The Measurement of Personal and Social Traits

Kimball Young


The purpose of this paper is to review the contributions of the psychology of personality to social psychology. Special reference will be paid to the measurement of personality traits as they throw light upon certain problems of social psychology. For purposes of convenience we may look upon the study of personality as divided into two types of approach. The first of these may be thought of as structural or cross-sectional. Here the approach is very largely by the statistical treatment of tests which are devised for the measuring of personality traits. It is assumed that these traits exist as general characteristics, and through the measurement of indirect responses, which are largely verbal, an effort is made to examine these traits. The second approach might be called functional or historical-genetic, in which an effort is made to study the development of personality traits in the individual in his social environment. This method is sometimes called the biographical. So far very little attempt has been made to state the investigation of personality through this method in quantitative terms. The nature of the data, in fact, precludes this type of treatment in large part. Because the material cannot as yet be stated in quantitative terms, it does not follow that this second approach is not to be considered valid. It has many distinct advantages over the first method. It is far more dynamic and significant in throwing light upon the mechanisms which formulate personality traits than is the first approach.

In conclusion, one may say that a fairly adequate picture of personality must involve both methods of approach. Overemphasis upon the purely statistical and quantitative aspects of personality study must be guarded against. On the other hand, care should be taken in the treatment of data of the historical sort.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss with critical comment the contribution which the study of personality traits has made to social psychology.[1] It should not be imagined that the investigation of personality has been confined alone to the psychologists with

(93) their elaborate statistical technique. Such invaluable contributions have come from other sources that the present discussion would be incomplete without some mention of these other methods. A review of the whole gamut of personality studies, in fact, reveals two essentially distinct approaches to the data. One of these, which has been developed by recent psychology, concerns itself with a structural or cross-sectional treatment of personality in terms of traits, attitudes, and habits. The other, which has arisen from a number of sources, especially psychiatry, treats personality from a functional, historical-genetic standpoint. The former method owes its prominence to the work of Galton, Pearson, Cattell, Thorndike, and Terman, with their investigations of individual differences, particularly in the field of intelligence. The latter has arisen from the study of literary biography, from historical biography, but especially from psychiatry and sociology. Here we find the great biographers, the psychoanalysts led by Freud, Jung, and Adler, the invaluable work of Healy, and latterly the sociological reformulation of W. I. Thomas.

Let us turn our attention to a consideration of these two approaches, touching briefly the types of tests and materials and then turning to a discussion of their assumptions and methodology.


A. Time does not permit a formal treatment of the rating scheme and questionnaire except as these become a part of the larger testing technique. It will be necessary to confine the discussion largely to so-called objective tests of personality. Furthermore, we shall omit any reference to intelligence measurement, although intelligence may be considered one panel of personality. For convenience we may subdivide these tests of personal and social traits into four categories.

The first group of measures are those of volition or will-temperament, to use the term invented by Downey. In this field we have early attempts by Fernald to measure persistence in performing a simple physical act. But the whole matter of volitional traits has been made prominent by the work of Downey with her twelve tests of will-temperament which include, among others, flexibility,

( 94) resistance to opposition, co-ordination of impulses, volitional perseveration, and speed of decision. Other investigators, Bridges, Trow, Filter, and Gibson, have attempted to measure speed of decision. So too, Bridges has attempted to secure some measure of decision types. Moore and Gilliland's test of aggressiveness is partially a detector of volitional characteristics. Inhibition as related to racial groups has been studied by Crane. Sunne has made some comparisons of volitional traits among Negro and white adolescents.

A second group of tests are those which touch instinctive-emotional tendencies. We have a large number of distinctly laboratory studies of emotions which have been summarized recently by Landis.[2] There are the earlier contributions of Watson on native emotional expression. Moore has made an effort to measure the strength of anger, fear, and sex trends by a laboratory distraction experiment. Allport's tests of ascendence-submission and of expansion-reclusion touch both instinctive-emotional features and those of volition. Perhaps the best-known test of emotions is that devised by Pressey and used by Chambers in making a scale of emotional maturity. On the basis of an exhaustive emotional questionnaire devised by Woodworth for use in the army (1917-18), Mathews, Cady, Chassell, and Watson have attempted investigations of emotional stability. The latter two investigators are now at work making this questionnaire over into a test which they hope will reveal a number of aspects of personality, such as insight into others, a measure of self-esteem, and an exposure of emotional conflicts.

