The psychological research on differences among individuals has conventionally drawn upon the experimental, psychometric and clinical approaches. According to Butt (2004), the trait theory draws upon the experimental approach. Recently, a phenomenological approach has been adapted to explain individual differences using the personal construct theory, which deploys a contrasting approach to the trait theory and draws upon phenomenology. The goal of this paper to explain and valuate Butt’s (2012, p. 53) assertion that, “the traits we think we find in others represents our personal construction of them.” It is evident from the statement that Butt supports the personal construct theory. This paper commences by providing a description of the personal construct theory and the trait theory and pointing out the key differences between the perspectives. The paper also evaluates the weaknesses and strengths of the two contrasting theories. Lastly, the two theories are discussed with regard to the agency-structure dualism, which is the interrogative theme adopted in this paper. The agency-structure dualism is concerned primarily with the ability of an entity to change, and whether this ability to change can be attributed to the social-biological or personal agency structures.
According to Butt (2004), the trait theory was established by Rachman and Eysenck in 1965 and draws upon the mainstream and experimental perspective to study individual differences. The primary aim of the trait theory is to create general principles that can be used to elucidate people’s differential behavior in different circumstances. The trait theory uses questionnaires, particularly the Eysenck’s Personality Inventory (EPI), as a tool to generate psychometric inventories in order to measure personality traits. Butt (2004) points out that the trait theory is a scientific approach, and can be used to predict how a given individual is likely to behave in a particular circumstance. A number of trait theorists such as Kant have argued that personality traits are somewhat categorical in the sense that every person could be placed in a single category and that no individual can overlap between two or more trait categories. Nevertheless, Eysenck’s utilization of the criterion analysis disregards the categorization of traits and argued that a continuum of traits is possible. Eysenck’s understanding of traits was that people’s traits could be evaluated using two continuums, that is, neuroticism-stability and extraversion-introversion. The trait theory suggests that the score of an individual on these continuums can facilitate the prediction of how they are likely to behave in a given situation.
Trait theorists are of the opinion that traits are determined by biological factors and can be inherited genetically. For example, Eysenck researched soldiers placed in a battle and came up with the two disparate personality dimensions (neuroticism and extroversion). Eysenck was of the view that these personality dimensions were the behavioral expressions with respect to the biologically-based temperament differences (Butt 2004). In this regard, traits are perceived to be somewhat fairly stable differences among people and are less likely to change in the due course. Eysenck pointed out that the degree of neuroticism and extroversion as exhibited by people can be attributed to the differences in terms of autonomic and cortical arousal.
The personal construct theory takes a contrasting approach to understanding individual differences. According to Butt (2004), the personal construct theory draws upon the concept of phenomenology; as a result, it stresses on how different people perceive the same thing differently. The primary objective of the personal construct theory is to elucidate the lived experience, how individuals derive their meanings, and the differential worldviews of different people. Butt (2007) points out that this approach perceives people are making sense of their world through their own development of personal constructions, which are shaped by their own individual experiences. The personal construct theory does emphasize on the scores that an individual attains on the personality dimensions; rather, the emphasis of this perspective is on acknowledging the significance of differential world views.
In contrast with the trait theorists’ view that traits are somewhat fixed, the personal construct theory asserts that traits are flexible, which implies that the personal constructs are subject to change, albeit not easily (Graham 2009). When developing the personal construct theory, Kelley was of the view that people invest a lot in making their personal constructions owing to the fact that it is the human nature to resist change, making it relatively difficult for people to adjust their personal constructions. Kelly came up with the repertory grid in order to facilitate the assessment of personal constructions and pointed out that a lot of interpretation takes place without the realization of the individual; however, the repertory grid serves as an instrument that can help people communicate and evaluate individual meanings, which are normally out of their reach sometimes. A practical example of the application of the personal construct theory is the teaching and learning processes in the school context. According to Graham (2009), schools must recognize that the children have their own personal constructs; therefore, schools ought to utilize these personal constructs in order to foster personal development. In order for this approach to learning and teaching to be successful, it is imperative for children to be knowledgeable of their own personal constructs, which make the repertory grid developed by Kelly an important instrument in this context. The underlying argument is that learning is effective when children have the capability of defining their own meanings.
Butt (2004) shows that the trait theory has been in existence for at least a century and has received substantial critique on various accounts. The personal construct theory has not received substantial scrutiny when compared to the trait theory; therefore, there is the possibility that its weaknesses are yet to be explored comprehensively. According to Butt (2004), the trait theory has been comprehensively understood because of the theory is somewhat similar regarding to how individuals assess their daily lives. Moreover, the measurement instruments such as the Eysenck Personality Inventory provide objective measures regarding personality, which provides a framework through which comparisons can be undertaken with large samples of people. Butt (2004) points out that the findings reported by these studies have been of great significance to governments and campaign organizations seeking to identify the general trends. Despite the fact that the trait theory has been criticized a lot, the aspect of categorizing traits can be helpful in particular situations; for instance, in studying the attitudes towards smoking with the main aim of promoting behavioral change.
