What’s the difference between a ‘type’ and a ‘trait’ model?

Most of us will come across psychological theories which are either based on an analysis of ‘traits’ or ‘types’.

Simply put, ‘traits’ are the “enduring ways in which we perceive, relate to and think about our environment and ourselves”. For example, there is one personality theory which identifies 5 dimensions:

1.    Extraversion – outgoing and stimulation-oriented vs. quiet and stimulation-avoiding
2.    Neuroticism – emotionally reactive, prone to negative emotions vs. calm, imperturbable
3.    Agreeableness – affable, friendly, conciliatory vs. aggressive, dominant, disagreeable
4.    Conscientiousness – dutiful, planful, and orderly vs. laidback, spontaneous, and unreliable
5.    Openness to experience – open to new ideas and change vs. traditional and oriented toward routine

A true psychometric test will measure how strongly each of these factors is present in a person – not just whether it’s present or not. It will measure, for example, where a person sits on a scale from complete Extraversion to complete Introversion.

In contrast, ‘Type’ theories assess people according to whether they have one ‘type’ or not. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), for example, assesses 4 sets of 2 factors:

Extraversion or Introversion
Sensing or intuition
Thinking or Feeling
Judging or Perceiving

So with the MBTI a person is assessed as one of 16 possible ‘types’ for example, ENTJ, ISFP, ESFJ and so on.

Empathy is a mixture of ‘trait’ and ‘type’ theory. It describes which ‘type’ a person may be – for example, Politician. But it goes beyond this by identifying how strongly present the different ‘traits’ are that make up the Politician style. So, for example, if we recognise the Politician style in someone, we would say that he/she has strong, average or weak Politician. This means that a unique combination of styles is possible and that a person’s behaviour (possibly stemming at that moment from their temperament) can be described in a unique way. And, of course, this is all achieved without the need for a questionnaire!