Poster TITLE Dancers, Not Statues: Reframing Our Concept of

Dancers, Not Statues: Reframing Our Concept of Personality in Selection
The poster introduces reversal theory, a new model of personality, emotion and motivation, and
attempts to resolve inconsistent research findings regarding the use of personality tests in
selection. In this structural-phenomenological approach, personality is defined in terms of everchanging states of mind, not fixed traits. Implications for selection are discussed.
Because of the ease of implementation and growing acceptance of personality tests, the use
of these tests has become a popular way for organizations to screen employees while
minimizing adverse impact. However, there are difficulties in using personality tests in
selection that can result in unwanted outcomes for organizations. The purpose of this paper
is to propose a solution to these problems by re-conceptualizing how personality is
operationally defined and measured. This model embraces the changeability and
inconsistency of human nature, and defines personality in terms of states of mind, rather
than fixed traits. Implications for selection are discussed.
In previous years, job advertisements could be seen by a community of people through
newspapers advertisements, window signs, and through word of mouth. Organizations selected
potential employees from a small pool of applicants; however with advances in technology and the
development of the World Wide Web, applicants can now be from anywhere around the world. It is
important now more than ever that organizations develop efficient selection tools and processes to
ensure the right employees are selected for the right job. Technological advances have also made it
easier for resource sharing within industries, decreasing resources as a source of competitive
advantage and establishing human capital as the principal source of competitive advantage (Grant,
1991). Selecting the right employees saves the organization a substantial amount of money, and
organizations are in need of tools that are efficient and fair. Because of the ease of implementation
and growing acceptance, personality tests appear to be an increasingly popular way for organizations
to screen employees.
However, there are several issues with the use of personality tests in selection. The purpose of this
paper is to re-conceptualize the way we operationally define personality, the way we measure
personality, and the use of personality assessments in personnel selection.
Personality Tests in Selection
Meta-analyses in the 1990s on the personality-job performance relationship sent the use of
personality tests soaring into record high rates (e.g. Barrick & Mount, 1991). Surveys in 2009
revealed that personality assessment was an over $500 million market with over 2500 personality
test available for purchase. In 2011, the market was worth $2 billion and up 15% from the previous
year. Rothstein and Goffin (2006) reviewed the literature on personality tests as selection tools and
discovered that most of the personality tests revolve around the five-factor model. However,
research on these factors reveals different results for different jobs, different task, different groups,
and different situational factors. Research is inconsistent in this topic area, and two major concerns
can be seen throughout research: the validity of personality test and the ability of testers to fake
information (Morgeson, Campion, Dipboye, Hollenbeck, Murphy, & Schmitt, 2007)
About 20% to 50% of applicants fake information on personality measures (Hough & Oswald,
2000; McFarland & Ryan, 2006; Griffith & Converse, 2011; Arthur, Glaze, Villado, & Taylor, 2010;
Griffith, Chmielowski, & Yoshita, 2007) and leave the employer misinformed. This can be
detrimental to the organization, and Ellingson, Sackett, and Hough (1999) found that statistical
methods such as correction for social desirability are ineffective and fail to produce a score that is
equivalent to an honest score. Researchers have concluded that it is nearly impossible to eliminate
the effects of applicant faking. Several researchers, however, have concluded that faking is "valid
and interpretable variance” (Hogan, 1991; Bourdeau & Lock, 2005; Ellingson, 2001). When people
are applying for a job, they may be focused on the future and determined; this may be reflective in
how they rate themselves at that time. They may rate themselves as a very serious person when in
most circumstances they are not. They may genuinely, at that moment, believe they are a certain way
and then behave totally different on the job.
The observed validity coefficients of personality test (Morgeson et al., 2007) are more
important in election context and are consistently low over time (Morgeson et al., 2007). For
example, the highest personality predictor of performance is conscientious and reported validity
coefficients have only ranged from .13 in 1991 to .10 in 1997 to .15 in 2000 (Barrick & Mount,
1991; Salgado, 1997; Hurtz & Donovan, 2000). Bing, Whanger, Davison, and VanHook (2004)
found, however, that adding situational aspects to personality items increased the validity
coefficients. The termed this phenomena the frame of reference effects and urge researchers and
practitioners to conceptualize and measure personality using situational and context specific terms.
Individuals may behave a certain way in one situation and in a very different way in another
different situation
We suggest the issue lies in how we conceptualize personality. Can some of the observed
variance in personality measures heretofore characterized as error variance be meaningful variation?
Individuals may sincerely feel one way at one point in time and sincerely feel another way later. If
personality is viewed as a state-based construct rather than exclusively in trait terms, ‘error variance’
may be more precisely parsed by looking at the meaning of within-person variance (i.e., as change in
State versus Trait Debate
Lewin (1943) suggested that behavior is a function of the person and the environment. Because
the environment is changing, individuals’ behavior will change as well. However, researchers have
suggested that behavior and personality are relatively consistent (McCrae & Costa, 1987). This
debate has persisted in the organizational research. Mischel (1984) found that mall alterations in an
experimental situation lead to large mean differences in behavior. Wright and Mischel (1987)
developed the theory of conditional dispositions that suggests the manifestation of personality traits
(i.e., dispositions) is conditional upon the situation. Davis-Blake and Pfeffer (1989) was one of the
first blatant attacks on the dispositional approach. They argued that dispositions are a mirage and
that the only significant determinants of employee behavior are situational in nature. However,
Funder and Harris (1986) conducted a meta-analysis and found that an individual’s behavior in one
situation was related to the individual’s behavior in another situation (r = .40).
