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Ask TraitLab: Disagreeable traits but an agreeable type?

A reader asks why their personality trait results seem to conflict with their personality type results.

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I receive emails now and then asking about all sorts of personality-related questions.

Here’s a recent question (and my answer) about why personality trait results sometimes seem to contradict the results from popular personality type assessments:

Dear Greg,

I wanted to ask you a question if I may regarding INFP and disagreeableness as it relates to the Big Five.

As your graph indicates, INFPs can be all over the place on the Agreeableness dimension! It looks like they can range from very disagreeable all the way to very agreeable.

I took a Big Five personality test and scored moderately low in Agreebleness, and I've taken a popular 16 personality types test and have continually gotten INFP as a result.

What I find confusing is on this other personality type website (not TraitLab), INFPs are described as having "The Gift Of Empathy" ... which is very agreeable! If I am an INFP, how can I be both disagreeable and have the gift of empathy like other INFPs?

The only thing that I can point to with regards to this apparent contradiction with some INFPs is the fact that when in "grip stress" INFPs resort to their "inferior function" of "extroverted thinking" which appears to be very disagreeable and critical. Apparently, some INFPs enter this state more frequently than others. Could that explain the wide distribution on the Agreebleness dimension in INFPs?

As it turns out, when I have taken the popular 16 personality types test and am more hard-minded and in a self-centered, distrusting mood, I have gotten a completely different personality type! In those cases, I get INTP ("The Logician"), which I think is due to the fact that I am still introverted and less organized.

But please help explain the contradiction between the disagreeableness in my Big Five results and being typed as an INFP by this popular site.

Thank you,

Disagreeable INFP

Hi Disagreeable INFP,

Thanks for sending such a thoughtful question.

To restate it: How could a person be somewhat disagreeable (according to a Big Five measure) and also be an INFP? INFPs allegedly have the gift of empathy, and wouldn’t this be incompatible with being disagreeable?

At the heart of this is a clash between two different approaches to understanding personality: the trait approach and the type approach.

The trait approach describes personalities by several dimensions (traits) and positions on each of those dimensions. On one hand, this allows a huge range of possible personalities, because anyone can have their own unique combination of positions on each trait. On the other hand, this flexibility makes the trait approach more complex — it’s hard to describe an individual’s personality without listing their position on every trait.

The type approach assumes that most differences between personalities can be captured with a finite number of types. In the “16 personality type” framework, it is assumed that 16 types is sufficient to describe the essential differences in personalities. Compared to the trait approach, this is much simpler to explain and understand — an entire personality can be described with a single type.

The downside of the type approach is that, in reality, most types still contain a massive amount of psychological variation. As you saw in the INFP blog post, two people classified as this type can differ significantly on important dimensions like Agreeableness.

At the same time, it’s easy to find blanket descriptions of each personality type like the one you mentioned (“INFPs and the gift of empathy”). How can we make sense of broad descriptions like these?

The key here, I think, is remembering that types are just convenient shorthands for describing personality differences. They are not accurate descriptions of psychological reality. No individual is perfectly described by a single type, and there’s no scientific reason to believe that all personalities could be described by 9, 16, or any other number of types.

At the same time, types can be useful shortcuts for describing people. But remember that they are still just shortcuts.

There will be cases where a type assessment classifies someone as an INFP, but that person’s scores might have placed them right on the border between two or more other types. It would be more accurate to say that this person is best described as a blend of multiple types, but that’s not typically how these assessments work. Instead, the person will be classified (poorly) as a single type.

This is why I’ve avoided single-type classifications on TraitLab altogether. Rather than classifying you as a single type, TraitLab shows your similarity to every personality type. It’s slightly more complicated but much more accurate, which the spirit of TraitLab in a nutshell. 🙂

In your case, you probably don’t fit perfectly into the INFP type, since you tend to bounce between INFP and INTP. That suggests that your scores on these type assessments are near the boundary between F and T. So, not all of the descriptions of the INFP type that you find out there will truly apply to you, particularly those descriptions closely associated with Feeling.

This is just another shortcoming of the type approach to describing personality.

Have a question about personality? Send it to greg@traitlab.com.

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