses to various factors such as work productivity (Mount and Barrick 1998).


Although nomothetic approach is indispensable in studying personality, generally, it has three limitations. First, since the nomothetic approach mainly uses statistical tools to infer generalization, using the whole-person perspective ignores the individual level of personality. Thus, prediction is about groups and not individuals. Second, some subjective experience may not be tapped using standardized instrument in order to comprehend the personality beyond the traits. McAdams (2015) proposed three levels of personality constructs – level of dispositional traits, characteristic adaptation, and life stories – which tell a comprehensive picture of human personality. Third, the possible existence of confounding variable in nomothetic approach – not all variable can be included in the research – thus lacks ecological validity. Studying human personality is not merely scientific, but cultural factors may somehow influence the way one think, feel, and act. However, the challenge in nomothetic approach is to develop items that capture dimensions of universality among people of different cultural background.


In nomothetic approach, the aim of researchers is to identify common, shared personality traits whether they are imported or indigenously explored in which generalization principle is applied. Through research perspectives, however, both nomothetic and idiographic approaches are necessary, important, and mutually dependent in explaining the comprehensive, universal, and specific aspects of personality. The nomothetic approach is highly useful to create a general picture of personality characteristics in contrast to the idiographic specific group of people. Although nomothetic approach produces different school of thoughts on the personality structure and dimensions, it accumulates the body of knowledge about human nature. On the ground of the observed commonalities, nomothetic assessors formulate universal principles and rules for understanding personality. Though the nomothetic approach to personality assessment differs from the idiographic testing, they are typically used to complement one another. Indeed, each person is unique in terms of some traits and temperament, which make him or her distinct from the group. At the same time, each person shares a set of common personality characteristics and behavior styles as a member of the group (McKenna 2000).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universiti Kebangsaan MalaysiaBangiMalaysia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Czarna
    • 1
  1. 1.Jagiellonian UniversityKrakowPoland