A very important group of tests have revolved around a third type of concern, namely, the measurement of moral or socialized traits. Fernald again was early at work in this field with his ethical discrimination test which has given others, like Kohs, a cue to the invention of elaborate tests of moral discrimination. Students of delinquency, among them Bronner, Cady, Liao, and Raubenheimer, have used ethical discrimination tests, tests of moral judgment,

( 95) of cheating, of falsifying, etc., in their investigations. Brotemarkle's test for uncovering the ideational content of moral concepts lies on the borderline between an intelligence test and a. test of moral information. One of the most exhaustive researches in this field is reported by Voelker in his Function of Ideals and Attitudes in Social Education (1921). He attempted to measure honor, trustworthiness, and truthfulness, particularly in an effort to discover the place which ideals played in moral judgment and moral behavior. At the moment May and Hartshorne are at work on a very extensive investigation of character education and are devising a duplicate set of scales for measuring knowledge of right and wrong and other moral attitudes.

A final grouping of tests might be made around the general notion of social attitudes and interests. Some of these tests, for example, of prejudice, are clearly related to moral concepts.

One of the most important contributions is that of Hart, with his test of "Social Attitudes and Interests." Maury and Neumann have followed up this type of approach with their studies of international attitudes. Van Wagenen, in his Historical Information and Judgment in Pupils of the Elementary Grades (1919), has dealt with the problem of "different traits of character revealed in historical situations," such as the traits of our national heroes.

Among important studies bearing on single traits may be noted the following: a measure of money-mindedness, by Shuttleworth; a test of liberal attitudes, by Allport and Hartmann; tests of openmindedness, by Symonds; a variety of tests of social perception, by Landis, Gates, Allport, and others; of self-assertion, by Marston, Filter, and Allport; of resistance to meeting strangers, by Marston. Allport is engaged in an elaborate study of social attitudes ranging over a wide field.[3] Another important development is found in the work of G. B. Watson in his monograph, The Measurement o f Fair-Dlindedness (1925). This reports a perspicacious device for measuring consistency of attitude in matters concerning treatment of radicals, Catholics, Ku Klux Klan members, and

( 96) many matters of public concern. Bogardus, following a suggestion of Park, has made an effort to measure racial prejudice in terms of the concept of social distance.

In this general category may also be placed a large number of tests of interests. One group of these studies has concerned itself with an effort to uncover the mental patterns of introversion or extroversion. Freyd, Marston, Laird, and Allport have contributed much here. Then, too, Freyd's The Personalities of the Socially and Mechanically Inclined (1924) is an important contribution to revealing fundamental differences in life-organization and interest. Strong and Cowdrey, by securing responses to types of occupations, amusements, and school subjects, to kinds of reading, and such like, have been able to relate interest to vocational inclination. This work becomes related to vocational guidance and one will find pertinent discussions of personality studies in this field in such convenient handbooks as Scott and Clothier's Personnel Management (1923), Laird's, The Psychology of Selecting Men (1925), and Bingham and Freyd's Procedures in Employment Psychology (1926).

These four types of tests reveal briefly the outstanding subject matter of objective measurements of personal and social traits. Let us turn to consider certain assumptions made by the investigators in these fields.

B. The essential nature of a test is a cross-sectional or anatomical picture of an individual, in reference to a group of individuals, at a particular time and place. Tests are concerned with the measurement of the reaction-time, of the precision and strength of a given mental or bodily function at the moment. Moreover, tests have been developed on the assumption of individual differences, and are only meaningful when we understand that any test score relates to the scores of other persons along the scale of arbitrary units laid down at the outset. Furthermore, most tests are of paper and pencil variety. These are usually given in the laboratory, the classroom, or the office. Some tests approach true experimentation when performed under rigid laboratory conditions with accurate instruments for the measurement of reactions. Very few of the tests present the individual with a genuine life-situation in

( 97) order to see what he will do. Some do, of course, such as some parts of the tests used by Voelker, and May and Hartshorne. One of the intentions of test-makers, however, is to devise short, easily administered tests which will give a measure of predictability of behavior without going to the elaborateness of studying concrete life-conditions, for after all the ultimate aim of personality-measurement is certainly the devising of short cuts to the prediction of human behavior, and thus to afford a means of controlling it.

