No – there is no “healthier personality”

28.11.2018

A team of eight researchers from the US and Germany claim to have identified a set of positions on personality traits that they name a “healthy personality profile”.

I am going to argue that there is no such thing as a generally healthier personality profile, and that the researcher have misunderstood the underlying premises for their research. In this case, even though they have produces a seemingly impressive body of research, the findings are fundamentally flawed precisely because the underlying premises are poorly understood. All their presumed findings are worse than useless because at face value they lead us to misunderstand personality and how it affects us and our lives.

Please review the essence of this article yourself and think about it before you read on. You find a preprint here

First, let’s look at the objective of this research: “to identify a healthy personality profile”. Knowing what we do about personality, that our position on traits is largely unchanged over long periods of time, such a fixed healthy profile would imply that we can sort people into more or less healthy personalities. Those that fail to meet the criteria of the “healthy profile” are by inference “unhealthy”. Please think carefully about what that means. I wonder if the researchers did.

Second, what is the underlying method the researchers use to “prove” that a given profile is “unhealthy”? First, they ask 137 scholars in the field of trait psychology, 77 scholars in the field of positive psychology, and two groups of altogether 516 undergraduate students to define what positions on personality they consider more healthy. Second, over 3000 people were asked to rate themselves on 30 facets within the five domains of personality using NEO PI-R. They were also asked to assess themselves on pre-determined criteria indicating “healthy personality”; subjective well-being, positive adjustment, self-control, aggression, narcissism, psychopathy. The first four belong in the normal personality domain, the latter two are clinical. This yields two grave problems:

  • Self-descriptions on the first four criteria belong to the same underlying meaning as the proposed “healthy profile”, i.e. they measure the same underlying constructs.

  • The two clinical criteria do not belong in an assessment of normal personality, the populations do not intersect, so results on these self-assessments cannot be compared to self-assessments in the normal personality space.

It is scary that so many researchers in this field have been involved in this study, and yet the agenda and methods used in this study have been maintained. If we are to state that we rely on research findings to guide us in the right direction as we develop our understanding of personality psychology, how are we to do that if a study like this is published and given credibility? I urge those with better knowledge and understanding in the field to speak up.