John M. Oldham's Solitary Personality Type

Personality inventories are always popular because they promise to reveal something about our innate behavior and the possibility of refining it to make ourselves and others happier.

 Popularized with the rise of psychology, personality inventories are especially well received in the United States, perhaps because of a tradition of exaggerated individualism and the lesser attention paid to social and economic factors in upbringing and social stratification.

Problems with personality tests

Critics of personality tests have pointed to a continuum between astrology, fortune-telling, horoscopes, and the structure of personality tests, arguing that the content is usually generic enough to attract the credence of those who find something in the tests that reflects themselves, ignoring the rest that does not. This is the so-called Forer effect. In general, subjective validation occurs whenever we link unrelated events as validating our assumption.

These are protestations concerning the scientific function of personality tests and subjective observation, but they beg the question about whether science or logic is relevant in them anyway. Granted that a consultant of an astrological or tarot reading is at risk of assuming something to be real that is not. But the existence of personality is not only popularly understood but seems quite open to logical description. What has been lacking in the famous inventories has been scientific descriptors.

The familiar tests present a series of random questions eliciting responses, then tabulates a score based on the extremes of responses elicited by given questions. The inventories all argue that no one fits rigidly into any given category or type, yet the types are presented not as sets of characteristics or behaviors but as personality types, with a mingling of characteristics based on one's inventory results.

Additionally, it should be pointed out that personality-type inventories are readily abused not only by eager individuals taking the inventories by themselves but by institutional and corporate administration of inventories with the goal of "team building," reorganization, and other internal corporate goals for assessing and reassigning of personnel. This fact merely reflects the inevitable abuse of scientific or administrative tools by those who redirect the positive intentions of their original proponents.

Oldham's "New Personality Self-portrait"

Meeting many of these criticisms is the method presented by physician, psychiatrist, researcher, academic administrator, and writer John M. Oldham. His personality test works well despite the inevitable inventory of general questions, the assignment of points, and the revelation of "types." The method makes significant progress over other popular inventories by grounding typologies not in familiar or popular consensus categories but in psychiatric medical categories of personality disorders.

Whereas previous inventories such as the Rorschach, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Thematic Apperception Test, and the Myers-Briggs Inventory were based on typologies that originated in psychoanalytic traditions and early psychological methods, Oldham's idea was to identity personality types on the scientific consensus of psychiatric data.

In his "New Personality Self-Portrait," Oldham identifies as his basis the personality disorders in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-IV (the roman numeral corresponding to the edition). Oldham then identifies "the common, utterly human, nonpatholocial versions of the extreme, disordered constellations" [Oldham's emphasis] from the editions of the definitive DSM.

 As Oldham notes, referring to his book,

the personality disorders are but extremes of normal human patterns, the stuff of which all our personalities are made. Whereas the DSM-III-R and DSM-IV identify categories of disorder, we describe here equivalent categories of orderly human functioning.

Oldham makes reference to the Personality Disorder Examination (PDE) -- another famous (among psychiatric clinicians) inventory that is the counterpart to his own test. He notes:

Unlike the PDE, our Personality Self-Portrait test is not a tool for the diagnosis of personality disorders. Rather, we have developed it to help you delineate the constituent part of your personality "order," by which we mean your personality style. ...

Psychiatry concerns itself with disorder. Our primary concern in this book is to delineate the normal, adaptive personality styles that the disorders take to an extreme.

In other words, personality types are on a tenuous horizontal spectrum of order and disorder, not a hierarchical system of increasingly refined levels of order spiraling away from disorder. This is an important point for understanding human nature and the social and psychological pressures that can exist in a person's life or, externally, in a person's environment. What a sobering thought to see the description of clinical mental disorders closely paralleling a description of personality types.

An objection to the book -- which is necessarily a popularization -- is not at all in the types, which are always mixed in the average person, but in the contrived persons Oldham must use for his popular audience as examples.