That we may pass in review the fundamental features of these objective tests which are designed to give valid and reliable measures of behavior, let us treat briefly the following points: (a) the units of measurement and their distribution; (b) the validity of the tests; (c) the criteria of reliability; (d) the matter of specific or general reactions; and (d) the question of test norms and social norms.

a) The entire testing technique rests upon the study of individual differences begun by Galton and Cattel and elaborated statistically, in large part, by Pearson and his pupils. These differences have been treated by applying the mathematics of probability developed by Gauss and LaPlace. To be specific, test-makers assume that traits distribute themselves along a linear scale in the manner of the distribution of chance throws of dice or chance tosses of coins. It is assumed that, the units of the scale being equal, the distribution of the traits follows these equivalent units. In much biological data, such as height and weight, lengths of ears of corn, etc., we find a fair conformity to the Guassian curve of probability. Whether certain of the functions of the mind which come into these tests, such as memory, reasoning capacity, and so on, distribute themselves along a rectilinear scale has been gravely questioned.[4] Curiously enough, very little attention has been paid by test-makers to these cautions. On the assumptions of the Gaussian law of probability an extensive technique for the standardization of tests has been devised, using standard deviations or per-

( 98) -centiles for the most part.[5] Again, correlation methods give a means of comparing one set of distributions, say of intelligence, with another, say of moral judgments. Thus a check of consistency or correlation of one set of traits or attitudes with another is made possible.

In the correlational treatment, however, of presumed common units, certain pertinent facts are often overlooked. Take the concept "mental age," for example. This has been treated in partial correlations as an equivalent unit throughout childhood and early adolescence. Yet it is well known that mental growth from five to six, or from six to seven, is not only much more rapid, but perhaps of different quality, than that between fifteen and sixteen years. Hence, partial correlations intending to segregate out a constant known as mental age may lead to distinct misinterpretations. This same problem may arise in any effort to establish age norms in a moral test. Again, it is often assumed that attitudes may be laid off along a scale of given number of units, one attitude being equivalent to another. Or, more serious, it is assumed frequently that there are given equivalent degrees of belief about a particular situation or person, and that one may lay off his degrees of belief or attitude along a scale of, say, nine or even thirteen units, four or six on the side of positive belief, or attitude, four or six on the negative side, with a neutral point at the median. One wonders, after attempting to fulfil these conditions, whether or not the facts may not be horribly distorted in an effort to satisfy the investigator in his concern for statistical niceties.

b) Another matter which concerns us is that of validity. How do we know that the tests measure that which they are supposed to? This question is usually answered by correlation with other tests already standardized, or with outside criteria, such as chronological age, home conditions, school success, or with independent judgments of such competent persons as we may assume can rate the validity of the test. For illustration, in a moral-attitudes test the judgment of stable leaders of our society would be considered significant in selecting a series of concepts to be called for in the

( 99) test. Or the judges might rate the individuals on a scale, which ratings would be correlated with the scores these individuals received in the test.

c) Likewise the reliability of the measurements is determined largely by correlational statistics. A test is administered to the same group two or more times and the performance of one occasion compared to that of the second. In some instances one-half of a test is correlated against the other half. Or reliability may be got at through validity, as with May and Hartshorne in their use of the judgments of assumed competent experts in the field of ethics.

The assumption of reliability is that there is a constancy in the performance of a group on two or more occasions which will make it safe to employ the test on like groups in order to determine their standings. This raises, again, the question whether attitudes and reactions have a specific or a general character, and whether test norms can hold for various social situations.

d) There are two aspects of this matter of specific or general response. The first concerns the presumption that there exist such general traits as neatness, persistence, and confidence. The other has to do with the assumption of universality of responses under different social situations of which we shall speak below.