There are a number of weaknesses of the trait theory highlighted by Graham (2009). First, the trait theory only focuses on the identifying the behavioral trends and fails to explain behavior. Graham (2009) points out that measuring traits is equivalent to the re-description of behaviors, which is of less significance. Nevertheless, the trait theory is accurate to some extent because people often react differently when placed in the same environment, and often exhibit consistency in various situations. However, Graham (2009) asserts that there is scanty evidence to affirm the consistency in individual traits suggested by Eysenck. Graham (2009) pointed out that there is sufficient empirical evidence pointing out that people do change their reactions in accordance with experience. Moreover, Graham (2009) suggests that, instead of waiting to measure traits psychometrically, there are likely to be constructed by the individual rating the traits. Basing on this assertion, Graham (2009) maintained that personality traits are a reflection of the worldview, the culture and society of the rater, and not anything relating to the personality of the person being assessed.
A number of power issues exist with regard to the trait theory, which is normal for any theory that draws upon the experimental approach. Butt (2004) argues that a significant amount of power is invested in the individual measuring and those individuals who deploy these measurements in practice. A case in point is the creation of hierarchies in learning institutions. In addition, the trait theory has been abused by experts who embark on judging individuals against the norms. Despite the fact that the trait theory draws its strength from objectivity, it is also a point of weakness. Butt (2004) asserts that objective knowledge is normally stripped from the situation, which implies that there is no acknowledgement of the either the power of the society or the power of the rater/experimenter. In addition, the principles outlined in the trait theory do not provide for the possibility of change because the traits are subject to biological determinants, which imply that the trait theory cannot be deployed to facilitate change. In the wake of this, Graham (2009) asserts that the trait theory is a less practical methodology when compared to the personal construct theory. Another significant limitation of the trait theory is that correlation alone cannot be used as an inference for causation. There is a probability that the social structures are likely to influence a person’s biology; however, the trait theory fails to take this into consideration.
The trait theory fails to elucidate the richness of personality, which is the case with the personal construct theory, which makes use of the phenomenological principles to stress the distinctiveness of people by highlighting their delicate differences. The personal construct theory recognizes the ability of an individual to change, and the societal capability to foster change in an individual; this provides a comprehensive account of how people change in accordance with time and situational variables. Moreover, the qualitative interview methods advocated by the personal construct theory plays an integral role in avoiding the researcher/rater’s power in influencing his ratings. However, the personal construct theory has also been subject to criticisms. For instance, the phenomenological approach proposes that researchers must position themselves in the participant’s situation in order to assist them convey their personal constructs; through this, the researcher can effect can effect change. However, this is extremely difficult and impossible in a number of circumstances scenarios, such as, when dealing with a psychopath. In addition, the personal construct theory is a less influential approach when compared to the trait theories because the findings relating to the personal construct theory cannot be generalized to include wider populations.
According to Graham (2009), the agency-structure is a vital interrogative theme in all social psychological dimensions. The agency defines the degree to which people have the capability of exerting individual choice in order make changes in their lives. With regard to structure, it denotes the degree to which social and biological factors are likely to influence a person’s life-world. Graham (2009) points out that the biological structures maintain that intrinsic physiological attributes and genes play a crucial role in controlling the individual’s world whereas the social structure posits that social factors such as social class and gender play a role in controlling the world of an individual. Butt (2004) asserts that there is a connection between dualism and the degree to which personality is viewed to be fixed. For instance, of personality is assumed to be controlled entirely by biological structures, the personality cannot be changed; as a result, the agency is not recognized. A number of theorists have asserted that the interaction between the structure and the agency determines the life-world of an individual.
As aforementioned, the trait theory posits that personality is determined by the biological structures; therefore, traits are determined and inherited biologically. according to the trait theory, the traits are somewhat fixed and people do not have the ability to change in the course of their lives irrespective of the social factors. However, according to the personal construct theory, it is not possible to separate the structure and the agency because the individual is viewed with respect to their social world. Individuals are considered to be the products of their society. In addition, individuals build their own worlds in accordance to their relationships and experiences.
In conclusion, this paper has evaluated the Butt’s assertion that “the traits we think we find in others represent our personal construction of them”. This paper agrees with Butt’s view in the sense that the trait theory fails to provide a comprehensive account of the richness of personality. In addition, the fact that people tend to react differently in different situations imply that traits can be changed in accordance to experiences and personal constructs. In the position of the rater, it is highly likely that one can make use of his/her own personal constructs to determine the traits observed.
Butt, T 2004, Understanding People, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Graham, R 2009, Putting Psychology in its Place: Critical Historical Perspectives, Routledge, London.