Many of the situations and responses assigned to these imaginary persons will not ring true because there is no cultural, socio-economic, environmental, or ethical component in concocting them. Cultural and other factors within a given personality type or between and among them may override some factors, minimize others, and exacerbate still others. An international version of the PDE attempts to address these different factors, but that is a large undertaking still in the future. Meanwhile, Oldham's popularization works well as long as the examples are taken with great reservation. Indeed, they may be largely ignored as distracting and misleading.

The Solitary Personality Type

Oldham's strength is in being succinct in descriptors but also comprehensive in including all types of personalities. Personalities are not just bundles of traits, and Oldham acknowledges this by presenting a list of styles based on the spectrum of disorders, as indicated above. Thus Oldham grounds his styles in medical psychiatry. Here is Oldham's basic continuum:

Conscientious » Obsessive-Compulsive
Self-Confident » Narcissistic
Dramatic » Histrionic
Vigilant » Paranoid
Mercurial » Borderline
Devoted » Dependent
Solitary » Schizoid
Leisurely » Passive-Aggressive
Sensitive » Avoidant
Idiosyncratic » Schizotypal
Adventurous » Antisocial
Self-Sacrificing » Self-Defeating
Aggressive » Sadistic
Serious » Depressive


Thus what is a normal personality style has a counterpart personality disorder. Oldham then applies fixed and standard dimensions of life expression to the various styles for the inventory. The dimensions are called "Key Domains" and are:

  1. self
  2. emotions
  3. self-control
  4. relationships
  5. work
  6. "real world."

The "Solitary Style" has six characteristics, according to Oldham. This does not mean that the characteristics are exclusive to this personality type but that they will manifest themselves more intensely.

  1. Solitude. Small need for companionship; most comfortable  alone
  2. Independence. Not requiring interactions to carry out life experiences
  3. Sangfroid. Even-tempered, calm, dispassionate, unsentimental
  4. Stoicism. Apparent indifference to pain and pleasure
  5. Sexual composure. Not driven by sexual needs
  6. Feet on the ground. Not swayed by praise or criticism

In terms of the "key domains," self and emotions are the basic revelatory factors for the solitary.  Here Oldham elaborates a little more, but offers as an example a contrived "person" which unfortunately gives each trait a flat and inflexible sense to the traits.

The subtitle to the six domains below are provided by Oldham.

1. Self: The Inner Sanctum

Oldham states:

Solitary individuals are self-contained. They are their own truest, most trusted companions, providing the most important resources they need. They require no one else to guide them, to admire them, to provide emotional sustenance, to entertain them, or to share their experiences.

Oldham notes that solitary people marry and go about the world as anyone else does. But a key behavior factor will appear to be avoidance. In fact this is not the psychological definition of avoidance, as when the Sensitive Style avoid others because they cannot be themselves, or the Idiosyncratic Style avoids others because they cannot conform to conventional rules of behavior. The solitary's option for being alone is not avoidance or loneliness but represents a preference.

2. Emotions: The Language of Dispassion

Oldham states:

[Solitaries] do not experience emotions as intensely as do most others. They are not feelers, not emoters. Emotionally,  ... they are imperturbable. Strongly solitary individuals have little emotional need of intimacy. Moderately Solitary people, though, may feel frustrated by their inability to connect with anyone on a deep feeling level.

But Solitary people are not necessarily unhappy -- as long as others do not demand more of them than they can give. People are always pushing Solitary types to reveal themselves and express their feelings, trying to get a rise out of them, as if (like some Conscientious people) they are keeping them hidden and not sharing what is actually there. But for many Solitary people who have no compensating emotional styles, the repertoire of emotions may truly be small. They do not speak the language of emotions -- which is hard for many of us to comprehend.

3. Self-Control: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Solitary seldom overindulges with regards to visceral appetites, because the appetites depend on spontaneous emotions, and the Solitary does not function on emotions, let alone spontaneous ones. If the Solitary personality type is mingled with elements of the Dramatic or the Leisurely, they will by nature tend to avoid excesses of human emotion.

