Researching Personality Traits: Nomothetic and Idiographic Analysis

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  • 0:02 Personality
  • 0:54 Nomothetic Approach
  • 3:00 Idiographic Approach
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Personality is what makes us unique. But how should we measure it? In this lesson, we'll examine the two major psychological approaches to personality - the nomothetic approach and the idiographic approach - and how they approach measurement.


Sunny is just like her name: she's happy, upbeat, and laid-back. She's shy and doesn't like to be in a crowd, but for the people who are close to her, she's a ray of sunshine.

Her friend Diana is different, though. Diana is outgoing and loves a party, but she's also a very intense person who experiences big emotions and worries about the future. She and Sunny are opposites!

What makes individuals unique? How can someone like Diana be so different from Sunny? In psychology, the study of what makes people unique is called personality. Everyone's personality is different, and it's what really makes them who they are. Let's examine two different approaches to studying personality: the nomothetic approach and the idiographic approach.

Nomothetic Approach

Sunny and Diana are very different from each other. Sunny is happy-go-lucky but introverted, whereas Diana is extroverted but more of a worrywart than Sunny. But they still have a few things in common, including the fact that they are both highly organized people who like travel and experiencing new things.

The nomothetic approach to personality looks at what people have in common with each other. It comes from the Greek word nomos, which means 'law,' and the nomothetic approach is interested in finding patterns or laws of human personality.

Take Sunny and Diana: they are different from each other when it comes to being outgoing or not: while Diana is extroverted, Sunny is more shy. But both of their personalities can be described based on the personality trait of extroversion or introversion.

Extroversion is one of several traits identified by nomothetic psychologists when trying to figure out general patterns in personality. Essentially, these psychologists look at traits like extroversion or conscientiousness and say, 'This person is extroverted and organized,' or 'That person is introverted and disorganized.'

In the nomothetic approach, then, a person's unique personality is a result of the combination of general traits that they display. Sunny being introverted is not unusual; she has that in common with much of the population. But it is the combination of introversion, optimism, organization, and openness to new experiences that makes Sunny unique.

Nomothetic psychologists measure personality via psychometrics, or measuring traits using tests or experiments. To them, a person can take a personality test and their score on different traits will give an outline of who they are. For example, Sunny might score pretty low as far as being high-strung is concerned, whereas Diana might score pretty high. Either way, they are getting a score for that and other traits, and it is their composite that will tell them who they are.

Idiographic Approach

But can personality really be defined by a score on a test? And can the complexity of humanity be narrowed down to just a few traits? Some psychologists don't believe so. They prefer to look at what is unique in each individual, in a method known as the idiographic approach to psychology.

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