Personality – just what is it our students lack?

In 1899 William James collected together a series of lectures he’d given to teachers over the years. If you’ve never read it, I’d recommend it; there are many debates within education related in his work which resonate over a century later. Not least of these echoes, perhaps, is the parallel between James’ belief in the importance of students developing virtuous habits and the current preoccupation with children’s personality traits.

“So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists.”

Talks to Teachers, William James. Chapter 8

Schools have been working to instil such ‘good habits’ since the time of William James. Every time a school gives a late detention or chases up an absence they are developing ‘time keeping’. I can think of no greater example of resilience than a child who suffers long-term illness, loses a parent or cares for a sibling yet continues their studies in school. Flexibility is exemplified in the secondary school timetable; where a child may go from the very different demands required for PE, maths, art and English in a single day. Problem-solving is one area where children in England appear to excel according to the OECD and the development of communication skills has been part of every subject curriculum throughout my career.

I’ve written before about some of the problems associated with programmes for developing ‘soft-skills’ within schools. Despite the bold claims, the success of previous attempts to explicitly manipulate the personality development of children through schools has been fairly lacklustre. In the time since I wrote that piece back in May of last year, interest in pupils’ personality and character has only increased.

An example of this current preoccupation with the personalities of pupils comes from a recent article in The New York Times, “Should Schools Teach Personality?” The article relates claims that certain personality characteristics are better predictors of academic success than intelligence, and that these characteristics can be taught.

Another example is the DFE this week, inviting schools to apply for awards for leadership in character education.

“The new Character Awards schools will help give schools and organisations the tools and support they need to ensure they develop well-rounded pupils ready to go on to an apprenticeship, university or the world of work.”

After some reflection, I think I only have three problems with the direction this bandwagon is heading:

  1. The concept and measurement of ‘personality’ is little better than astrology in providing useful information about individuals.
  2. The correlation between personality characteristics and outcome measures like job performance is rather more modest than some claims might have you believe.
  3. Personality differences – where they exist – may be a consequence rather than the cause of children from low SES backgrounds underachieving in school.

Can we measure ‘personality’?

“Personality tests …  produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory, changeable across time and place.”

The Cult of Personality, Annie Murphy Paul

We ought to start with some sort of definition: What is personality? A brief description might be that personality is the characteristic patterns of thoughts and behaviours (including emotional responses) that are consistent within an individual across time and don’t depend upon the situation.

I make my students laugh and occasionally irritate other psychologists by arguing that personality measures are little better than horoscopes (though I’m gratified to see that I’m not alone in this position).

It can be argued that descriptions produced by personality tests are more focused on indulging our obsessive interest in our ‘selves’ than providing any predictive or useful knowledge about that ‘self’. Human behaviour is so complicated and contingent, that in order to find invariant traits, human behaviour is rarefied to such a level of abstraction that those few traits which might be considered invariant provide almost no insight into an individual.

I think it’s slightly ironic that businesses which demand ‘highly developed soft-skills’ like team working, time management, resilience, flexibility, problem-solving and communication skills and rate character as the most important factor when recruiting school or college leavers are potentially forming these priorities on the basis of imprecise concepts and questionable measures of personality.

A classic example would be the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – the most frequently used test of personality used in businesses across the world:

“Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the world’s most popular psychometric test, which is based on Jung’s theory of personality types. Over two million are administered every year.”

Have we all been duped by the Myers-Briggs test?

Firstly, perhaps because it uses forced choice questions (e.g. Do you prefer to arrange dates, parties, etc., well in advance – or – be free to do whatever looks like fun when the time comes?) there are enormous problems with the test-retest reliability of the measure (a big problem if you’re claiming to measure stable features of personality).

“One problem is that it displays what statisticians call low “test-retest reliability.” So if you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category compared to the first time you took the test.”

Have we all been duped by the Myers-Briggs test?

But perhaps more importantly, it provides no valid predictive insight into an individual’s behaviour or future performance. Stromberg (2014) summarises the problem nicely:

“This isn’t a test designed to accurately categorize people, but a test designed to make them feel happy after taking it. This is one of the reasons why it’s persisted for so many years in the corporate world, despite being disregarded by psychologists.”

Those in business and politics calling for more ‘character education’ would do well to look outside those domains when forming their opinions. Whilst it seems intuitive and ‘common-sense’ for schools to seek to inculcate those personality characteristics which employers value, there are serious issues in the way these characteristics are measured – and thus inevitable flaws in the claims of educational institutions purporting to have developed these characteristics in children.

Does personality predict job success?

A construct of personality related to the MBTI is the ‘Big Five’ or ‘OCEAN’ (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism). This construct receives more attention within psychology and is widely perceived to be more valid (despite the fact that it shares 4 dimensions with the MBTI – which lacks a measure of neuroticism).

Given the interest business has in schools developing pupils’ personality traits, to what extent does a person’s scores on measures of the ‘Big Five’ correlate with job performance?

We might expect all of them to influence job performance to an extent, but perhaps the one related strongest to the concepts of ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ would be Conscientiousness (e.g. persistent, hard-working, responsible). Indeed, it’s hard to think of a job where the traits associated with Conscientiousness might not be desirable!

Surprisingly though, the relationship between personality and job performance seems pretty weak. In a meta-analysis by Barrick and Mount (1991) they found that the OCEAN characteristics only correlated modestly with job performance. The only dimension of personality which correlated to job performance to any consistent degree was (unsurprisingly) conscientiousness (with average Rho scores from 0.20 to 0.23). Interestingly, they relate findings that suggest that Conscientiousness and cognitive ability are only weakly linked – presumably the basis for claims that personality characteristics may be more important than academic ability to potential employers.