Oldham points out that the unemotional person has been shown in medical studies to be at medical risk, but it seems that all styles carry some correlation with particular diseases. Awareness or mindfulness exercises (which Oldham describes later in this section) can address feelings for the Solitary and give context to them.

4. Relationships: Take Them or Leave Them

The Solitary person unmitigated by "other-directed personality styles" will not likely pursue interpersonal relationships, including friendships or even an interest in people. "It's not that Solitary people don't like people," says Oldham. "They are not hostile or angry at anyone." They may enjoy the company of others and may even marry or have several close friends. But they need time to themselves to remain open because they will not be able to intuitively identify or respond to other people's emotional needs.

5. Work: Going It Alone

Solitary types have desirable work habits: ability to concentrate, attention to task versus wasting time, chatting, pursuing distractions or getting bored. They are self-contained, require little feedback or supervision, and accept criticism. They are task-oriented, observant, detail-oriented, and generally work with a sense of equanimity.

The key factor, however, is the setting.  In general, the Solitary likes to work alone versus with teams or in interaction with the public. In social settings the Solitary may appear uncooperative, but it is the absence of communication skills that gives the impression of a lack of tact, sensitivity, or diplomacy. As administrators, Solitary people expect others to intuit a great deal and to be self-motivated, thereby failing to perceive their subordinates' needs, skills, and personalities.

Oldham's recommendations to the Solitary in work is to avoid careers that involve people to whom the Solitary must be responsive. Solitaries can readily work with people if it does not involve office politics and if their demands corresponds to what they do or are good at providing. Clearly, creative, technical, and mechanical fields are best. One pitfall for the Solitary is that as they achieve success in their field, they are tempted to expand to other fields, tasks, or administrative levels -- which brings them into greater and more increasing interaction with people.

6. Real World: Privacy, Please

The last point is simple: the Solitary has created a little personal world that is comfortable and efficacious, where everyone works on their own tasks by themselves. But the real world is full of people who make demands and are intrusive. The Solitary works best by safeguarding "little pockets of solitude around themselves" and trying to spend as much time there as possible.


Oldham offers nine excellent exercises in self-awareness that will improve the Solitary's encounters with others. These involve observing emotions in others, identifying one's own feelings and expressing them, (or pretending to), practicing endurance when in a situation is not comfortable, negotiating and discussing with others, learning to say things that please others (even though the Solitary will be immune to compliments or praise and not appreciate why others are not also), and taking chances with feelings (that can always be pulled back later).

A helpful section of his book, too, offers tips to dealing with Solitary types, which, of course, are ways for solitaries to find bridges or links to where to accommodate others while others attempt to accommodate to the Solitary.

An important fact is the common intersection of many characteristics of the Solitary with other personality types, specifically the Sensitive and the Self-Confident. Overlapping behaviors have different motives but these very differences are good clues for modifying potential excesses.

Oldham notes that genetics and childhood environment have a great deal to do with personality style. (His book does not elaborate much on this topic, but it requires a book on it own). The individual is tempted to conclude that all is irreversible and that it is too late to address excesses. The information about oneself in the New Personality Self-Portrait is the basis for self-awareness and mindfulness. Coupled with a sense of values and world-view, the Solitary can be every bit as congenial and interesting as any other personality type, and Solitaries can be every bit as content with their personality type, not wishing to be other than what they are. Imagine an awareness of personalities such that everyone could be accommodated in what they do well and what complements their strengths?


John Oldham provides a breakthrough in thinking about personality types by correlating their descriptions to demonstrated and documented psychological conditions. This correlation makes for a spectrum of functionality helpful to the individual in growing self-awareness and self-knowledge. It works directly with known and observed behaviors rather than accommodating types to intellectualized models or intuited archetypes of behavior. Whatever the necessary limits of popularization, Oldham's work is important and compelling for anyone interested in the topic.


Oldham, John M. and Lois B. Morris: The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love, and Act the Way You Do. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders : DSM-IV. Washington, DC:: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.