What Are Cardinal Traits of Personality?

Lincoln's cardinal trait was honesty

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What Are Cardinal Traits of Personality?

Cardinal traits are those that dominate an individual’s personality to the point that the individual becomes known for them. Cardinal traits are the most dominant personality traits, but also the rarest. Such traits are so intrinsically tied to an individual's personality that the person becomes almost synonymous with those qualities.

Cardinal traits often develop later in life. They shape almost all aspects of an individual's purpose, behavior, and attitudes.

While the cardinal traits are considered among the most dominant of characteristics, they are also quite rare. Few people are so ruled by a singular theme that shapes the course of their entire life.


Psychologist Gordon Allport, one of the founders of personality psychology, was interested in discovering just how many personality traits exist. After combing through a dictionary for terms related to personality, he suggested that there were more than 4,000 different terms describing personality traits. Allport then developed three different categories of personality traits: cardinal, central, and secondary.

Central Personality Traits

Allport believed that central traits are much more common than cardinal traits and serve as the basic building blocks of most people’s personality. If you think of the major terms you might use to describe your overall character, such as honest, friendly, generous, or anxious, those are probably your central traits.

Allport suggested that most people have about five to ten central traits. He also theorized that most people have many of these traits to a certain degree.

Secondary Traits

Secondary traits tend to present themselves in certain situations. For example, you might normally be a pretty easy-going person, but you might become short-tempered when under a lot of pressure. Or a normally calm person might become very anxious when faced with speaking in public.

Examples of Cardinal Traits

Most people do not have a cardinal trait, but a combination of several central traits. However, famous or infamous historical figures are often thought of in terms of their cardinal traits. Some examples include:

  • Mother Teresa: Good, charitable
  • Adolf Hitler: Evil, depraved
  • Albert Einstein: Brilliant
  • Niccolo Machiavelli: Ruthless
  • Jesus Christ: Good, faithful, holy
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Just, heroic
  • Abraham Lincoln: Honest
  • Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalytical

You can also find examples of cardinal traits in literature and myth. Ebenezer Scrooge portrayed the cardinal trait of greediness. Don Juan was so renowned for his sexual exploits that his name became a synonym for heartbreaker and libertine.

Narcissus, of Greek mythology, was so enamored with his own reflection that his name became the root of the term narcissism, or excessive self-obsession. Other words have evolved from the names of people who personify traits, such as Machiavellian, Christ-like, and sadist (from the Marquis de Sade).

Potential Pitfalls

Cardinal traits are defining characteristics one quality that is considered to represent a person. It is hard to look at someone like Albert Einstein and think of him as anything other than a genius. But of course, he was a human like everyone else, with a unique and multi-faceted personality. It is difficult and usually unfair to reduce any person to a single trait or quality.

Current Thinking

The trait theories of personality suggest that each person’s personality is composed of a number of different characteristics. It is rare for anyone to have a single cardinal trait that defines them.

While early conceptualizations of the trait approach suggested hundreds or even thousands of traits existed (such as Allport’s approach), modern ideas propose that personality is composed of approximately five broad dimensions. They are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

According to this theory, everyone has aspects of these five core personality factors. But they exist on a spectrum. Where you land on the spectrum for each factor is what makes up your personality.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."