Eysenck's Approach To Understanding Personality

Eysenck's Approach To Understanding Personality

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Before examining Eysencks approach to understanding personality, we need to define what personality is.

Dictionary definition (1) Personality – the sum of all the behavioral and mental characteristics by means of which an individual is recognised as being unique.

What is meant by personality? It is the inner quality of a person, the sum of their life experiences, the way the environment affects a persons’ outlook and a conscious choice. Personality is not better or worse than any other person’s. Scientifically, we all have a personality and each on is different. Definitions of personality conventionally excludes physical differences such as height or strength, although these obviously affect personality.

Eysencks personality model is a trait-based approach. A trait is a ‘characteristic feature or quality distinguishing a person or thing’. (2) Eysenck was using an approach, which was concerned about what personality is like, rather than speculating on ‘underlying psychological mechanisms’. (3)

Eysenck believed that personality is influenced by a combination of genetics, biological factors and environment. Day to day when we describe peoples personalities, we refer to terms such as kind, funny, outgoing and worriers etc. these are known as trait terms and Eysenck asserts that we have some of these traits from birth. Gordon Allport (1961) identifies no less than 18, 000 trait terms in literature, of which 4,500 are in common use. (4) It is suggested that many traits may simply be an aspect of a core attribute. For example, someone who appears nervous, defensive and introvert may be showing facets of a core problem; which is anxiety. If one starts to seek out these core attributes, it is said they are adopting a parsimonious approach. A parsimonious approach is one in which deserved facts are accounted for, ‘in terms of the smallest possible number of underlying variables’. (5) The parsimonious approach has been traced back to Hippocrates and Galen.

W.B. Wundt (1832-1920); a founding father of modern psychology; replaced the four basic personality types as put forward by Galen; namely: -

Melancholic     Sad and Depressed
Phlegmatic     Calm and Stable
Choleric     Irascible and Quick Tempered
Sanguine     Cheerful and Optimistic

With two of these traits being strong Vs weak and volatile Vs stable; individuals being placed at various points on this continuum.

Eysenck was one psychologist who developed Wundt’s ideas and doing so on a basis of strong research evidence. In common with Wundt, Eysenck recognised two main personality traits but felt they would be more aptly described by the terms Extroversion-Introversion (E-Dimension), Neuroticism-Stability (N-Dimension), later adding a third High Psychoticism-Low Psychoticism (P-Dimension).

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Understanding these terms is an essential requirement to understanding the personality theory that Eysenck posits.

Dictionary Definition (6)
Extroversion – psychol. A person predominately concerned with external things or objective consideration.
Introvert – pyschol. A person predominately concerned with his or her own feelings rather than external things.

Carl Jung(1933) the Swiss psychologist and one of the greatest explorers of the human mind defined an extrovert as a person who is orientated consciously towards the outer world of people and experiences. An extreme extrovert is a person that makes social contacts readily, is found of physical activity, likes change, variety of life, is easily emotionally aroused, materialistic, tough minded and free from social inhibitions.
An introvert is quite the opposite and far more inclined towards inner states of mind and social withdrawal.

Eysenck accepted Jung’s definition of these two traits, however, he had nothing else in common, dismissing Jung’s view of personality as being complex, elaborate and unscientific.

Dictionary definition (8)

Neuroticism – a personality trait characterised by instability, anxiety, aggression, etc.
A neurotic person is liable to excessive anxiety and stability indicates relative freedom from that.

Dictionary definition (9)

Psychoticism – any form of severe mental disorder in which the individuals contact with reality becomes highly distorted.

The younger dimension psychosis (mental illness) is not a literal measure of that, for example, if a person scores highly on Eysencks dimensions, it does not mean they are mentally ill but it does show that a person who is unfeeling, insensitive, solitary, troublesome, hostile, aggressive, very independent, a social misfit and a high sensation seeker who enjoys arousal or danger.

Few people come out at the very ends of Eysencks dimensions, e.g. an extreme extrovert tends mostly to be in the centre. However, four main personality types emerge.

The four descriptions represent extremes. Many people will fall in the mid point of either the E or N therefore will not fully fit any of the four categories.

As we grow older we become more introverted. Research suggests that stable introverts tend to do better in higher education because of their ability to sustain the long solitary hours of study upon which success often depends. Therefore, unstable extroverts tend to be most disadvantaged here because of their difficulty in adopting the necessary study habits and the tendency to seek company and social diversion as their anxiety mounts.

