Personality psychology is dominated by dimensional models of personality (Funder, 2019). There is a good reason for this. Most personality characteristics vary along a continuum like height rather than being categorical like eye color. Thus, a system of personality types requires some arbitrary decisions about a cutoff point. For example, a taxonomy of body types could do a median split on height and weight to assign people to the tall-heavy or the tall-light type.
The notion that there are only three personality types is puzzling. The dominant framework in personality psychology is the Big Five model that conceptualizes personality traits as five independent continuous dimensions. If we were to create personality types by splitting each dimension at the median, it would create 32 personality types, where individuals are either above or below the median on neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. if these five dimensions were perfectly independent of each other, we would see that individuals are equally likely to be assigned to one of the 32 types. There is no obvious way to reduce these 32 types to just 3.
Figure 1. small caps = below median, capitals = above mean
So, how did Robins et al. (1996) come to the conclusion that there are only three personality types? The data were Q-sorts. A Q-sort is similar to personality ratings on a series of attributes. The main difference is that the sorting task imposes a constraint on the scores that can be given to an individual. As a result, all individuals have the same overall mean across items. That is, nobody could be above average on all attributes. These kind of data are known as ipsative data. An alternative way to obtain ipsative data would be to subtract the overall mean of ratings from individual ratings. Although the distinction between ipsative and non-ipsative data is technically important, it has no implications for the broader understanding of Robins et al.’s work. The study could also have used ratings.
Robins et al. then performed a factor analysis. However, this factor analysis is different from a typical factor analysis that relies on correlations among items. Rather, the data matrix is transposed and the factor analysis is run on participants. With N = 300, there are three hundred variables and factor analysis is used to reduce this set of variables to a smaller set of factors, while minimizing the loss of information.
Everybody knows that the number of factors in a factor analysis is arbitrary and that a smaller number of factors implies a loss of information.
“Empirical research on personality typologies has been hampered by the lack of clear criteria for determining the number of types in a given sample. Thus, the costs and benefits of having a large number of types must be weighed against those of having relatively few types” (Robins et al., 1996).
The authors do not report Eigenvalues or other indicators of how much variance their three factor solution explained.
The three types are described in terms of the most and least descriptive items. Type 1 can be identified by high conscientiousness (“He is determined in what he does”), high extraversion (“He is energetic and full of life”), low neuroticism (reversed: “When he is under stress, he gives up and backs off”), high agreeableness (“He is open and straightforward”), and high openness (“He has a way with words”). In short, Type 1 is everybody’s dream child; a little Superman in the making.
Type 2 is characterized by high neuroticism (“He gets nervous in uncertain situations”), introversion (reversed: “He tries to be the center of attention”), low openness (reversed: he has a way with words,” but high agreeableness (“He is considerate and thoughtful of other people” ). Conscientiousness doesn’t define this type one way or the other.
Type 3 is characterized by low neuroticism (rerversed: “He is calm and relaxed; easy going”), high extraversion (“He tries to be the center of attention”), low conscientiousness (reversed: He plans things ahead; he thinks before he does something) and low agreeableness (He is stubborn”).
The main problem with this approach is that these personality profiles are not types. Take Profile 1 for example. While some participants’ profile correlated highly positively with Profile 1, some participants profile correlates highly negatively with Profile 1. What personality type are they? We might say that they are the opposite of Superman, but that would imply that we need another personality type for the Anti-Supermans. The problem doesn’t end here. As there are three profiles, each individual is identified by their correlations with all three profiles. Thus, we end up with eight different types depending on whether the correlation with the three profiles are positive or negative.
In short, profiles are not types. Thus, the claim that there are only three personality types is fundamentally flawed because the authors confused profiles with types. Even the claim that there are only 8 types would rest on the arbitrary choice of extracting only three factors. Four factors would have produced 16 types and five factors would have produced 32 types, just as the Big Five model predicted.
Asendorph et al. (2001) also found three profiles that they considered to be similar to those found by Robins et al. (1996). Moreover, they examined profiles in a sample of adult with a Big Five questionnaire (i.e., the NEO-FFI). Importantly, Asendorpf et al. (2001) use better terminology and refer to profiles as prototypes rather than types.
The notion of a prototype is that there are no clear defining features that determine class membership. For example, on average mammals are heavier than birds. So we can distinguish birds and mammals by their prototypical weight (how close their weight is to the average weight of a bird or mammal) rather than on the basis of a defining feature (lays eggs, has a uterus). Figure 2 shows the prototypical Big Five profile for the three groups of participants, when participants were assigned to three groups.
The problem is once more that the grouping into three groups is arbitrary. Clearly there are individuals with high scores on agreeableness and on openness, but this variation in personality was not used to create the three groups. Based on this figure, groupings are based on low N and high C, high N and low E, and low C. It is not clear what we should do with individuals who do not match any of these prototypical profiles. What type are individuals who are high in N and high in C?
In sum, a closer inspection of studies of personality types suggests that these studies failed to address the question. Searching for prototypical item-profiles is not the same thing as searching for personality types. In addition, the question may not be a good question. If personality attributes vary mostly quantitatively and if the number of personality traits is large, the number of personality types is infinite. Every individual is unique.
Are Some Personality Types More Common Than Others?
As noted above, the number of personality types that are theoretically possible is determined by the number of attributes and the levels of each attribute. If we describe personality with the Big Five and limit the levels to being above or below the median, we have 32 theoretical patterns. However, this does not mean that we actually observe all patterns. Maybe some types never occur or are at least rare. The absence of some personality types could provide some interesting insights into the structure of personality. For example, high conscientiousness might suppress neuroticism and we would see very few individuals who are high in C and low in N (Digman, 1997). However, when C is low, we could see equal numbers of individuals with high N and low N because conscientiousness only inhibits high N, while low conscientiousness does not lead to high N. It is impossible to examine such patterns with bivariate correlations (Feger, 1988).