The work of Trow and others has shown very definitely that there are no such general-response patterns as confidence, persistence, and so on. It may be that in certain moral reactions we have a generalized attitude and response pattern, but we must await further concrete investigation in order to know fully. So far the matter is uncertain.

e) As to whether there is a universality of responses of a given sort under varying situations is very doubtful. The work of Bronner and Washburn, to mention but two, indicates that moral attitudes differ in various social classes and in different nationality groupings. And that an individual's reactions will follow a common form in all situations is unlikely, even within homogeneous groups. Certainly the tests of Hartshorne and May show that persons respond differently under varying social conditions, a fact long ago recognized in sociology. What can a test norm be but the norm of a certain social group under certain stable conditions?

( 100) Any crisis may bring about such a reformulation of the "definition of the situation," to use Thomas' phrase, that the old standards disappear. Paper and pencil tests will hardly reveal the extent of this change of response. We have very little descriptive material on human behavior under intense crises, the account of Prince of the Halifax disaster being one of the few. But great catastrophes aside, we do not know the extent to which moral codes break down under varying situations. Or, at least, tests of moral attitudes do not seem to reveal this for us.

The limitations and the advantages of the cross-sectional tests of personality we shall mention in the final section. Let us turn to treat the contrasted method in the study of personality.


This approach has had very little attention from the psychologist, but has been developed, as we noted above, at first out of the literature of biography and autobiography and more particularly by modern psychiatry and social psychology. Krueger, in his forthcoming book, has dealt with the background of this method.[6] We may summarize this entire standpoint by saying that it assumes that the present functions of the person can only be understood in terms of their genesis. The method of psychoanalysis is largely that of uncovering, by the method of free association, the infantile and childhood formulations which lie at the roots of present attitudes, ideas, and habits. So, too, through the use of autobiographical and biographical materials, through letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and all sorts of intimate documents, attempts are being made to secure a fairly complete picture of the history of the individual. The concern is not with the comparison of one individual with another under the assumption that they all possess common unit traits, as it were, laid out along a scale, but rather the hope is to secure a description of the cause-and-effect relations which have coursed through the personality in its life-history. The present case-history method and the interview and the genetic questionnaire methods belong in this same category.

In short, this approach is a dynamic, functional one, attempt-

( 101) -ing to get at the mechanisms which produce the personality patterns. In contrast to the cross-sectional method, which can only reveal degree of or amount of, or the presence or absence of a trait or attitude at a given place, time, and social situation, the second standpoint emphasizes the historical sequence of personality growth. Taking into account the fundamental psychobiological tendencies, like emotion, instinct, intelligence, and volition, all found in differing strengths in persons, the historico-genetic method traces the rise and course of a personality in his social environment. This latter consists of two phases: one the cultural norms or patterns to which he is exposed. The other consists of the presence of other members of his particular groups: family, playground, occupational, recreational, or otherwise.

As examples of studies in this field, mention may be made of the psychoanalytic biographies, such as Blanchard's study of Comte; Dooley's, of Charlotte Bronte; Anthony's, of Margaret Fuller. More significant for social psychology, however, are the contributions of Healy in his study of delinquency; of immigrant personalities, by Thomas and Znaniecki; of unadjusted women, by Thomas; the important contributions of the joint Committee on Methods of Preventing Delinquency, as in Three Problem Children; the work of Van Waters with juvenile court cases; Taft's paper, "The Effect of an Unsatisfactory Mother-Daughter Relationship upon the Development of a Personality," read before this body last year; Anderson's study of the hobo; Shaw's forthcoming study, The Boy's Own Story; Zorbaugh's use of this method in studying disintegrated neighborhoods; Krueger's important contribution in analyzing confessional autobiographies; and a whole group of researches completed or under way at the University of Chicago and elsewhere.

With the fundamental assumptions of the structural and the historico-genetic standpoints in mind, let us examine briefly some of the limitations and the advantages of the two approaches.


