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Trait Theory of Personality

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Trait Theory of Personality

If you could summarise your personality in a few words, what would they be? What traits would you say you have? Everyone has a personality; it is what shapes how we see the world and how we interact with others. The question of what shapes personality is still being asked today, however, although we have come far in our attempts to understand the complex characteristics of human beings.

The origins of research into personality predate back to the 1800s. During this period, people thought that how someone looked could be used as a measurement tool of personality.

Some researchers believed that the shape or, bumps on a person's head could show what type of personality the person had.

This concept was known as phrenology and is now widely abandoned due to its lack of credibility.

Behavioural psychologists believe that experiences shape personality. Whereas trait theorists argue that it is driven by biological factors.

  • First, we will provide a trait theory of personality definition, discussing trait theory in psychology.

  • Then, we will delve into different trait theory of personality examples.

  • Finally, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of trait theory of personality.

Trait Theory of Personality, Man handing a jigsaw piece to another who is inside a model of a large head with three jigsaw pieces already connected together, StudySmarterPersonality is made up of the conjunction of personality traits, freepik.com/freepik

Trait theory psychology

Trait theorists hold the view that personality:

  • Traits remain the same even when facing different situations

  • Traits will remain the same over time

This theory suggests that traits are genetically predetermined. Life experiences will not significantly affect the development and intensity of traits.

The behavioural account of personality would disagree that personality is not affected by experiences.

Genetics play a part in determining what type and the extent a trait is developed. Trait theories emphasise that personalities are quantifiable and can be measured using psychometric tests.

A test measuring the trait theory of personality example test is the Myers-Briggs test. This test asks a series of questions. The respondents need to answer based on a Likert scale. The test sums up the responses and determines the type of personality the individual has.

Trait theory of personality definition

Personality is defined as the conjunction of qualities that make up an individual's persona. Trait theorists agree with this. What trait theorists call traits can be measured. According to the traits theory of personality research, there are different dimensions to traits that make up personalities. The higher the level of a trait the more prevalent it is in the personality.

A person with higher levels of the trait conscientiousness may have a personality that makes them be a rule-abider who follows a strict routine.

Personality has also been found to affect how people think, feel and act.

A person who is extroverted is more likely to talk to a stranger whereas, someone who is introverted may not.

Type and trait theories of personality

There are different types and trait theories of personality. The trait theories that we will be focusing on are the Allport (1936) trait theory and Cattell's trait theory (1946).

Allport's (1936) trait theory

According to Allport's theory, there are three types of personality traits:

  • cardinal
  • central
  • secondary

The theory assumes that personality is determined by genetic influences, however, environmental experiences and other social-cognitive factors such as cognitive processes may also play a role in personality as well.

Allport suggested that there are thousands of traits that can be sub-divided into the three types of personality traits.

Cardinal traits are the traits that remain consistent across situations (these are the less common traits). They are seen as dominant traits, and tend to be what you define someone as when asked about their personality (e.g., narcissistic)

The second type of trait is central traits which are the traits that remain stable across the lifespan. They are not as dominant as cardinal traits, but may still be used to describe someone's personality in the same light.

The final sub-category of traits is secondary traits; these are the traits that become apparent in some situations (secondary traits can be identified as less stable traits).

An example of how an individual's personality may be described according to Allport's trait theory is:

  • Cardinal trait - sociable; able to strike and engage in a conversation with anyone.
  • Central trait - friendly; approachable and easily liked by others.
  • Secondary trait - short-tempered when in queues; can become irritated and impatient in long queues.

Cattell's (1946) trait theory

Cattell built on Allport's theory by reducing the thousands of traits listed by Allport to 16 using factor analysis.

Factor analysis is a statistical method used to lower the number of variables by identifying which variables share similarities. Essentially Cattell identified which of Allport's traits were essentially measuring the same trait.

These 16 types of traits are called source traits. Cattell argued that the 16 traits (factors) represent a dimension of personality that can be measured using a scale. Higher levels of a factor mean that it makes up a large component of the individual's personality.

To measure the 16 source traits, Cattell created the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF); this is a self-report psychometric test which is still used to this day to measure personality. The test consists of a series of statements that requires respondents to answer truthfully the extent to which it reflects on them. This is an example of a Likert Scale.

An example statement in the test is "I take time out for others" in which respondents have to mark whether they strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree or strongly agree with the statement.

The 16PF scale lists the trait and provides a description of someone who has been scored to have a low range and high range of each trait.

For instance, someone with a low range of warmth is "reserved, impersonal and distant" whereas, someone with a high range is "warm-hearted, caring and attentive to others".

Trait Theory of Personality, Clipboard with two tests attached surrounded by glasses and a journal, StudySmarterThe 16PF is a psychometric test used to measure personality it is often used to help people identify career options, and skills and inform people about their relationships, freepik.com/e14eak90

Catell's 16 traits theory of personality examples

Some examples of traits identified by Cattell using the statistical method, factor analysis, are:

Warmth, perfectionism, emotional stability, privateness, tension, vigilance, and openness to change

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trait theory of personality?

