Monday, 3 November 2014

Personality Traits and Literature

Buried in a twelve-volume Handbook of Psychology is a chapter that addresses contemporary trait psychology and its relation to fiction (and the humanities in general). The Five-Factor Model (FFM) is the most widely accepted description of individual differences in personality traits, with five broad factors (the “Big Five”)—Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness—plus more specific traits, or facets, that represent different aspects of each factor. The chapter provides a broad introduction to the FFM and to research findings about its heritability, longitudinal stability, universality, and cross-observer validity; it also describes Five-Factor Theory, an interpretation of these findings in the form of a general theory of personality.

However, the distinctive focus of the chapter is a consideration of two questions: How can literary fiction be used by psychologists, and how might an understanding of trait psychology help in the interpretation, and perhaps the creation, of imaginative works?

The principal interface of fiction and traits is found in character. Psychological interpretations of literary figures have, of course, been proposed for decades. McCrae, Gaines, and Wellington provide an empirically-based method for assessing the personality of characters, using a validated personality inventory (the NEO-PI-3) to characterize Moliere’s Alceste (“The Misanthrope”) and Voltaire’s Candide. Profile agreement statistics are used to quantify overall agreement of judges (substantial, in these cases) and to point to occasional instances of disagreement that warrant and stimulate further discussion.

The chapter contains a table of characters who illustrate positive and negative poles of each factor—for example, Alexei Karamazov is high in Agreeableness; Antigone is high in Conscientiousness. Additions to this list, especially with more contemporary characters (perhaps from film or television) would make it more useful to teachers who want to bring the abstract concepts of traits alive to today’s students.

McCrae, R. R., Gaines, J. F., & Wellington, M. A. (2013). The Five-Factor Model in fact and fiction. In H. A. Tennen & J. M. Suls (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, Vol. 5: Personality and social psychology (2nd ed., pp. 65-91). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

(Guest post by Dr. Robert R. McCrae.)
For a copy of this chapter, please contact Dr. McCrae:

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