A. The limitations of the structural standpoint are largely evident in the discussion of the assumptions of this procedure al-

( 102) -ready made. Too often the precision of statistical analysis is purchased at considerable cost to psychological and sociological fact. Thus, for example, if the unit of measurement is assumed to fall under the Gaussian curve, some unnecessary distortion of actuality may result. Some workers, such as May and Hartshorne, seem to recognize this, in part, but most statistically-minded psychologists remain oblivious to it. Then there are grave questions as to the employment of rating schemes as a method of testing the validity of measures, since we know from the work of Rugg, Thorndike, and Knight and Franzen how unsatisfactory ratings are .[7]A particular caution, however, is required in the whole assumption of norms, first as to uniformity of norms in various social groups, and second as to the measurement of change of norms and of attitudes, and finally as to the correlation of norms determined by laboratory or schoolroom test against the behavior of life outside, especially under crisis.

On the other hand, in treating a group of persons as a unit and in comparing an individual against his group at any time, place, and given social condition, the measures of personal and social traits is of great service. Sociability, prejudices, factors in learning the moral code, all sorts of preferences, and the like may be thus profitably uncovered. Where norms for various social classes, for various nationalities, and even for the different sexes are established, we have a standard against which to compare any individual at the moment. In discovering emotional characteristics, temperamental or instinctive qualities like aggressiveness, impulsiveness, or perseverance, we have certain clues to an educational regimen in reference to these trends. And yet, the cross-sectional or structural method cannot serve us completely for purposes of prediction and control, which, after all, we conceive to be the ultimate aim of scientific study. But let us examine the limitations and advantages of the second approach before making an effort to state a more adequate basis for arriving at this end.

b. The limitations of the historical method are evident when

( 103) we contemplate the nature of suggestion and its place in human behavior, when we understand the distinct limits to accuracy of report which associative memory puts upon us, when we know the place which autistic or phantasy thinking plays in life. In truth, the digging up of past experiences by association is open to considerable qualification. In turn, personal documents, such as letters, memoirs, diaries, and confessional autobiographies are open to the same criticism that all forms of self-rating, self-revelation, and self-analysis are. The real motivations, especially, are not easy to get at from self-analysis, even though the main features of the mental mechanisms may be thus uncovered. If we wish to push the matter fully into the realm of motives, we may have to go beyond the ordinary autobiographical procedure. Here the interview, the method of mental analysis used by the psychiatrist, and the objective check-up from other sources of information come into play.

The advantages of this approach are likewise evident by the mere mention of the standpoint. We get at the mechanisms, at the causal sequences in the development of attitudes and traits. Simply to uncover a prejudice or a moral trait by a paper-and-pencil test will tell one nothing about how either one came into being, nor will it give a full clue as to how to proceed to modify it. When the sequence of life-events leading up to the attitude or trait is at hand, then only do we know how to undertake to alter or to continue this attitude or trait. Even so-called temperamental, emotional, and instinctive traits do not arise in a vacuum, but are at all times under the domination of the social environment in which the person lives, moves, and has his being.[8]

Thus aggressiveness, impulsiveness, and speed of decision are not purely innate and unchangeable, for we know from the genetic method that these deep-seated patterns are often conditioned by early social contacts with mother, father, or other persons. In a word, the historico-genetic method reveals the dynamics of personality; the structural, cross-sectional method can only give us the statics.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider that either method

( 104) alone is sufficient. In a concluding statement I wish to indicate a middle ground between these two extremes which seem to me to represent a fuller and more complete approach to the study of personality for social psychology.



In order, then, to get at the mechanism of personal response, in order to discover how the individual will react in the future, it is necessary to uncover as much of his past as possible. From the consideration of the habits and attitudes which a man has developed it is possible to make some prediction of what he will do in the future. New stimuli, a new regimen, especially those violent combinations of novel stimuli which we denote as crisis, may upset or change the more self-evident direction of the personality. But even these can only change the person in terms of the deeper formulations of human behavior which reach back into childhood.