Funder (2001) declared the person-situation or state-trait debate as over with the trait
perspective triumphing, but research on states and the importance of the situation has continued to
persist. Lievens et al. (2006) developed the trait-activation theory that argues certain traits are
activated by particular situational cues and that these traits are less likely to have an effect when
these cues are not present. Kuppens et al. (2007) coined the term affect spin, which is an assessment
of movement from affective state to another affective state. They suggest that the “sense of spin,” or
the experience of transition and variability between affective states is meaningful to employees and
therefore to organizational research as well. Affective events theory suggests that job satisfaction is a
composed of a pattern of states and the variation in satisfaction is not error but an essential
characteristic of human behavior (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996). Variation and contextual factors are
increasingly being recognized in the literature and thus it is important to recognize them in practice
as well. The use of personality tests in selection ignores this variance, and we suggest changing the
way we conceptualize and measure personality.
Reversal Theory Approach to Personality
Our hypothesis is that at least some of the observed inconsistency in personality research
findings is due to the inconsistent nature of human beings. Employees may feel playful one moment
and be serious in they next, and they may be competitive and controlling one day and sympathetic
and helpful the next. Using personality trait selection tools neglects to measure the dynamisms of
human beings. For example, research shows that people high in conscientiousness perform better
than those low in conscientiousness (Barrick & Mount, 1991). However, an individual high in
conscientiousness may be in a playful mood and neglect work duties.
To explain this variance, we propose adopting a model of personality, motivation and emotion
known as reversal theory (RT) (Smith & Apter, 1975). RT has been around since the mid70s and it
comes from the United Kingdom. Most of the work using the theory has been done in the areas of
sports, smoking, and eating disorders. There are approximately 16 books, more than 400 articles, and
an American Psychological Association published book on the theory (see for a
Reversal theory posits a model of personality in which people are inherently inconsistent (Apter,
2003; Apter, 2007). The theory goes against the norm of labeling individuals as specific “types”, or
as having only fixed personality traits. Similar to the way affective events theory describes job
satisfaction, reversal theory postulates that a person's personality is best conceptualized as the
pattern of transient states they experience. When an individual’s state of mind changes, this changes
the way s/he perceives what is happening. State of mind is how one experiences the world at the
moment; it may be thought of as a lens that colors motivation, emotion, attention, and interpretation.
This is why the same person can act differently in the same situation depending on their state; an
individual may behave introverted in one point in time and extroverted in the other depending on the
context of the situation. This is why adding a frame of reference to personality tests items increases
the validity coefficient of the test (Reddock, Biderman, & Nyguyen, 2010).
Detailed descriptions of the theory are available in Apter’s body of work (2001; 2007), and we
provide a brief summary of the theory here. Reversal theory suggests that people reverse between
four pairs of opposite states. Each pair is termed a domain, and each domain deals with what a
person wants at a particular moment. The four domains are means/ends, rules, transactional, and
orientation. The means/ends domain consists of the telic and paratelic states, and the contrast in this
domain is whether the individual is focused on the end result or enjoying the process. The rules
domain consists of the conformist and negativistic states, and the contrast in this domain is whether
or not an individual is trying to fit or trying to stand out. The transactional domain consists of the
mastery and sympathy states, and the contrast is whether the individual’s interactions are
characterized by control or affection. The last domain is the orientation domain, and the contrast in
this domain is between a focus on the self versus others. These are the autic and alloic states,
respectively. The transactional and orientation domains are often combined such that individuals are
in the self-mastery, self-sympathy, other-mastery, or other sympathy state. Individuals may want to
control the situation for themselves, want to feel love or care, what others to control the situation, or
want to love or care for others, respectively.
RT states are polarized, and thus an individual is in one of the states in each domain at all times.
Different people reverse from state to state at different times and this is referred to as lability.
Lability has been shown to be related to affect at work, which can lead to important outcomes in the
workplace (Brief & Weiss, 2002). For example, Murphy and Desselles (2011) conducted a study in
which participants took state measures five times per day for two consecutive days. The results
revealed that not only were people changing throughout the day, but also there were significant
correlations with changeability and negative and positive affect. The more people changed, the more
positive affect they reported and the less people changed the more negative affect they reported.
Researchers should consider re-conceptualizing the way we operationally define and measure
personality and the use of personality assessments in personnel selection. Assessing personality as a
pattern of states adds a piece of the puzzle or a part of the story that is important yet neglected when
personality is assessed as a trait. People change based on the context of situations and without
acknowledging this variance when selecting applicants, organizations label employees before they
even enter the organizations. When an employee deviates from that label, organizations may feel
mislead and an employee may feel they are not behaving according to organizational norms. These
deviations, however, are innate and should be considered just as important to the organization.
Reversal theory provides a framework for analyzing these deviations that can be useful to
organizations. For example, an employee may realize he or she is more productive at work when in
the paratelic state rather than the telic state. There are several techniques that can induce particular
states so that the employee can increase productivity through increasing time spent in the paratelic
state (Legrand, 2003). This is just one example of how reversal theory states add meaning and utility
to the variance in personality so often miscounted as error.
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