A simple way to examine this question is to count the frequencies of personality traits (Anusic & Schimmack, unpublished manuscript that was killed in peer-review). Here, I present the results of this analysis based on Sam Gosling’s large internet survey with millions of visitors who completed the BFI (John, Naumann, & Soto, 2008).
Figure 3 simply shows the relative frequencies of the 32 personality types.
Figure 4 shows the results only for US residents. The results are very similar to those for the total sample.
The most notable finding is that the types nEOAC and Neoac are more frequent than all other types. These types are evaluatively positive or negative. However, it is important to realize that these types are not real personality types. Other research has demonstrated that the evaluative dimension in self-ratings of personality is mostly a rating or a perception bias (Anusic et al., 2009). Thus, individuals with a nEOAC profile do not have a better personality. Whether they simply rate themselves (other-deception) or actually see themselves (self-deception) as better than they are is currently unknown.
The next two types with above average frequency are nEoAC and NeOac. A simple explanation for this pattern is that openness is not highly evaluative and so some people will not inflate their openness scores, while they are still responding in a desirable way on the other four traits.
The third complementary pair are the neoAC and the NEOac types. This pattern can also be explained with rating biases because some people do not consider openness and extraversion desirable; so they will only show bias on neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness. These people were called “Saints” by Paulhus and John (1998).
In short, one plausible explanation of the results is that all 32 personality types that can be created by combining high and low scores on the Big Five exists. Some types are more frequent than others, but at least some of this variation is explained by rating biases rather than by actual differences in personality.
The main contribution of this new look at personality types is to clarify some confusion about the notion of personality types. Previous researchers used the term types for prototypical personality profiles. This is unfortunate because it led to the misleading impression that there are only three personality types. You are either resilient, over-controlled, or under-controlled. In fact, even three profiles create more than three types. Moreover, the profiles are based on exploratory factor analyses of personality ratings and it is not clear why there are only three profiles. Big Five theory would predict five profiles where each profile is defined by items belonging to one of the Big Five factors. It is not clear why profile analyses yielded only three factors. One explanation could be that the item set did not capture some personality dimensions. For example, Robins et al.’s (1996) Q-sort did not seem to include many openness items.
Based on Big Five theory, one would expect 32 personality types that are about equally frequent. An analysis of a large data set showed that all 32 types exists, which is consistent with the idea that the Big Five are fairly independent dimensions that can occur in any combination. However, some types were more frequent than others. The most frequent combination was either desirable (nEOAC) or undesirable (Neoac). This finding is consistent with previous evidence that personality ratings are influenced by a general evaluative bias (Anusic et al., 2009). Additional types with higher frequencies can be attributed to variations in desirability. Openness and extraversion are not as desirable, on average, as low neuroticism and high agreeableness and conscientiousness. Thus, the patterns nEoAC and neoAC may also reflect desirability rather than actual personality structure. Multi-method studies or low evaluative items would be needed to examine this question.
Personality psychologists are frustrated that they have discovered the Big Five factors and created a scientific model of personality, but in applied settings the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) dominates personality assessment (Funder, 2019).
One possible reason is that the MBTI provides simple information about personality by classifying individuals into 16 types. These 16 types are defined by being high or low on four dimensions.
There is no reason, why personality psychologists could not provide simplified feedback about personality using a median split on the Big Five and assigning individuals to the 32 types that can be created by the Big Five factors. For example, I would be the NEOac type. Instead of using small caps and capitals, one could also use letters for both poles of the dimension, neurotic (N) vs. stable (S), extraverted (E) vs. introverted (I), variable (V) versus regular (R), agreeable (A) vs. dominant (D), and conscientious (C) vs. laid back (L). This would make me an NEVDL type. My son would be an SIRAC.
I see no reason why individuals would prefer Myer-Briggs types over Big Five types, given that the Big Five types are based on a well-established scientific theory. I believe the main problem in giving individuals feedback with Big Five scores is that many people do not think in terms of dimensions.
The main problem might be that we are assigning individuals to types even when their scores are close to the median and their classification is arbitrary. For example, I am not very high on E or low on C and it is not clear whether I am really an NEVDL or an NIVDC type. One possibility would be to use only scores that are one standard deviation above or below then mean or median. This would make me an N-VD- type.
To conclude, research on personality types has not made much progress for a good reason. The number of personality types depends on the number of attributes that are being considered and it is no longer an empirical question which types exists. With fairly independent dimensions all types exist and the number of types increases exponentially with the number of attributes. The Big Five are widely considered the optimal trade-off between accuracy and complexity. Thus, they provide an appealing basis for the creation of personality type and a viable alternative to the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator.
If you want to know what type you are, you can take the BFI online ( https://www.outofservice.com/bigfive/ ). It provides feedback about your personality in terms of percentiles. To create your personality type, you only have to convert the percentiles into letters.
Negative Emotionality P < 50 = S P > 50 = N
Extraversion P < 50 = I P > 50 = E
Open-Mindedness P < 50 = R P > 50 = V
Agreeableness P < 50 = D P > 50 = A
Conscientiousness P < 50 = L P > 50 = C
However, keep in mind that your ratings and those of the comparison group are influenced by desirability.
If you are a NIRDL, you may have a bias to rate yourself as less desirable than you actually are
If you are an SEVAC, you may have a tendency to overrate your desirability.