Search about personality theories on the Internet, and more often than not, you’ll find what we call ‘Barnum statements.’ Carefully constructed and perfectly camouflaged statements that are aimed at fooling people into believing that the personality description depicts their lifestyle when, in reality, it applies to 80-85 percent of the people reading them. I am leaving room for psychopaths and sociopaths.
Jokes aside, astrology and its pseudo-scientific extension, i.e., common personality type theories, are what I call Tautologies. This means the assumptions are valid for almost everyone who reads or hears them. Consider a popular Barnum statement: “If your birth month is July, you are generally happy but have some tension playing in the back of your mind always.” Every time I read a similar statement, I can’t stop laughing. First of all, who in this world is not ‘generally’ happy? Secondly, who doesn’t have a minor setback in life that they want to get rid of and hence is continuously in their thought process? Almost everyone can relate to the statement, and that’s why it’s so ingenious.
The descriptions of personality types and their minor subsets, i.e., personality traits, are designed to cater to almost every average person that might come across them. The motive: to fool gullible and impressionable minds into believing that just because the initial description fits them, it means that the person giving the theory can also predict what the future holds. Isn’t that what the primary motive of Astrology is? Trying to guess what might or might not happen to a person based on what their past and present.
For instance, a person might comment that you are too gullible and trust people too easily, and hence you should put your money in a trust where you can’t reach it. He might even go further to suggest his own investment plan, proving just how ironical this whole business of predicting someone’s future is. In my opinion, someone who claims to know you intimately and capable of predicting your future is either mad or trying to loot you. As simple as that.
However, does this mean that all personality theories are either bogus or modernized versions of astrology? Psychology gives enough viability and weight to personality theories and complex personality theory, and several experiments have been performed to prove that atleast the fundamental doctrines of personality types and traits hold weight. Needless to say, a lot of time and money has been spent on researching theories of personality and how they can be used to understand how the human brain works.
So why am I yammering about the endless loopholes of these theories? It’s because the real personality theories or rather the correct ones never see the light of day simply because they are remolded to a standardized form. This standardized form is created so that these hard to understand and open-ended hypotheses can make socially relatable, easily understandable, and, hence popular. The end products are the plethora of tests and quizzes you see on Facebook, Twitter, and many other social media platforms. You know the ones that claim to predict your personality type after you answer just five questions. I mean, no one can predict without a doubt how one will behave in a particular situation even if he has been with him all his life let alone based on five answers. It is dumb to claim that and even dumber to believe that.
So what are these so-called real personality theories and complex personalities? See, unlike how its portrayed on social media, a personality trait simply means how an individual might behave in a given scenario. “Might” is the keyword here. A personality theory is based on the assumption that a person is most likely to act a particular way in certain circumstances depending on factors like his surroundings, internal thought process, his upbringing, and several other immeasurable ones. For every person, these elements are different, and hence the personality type is also different.
Still, for the sake of simplicity, these traits can be put under a couple of standard umbrellas depending upon the nature of the set reaction to a given stimulus. For instance, an introvert personality, if given a choice, would prefer to be by himself instead of going out and interacting with other people. However, that is not to say that every time a person is presented with the same situation, he’ll behave in the same way. You may ask, how is this a theory then? Afterall a scientific method aims at producing the same result every time a cause is repeated in the same manner.
This is the fundamental difference that people fail to decipher between basic sciences like physics and biological sciences like psychology. See, psychology is a science, but you can’t form a rigid theory about its facets because every person’s brain is complex, their stories different, their temperaments different, and hence how they behave in similar situations poles apart. Every personality is a complex personality. Even twins raised in the same house with the same parents and essentially identical surroundings behave in entirely unalike ways. That is why psychological theories deal with probabilities and not absolute terms.
Consequently, if a person is said to have an extroverted personality, it means that under normal circumstances, there is a high probability that he would strike up conversations with random people and would be comfortable around strangers. That doesn’t mean, however, that if he is arrested, he would be comfortable around random criminals in the jail cell. That is why the term ‘normal circumstances’ is so important. The personality traits and hence the probable reactions of a person change drastically when he is under extreme circumstances. The threat of death or an illness triggers the basic survival mechanism in us, and almost every person behaves similarly under a dire threat. At that time, one thinks less like a human being and more like an animal who just wants to stay alive and healthy. In these extreme situations, complex behavioral theories don’t hold water. For all other
Again I have to remind you that these predictions have a high probability, but that doesn’t mean they will indeed happen. An emotional person might not be invested enough in you to take you seriously, and an angry person might be in a good mood and let your lousy behavior slide. The human brain and hence human behavior is a dynamic phenomenon. Our reactions are continually changing according to the circumstances we are in and how we choose to approach them. But because we humans are creatures of habit, we consciously or unconsciously form pre-decided responses to recognizable circumstances over the years so that we don’t have to think much about things that we encounter quite often. This slowly builds up our personality and our day to day behavior, which, if studied, can be used to predict how we might behave in a particular situation.
That is what personality theories do. They help us to study and analyze these habitual behaviors and use them to our suiting. We can use them in our daily life to interact with people around us, we can use them to manipulate people into doing our bidding, or use them to study complex personalities. We can also utilize them to understand and cure psychological ailments like depression and anxiety. There is so much we can do and achieve with this branch of psychology. Only if we pay attention.