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Deciphering the learning personality


Professor Chris J Jackson explores the effectiveness of the Jackson Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality. 

The most important asset of any organisation is its people. What people do can lead to productivity, customer satisfaction, and organisational profit. Yet, despite the positive impact that employees have on organisational outcomes, the opposite is also true. Some people commit negative behaviours which are counter-productive, anti-social and contrary to the legitimate interests of the organisation. HR professionals often use psychological tests to help us select, appraise and train people such that we can fill organisations with functional learners who will possess the cognitive skills, depth, flexibility, rigor and knowledge such that top performance is obtained, change is possible and mistakes are minimised.

Sensation seeking

Traditionally personality tests have been used to predict performance, integrity tests have been used to measure counter-productive behaviour and learning tests have been used to measure learning. At best, most tests are designed by exploratory factor analysis to achieve a simple, descriptive solution. They do not tell us about biological and cognitive processes underlying learning; they do not tell us about the underlying learning mechanisms which explain how people behave and they do not tell us how to intervene effectively. In short, many modern tests tend to fail in achieving many of the above outcomes.
Jackson designed the Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality which argues that there is a common biological basis to positive and negative outcomes within the workplace, education and the general community. It is termed a hybrid model because it combines biological theories of personality with socio-cognitive and experiential mechanisms of learning.
Jackson argues that 'Sensation Seeking' is an instinctive biological drive which provides the need to explore the environment. Jackson specifically argues that Sensation Seeking is neither positive nor negative. In Jackson’s model, Sensation Seeking is seen as a relatively primitive drive which needs re-expression by more sophisticated socio-cognitive mechanisms for it to be the basis of functional learning. These socio-cognitive mechanisms are split into the following:
  • Goal Oriented Achiever – a mastery or learning goal orientation which allocates cognitive resources towards the achievement of difficult goals such that the more cognitive effort we put into a task then the more likely it is that we will succeed.
  • Conscientious Achiever – providing responsibility, planning and perseverance
  • Deep Learning Achiever – a deep understanding and knowledge about problems and systems thinking as opposed to simply tackling the surface issues
  • Emotionally Intelligent Achiever – providing rationality and emotionally independent thinking
A simple analogy provides an easy way to understand the Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality. Think of an arrow shooting through the air towards an appropriate target. Hitting a worthwhile and useful target represents functional learning. All other shots (including hitting a poorly chosen target) represent various forms of dysfunctional learning. An important feature of a successful shot is that the arrow will only fly true to its target if it has sufficient momentum (Sensation Seeking drive).
However momentum only provides the necessary, raw, unsophisticated part of achieving archery success. More sophisticated skills re-express the raw energy such that the appropriate target is hit. Successful hitting of the target only occurs if:  
  • The angle of flight is correct (Goal Oriented Achiever)
  • The flight of the arrow has been well planned and practised (Conscientious Achiever)
  • The arrow is flying towards a target that has been rationally chosen (Emotional Intelligent Achiever)
  • The arrow has been launched by someone who has put sufficient thought into the process, and who understands the process, such that they can plan for and react to changing circumstances (Deep Learning Achiever)
For example, high Sensation Seekers who fail to re-express their drive for curiosity through their socio-cognitive mechanisms might have momentum to be rich. However they will proceed to achieve wealth by means of simple cognitive strategies such as unsophisticated ‘smash and grab’ techniques which are socially unacceptable. In contrast, a high Sensation Seeker, able to re-express their exploratory needs by means of socio-cognitive mechanisms, would set out to achieve this aim by complex and socially acceptable cognitive strategies such as setting up a company, achieving more sales, getting bonuses etc.
The complex strategies for success found in entrepreneurs for example are likely to contrast with the deficient strategies present in delinquents. Functional learners are cognitively equipped to use their sensation seeking wisely whereas dysfunctional learners are not.
If a person has the cognitive skills to redirect, control, or delay their Sensation Seeking, then Jackson’s Hybrid Model of Learning argues that the person will be a functional learner and a productive employee. If a person lacks the cognitive skills to control their Sensation Seeking, then the model argues that the person will be a dysfunctional learner who is potentially counter-productive.

The model in practice

So what is the evidence for the Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality? O’Connor and Jackson (2008) provided a series of studies examining how Goal Oriented Achievers re-express Sensation Seeking towards the achievement of functionally learnt goals. Results from school children, an experiment looking at maze performance, and in the workplace provided evidence that Goal Orientated Achievers re-express Sensation Seeking in the prediction of functionally learnt performance. They also reported that dysfunctionally learnt performance resulted from the direct expression of Sensation Seeking.
Jackson, Hobman, Jimmieson and Martin (2009) reported that the Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality predicted university self reported performance, leadership, self-reported work performance and supervisor rated work performance better than many other models of personality.
Jackson, Baguma and Furnham (in press) provide evidence from Australian and Ugandan students of indirect pathways from Sensation Seeking through other socio-cognitive scales to Emotionally Intelligent Achievement and finally to Grade Point Average.
Siadaty and Taghiyareh (2007) offered students training in Conscientious Achievement and Sensation Seeking but reported only success in training for Conscientious Achievement. This is in accord with the proposed hybrid model of learning in personality since the socio-cognitive scales are meant to be open to change and intervention whereas Sensation Seeking, with its more biological basis, is much less malleable.
Cloninger, Syrakic, and Przybeck (1993) have a similar perspective concerning the fixed nature of biological scales (termed temperament in their model) and the changeable nature of socio-cognitive scales (termed character in their model).
Jackson’s Learning Styles Profiler can be used in selection to differentiate between those likely to have functional and dysfunctional learning outcomes. However, there are also clear applications in terms of training and development. The cognitive basis of the four achiever scales suggests that these will be amenable to change whereas Sensation Seeking with its biological basis will be less amenable.
Trainers and developer’s who use Jackson’s model will benefit by knowing which scales of personality are most likely to respond to intervention than if they use traditional models of personality which have no such interpretation. There are also further applications of the model in the community and in education such that it has utility where people traditionally use personality, learning or integrity measures.

The active benefits of the model

The benefits of using Jackson’s Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality in contrast to many widely used measures are that Jackson’s model:
  • is based on a theory of learning compared to the data driven models based, at best, on exploratory factor analysis
  • provides a mechanism or process through which learning takes place in contrast to many widely used descriptive models  in which no mechanisms are specified
  • provides measure of learning based on well explored and well understood cognitive processes
  • provides a measure of learning with known reliability, validity and a good underlying measurement model compared with many widely used measures of learning which are of dubious value
  • aims to predict both functional and dysfunctional learning
  • aims to provide a trajectory of likely success and provides feedback about how to make that trajectory even more successful. Most existing models of personality and learning are simply oriented towards telling people what they know already
  • tells us which parts of personality are amenable to training intervention and which are not.
  • does not argue that there is a learning cycle but instead argues that there are cognitive pathways that direct people towards functional learning (see Jackson, Baguma & Furnham, in press).

In summary, Jackson’s Hybrid Model of Learning is a compelling and evidence based new way of thinking about functional and dysfunctional learning in the work-place, in education and in the community. Furnham and Jackson remark that biologically based theories of personality have had little impact in organisational psychology; the Hybrid Model of Learning sets the stage for a new way to think about learning and how learning predicts performance.

The Learning Styles Profiler together with a self-development feedback report is available free of charge for individual use at

Professor Chris Jackson is an expert in workplace learning in the School of Organisation and Management, University of New South Wales, Australia.

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