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Trait Theories of Personality

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Trait Theories of Personality

Think about how you would describe your best friend. How would you explain to others what they are like? How would you explain what their personality is like? Would you use descriptive words like "funny," "serious," or "extroverted?" If so, you would be using a traits approach to describing their personality!

  • First, we will discuss what trait theory is in psychology.
  • Then, we'll discover more about Gordon Allport's contribution to the trait theory of personality.
  • After this, we will learn more about Raymond Cattell's trait theory of personality.
  • We will outline the Big Five trait theory of personality.
  • To conclude, we will go over a few pros and cons of trait theories in measuring personality.

Trait Theories of Personality in Psychology

As we get started talking about trait theories, it is important to make sure we define traits.

A trait is a personality characteristic that someone regularly exhibits.

It is important to note that traits are not based on behaviors you do once or a few times; instead, they are consistent patterns of behavior and personality across a person's life and multiple settings.

Trait theories within psychology are one way of understanding and describing personality. Trait theories focus on the idea that all humans possess various sets and levels of personality and behavioral traits. Trait theories help us communicate aspects of ourselves to others and better understand others. While it can be hard to imagine that all people possess similar traits, remember that we all possess our own unique combinations and different levels of traits.

Sally is a cheerleader at her school and was homecoming queen last year. Mary Jane is an honors student and is part of the robotics club. While these two girls seem to have little in common, they both possess the traits of friendliness, extraversion, and independence to different degrees.

Trait Theories of Personality, six drawings of people with different personalities, StudySmarterPersonalities, Freepik.com

Gordon Allport's Trait Theory of Personality

Gordon Allport's role in the trait theory of personality was monumental and is what earned him the title of "the father of personality" in the 1930s. He identified 18,000 terms that can be used to describe personality and worked from there to develop what he referred to as the fundamental categories of personality traits. The structure of personality according to Allport can be broken up into the following three parts:

  • Definition of personality

  • Personality traits

  • Proprium

Fundamental Categories of Personality Traits

Let's take a look at the fundamental categories of personality traits, as outlined by Allport.

Cardinal Traits

A cardinal trait according to Allport is a trait that steers a person's life almost like a sail on a boat. If someone has the cardinal trait of kindness they might spend their life working on projects to help others. If someone has a cardinal trait of control, they might find themselves in a political or corporate power position.

Central Traits

Not everyone has a cardinal trait. In fact, according to Allport, most people have around 5-10 central traits instead. Central traits grouped together describe a person's core personality. Someone might be extroverted, friendly, inviting, warm, etc. All of these central traits paint a picture of who they are as a person.

Secondary Traits

Secondary traits in Allport's theory are traits that impact someone's behavior but are not necessarily as important or influential as cardinal or central traits. Taste in music or a general love of animals are examples of secondary traits. They add to the uniqueness and depth of a person, but they are not as defining as central traits.

Proprium

The third part of the personality structure according to Allport is proprium.

Proprium in psychology is the sense of self that is central to every individual.

Proprium involves each of the following concepts that form our central sense of self.

  1. Sense of body

  2. Self-identity

  3. Self-esteem

  4. Self-extension

  5. Self-image

  6. Rational coping

  7. Propriate striving

Trait Theories of Personality, outgoing woman smiling, StudySmarterCentral personality traits, Freepik.com

Raymond Cattell's Trait Theory of Personality

Years later, another personality psychologist named Raymond Cattell developed what is called the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). The 16PF is a test that measures personality based on levels and combinations of the sixteen pairs of personality traits. Cattell identified these sixteen traits using a research technique known as factor analysis.

Factor Analysis is a method that uses statistics to identify patterns among variables and then uses those patterns to identify groupings.

Another personality psychologist that used factor analysis was Hans Eysenck. Eysenck came to a different conclusion than Cattell. He boiled down personality traits into 3 major types: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. Each category operates on a scale or spectrum with the lack or opposite of the trait making up its own trait (i.e., extraversion and introversion).

The Big Five Factors of Personality Trait Theory

Since Eysenck's move towards major scales of personality traits, one theory has taken over in the last two decades. It is called The Big Five trait theory of personality. This theory of personality traits took Eysenck's work and expanded on it. The Big Five is a very useful tool in understanding personality traits and has massive success in use globally across cultures.

The Big Five personality factors are:

1. Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is measured on a spectrum from disorganization, carelessness, and impulsivity to organization, carefulness, and discipline.

2. Agreeableness

Agreeableness is measured on a spectrum from uncooperative, suspicious, and mean to sweet, trusting, and helpful.

3. Neuroticism

Neuroticism is measured on a spectrum from calm, self-secure, and content to anxious, insecure, and emotionally unstable.

4. Openness

Openness is measured on a spectrum from predictable, logic-based, and conforming to imaginative, independent, and spontaneous.

