The Circumplex of Personality Meta-traits

Do you think that we can summarize your personality in a few simple traits? Young Adult books these days seem to think so (I am talking about you, ”Harry Potter” and “Divergent”), but in the real world it is of course a little more complicated and nuanced than color coding people based on their most prominent trait. If you ever have had any psychology class in personality, you have probably heard of the big five. These are five traits which summarize many adjectives that we use for describing ourselves or others, and describe our basic tendencies. These traits are: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism/ Emotional stability. But if we go to the next level, the meta-trait level, we can look at how these traits often go together and summarize this into two traits; Alpha (e.g. Stability in several aspects of life or the tendency to socialize) and Beta (e.g. Plasticity or the tendency to explore new things). Or, even higher, ONE trait that describes how well you are functioning in general (the general factor of personality).

In the paper discussed this week, Strus and Cieciuch describe and validate a relatively new model to describe the relationships between all these traits and levels of traits. This model is called the Circumplex of Personality meta-traits (CPM for short). Circumplex suggests that the constructs used in the model can be organized in a circle. In the case of the CPM these constructs are four meta-traits; Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Where Alpha and Beta are the same as the Alpha and Beta described above, Gamma is the general factor of personality, and Delta is a new meta-trait that is also called self-restraint. So in the CPM, the general factor of personality is not seen as an even higher level meta-trait than alpha and beta, but is now considered to be on the same level as the gamma trait. These four traits can in turn be divided into minus and plus (having that trait a lot or not). The beauty of this model is that a meta-trait is not the same as the sum of its parts. They are like omelets, something entirely different from milk and eggs alone (also if you do it right an omelet is also round). The poles on each traits have different meanings, and thus this results in 8 traits; Delta-plus (self-restraint; being conforming and not having intense emotions), Alpha-plus (Stability; being emotionally, motivationally and socially stable, plus being able to motivate yourself and having a tendency to socialize), Gamma-plus (Integration; having a high well-being, being balanced and able to enjoy life and reach important goals), Beta-plus (Plasticity; being open to change and new experiences, being assertive and wanting to grow), Delta-minus (Sensation-seeking; being impulsive, hard to deal with, and a low emotional stability, easy to provoke), Alpha-minus (Disinhibition; easily frustrated, asocial, aggressive and a rule breaker), Gamma-minus (Disharmony; prone to psychological problems, cold in relationships, depressed and pessimistic), Beta-minus (Passiveness; not really caring, being submissive and inhibited). As this model is pretty new, Strus and Cieciuch wanted to see if they could find the 8 traits and if they are able to relate it to other constructs in the field of psychology, specifically temperament (the innate part of personality, which is present from a very early age), motivation, emotion, values, interpersonal behavior and psychological health.

They tested this by asking 1045 people to participate in a, I can only image, very intensive study, as 869 people in this study had to answer more than 482 questions over the course of three sessions. The other 176 participants filled in part of the questionnaires (284 questions). Both samples filled in the questionnaire that measured the CPM traits, but different additional questionnaires. Then, the researchers went into this data to look if the 8 proposed meta-traits could be found in the responses and if the other constructs fitted in the circle as they thought they would. Apart from the fact that in some cases constructs were located differently, their predictions came true: There were 8 meta-traits to be found and the CPM can be used to integrate knowledge.

Being human is more than just a combination of several basic tendencies. It is how we relate to others, what we find important, our skills and so on. Compared to the Big five, the CMP is a lot better in relating these different life aspects to each other by making it possible to fit them into the model instead of only looking whether they are related in some way or another. This means that the CPM is more causal. For example, people who score higher on Delta minus are more likely to value self-enhancement (e.g. gaining power) over self-transcendence (e.g. valuing equal opportunities), because Delta minus includes being more asocial. However, relating low agreeableness and self-enhancement doesn’t allow for this causal relationship. This is because agreeableness is a description of your normal behaviour, which means that it is possible that your self-enhancing values make you act less agreeable, causing you to score low on that trait. Thus using the CPM, you can make personality more fundamental. To be fundamental however, it needs to be universally applicable. This study only included Polish participants. So to make the claim that the 8 meta-traits are a fundamental basis for most of our behaviour, this also needs to work in different countries, different age groups and for people with different levels of education. If it does, it can give us new leads into the workings of humans, shedding light on new links between personality and other constructs, or among constructs.

So just to give a tip to novels and dystopian futures: Think about the omelet. If we are going to color code people, let’s do it based on more than just one trait, gender, income, or the kind of color they can perceive.

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If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Strus, W., & Cieciuch, J. (2017). Towards a synthesis of personality, temperament, motivation, emotion and mental health models within the Circumplex of Personality meta-traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 66, 70-95

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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