The trait theory of personality is an approach to studying human personality through traits, such as extraversion, agreeableness, honesty, etc.
When somebody asks us about a certain person, then we usually describe them through traits: “She is a little shy” or “he is a perfectionist”. These traits are essentially habitual patterns of behavior, which make us who we are.
Starting from Allport & Odbert, various psychologists have come up with trait theories, some of which we will discuss below. But before that, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Trait Theory of Personality Definition
Saul Kassin defines a trait as
“A relatively stable predisposition to behave in a certain way.”(Kassin, 2022)
The trait theory was first developed by Gordon Allport, who felt that instead of searching for analytical explanations of behavior—as psychoanalysis attempted to do—psychologists must first learn to describe and measure the basic units of personality (Kassin).
So, Allport and Odbert searched through an unabridged English dictionary and compiled a list of 18,000 words that could be used to describe people. They then removed obscure words & synonyms, reducing the list to 4,500 words, which were further grouped into 200 traits.
For them, these traits were the building blocks of personality, and they were characterized by:
- Consistency: Traits are consistent over various situations. For example, if someone is talkative, they will participate more in conversations in all contexts: schools, offices, parties, etc.
- Stability: Traits are not simply transient states; instead, they are stable over long periods. So, someone who is a perfectionist as a school student will most likely still be a perfectionist later in their professional life.
- Individual Differences: Different individuals have different traits. They may or may not have a certain trait (say desire for fame). Other traits (like introversion vs extraversion) may have a spectrum, with individuals being placed at different points.
Approaches to Trait Theory: Origins and Development
Various psychologists have attempted to develop trait theories, some of which include:
1. Allport & Odbert
Allport & Odbert developed the first trait theory, and they categorized traits into three levels (1961).
Cardinal traits dominate and shape a person’s behavior, so much so that they seem to become synonymous with the person. These include the need for money, ambition, etc.
In contrast, central traits are less dominating, and they are present in all human beings to different degrees. For example, “honesty” or “intelligence”. Finally, secondary traits are very specific behaviors or preferences that appear in certain contexts, say being impatient while waiting.
2. Raymond Cattell
Cattell reduced the size of Allport’s list to make it more manageable and created a science of personality.
He collected people’s ratings of themselves & others, and then put these numbers through factor analysis (a statistical technique that identifies clusters of correlating items). In this way, he found out that personality consists of 16 distinct units, which he called source traits (1978).
Cattell believed that every human being has a unique combination of these traits, which is what distinguishes us from others (Kassin). These traits included dominance, perfectionism, self-reliance, etc.
Cattell used these findings to create the Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF), which yields 16 separate scores (one for each factor) and is one of the most widely used personality questionnaires.
3. The Five-Factor Model and Eysenck
Later researchers further simplified Cattell’s work into the five-factor model, and Eysenck came up with a three-dimension personality model.
With time, factor analysis became more sophisticated, and researchers realized that Cattell’s model could be simplified even further (Kassin). They then came up with the five-factor model of personality because it emerged consistently in studies across ages and countries.
These traits have been called the Big Five, and they include neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The five-factor model is also backed by scientists, who have found that genetic variations are responsible for personality traits (Vukasović & Bratko, 2015)
But Hans Eysenck felt that even five factors were too many. So, he created a three-dimension model, which included extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. Eysenck also claimed that individual differences are biologically rooted: introverts have central nervous systems that are more sensitive to stimulation and so avoid intense sources of excitement. (1967)
10 Trait Theory Examples
- Extraversion: Although psychologists disagree about specific traits, they all agree that one of the most powerful dimensions is introversion-extraversion, which exists across all age groups & cultures. An extrovert typically has many friends, likes social events, and is uninhibited. In contrast, an introvert has just a few close friends, shies away from stimulation, and acts cautiously (Kassin). Studies by Kagan and others have found that the rudiments of adult introversion/extraversion can even be seen in the predisposition of infants (1994).
- Neuroticism: Neuoriticism (sometimes also called emotional instability) refers to the tendency to have strong negative emotions, such as anger or depression. Neurotic people are more vulnerable to stress, and they often perceive ordinary situations to be threatening. They are also likely to be pessimistic about work and think less clearly (Fiske). In contrast, less neurotic individuals are calm and free from persistent negative feelings.
