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The lexical hypothesis (also the fundamental lexical hypothesis,lexical approach, or sedimentation hypothesis) is one of the most widely used hypothesis in personality psychology. Despite some variation in its definition and application, the Lexical hypothesis is generally defined by two postulates. The first states that those personality characteristics that are most important in peoples' lives will eventually become a part of their language. The second follows from the first, stating that more important personality characteristics are more likely to be encoded into language as a single word. With origins in the late 19th century, use of the lexical hypothesis began to flourish in English and German psychology in the early 20th century. The lexical hypothesis is a major foundation of the Big Five personality traits, the HEXACO model of personality structure and the 16PF Questionnaire and has been used to study the structure of personality traits in a number of cultural and linguistic settings.
Sir Francis Galton was one of the first scientists to apply the lexical hypothesis to the study of personality, stating:
I tried to gain an idea of the number of the more conspicuous aspects of the character by counting in an appropriate dictionary the words used to express them... I examined many pages of its index here and there as samples of the whole, and estimated that it contained fully one thousand words expressive of character, each of which has a separate shade of meaning, while each shares a large part of its meaning with some of the rest.
Despite Galton's early ventures into the lexical study of personality, over two decades passed before English-language scholars continued his work. A 1910 study by G. E. Partridge listed approximately 750 English adjectives used to describe mental states, while a 1926 study of Webster's New International Dictionary by M. L. Perkins provided an estimate of 3,000 such terms. These early explorations and estimates were not limited to the English-speaking world, with philosopher and psychologist Ludwig Klages stating in 1929 that the German language contains approximately 4,000 words to describe inner states.
Column I: This group contains 4,504 terms that describe or are related to personality traits. Being the most important of the four columns to Allport and Odbert and future psychologists, its terms most closely relate to those used by modern personality psychologists (e.g., aggressive, introverted, sociable). Allport and Odbert suggested that this column represented a minimum rather than final list of trait terms. Because of this, they recommended that other researchers consult the remaining three columns in their studies.
Column II: In contrast with the more stable dispositions described by terms in Column I, this group includes terms describing present states, attitudes, emotions, and moods (e.g., rejoicing, frantic). Reflecting this focus on temporary states, present participles represent the majority of the 4,541 terms in Column II.
Column III: The largest of the four groups, Column III contains 5,226 words related to social evaluations of an individual's character (e.g., worthy, insignificant). Unlike the previous two columns, this group does not refer to internal psychological attributes of a person. As such, Allport and Odbert acknowledged that Column III did not meet their definition of trait-related terms. Predating the person-situation debate by over 30 years, Allport and Odbert included this group to appease researchers in social psychology, sociology, and ethics.
Column IV: The last of Allport and Odbert's four columns contained 3,682 words. Called the "miscellaneous column" by the authors, Column IV contains important personality-descriptive terms that did not fit into the other three columns. Allport and Odbert offered potential subgroups for terms describing behaviors (e.g., pampered, crazed), physical qualities associated with psychological traits (e.g., lean, roly-poly), and talents or abilities (e.g., gifted, prolific). However, they noted that these subdivisions were not necessarily accurate, as: (i) innumerable subgroups were possible, (ii) these subgroups would not incorporate all of the miscellaneous terms, and (iii) further editing might reveal that these terms do fit into the other three columns.
- The fact that the Lexical hypothesis uses verbal descriptors in investigation of behavioural individual differences is viewed as one of methodological flaws in this method when applied to personality theory. First, there is a natural pro-social bias of language in people’s verbal evaluations. After all, language is an invention of group dynamics that was developed to facilitate socialization, the exchange of information and to synchronize group activity. This social function of language therefore creates a sociability bias in verbal descriptors of human behaviour: there are more words related to social than physical or even mental aspects of behavior. The sheer number of such descriptors will cause them to group into a largest factor in any language, and such grouping has nothing to do with the way that core systems of individual differences are set up. Second, there is also a negativity bias in emotionality (i.e. most emotions have negative affectivity), and there are more words in language to describe negative rather than positive emotions. Such asymmetry in emotional valence creates another bias in language. Experiments using the lexical hypothesis approach indeed demonstrated that the use of lexical material skews the resulting dimensionality according to a sociability bias of language and a negativity bias of emotionality, grouping all evaluations around these two dimensions. This means that the two largest dimensions in the Big Five model of personality (i.e. Extraversion and Neuroticism) might be just an artifact of the lexical approach that this model employed.
- Many traits of psychological importance are too complex to be encoded into single terms or used in everyday language. In fact, an entire text may be the only way to accurately capture and reflect some important personality characteristics.
- Laypeople use personality-descriptive terms in an ambiguous manner. Similarly, many of the terms used in psycholexical studies are too ambiguous to be useful in a psychological context.
- The lexical hypothesis relies on terms that were not developed by experts. As such, any models developed with the lexical hypothesis reflect lay perceptions rather than expert psychological knowledge.
- Language accounts for a minority of communication and is inadequate to describe much of human experience.
- The mechanisms that led to the development of personality lexicons are poorly understood.
- Personality-descriptive terms change over time and differ in meaning across dialects, languages, and cultures.
- The methods used to test the lexical hypothesis are unscientific.
- Personality-descriptive language is too broad to be captured with a single word class, yet psycholexical studies of personality largely rely on adjectives.
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