In business terms: -

EXTROVERTS generally make better sales people because they are good leaders and they are very decisive.
INTROVERTS generally make accountancy, scientific / medical research, journalism and IT. They are very single minded and determined.
NEUROTIC generally are better at performing arts
PSYCHOTICS are high in independence, they are ruthless, very original and creative, they are not a good family man / woman / loyal friend. If coupled with stability it is very advantageous, if coupled with instability it is disastrous.

Research into Eysencks dimensions comes in the form of questionnaires which merely ask people details about themselves, hobbies and preferences which can then be scored objectively. Therefore they share some similarities with the measurement techniques of other psychologists.

Eysenck presented large samples of people with questions about themselves, he then factor analysed their responses to find certain personality attributes which are found together. For example, a sociable person tends to be talkative, impulsive and lively these all arise from an underlying personality trait.

For the presentation, Katie produced a shortened version of Eysencks Personality Inventory (EPI), which she explained to the class. (See attached questionnaire)

There are a numerous questions each relating to the N and E score. Your response to each question dictates whether you get a mark or not. There are no right or wrong answers as the questionnaires are purely subjective.
One of the biggest problems with personality measurement is that we have to assume that people are being honest when they answer the questions about themselves. Form B on the questionnaire is not objective therefore when answering the questionnaire we try to see ourselves in the best possible light.

People who develop personality questionnaires have labelled the tendency ‘Faking Good’ (9) and several test publishers claim to have developed lie scales that are revealed when people are attempting to present themselves rather to perfectly.

However there may be a more fundamental issue – is a picture of an individuals personality actually obtainable? ‘People tend to see themselves differently from situation to situation’. (10)

Most people found completing the questionnaire problematic when asked to compare one thing to another. Most people felt that their answers depended on a number of factors, including their mood.

Some psychologists suggest that trait theories provide one perspective on personality, but that is just their viewpoint are not available They differ chiefly in the extent to which belief is seen to be largely the product of internal or external factors. Some psychologists believe that the above factors have a mutual effect on our beliefs and that the effect of the two are not available to separate analysis.

For example, a child who inherits a gene for extroversion, the extent to which a child becomes extroverted depends on his or her parents beliefs. The culture of the society in which the person is raised and their own life experiences.

Having examined Eysencks approach to personality, a question is raised, ‘Is personality malleable’?

Malleable suggests influencing or shaping5, so how does it fit in with Eysencks views on the roots of our personality? Eysenck asserts that some personality traits are present from birth, being influenced by a combination of environment, biological factors and genetics.

Eysenck suggested that a ‘substantial percentage of peoples scores on his dimensions to be a result of environment’.(11) Does that not suggest then that if an individual changes their environment thereby relieving for example, stress; which has resulted in depression; their outlook will become positive manifesting itself in positive personality changes of cheerfulness.

Traits that have been present from birth, as Eysenck asserts, can influence the way an individual has been conditioned and therefore influence the traits that people acquire from conditioning. Such conditioning is malleable, e.g. if a child raised in a one parent home, where the mother has been subjected to male domestic violence and has been reared to see men in a very negative role, then as the child grows up, this initial conditioning will affect how the child reacts to the male population. These negative behaviour and mental characteristics can be reconditioned by the introduction of positive images and experiences, resulting in positive personality traits.
An example of Eysenck using biological factors to explain personality is that he related to extroversion-introversion to cortical activation levels and thus need less stimulation to excite their brain and they take longer to calm down. Their preference for alone time and quiet prevents over stimulation, on the other hand, extroverts seek adventuresome and outgoing activity because their brain needs more stimulation to get excited.

However, introvert people can be introduced to social activities and extroverts can be made aware of social codes making personality, behavioural and mental characteristic changes possible.

With today’s advances in medical science, the introduction of modern medication, it is possible to see a dramatic, positive personality change in individuals who exhibit psychotic traits. It would appear then that personality is malleable, it can and has been shaped and influenced.


Buss (1989)

Collins English Dictionary, (1980),William Collins, Sons & Co. Ltd

Eysencks Model, Internet site, www.espsychopedia.net

Hogan.R. (1996), Personality Measurement and Employment Decisions, American Psychologist, 51:469-7

Holloway, (1984)

Pattern and Growth in Personality, Allport G.W. London: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston (1961)

Personality in the Workplace, David Fontana, Macmillan Press Ltd. (2000)

Potter & Wetherell, (1987)

Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, H.J. Eysenck, Penguin Books (1957)

Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press (1996)

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