The concept of the jangle fallacy¹ has been around for almost 100 years, but it seems like we keep falling victim to it. For those not familiar, it is a mistaken belief that two constructs are different because they have different names, when in fact they are the same or almost identical concept. It had been referred to as “old wine in new bottles.”
One of the most notable recent examples of the jangle fallacy occurred with the construct of “grit,” which was defined as the “perseverance and passion for long term goals²” (p. 1087). It was thought to be a higher order construct comprised of two lower order facets: perseverance of effort and consistency of interest. However, a recent meta-analysis³ showed that this was not the case. Instead, it was found that it had such a high correlation (.84) with the Big Five personality domain of Conscientiousness that it was essentially redundant.
“The Dark Personality”
Another popular example of the jangle fallacy concerns the construct of “dark” personality traits. First referred to as the “Dark Triad⁴,” which consists of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, the concept expanded based on recent research⁵ to include the shared variance of a variety of antagonistic traits, referred to as the “dark core.” However, a recent study⁶ showed that it had such a strong (-.9) negative relationship with the Big Five personality domain of Agreeableness that dark core is really nothing other than the low end of that domain (i.e., antagonism).
The Jangle Fallacy Problem
When constructs that already exist are identified as something new, it leads to a lot of wasted time, money, and effort. New measures need to be developed and such measures are often narrower in scope than existing Big Five measures.
At best, it adds time and cost to an assessment battery without providing incremental validity.
At worst, it leads to broader and more predictive measures being excluded from the battery. It also prevents incorporation with existing research, significantly limiting utility and efficiency.
We may be seeing the jangle fallacy once again with the construct of “learning agility.”
What is “Learning Agility?”
Identified over 20 years ago⁷, it was initially defined as “the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first time, tough, or different conditions.” (p. 323). A four factor solution was extracted from the first measure of the construct and those factors were labeled: change agility, mental agility, people agility, and results agility.
Since that time, several other measures of learning agility have been created and have uncovered five, seven, and even nine factor solutions. And, in four of the most popular learning agility measures, only 3 facets are measured in all of them: social astuteness, unconventional thinking, and intellectual curiosity⁸.
While there seems to be a lack of an agreed upon definition, the construct is conceptualized as a metacompetency that consists of many facets, and the most recent proposal has a total of nine⁸. It is clear that more research is needed to show what “learning agility” actually is.
What “learning agility” probably isn’t
A recent meta-analysis⁹ found a rather weak relationship between “learning agility” measures and tests of cognitive ability. While the number of studies included in it was small, it is still a step in the right direction, as it suggests that it is not simply redundant with cognitive ability.
Is “learning agility” a metacompetency or mostly redundant with a metatrait that is part of the Big Five?
A critical piece of information that is missing, though, is how redundant the concept is with the much better established “Big Five” domains of personality, first labeled as such by Goldberg¹⁰ in 1981. Originally discovered by Fiske in 1949¹¹, it has been the most popular way of conceptualizing personality since the 1980s. Also prior to the identification of “learning agility,” it was discovered that the Big Five do not, in fact, sit atop the personality hierarchy. First identified by Digman¹² as α and β in 1997, and since replicated repeatedly and across cultures, these metatraits are now commonly referred to as Stability and Plasticity¹³.
Plasticity and “learning agility”
Plasticity, as the name implies, would seem to be highly relevant for learning agility. It is made up of the Big Five domains of Extraversion and Openness/Intellect. What these two factors have in common, and hence why they share variance, is a tendency towards exploration and sensitivity to rewards¹⁴.
- Those high in Extraversion are more driven to explore behaviorally, and are more sensitive to rewards, especially those involving status. As such, they are driven to hold leadership positions.
- Those higher in Openness are more driven to explore cognitively and are more sensitive to the reward value of information.
- They can both be thought of as having an approach orientation, which facilitates learning. And, likely because of this, a meta-analysis showed that they were the two Big Five domains that are the strongest predictors of training performance¹⁵.
- A different meta-analysis¹⁶ showed that Openness and Extraversion were the two strongest personality predictors of leadership effectiveness.
- Learning agility has been touted a “g-factor” of leadership⁸ because of how important it is for leadership effectiveness. Might this be because it is sampling heavily from the metatrait Plasticity?