5. Extraversion

Extraversion is measured on a spectrum from reserved, introspective, and enjoying personal space to social, outgoing, and outwardly affectionate.

Trait Theories of Personality, extrovert vs introvert weekend and party, StudySmarterExtrovert vs introvert, Freepik.com

The Pros and Cons of Trait Theories of Personality

Trait theories are a great way of understanding individual personalities as well as personality differences. Even though they are helpful, trait theories are not perfect.

Pros of Trait Theories

  • Trait theories, especially the Big Five, are stable across a person's life. While many people experience some age-appropriate shifts in conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extroversion during their lives, traits are generally stable throughout life.
  • Researchers have found that personality traits in the Big Five are 50% or more likely to be hereditary, and this was found to be true across cultures and nationalities.
  • Personality traits like those in The Big Five can be used to predict behavior with some accuracy. Introverted people are more likely to e-mail rather than call. Higher levels of conscientiousness lead to better grades or work performance.
  • Trait theories form the basis of many personality measurement tools that help us research personality to better understand and relate to one another.

Cons of Trait Theories

  • One common critique is that the trait theories do not explain the origin of personality or how personality traits are developed. Traits are simply a way to identify and label traits that are present in a personality, but it does not seek to answer why or how personality exists.
  • Not all the trait theories agree on what are the most fundamental personality traits and which are the most accurate.
  • Another common drawback to trait theories is what is known as the person-situation controversy. The person-situation controversy is essentially the idea that we do not always act the same in all settings and with all people. We change our behaviors based on the setting and exemplify different traits based on our role or our environment.

When are we the most ourselves? Are there truly traits that remain stable across our lives if we are constantly adapting to different situations? While those who defend the usefulness of trait theories ask us to examine behavior and traits across time and settings, the trait theories do not explain inconsistencies in behavior from one setting to another.

Trait Theories of Personality - Key takeaways

  • A trait is a personality characteristic that someone regularly exhibits.
  • Gordon Allport developed what he referred to as the fundamental categories of personality traits.
  • Raymond Cattell developed what is called the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF).
  • Factor Analysis is a method that uses statistics to identify patterns among variables and then uses those patterns to identify groupings.
  • Eysenck's The Big Five trait theory of personality has taken over in the last two decades.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trait Theories of Personality

Trait theories within psychology are one way of understanding and describing personality. Trait theories focus on the idea that all humans possess various sets and levels of personality and behavioral traits

The limitation of trait-based personality theories is that the trait theories do not explain the origin of personality or how personality traits are developed. Traits are simply a way to identify and label traits that are present in a personality, but it does not seek to answer why or how personality exists.

The main principles of trait theory of personality is important to note that traits are not based on behaviors you do once or a few times; instead, they are consistent patterns of behavior and personality across a person's life and multiple settings


The Big Five is a very useful tool in understanding personality traits and has massive success in use globally across cultures. The Big Five personality factors are: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism,   openness, and extraversion. 

The goal of the trait theory of personality is to help us communicate aspects of ourselves to others and to better understand, predict, and describe personality 

Final Trait Theories of Personality Quiz

Question

What is the big five in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

It is a model of the primary personality dimensions

Show question

Question

Name the big five personalities

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Answer

Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism

Show question

Question

Describe Openness

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Answer

 one’s willingness to engage in new social interactions, cultures, and perspectives.

Show question

Question

Describe Conscientiousness

Show answer

Answer

 to which degree a person is goal-driven, determined, organized, and self-aware.



Show question

Question

Describe extroversion

Show answer

Answer

relative to an individual’s energy toward outer interactions with the world and people. 

Show question

Question

Describe agreeableness

Show answer

Answer

The extent to which someone acts in a positive, cooperative, and kind manner. 

Show question

Question

Describe neuroticism

Show answer

Answer

 the emotional stability or lack thereof in an individual. 

Show question

Question

What acronym can be helpful to memorize the big five personalities?

Show answer

Answer

OCEAN. Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism

Show question

Question

What is used to measure personality?

Show answer

Answer

The Big Five aspects scale

Show question

Question

There is only one version of the big five personality tests. True or False?

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

The big five personality theory states that personality exists on a spectrum. True or False?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Name two criticisms of the big five theory.

Show answer

Answer

The main criticisms concern the universality and relativity of the theory.



Show question

Question

Select the personality that concerns the degree of emotional instability in an individual.

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

Show answer

Answer

d. Neuroticism

Show question

Question

Select the personality that if someone scores low on they would be considered undetermined, unorganized, and carefree.

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

Show answer

Answer

b. Conscientiousness

Show question

Question

Someone that scores high in extroversion is reserved, quiet, and fatigued easily after socializing. True or False?

