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Which of the six scientific criteria used to evaluate personality theories is most important for a good personality theory?

  1. Comprehensiveness
  2. Precision and testability
  3. Parsimony
  4. Empirical validity
  5. Heuristic value
  6. Applied value.

Expert Answers

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Kenneth M. Cramer of the University of Windsor, gives clear explanations of the six criteria for evaluating personality theories. He suggests that the most important criterion is derived from a cogent pairing of criteria, identifying four successful pairings:

  • Comprehensiveness + Applied Value
  • Precision/Testability + Empirical Validity
  • Comprehensiveness + Parsimony
  • Parsimony + Heuristic Value

The definition of each criterion exposes its strengths and weaknesses, which help to identify relative importance. Comprehensiveness refers to the scope of a theory and to how wide a range of phenomena it explains. A theory can be comprehensive yet have little applied value, which limits its usefulness. Precision and Testability is the most rigorous as it requires interrelated elements, measurability and reliable evidence in support of its hypothesized predictions. Measurability is difficult in personality theory—e.g., how can present tools measure self-actualization?—so measurement results aren't validly reliable or falsifiable. Parsimony refers to the simplest forms of theory and explanation: theories are trimmed of "needless concepts and excess explanation" (Cramer). If parsimony were the most important criteria for sound theory, complex theories such as those in quantum physics would not be plausible.

Empirical validity refers to a theory's usefulness in predicting and controlling outcomes. The weakness here is that all "disconfirming" evidence (negative results that don't support a theory) need to be validly explained and not sidestepped. Heuristic value is a theory's success in generating "unique thought and perspectives and directions in other fields" (Cramer) such as the unique ideas economic theory has generated in relationship theory and game theory. If a theory fails to generate this kind of cross-disciplinary excitement, it may languish without valid confirmation of its usefulness. Applied value is how a theory can be applied to real-life problems, like how psychodynamic theory was applied to "shell-shock" of World War I. The weakness here is that there may remain unidentified causes for the problem being treated, so enthusiasm for application may hamper progress in the resolution of directly correlated causes.

With all six criteria having weaknesses, as described by Cramer, I personally tend toward thinking that comprehensiveness is the most important single criterion for a good personality theory. Comprehensiveness focuses on describing in detail observed elements of personality and encompasses a scope of wide ranging phenomena. It seems to me that without comprehensive description, with full scope, the prediction and control significant in empirical validity result in a less useful theory, having weaker applied value and heuristic value. Parsimony in personality theory seems counterproductive while precision and testability may delay the development of a workable theory that has real-life applicability.

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Personality has many elements and contributing factors and, whilst scientific criteria has contributed greatly to our understanding and treatment of personality disorders, it is still an area of subjective assessment.  The reason that a person wants a "good personality theory" is also a factor in finding the best scientific means.

Any personality theory must be able to reflect on the complexity of any person as a whole and how he or she interacts in his or her surroundings.

Most scholars now agree that personality is determined by a combination of both genetics and environment, and that neither is solely responsible for personality.

Temperament has a biological basis and as a person develops, various emotions and self-regulation emerge contributing to the development of personality. Even the theorists themselves would have been subject to various factors during their own upbringing such as their socio-economic background, religious beliefs, education, family circumstances, etc. This would render their theories, whilst having a scientific basis, to be partially subjective dependent upon the emphasis  and importance of the various factors in their considerations.  

Employers often look for personality theories to help them make good decisions. Their methods are sometimes flawed and the best candidates do not get selected because their personalities do not operate well under these conditions.    

Personality theories cannot always predict behavior but are effective at measuring and explaining it and for this purpose empirical validity would be , in my opinion, the most useful as there is much data to study and consider and it has been gathered over many years of research. It is useful because it measures behaviour in more than one context. It also removes some of the subjective material as it is a statistical tool.

Some theorists appreciate heuristic value which includes a trial and error element or a combining of results to ensure consistency. Although useful, depending on requirements, it is not always reliable. As reliability is crucial heuristic measurements may be inaccurate.  It is useful when decision-making must be fast and provides quick estimates of personality expectations using the assumption of a 'best answer.' 

One of the difficulties with comprehensiveness, especially as it relates to the old school theories, is its attempt to cover a wide range making it vague and difficult to test. 

A modern theory can combine all six criteria, placing emphasis according to the purpose of the theory and the need to measure personality.

It is also very important to ensure the results are analyzed by a professional to ensure full value is received from the test.

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