What Is the Trait Theory of Personality?

Trait theory of personality

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

The trait theory of personality suggests that people have certain basic traits and it is the strength and intensity of those traits that account for personality differences. The way psychologists have thought about personality-defining traits has evolved over time.

What Is a Trait?

A trait is a personality characteristic that meets three criteria: it must be consistent, stable, and vary from person to person. Based on this definition, a trait can be thought of as a relatively stable characteristic that causes individuals to behave in certain ways.

The trait approach to personality is one of the major theoretical areas in the study of personality. Trait theory suggests that individual personalities are composed of broad dispositions.

Unlike many other theories of personality, such as psychoanalytic or humanistic theories, the trait approach to personality is focused on differences between individuals. The combination and interaction of various traits form a personality that is unique to each person. Trait theory is focused on identifying and measuring these individual personality characteristics.

If someone asked you to describe a close friend's personality, what kind of things would you say? A few things that might come to mind are descriptive terms such as "outgoing," "kind" and "even-tempered." All of these represent traits.

Allport’s Trait Theory

In 1936, psychologist Gordon Allport found that one English-language dictionary contained more than 4,000 words describing different personality traits. He categorized these traits into three levels:

Cardinal Traits

Allport suggested that cardinal traits are rare and dominating, usually developing later in life. They tend to define a person to such an extent that their names become synonymous with their personality. Examples of this include the following descriptive terms: Machiavellian, narcissistic, Don Juan, and Christ-like.

Central Traits

These general characteristics form basic personality foundations. While central traits are not as dominating as cardinal traits, they describe the major characteristics you might use to describe another person. Descriptions such as "intelligent," "honest," "shy," and "anxious" are considered central traits.

Secondary Traits

Secondary traits are sometimes related to attitudes or preferences. They often appear only in certain situations or under specific circumstances. Some examples include public speaking anxiety or impatience while waiting in line.

Cattell’s 16-Factor Personality Model

Trait theorist Raymond Cattell reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of over 4,000 down to 171. He did so primarily by eliminating uncommon traits and combining common characteristics.

Next, Cattell rated a large sample of individuals for these 171 different traits. Using a statistical technique known as factor analysis, he then identified closely related terms and eventually reduced his list to 16 key personality traits. Among them are dominance, perfectionism, reasoning, and self-reliance.

According to Cattell, these 16 traits are the source of all human personalities. He also developed one of the most widely used personality assessments. the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire.

Eysenck’s 3 Dimensions of Personality

British psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a model of personality based on just three universal traits.

Introversion/Extraversion

Introversion involves directing attention to inner experiences, while extraversion relates to focusing attention outward, onto other people and the environment. A person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extraversion (often spelled "extroversion") might be sociable and outgoing.

Neuroticism/Emotional Stability

This dimension of Eysenck’s trait theory is related to moodiness versus even-temperedness. Neuroticism refers to an individual’s tendency to become upset or emotional, while stability refers to the tendency to remain emotionally constant.

Psychoticism

Later, after studying individuals suffering from mental illness, Eysenck added a personality dimension he called psychoticism to his trait theory. Individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic, and manipulative.

Five-Factor Model of Personality

Both Cattell’s and Eysenck’s theories have been the subject of considerable research. This has led some theorists to believe that Cattell focused on too many traits, while Eysenck focused on too few. As a result, a new trait theory often referred to as the "Big Five" theory emerged.

This five-factor model of personality represents five core traits that interact to form human personality. While researchers often disagree about the exact labels for each dimension, the following are described most commonly:

Criticisms of Trait Theory

Most theorists and psychologists agree that people can be described based on their personality traits. Yet, theorists continue to debate the number of basic traits that make up human personality. While trait theory has an objectivity that some personality theories lack (such as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory), it also has weaknesses.

Some of the most common criticisms of trait theory center on the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behavior. While an individual may score high on assessments of a specific trait, they may not always behave that way in every situation. Another problem is that trait theories do not address how or why individual differences in personality develop or emerge.

A Word From Verywell

The study of personality and what shapes and influences each person is fascinating. Those who study this field have varying opinions. However, they do build off one another and theorists tend to refine the work of their predecessors, which is common in scientific pursuits.

What is most important to understand is that everyone has different personality traits. We each have certain traits that dominate our personality, along with a myriad of traits that can arise in different situations. Also, our traits can change over time and be shaped by our experiences.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the trait theory of leadership?

    This theory states that leaders have certain traits that non-leaders don't possess. Some of these traits are based on heredity (emergent traits) and others are based on experience (effectiveness traits).

  • When does a latent trait appear?

    According to latent trait theories, these traits are present at or shortly after birth. Examples of latent traits are those related to IQ and impulsivity.

  • What are the limitations of the trait theory?

    The identification of a trait can vary from one researcher to the next. This makes traits difficult to measure when applying this theory. Trait theory also doesn't explain what causes individuals with a certain trait to behave one way in some situations while behaving a different way in another.

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9 Sources
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