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

You won't be able to figure out your personality type by taking a Big Five assessment. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following psychologists contributed to The Big Five theory? 

Show answer

Answer

Paul Costa 

Show question

Question

Which of the following psychologists did NOT contribute to The Big Five Theory? 

Show answer

Answer

John Watson 

Show question

Question

Select the group of psychologists that contributed to The Big Five Theory: 

Show answer

Answer

Paul Costa, Donald McRae, Warren Norman, Lewis Goldberg, and Ann Arbor. 

Show question

Question

Who created the earliest version of The Big Five Theory? 

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Answer

D.W. Fiske 

Show question

Question

In what year was the earliest version of The Big Five theory published? 

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Answer

1949

Show question

Question

Although there are only five traits in The Big Five theory, how many are there in total (take into account the continuums). 

Show answer

Answer

10

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: 

Each trait is measured on a ____________. 

Show answer

Answer

"continuum" 

Show question

Question

If someone scores low on openness, what can we say about their personality?  

Show answer

Answer

They are hesitant to try new things. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following does NOT describe someone who scores high on openness? 

Show answer

Answer

They are hesitant in trying new things. 

Show question

Question

Violet's friends describe her as predictable because she always sticks to a specific routine. 

If Violet took a Big Five assessment, would she score high or low in openness? 

Show answer

Answer

Violet would score low in openness. 

Show question

Question

Sarah is very adventurous and she enjoys traveling to different countries. 

If Sarah took a Big Five assessment, would she score high or low in openness? 

Show answer

Answer

Sarah would score high in openness. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following characteristics does NOT describe someone who scores high in conscientiousness? 


Show answer

Answer

They lack self-discipline 

Show question

Question

If you score low in this trait, you struggle with being disciplined and self-controlled.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Jake's girlfriend enjoys his easy-going attitude, but she doesn't like that he tends to procrastinate when doing work. 

If Jake took a Big Assessment, would he score high or low in conscientiousness? 

Show answer

Answer

Jake would score low in conscientiousness. 

Show question

Question

Holly is goal-oriented and believes that staying organized is vital to her success. 

If Holly were to take a Big Five assessment, would she score low or high in conscientiousness? 

Show answer

Answer

Holly would score high in conscientiousness. 

Show question

Question

Mark enjoys spending time with friends and family, but he often feels drained after social gatherings. 

Knowing this, which Big Five personality trait does Mark posses? 

Show answer

Answer

Mark is introverted. 

Show question

Question

Max is very outgoing and enjoys meeting new people. His friends say that he can start a conversation with anyone! 

Which Big Five personality trait does Max show signs of in this description? 

Show answer

Answer

Extraversion 

Show question

Question

A Likert scale is a style of question response that gives the participant a range of possible answers. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

The Big Five Aspects Scale contains 100 questions with a 5-point Likert scale for responses.

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: A trait is a personality characteristic that someone regularly exhibits.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: Traits are consistent patterns of __________ and personality across a person's life and multiple settings.  

Show answer

Answer

"behavior" 

Show question

Question

True or False: Trait theories focus on the idea that all humans possess various sets and levels of personality and behavioral traits. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which psychologist is credited as being "the father of personality"? 

Show answer

Answer

Gordon Allport 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: A _______ trait, according to Allport, is a trait that steers a person's life almost like a sail on a boat. 

Show answer

Answer

"cardinal" 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: __________ traits grouped together describe a person's core personality.  

Show answer

Answer

"Central" 

Show question

Question

According to Allport, most people have how many central traits? 

Show answer

Answer

Around 5 - 10 

Show question

Question

Allison's friends and family all describe her as being hardworking. Not only is Allison the valedictorian for her class, but she was team captain for two sports and the president for three clubs. 

In this scenario, hardworking is an example of what kind of trait? 

Show answer

Answer

A cardinal trait 

Show question

Question

When asked to describe his friend Derek, James provided the following sentiments: Derek is funny, loud, cheerful, kind, helpful, organized, and friendly. 

What type of traits is James using to describe Derek? 

Show answer

Answer

Central Traits 

Show question

Question

True or False: Secondary traits, in Allport's theory, are traits that impact someone's behavior but are not necessarily as important or influential as cardinal or central traits. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Jennie loves listening to K-Pop music. Jennie's love for this genre is an example of what type of trait? 

Show answer

Answer

A secondary trait 

Show question

Question

Which psychologist developed the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF)

Show answer

Answer

Raymond Cattell 

Show question

Question

True or False: The 16PF is a test that measures personality based on levels and combinations of the sixteen pairs of personality traits.  

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or False: Factor Analysis is a method that uses statistics to identify patterns among variables and then uses those patterns to identify groupings.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which psychologist boiled down personality traits into 3 major types: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism?

Show answer

Answer

Hans Eysenck 

Show question

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