You are here

Personality and Behavior: Approaches and Measurement

16 February, 2016 - 09:24


  1. Outline and critique the early approaches to assessing personality.
  2. Define and review the strengths and limitations of the trait approach to personality.
  3. Summarize the measures that have been used to assess psychological disorders.

Early theories assumed that personality was expressed in people’s physical appearance. One early approach, developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) a nd known as phrenology, was based on the idea that we could measure personality by assessing the patterns of bumps on people’s skulls (Figure 11.1). In the Victorian age, phrenology was taken seriously and many people promoted its use as a source of psychological insight and self- knowledge. Machines were even developed for helping people analyze skulls (Simpson, 2005).  1  However, because careful scientific research did not validate the predictions of the theory, phrenology has now been discredited in contemporary psychology.

Figure 11.1  Phrenology  
This definition of phrenology with a chart of the skull appeared in Webster’s Academic Dictionary, circa 1895. 

Another approach, known as somatology, championed by the psychologist William Herbert Sheldon (1898–1977), was based on the idea that we could determine personality from people’s body types (Figure 11.2). Sheldon (1940) 2 argued that people with more body fat and a rounder physique (“endomorphs”) were more likely to be assertive and bold, whereas thinner people (“ectomorphs”) were more likely to be introverted and intellectual. As with phrenology, scientific research did not validate the predictions of the theory, and somatology has now been discredited in contemporary psychology.

Figure 11.2 Sheldon’s Body Types 
William Sheldon erroneously believed that people with different body types had different personalities. 

Another approach to detecting personality is known as physiognomy, or the idea that it is possible to assess personality from facial characteristics. In contrast to phrenology and somatology, for which no research support has been found, contemporary research has found that people are able to detect some aspects of a person’s character—for instance, whether they are gay or straight and whether they are Democrats or Republicans—at above chance levels by looking only at his or her face (Rule & Ambady, 2010; Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2008; Rule, Ambady, & Hallett, 2009). 3

Despite these results, the ability to detect personality from faces is not guaranteed. Olivola a nd Todorov (2010) 4 recently studied the ability of thousands of people to guess the personality characteristics of hundreds of thousands of faces on the website What’s My Image? ( In contrast to the predictions of physiognomy, the researchers found that these people would have made more accurate judgments about the strangers if they had just guessed, using their expectations about what people in general are like, rather than trying to use the particular facial features of individuals to help them. It seems then that the predictions of physiognomy may also, in the end, find little empirical support.