Nevertheless, in order to secure a picture of the individual as he now stands in his group, we have no better means than the employment of measures of health, intelligence, and personality traits of the non-intellectual sort. These give us a point of departure in comparing the person with his social norm, in contrasting group with group, in contrasting through the individual the norms of one group with another, as might be done with gang personalities when confronted with the legal code of the political state. Still the difficulty with the test is that it gives us a somewhat stilted and unnatural profile of the person when it stands alone. To understand the person, one must observe him in his life-environment, one must see him in his vital, ever-changing, active life of participation in his family, his club, his trade-union, his professional or business organization, his church, his recreational associations, and so on through the whole gamut of human groupings. In short, we must see him as he is projected upon the background of his social milieu.

The most satisfactory approach, therefore, to the study of the personality, for social psychology. is a combination of these two methods. One without the other, ill fact, seems incomplete. Some beginnings in this dual approach are seen in the work of Healy, Woolley, and G. B. Watson, to name a few. It is being followed by

( 105) some of those engaged in personnel work in industrial and educational institutions. For myself, I much prefer at the outset to secure the life-history, using whatever documents, like diaries, letters, and autobiographies, as are obtainable. It is also wise to secure whatever data one may anticipate from interviews and mental analysis at first. Finally, tests of intelligence, of emotions, of moral knowledge, of attitudes and emotional-history questionnaires should be given and analyzed. All the data thus secured should be checked up objectively from parents, school authorities, police, nurses, physicians, and whomever may have been concerned in the life-experiences. My point in leaving the cross-sectional study until the last is the danger of influencing the artless, uncolored account of the life-history which may come from the genetic method. Of course, sometimes the tests themselves may serve as an entrée into the mind and behavior of the person. The matter of which procedure to employ will depend upon circumstances and purpose.

All this implies a contribution from the angle of sociology. We must know the cultural patterns behind the behavior. We must uncover all that is available of the social contacts and relationships of the individual. These all play a part in giving us a more complete picture of the dynamic person in his social environment than any single view can possibly give. In short, one may say that until human ecology, using that term in a very broad sense, is allied with the historico-genetic and the cross-sectional statistical procedure, a full portrait of the living social being cannot be revealed.


  1. The present writer has summarized the principal contributions to personality study in the last decade in the American Journal of Sociology, XXXII (1927), pp. 953-71. The interested reader should also consult the summaries and reviews made by the following: V. M. Cady, "The Psychology and Pathology of Personality," Journal of Delinquency, VII (1922), 225-48; P. M. Symonds, "The Present Status of Character Measurement," Journal of Educational Psychology. XV (1924), 484-98; M. A. May and H. Hartshorne, "Objective Methods Of Measuring Character," Pedagogical Seminary, XXXII (1925), 45-67; M. A. May and H. Hartshorne, "Personality and Character Tests," Psychological Bulletin, XXIII (1926), 395-411; and G. B. Watson, "The Measurement of Less Tangible Qualities," Vocational Guidance, IV (March, 1926), 281-89.
  2. C. Landis et al., "Criteria of Emotionality," Pedagogical Seminary, XXXII (1925),209-34.
  3. Cf. An Outline for the Study of Social Relationship of an Individual, published by F.H. Allport, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.
  4. Cf. E. G. Boring, "The Logic of the Normal Law of Error," American Journal of Psychology. XXXI (10x0), 1-33, and Boring, "A Priori Use of the Gaussian Law," Science, n. s. LII (1020), 129-30.
  5. One may consult W. M. McCall, How to Measure in Education (New York, 1922), or T. L. Kelley, Statistical Method (New York, 1923).
  6. E. T. Krueger, Autobiographical Documents and Personality, a Doctor's thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, June, 1926.
  7. Cf. H. O. Rugg, "Is the Rating of Human Character Practicable?" Journal of Educational Psychology, XII (1921), 425-38; 485-501; XIII O922),40-42; 8193. F. B. Knight and R. H. Franzen, "Pitfalls in Rating Schemes," ibid., XIII (1922), 205-13. The so-called "halo" effect in rating is well recognized.
  8. An instructive biological basis of this same view may be found in the work of C. M. Child, cf. Physiological Foundations of Behavior (New York, 1024), and his paper in the symposium, The Child, the Clinic, and the Court (New York, 1925), pp. 126-55.

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