Let's discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the trait theory in psychology!

Trait theory of personality advantages

The advantages are:

  • Some of the trait theories such as Allport and Cattell take into consideration that in addition to biological factors, other factors also play a role in determining personality
    • This shows that these theories take a holistic account to understand personality. The theories attempt to explain a complex phenomenon by considering multiple factors working conjunctively
  • All of the trait theories of personality in addition to the modern theories of personality measure personality in terms of a scale/ dimension. As this has remained consistent throughout psychology research for a relatively long period, it can be considered a reliable measure of personality.
  • Throughout the different theories, there are many similarities between traits that make up personality

Cattell and Allport agree that extroversion introversion and emotional stability are noted consistently as traits that make up personality. These are still agreed by modern theories of personality (big five trait theory of personality; personality consists of five factors) as traits.

Trait theory of personality disadvantages

The disadvantages are:

  • Behavioural psychologists argue that trait theorists overly emphasise biological factors and disregard experiences

A child may initially be highly extroverted but after being bullied they may become shy and reserved. These are qualities of the introversion trait.

This suggests that traits of personality may not be as stable as traits theorists presume.

  • Due to differences between the theories, the trait theories of personality may be considered unreliable
    • the theories disagree with the causes of factors
    • how factors should be grouped into dimensions of personality
    • the theories disagree on what factors make up the personality

Eysenck proposed that personality is derived from activity in the autonomic nervous system that has been genetically inherited. Whereas, Allport argued that although biological factors do play a part in personality, life experiences and social-cognitive factors also affect this.


Trait theory of personality - Key takeaways

  • Personality is defined as the conjunction of qualities that make up an individual's persona.
  • Traits remain the same even when facing different situations, and traits will remain the same over time, suggesting there is a genetic component to personality (biological factors).
  • Allport, a trait theorist, identified that there are thousands of traits that can be sub-divided into three categories; cardinal, central and secondary traits.
  • Cattell built on Allport's theory, he narrowed down the thousands of traits into 16 source traits using factor analysis. Cattell created the 16PF; a psychometric test to measure the 16 traits that he identified.
  • Trait theory assumes a holistic approach to understanding personality and uses a scale (a reliable form of measurement used in psychology). Generally, the theory is fairly consistent.
  • However, behavioural psychologists suggest trait theory relies on biological factors too much, and does not account for the difference between theories (unreliable)

Frequently Asked Questions about Trait Theory of Personality

Personality is defined as the conjunction of qualities that make up an individual's persona. Trait theorists agree with this. What trait theorists call traits can be measured. According to the traits theory of personality research, there are different dimensions to traits that make up personalities. The higher the level of a trait the more prevalent it is in the personality. 

The trait theory of personality predates back to the 18th century to a philosopher called Gall. Gall essentially came up with the concept of phrenology. This theory suggests that traits of personality can be understood based on the shape and location of bumps on people’s heads. 


Allport, Cattell, and Eysenck have proposed more recent theories on personality. 

The trait theory of personality is important because it highlights individual differences and helps us understand why people react differently in particular situations.


It offers a glimpse into the study of human behaviours, perhaps providing possible causes or reasons behind a person's actions.

The typical trait theory of personality that is generally accepted today is the Big Five Trait theory of personality. 

The big five trait theory of personality indicates that personality can be measured across five dimensions (OCEAN). These are:

  1. Openness 
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extroversion 
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism

Final Trait Theory of Personality Quiz

Question

What is the definition of personality? 

Show answer

Answer

Personality is a combination of characteristics/traits that make up an individual's character. 

Show question

Question

How do trait theorists measure personality? 

Show answer

Answer

Traits 

Show question

Question

What is the typical method used to measure personality? 

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Answer

Psychometric tests

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Question

What statistical analysis test did Cattell use? 

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Answer

Factor analysis

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Question

What are the three conditions required for something to be identified as a personality trait? 

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Answer

Three conditions required for something to be identified as a personality trait are:

  • consistency 
  • stability
  • individual differences 

Show question

Question

How does the 16PF assessment measure personality? 

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Answer

On a Likert scale. 

Show question

Question

Which trait theorist proposed that there are over 4000 personality traits? 

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Answer

Allport

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Question

According to Allport's theory, what is the name of personality traits that remain consistent across situations?

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Answer

Cardinal traits 

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Question

According to Allport which type of trait remains consistent across the lifespan? 

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Answer

Central traits 

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Question

Which of the following researchers built on Allport's (1936) research? 

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Answer

Cattell

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Question

Which researcher came up with source traits? 

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Answer

Cattell

Show question

Question

What are the disadvantages of using personality tests? 

Show answer

Answer

Some disadvantages of using personality tests are 

  • People may be dishonest when answering questions and tests can be quite lengthy. 
  • This may cause people to lose interest and thoughtlessly answer. 
  • So, personality tests can be considered to lack validity and reliability. 


Show question

Question

Which of the following are accurate statements of Cattell's 16 PF questionnaire? 

Show answer

Answer

The questionnaire used a Likert scale

Show question

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