However, I wonder if this correlation hides the genuine cause behind the association of conscientious character and job performance. Perhaps it is not a ‘conscientiousness trait’ that causes people to work harder and more responsibly at work – but rather job satisfaction which drives the individual to work more conscientiously. There have certainly been plenty of studies which have looked at the relationship between job satisfaction and job performance: e.g here, here and here

Of course, researchers have also wondered whether it’s our personalities that also influence our degree of job satisfaction.

Again, however, the causal link between personality and job satisfaction might easily be argued to be the other way around: It seems plausible that people with high job satisfaction are less anxious, more out-going and harder-working than those who find their jobs unfulfilling, unrewarding or unbearably stressful.

Of course, creating work which fosters high levels of job satisfaction is much harder and probably more expensive than simply selecting recruits on the basis of questionnaires into their personality – is this one reason employers are so interested in the personality characteristics of school leavers?

Does personality cause underachievement in kids from low SES backgrounds?

One reason for this current obsession with ‘character’ is that socio-economic deprivation is associated with poor academic outcomes. The claim takes the implicit form that pupils without socio-economic advantage lack the ‘character’ it takes to succeed academically. Thus, schools need to teach them this ‘character’ in order for them to overcome their socio-economic disadvantages.

However, is it really the case that socio-economically deprived children lack the personality traits to succeed in school?

Well, there’s some evidence to suggest that deprivation is associated with higher levels of neuroticism and psychoticism – as well as lower levels of mental wellbeing.

Though, it would seem odd to suggest that the cause of an individual’s deprivation was their higher levels of negative personality traits; or that by somehow ‘treating’ their personality they would overcome their deprivation. It seems at least plausible to argue that the experience of deprivation would cause people to respond by becoming more anxious or less caring about the feelings of others or their own safety.

In Sam Freedman’s recent blog article, he points to evidence that suggests ‘non-cognitive’ factors aren’t the problem in schools that politicians and business leaders seem to believe:

“And the trends are very clear. Ironically, given the recent obsession with “character building” amongst policymakers, there have been big improvements in a range of “non-cognitive” measures. Reported bullying has fallen; the percentage who claim to have tried alcohol has plummeted; aspiration has increased – higher percentages say they are likely to go to university; and relationships with parents seem to be a lot stronger too.”

I can’t help but wonder whether the emphasis upon personality characteristics is simply an example of the fundamental attribution error in action.

“The answer returns us to the biased brain, and a mental flaw known as the fundamental attribution error. It turns out that when we evaluate the behavior of others we naturally overemphasize the role of personality – we assume people are always aggressive or always dishonest or always sarcastic – and undervalue the role of context and the pervasive influence of situations.”

The Personality Paradox

It appeals to this bias to attribute a student’s success or failure to their personality characteristics rather than to understand the situational factors which may have facilitated that success or failure.

A student’s personality (or the school that ‘failed’ to instil that trait) could become an easy scapegoat compared to asking the harder questions about the socio-economic factors and societal values which undermine student success in school or work (certainly harder to solve). We live in a society where social inequity appears to have been growing over the years and shows no sign of reversal (or political will to reverse it).

A simple analogy for teachers is this: Imagine as a result of the surveys into teaching workload there was a suggestion that teachers ‘lacked resilience’ (a perceived deficit in character) and needed some sort of personality retraining to help them cope with job demands – rather than seeking to reduce workload (the situational cause of the problem).

I suspect teachers would be rather less enthusiastic about this suggestion than many appear to be for ‘resilience’, ‘grit’ or ‘growth mindset’ training for children coming from economically deprived backgrounds.

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12 Responses to Personality – just what is it our students lack?

  1. mrlock says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. ijstock says:

    The problem with the character issue in education is not that it is not a laudable aim, but the belief that it can be actively taught. There are numerous perverse problems with this, not least the fact that people, even children, tend not to like being taught such things, even assuming that it is possible to devise focused and productive lessons to do so.

    In fact, such qualities are an excellent example of the oblique aims that education can have, and we need to accept that consciously trying to teach these things will only ever fail. The belief otherwise is a product, I believe of the bean-counting that neglected the need for personal development in favour of exam grades in the first place.

    It also assumes , as you imply, that we can even agree on which qualities we want to encourage. Much current culture, for example, seems to favour extrovert qualities, while overlooking the very effective and desirable qualities that come with a degree of introversion.

    A minefield indeed.


  3. Glenyan says:

    That first link = page not found


  4. Pingback: Can we teach students effective ‘revision skills’? | Evidence into practice

  5. D.Gunn says:

    I read this after the coaching session on praise you ran last week and started thinking out how praise could bring out some of the personality traits that may be most beneficial.

    For students who are suited to a career in sport, confidence and to some degree even posture and demeanor could have an effect on performance. What do you make of this?

    Can praise be used to encourage students to believe they are better than they actually are, thus improving performance.

    As a PE teacher I feel the Ali quote sums me up perfectly.


  6. Thanks for a thought provoking post – I’m with you on the concern that teaching character might be rooted in a form of the fundamental attribution error.

    I’ve been working with some students from deprived parts of rural kent recently – to suggest that their lack of progress is essentially produced by some kind of character/volitional deficit perhaps distracts from the more complex socioeconomic issues in the area. I think there’s an over-emphasis on individual agency, and individualised explanations for trends which are clearly rooted in something rather more systemic – any thoughts on how to shift the conversation to these things?!


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