- Psychoticism: Psychoticism is most clearly exhibited in aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility. This was one of the traits identified in Eysenck’s personality model, and it characterizes individuals who are usually anti-social, hostile, and even manipulative. Eysenck believed that higher levels of this trait made a person more vulnerable to psychosis (like schizophrenia) and that it was genetically inherited.
- Openness to Experience: People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, appreciate beauty, and enjoy trying new things. They have a greater art appreciation, which makes them more aware of their feelings and more creative. Often, they have unconventional beliefs and may engage in risky behavior.
- Agreeableness: This trait indicates a person’s concern for social harmony: agreeable people like to get along with others. They are trusting, helpful, and usually compromise with others. Agreeable people have good relationships with their team members and also make good transformational leaders.
- Conscientiousness: It refers to a desire to perform tasks well and take one’s obligations seriously. Conscientious people are careful, efficient, and organized in doing whatever they do. They are hard-working and reliable, but an extreme version of this trait may turn someone into a “workaholic”.
- Honesty-Humility: Honesty-humility is the tendency to be fair and genuine with others; it is one of the 6 traits of the HEXACO personality model. If you have a high level of this trait, you will avoid manipulating anyone, be unwilling to break rules, and have less concern for social status.
- Self-Esteem: How we view ourselves is called self-esteem. It is our sense of our value or worth, describing the extent to which we approve of ourselves. Self-esteem includes both beliefs (like “I am worthy of success”) and emotional states (like pride). Unlike the humanistic theory of personality, trait theory thinks we wither have self-esteem, or we don’t.
- Perfectionism: Perfectionism is a tendency to strive for flawlessness. It can be both external (being deeply concerned with evaluations of others) or internal (being self-motivated to be perfect). Perfectionism can often lead to adjustment problems like anxiety and depression.
- Rigidity: Rigidity refers to inflexibility and adherence to fixed patterns. Rigid people find it difficult to change their established habits & attitudes. They often also refuse to appreciate another person’s viewpoint.
Trait Theory Strengths & Weaknesses
The trait theories of personality help us conceptualize different personalities, but they often find it difficult to explain development changes and situational factors.
Various trait theories help us conceptualize different personalities. These can help us gain an in-depth understanding of a person, which is why employers often use personality tests in hiring. They often also examine one’s social media behavior to learn more about them.
The right kind of personality assessment can greatly help mental health professionals in helping their clients. Moreover, psychology students can use their understanding of human behavior in sales and marketing positions across the business world.
However, the trait theories also have their weakness. Earlier, while defining traits, we discussed how they are usually stable over time. But over a lifespan, people are bound to have personality changes: you may have been shy in high school and then become more confident afterward.
D.P. McAdams argues that trait theory fails to explain this dynamic nature of personality development. Moreover, critics also accuse trait theorists of focusing solely on personality traits. This makes them ignore the importance of situational factors, which often deeply influence behavior.
The trait theory of personality tries to understand humans by identifying and measuring traits, such as extraversion, agreeableness, etc.
Traits are habitual patterns of behavior, which make us who we are. Studying human traits can help us gain an in-depth understanding of a person, but it is also important to note that people grow over time and that situations also influence our behavior.
Allport, Gordon W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality (14 print. ed.). Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Cattell, R. B. (1978). Use of Factor Analysis in Behavioral and Life Sciences. New York: Plenum
Fiske ST, Gilbert DT, Lindzey G (2009). Handbook of Social Psychology. Wiley.
Hans Eysenck, (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Thomas.
Kagan, J., Snidman, N., Kahn, V., Towsley, S., Steinberg, L., & Fox, N. A. (2007). The Preservation of Two Infant Temperaments into Adolescence. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 72(2), i–95. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30163598
Kassin, Saul M. (2022). Essentials of Psychology. SAGE.
McAdams, D. P. (1992). “The five-factor model in personality: A critical appraisal”. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 329-361. Wiley-Blackwell.
Vukasović, T., & Bratko, D. (2015). Heritability of personality: A meta-analysis of behavior genetic studies. Psychological Bulletin, 141(4), 769–785. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000017. APA