Let’s face it, we love to label and categorize things. Not in a label-maker, let’s reorganize the junk drawer kind of way, but in how we process the world around us. This kind of information-organizing helps us make quick decisions. And, we don’t just do it with things, we do it with people. Social scientists call this social categorization. It’s when we think man versus woman, young person versus old person, friend versus stranger. It happens automatically without any thought to what we’re actually doing. And it explains a little bit why we’re so obsessed with the idea of personality types.

The phrase Type A personality immediately sums up a bunch of traits to us, including ambition, drive, competitiveness. That’s because we’ve seen or heard about psychometric tests like the Jenkins Activity Survey, one of the most widely used methods for identifying Type A personalities. It has questions like:

  1. How often do you finish other people’s sentences because they speak too slowly?
  2. When you are playing a game, how important is it for you to win?
  3. Do you keep a daily schedule or calendar of your plans?

Then we can make assumptions based on that label. Now, here’s the big problem. There is no such thing as a Type A personality—at least not in the way you think there is.

So, Where Did Type A Personality Come From?

It all started with a bunch of worn out chairs in a doctor’s office. Seriously. A pair of cardiologists, Dr. Gerald Friedman and  Dr. Ray Rosenman  noticed that their waiting room chairs were wearing out really fast, and only in certain spots—the front edges of the seats and armrests. It was as though the patients sitting in those chairs couldn’t sit still, sat on the very edge of their seats, and sprang up quickly.

Now, being science-minded, they wanted to figure out why the people who sat in those seats seemed so tense. One thing led to another and they began unraveling some pretty interesting findings like the fact the accountants’ cholesterol levels shot up during tax season. From this research, they come up with the idea that certain types are more prone to heart disease. They labeled this behavior Type A personality and continued to do research to show that people with type A personality run a higher risk of heart disease and high blood pressure than type Bs.

It was met with mixed reviews by their colleagues. But, one industry was particularly impressed: tobacco. This was the kind of research that could make heart disease seem like it was from a set of personality traits, not from smoking. So, for thirty years, companies like Philip Morris poured money into funding the personality type research. They even paid scientists as “consultants and expert witnesses in litigation to defend and promote smoking,” according to an article in the journal Social Science Medicine.

Fast Forward: What Psychologists Say Today

The bottom line is that psychologists today pay little attention to Type A and Type B designations and many take it a step further to say the psychometric tests used to identify these traits may be reliable, but not valid as a personality construct.

Still, that doesn’t mean they were ‘unimportant topics’ when they were first identified, says Frank Farley, PhD, professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University in Philadelphia and former president of the American Psychological Association. “They were important in the process of connecting psychology to coronary heart disease (CHD),” Farley says.

As more research was done on the intricacies of what it means to be Type A, our understanding of the connection between a personality type and health issues evolved as well. “As this happened, the set of Type A features were unpacked to better identify which specific features were most connected to CHD,” he says. “Some were more involved than others and the focus tended to shift from the global Type A to specific features.”

Still, the terms Type A and Type B have continued to gain popularity and have even become a way that some individuals began to self-identify, Farley says. “We often like to characterize people as Type A and less so Type B,” he says. In fact, statements like ‘he’s so Type A,’ are commonplace, especially if a person demonstrates what are presumed as Type A personality traits, such as being a workaholic or tending towards hostility.

But for psychologists, these terms aren’t go-to terms, even as they have continued to appear in memes or other pop culture forms. “These types do not exist as valid personality constructs, at least not within the scientific field of personality psychology,” says Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

How Are Personalities Defined, Then?

Most psychologist use the “Big Five” framework to assess personality. This way of looking at personality focuses on, you guessed it, five overarching traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. And within these traits, there’s a range of how, say open versus closed you are.

Here are some of the kinds of statements you’d see on a personality test that measures these traits. (For more, check out this article.) you would rate each on a scale of one to five.

Openness. This trait looks at your ideas and interests. I am quick to understand things.

  • I am full of ideas.

Conscientiousness: This is all about order and self-discipline.

  • I pay attention to details.

Extroversion: The introversion-extroversion scale is about how much stimulation you need. I am the life of the party.

  • I feel comfortable around people.

Agreeableness: This is just what it would seem to be—how easy is it for you to get along with others?

  • I take time out for others.

Neuroticism: Some of the facets that make up neuroticism are anxiety, hostility and depression.

  • I get stressed out easily.

So the next time you want to call someone Type A, maybe consider “high on the neuroticism” spectrum. Maybe, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but at least it’s probably more accurate.

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Last Updated: Apr 3, 2020