In a previous post, I presented arguments for whether traits do exist at all. The leading proponent of this is the likes of Bob Hogan and the idea that personality tests assess attributes one ascribes to oneself. In a conversation on this topic with an academic from New Zealand, I discussed the issue which he in turn discussed in relation to cause and effect:

“Neuroticism needs to be x and y, because people tend to behave in a certain way across time and situations. What we need is not alchemy but Mendeleev’s period of elements. We need to know what is causing the various consistencies that we see. Psychometrics is modeling answers to statements and there seems to be some validity with this. However, we should not assume that the underlying construct (true score) has any meaning. The only way forward are genetic and neuroscience studies”.

I agree entirely with both the core question implied (cause) and the limitation of psychometrics to establish cause. This is a large part of the basis for arguing for a systems-based approach to the way we approach any question that we have as I/O psychologists.

The larger societal question that I see is what happens once we establish cause. Society, and psychology, struggles enough with any degree of determinism with cognitive ability. If personality was to be openly discussed in the same way, the ramifications would be huge, not only for I/O but especially for criminal psychology. In this regard whether we establish cause or not, it becomes overridden by what people want, or rather are prepared, to believe. This brings me back to the question of the future of the science of personality. If the future is genetics and neuroscience, as I agree it must be, than that is going to have to be coupled with one heck of an education campaign to get society ready for what the results may be.

The idea of the true self (which Hogan is bringing to the fore in the debate on personality tools) seems fundamental to our area and can perhaps best be described by paraphrasing that movie line from A Few Good Men: “The self. You want the self? You can’t handle the self!”