Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What does a General Factor of Personality really represent? A number of research studies suggest that there is a general factor of personality (GFP) at the apex of the hierarchy of personality traits (Musek, 2007). Evidence for this derives from studies examining correlations between the factors in the Big Five model of personality. Proponents of the Big Five model have argued that the five factors are independent of each other and represent the most basic personality factors. In contrast, proponents of a GFP have argued that this "Big One" is a real substantial trait. Rushton and Irwing (2011) even argued that high scores on the GFP represent : "good personality" as opposed to a "difficult" one. They stated that: “Individuals high on the GFP are altruistic, agreeable, relaxed, conscientious, sociable, and open, with high levels of well-being and self-esteem…. The GFP can be viewed as a dimension of social effectiveness.” They have argued that this general factor is a product of natural selection.

On the other hand, other researchers have argued that the big five personality factors are actually independent of each other and that the general factor is a statistical artefact (Ashton, Lee, Goldberg, & de Vries, 2009; de Vries, 2011). Ashton et al. (2009) argued that correlations between personality factors can be explained without invoking higher order factors. They argued that these correlations are due to the existence of blended personality traits that combine features of two or more factors. For example, interpersonal circumplex models feature traits based on various combinations of extraversion and agreeableness. Notably, the combination of high extraversion and low agreeableness is associated with a socially dominant style of interpersonal behaviour. It could be argued that this particular style is favoured by natural selection in men because interpersonal dominance is attractive to females looking for high status mates. However, if the GFP has developed through natural selection than the more "socially desirable" combination of high extraversion and high agreeableness would be expected to be the norm.

Ashton et al. argued that certain combinations of personality factors are considered socially important. For example, the combination of high agreeableness and conscientiousness, and low neuroticism tend to describe someone who is well socialised and well-behaved. Correlations between factors might represent the special importance of certain combinations of traits rather than true higher order factors. Research by de Vries (2011) using two different personality measures found that a distinctly different GFP emerged from each of these factors and that they were negatively correlated with each other. He concluded that a GFP is an artefact of the measure and analysis used. Danay and Ziegler (2011) used a multirater approach and found that the GFP was not consistent across self-reports and peer-ratings. They argued that the appearance of the GFP reflects impression management. That is, people try to convince others that they are more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable than they really are. The GFP may represent skill in impression management. However, this interpretation is based on purely correlational data, and the authors acknowledge that the GFP may have no substance.

Muncer (2011) has also argued that there is no evidence that natural selection would favour a single general factor. The environments humans have lived in throughout their evolutionary development have been varied and subject to change. For natural selection to favour a GFP would require that environmental conditions have nearly always favoured a homogenous suite of personality characteristics that have varied in a uniform way, which does not seem likely.

If the GFP is not a substantive personality trait, then how to explain findings that measures of the GFP are associated with subjective well-being, self-esteem and social desirability? It is possible that the Big Five personality traits are indeed independent in regards to their aetiology, e.g. their genetic basis. The hypothetical GFP might represent a particular cluster of traits that happens to be associated with particular outcomes, such as subjective well-being. As noted earlier, interpersonal circumplex models describe traits associated with combinations of two independent factors. Cloninger has also catalogued and described different combinations of the three character traits of self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence and provided names for all eight possible combinations (Josefsson et al., 2011). For example, someone high on all three is the "creative" type, whereas someone low on all three is the "depressed" type. Someone on high on self-transcendence and low on the other two traits has the "disorganised" or "schizotypal" combination. Cloninger has not proposed a general factor of character traits, yet he clearly considers the ‘creative’ type as the most "mature". Similarly, it might be more appropriate to consider the so-called general factor of personality, not as a higher-order continuous factor, but as a particular combination of traits that happens to be socially desirable and associated with high subjective well-being and self-esteem. The GFP might be an especially prominent blend of traits due to these associations. Other combinations of traits might usefully be described and their correlates studied.

This approach could help us better understand personality in the context of natural selection. Women tend to be higher than men on some of the ‘desirable’ traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness yet they are also higher on the ‘undesirable’ trait of neuroticism. If the GFP were the most basic factor of personality this would be difficult to understand. However, from the viewpoint of natural selection it is readily understandable that females would be both highly nurturing (agreeable) and risk avoidant due to anxiety (associated with neuroticism). Conversely, natural selection seems to have favoured boldness and dominance in men, which again does not fit in with selection for a GFP, but instead suggests that particular combinations of traits would be adaptive for particular social roles. Some researchers have proposed that different combinations of masculine traits might be favoured by sexual selection depending on changing social circumstances. For example, highly aggressive males would be favoured in societies characterised by ongoing violent conflict, but disdained in more stable peaceful societies. Therefore, rather than proposing that there is general factor atop the hierarchy of personality, it seems more likely there are a variety of possible combinations of several basic personality traits that could be favoured by natural selection in different circumstances. Additionally, within a given society different combinations of traits may be adaptive within particular social niches. Some researchers (Coyne & Thomas, 2008) have suggested that psychopaths have developed a predatory "cheater-hawk" strategy (combining cheating and aggression) that may be ‘adaptive’ in some sense for people who are unlikely to prosper using more socially acceptable strategies. Psychopathy combines elements of low agreeableness, high boldness, and low fear, a suite of characteristics that do not fit into a homogenous GFP wherein all socially desirable traits vary together. Therefore, even though particular combinations of traits may be regarded by some as representing a "good personality", what is most adaptive from an individual's perspective probably depends on their social context.

Further Reading
Personality's "Big One" Revisited: The Allure of the Dark Side - follow up to the present article, presents new evidence against a general factor of personality.

What is an Intelligent Personality? - discusses the relationship between personality and various concepts of intelligence, particularly in regard to claims that a general factor of personality is correlated with general intelligence. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., Goldberg, L. R., & de Vries, R. E. (2009). Higher Order Factors of Personality: Do They Exist?  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13 (2), 79-91 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309338467
Coyne, S. M., & Thomas, T. J. (2008). Psychopathy, aggression, and cheating behavior: A test of the Cheater–Hawk hypothesis. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1105–1115. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.002
Danay, E., & Ziegler, M. (2011). Is there really a single factor of personality? A multirater approach to the apex of personality. Journal of Research in Personality. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.07.003
de Vries, R. E. (2011). No evidence for a General Factor of Personality in the HEXACO Personality Inventory.  Journal of Research in Personality, 45 (2), 229-232 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.12.002
Josefsson, K., Cloninger, C. R., Hintsanen, M., Jokela, M., Pulkki-Råback, L., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2011). Associations of personality profiles with various aspects of well-being: A population-based study. Journal of affective disorders, 133(1), 265-273. 
Muncer, S. J. (2011). The general factor of personality: Evaluating the evidence from meta-analysis, confirmatory factor analysis and evolutionary theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 51 (6), 775-778 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.029
Musek, Janet (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41 (6), 1213-1233 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.02.003
Rushton, J. P., & Irwing, P. (2011). The General Factor of Personality: Normal and Abnormal. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. v. Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences ( First ed.): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.