Psychology and Influence: A communicator’s guide to personality profiling

There’s always been a close link between public relations and applied psychology. After all, in public relations, our interests lie in exerting influence, through communication, to bring about changes in relationships, perceptions, opinions, attitudes and behaviour.

It will often be necessary to think about the characteristics of individuals, and how they make up groups of interest. And so, it’s useful to consider personality traits: which personalities are amenable to influence, and what sort of influence will they respond to?

For years, we’ve thought in simple terms: how to put ourselves in the place of the individual to try to see the world through their eyes, asking ‘What’s in it for them?’.

But, with insights from psychology, we can strengthen this analysis.

The UK Government Communication Service (GCS) is explicit on this. In a report published in 2015 on the future of public service communications, it suggested that future practice will depend on a familiarity with behaviour-change techniques and that “audience-focused behavioural insights are the key to effective external and internal communications”.

GCS also admitted that it isn’t easy: “Behaviour change can be difficult to attain… it requires skills in, and an understanding of, applied social policy, social psychology, traditional economics and behavioural economics. This is in addition to skills such as PR and marketing.”

A challenge for practitioners is how to get access to useful information from the decades of work done in the field of psychology.

But, in reality, PR pros think about the key questions around audience structures, receptivity and response in their day-to-day practice:

  • Who is in the audience?
  • How do individuals making up the audience relate to each other (through what networks of influence)?
  • What are some of the characteristics of individual audience members?

As for this last question, we can think of what might appeal to individual audience members, what messages they might respond to, and what their personality characteristics are, making them more or less receptive to particular approaches.


Within psychology, personality is a thoroughly studied and separate topic. After the Second World War, psychologists went in search of answers to a number of pressing questions, and through them identified what they called the ‘authoritarian personality’. Why had it been so easy for authoritarian leaders to gain support for their ideas through propaganda?

Are certain personality types more susceptible to propaganda?

Personality traits, arising from inherited characteristics and experience of the world, family, education and development, will influence the way individuals see the world and behave.

A number of tests have been developed to try to capture a picture of personality traits. The following are some of the main ones.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is perhaps the best-known test. This describes personality along dimensions of introversion and extroversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, and judging and perceiving.

Responses to a questionnaire indicate preferences against these dimensions, and individuals can be assigned to 16 personality types.

Different personalities will respond to the world in different ways. Know their characteristics and, the argument goes, you will know how to work with them.

In recent years, some commentators – notably the American author Adam Grant – have questioned the relevance of the Myers-Briggs model.

The Big Five model was developed in the 1970s by two US research teams.

The Big Five are the ingredients that make up each individual’s personality:

  • Openness
  • Extroversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

A person might have a dash of openness, a lot of conscientiousness, an average amount of extroversion, plenty of agreeableness and almost no neuroticism at all. Or someone could be disagreeable, neurotic, introverted, conscientious and hardly open at all.

The Four Tendencies. Gretchen Rubin’s 2017 book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too), is a recent attempt to define personality, this time in terms of response to expectations.

Rubin says we all face outer expectations – from employers, clients and friends, for example – and inner expectations – what we expect in terms of our own behaviour.

Her simple scheme suggests people belong to one of four types: upholder, questioner, obliger or rebel.

Upholders respond to outer and inner expectations. Questioners, she says, question all expectations and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified. So, in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Obligers respond readily to outer expectations, but resist inner expectations, so it is easier for them to get things done in response to others than it is to respond to self-set challenges.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner.

The tendencies provide a framework that can help explain why we act, or don’t. A short quiz on Rubin’s website quickly establishes which tendency you show.

Rubin’s framework provides a potential source of insights into responsiveness to communication.

We would expect upholders to respond to expectations about their behaviour; questioners might be expected to resist and to demand additional answers to their questions.

Obligers, like upholders, are predisposed to respond to external expectations, but rebels’ opposition might be expected and worked around.


Speculation as to why people behave in the way they do is part of everyday life. We all have to make sense of others’ behaviour, to adapt to it and get on with living our own lives.

Psychology is an attempt to systematise the study of that behaviour. As the prominent social psychologist Kurt Lewin argued, there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Theory gives a degree of control – chosen courses of action will work because tested theory says they will (until that is contradicted by further work and findings).

The challenge for PR practitioners is to judge what’s useful among the work that’s been done.

Models such as the Four Tendencies and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter answer a need for explanations of behaviour. They answer individuals’ curiosity relating to their own possibilities, but also provide insights for use in other settings, such as organisational or public communication.

They popularise ideas about behaviour and provide terms – like those of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – that can be used in organisational settings.

But, as Rubin admits, personality is more complicated than just four tendencies. We can take inspiration when planning campaigns, but we must always remember that consumers are unique – and our work should be too.

Jon White is a chartered psychologist and a visiting professor at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture. He is a founding member of the Influence editorial board.

This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.

Image courtesy of wikimeida user Srishti Muralidharan under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


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