Relationship between extraversion and “learning agility”
More recent research¹⁵ has indicated that Extraversion is an even more powerful predictor of leadership effectiveness than previously thought. Perhaps even more importantly, this same study has shown that Extraversion predicts:
- Effectiveness at adjusting to novel situations, including college and expatriate assignments. This means that people high on Extraversion tend to learn to adapt to tough situations easier than those low on this domain, which seems to be a key part of learning agility.
- Greater attention and sensitivity towards others, as well as more effective social interactions. Thus, the Social Astuteness facet of learning agility may also be predicted well by extraversion.
Openness/Intellect and Learning Agility
Individuals who score high on this Big Five domain have long ago¹⁶ been described as having intellectual curiosity and “open-mindedness and a willingness to consider new, perhaps unconventional ideas” (p.17). Thus, Intellectual Curiosity and Unconventional Thinking facets of learning agility should be well-covered by this domain.
We Won’t be Fooled Again
It may well be that the majority of learning agility will be redundant with Extraversion and Openness/Intellect; those with higher levels of both of the domains (and hence a higher level of Plasticity) should be the most agile learners because they will be driven to approach what is to be learned and do so more effectively. It remains to be seen what part of learning agility will be unique after accounting for these factors (and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the Big Five) and whether learning agility measures provide any incremental validity beyond what you can get from a Big Five measure.
Similar to Emotional Intelligence?
Like learning agility, the definition of emotion intelligence has evolved considerably over the years and seems to mean different things to different people. Still, self-reported emotional intelligence measures have been shown to predict job performance well. When the reasons why were examined¹⁷, it was found that the measures sampled from well-known psychological constructs, such as the Big Five domains of Emotional Stability, Extraversion, and Conscientiousness. And, once all of those were accounted for, the predictive validity of the self-reported EI measures went down to almost zero.
Once learning agility measures are subjected to more rigorous studies, something similar may very well occur and it may be found that the construct is largely redundant with Plasticity. Given that we have been falling for the jangle fallacy for 100 years, it’s about time we learn something from it. Namely, approach any purported new constructs with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution, until sufficient research has been done to show they are truly unique. That way, as The Who famously asserted, “We won’t be fooled again.”
1. Kelly, T.L. (1927) Interpretation of educational measurement. World Book
2. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.
3. Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492–511.
4. Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.
5. Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125(5), 656–688.
6. Vize, C. E., Miller, J. D., & Lynam, D. R. (2021). Examining the conceptual and empirical distinctiveness of agreeableness and “dark” personality items. Journal of Personality, 89, 594-612.
7. Lombardo, M. M. & Eichinger R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39(4), 321-329.
8. De Meuse, K. P. (2022). Learning agility: Could it become the g-factor of leadership? Consulting Psychology Journal, 74(3), 215–236.
9. De Meuse, K. P. (2023). A meta-analytic examination of the relationship between learning agility and general cognitive ability. Journal of Managerial Issues, 35(1), 18-33.
10. Goldberg, L. R. (1981). Language and individual differences: The search for universals in personality lexicons. In L. Wheeler (Ed.), Review of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol.2., pp.141-166). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
11. Fiske, D. W. (1949). Consistency of the factorial structures of personality ratings from different sources. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44(3), 329–344.
12. Digman, J. M. (1997). Higher–order factors of the Big Five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(6), 1246–1256.
13. DeYoung, C. G., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2002). Higher–order factors of the Big Five predict conformity: Are there neuroses of health? Personality and Individual Differences, 33(4), 533–552.
14. DeYoung, C. G. (2015). Cybernetic Big Five Theory. Journal of Research in Personality, 56, 33–58.
15. Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K., & Judge, T. A. (2001). Personality and performance at the beginning of the new millennium: What do we know and where do we go next? International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9(1-2), 9–30.
16. Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 765–780.
17. Wilmot, M. P., Wanberg, C. R., Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., & Ones, D. S. (2019). Extraversion advantages at work: A quantitative review and synthesis of the meta-analytic evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(12), 1447–1470.
18. Costa, P. T., Jr. & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) and NEO Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
19. Joseph, D. L., Jin, J., Newman, D. A., & O’Boyle, E. H. (2015). Why does self-reported emotional intelligence predict job performance? A meta-analytic investigation of mixed EI. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 298–342.