Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

Trait Theory of personality

In psychology the way in which we describe a person generally is known as traits. The descriptive terms about one’s personality like short-tempered, gout-going, easy-going, generous are all known as traits. Trait can be used to identify the personality of a person and is one of the most vital and fundamental areas of study in psychology. Traits can also be defined as characteristic of a person that becomes their norm of showing response in a certain way during a specific situation. Trait theory of personality further explains these traits and indicates that traits are not dependent on the situation and always remain constant. The main focus of trait theory of personality is on the personality difference between different individuals. In this article we will discuss trait theories.

Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory of personality

One of the first psychologists to come up with trait theory of personality was Gordon Allport. In 1936, he put forward an astounding discovery showcasing more than 4000 words from an English language dictionary that specifically described personality traits. These traits were viewed by Albert as the building blocks on one’s personality and could be divided further into three classes:

  1. Cardinal Traits

These are the fundamental traits around which a person’s life is organized and are generally known as cardinal traits. According to Allport these traits seem to be quite rare and develop much during the later half of a person’s life.  Although these traits play an important role in a person’s life and some of these traits are so obvious that they become the second name of that person. E.g. lust, narcissism, greed, kindness. 

  1. Central Traits

Central traits are known as the traits that build up the major personality of a person. These can be considered as the fundamental characteristics of a person’s personality, e.g. anxious, intelligent, shy, dishonest. 

  1. Secondary traits

The traits that occur only to some specific pattern under certain circumstances are known as secondary traits. They have a general behavior pattern of a person which comes forward in a specific scenario, e.g. getting nervous while speaking in public.

Hans Eysenck Trait Theory of personality

A famous British psychologist by the name of Hans Eysenck also considered trait theory of personality and deduced that there are basically two major dimensions of personality that further give way to multiple types of person we encounter :

  • Extroversion
  • Introversion

The model proposed by him was based on these two universal traits but was further enhanced later by the addition of a third dimension by the psychologist himself.

1. Introversion/Extroversion:

This dimension covers up shyness to sociability from a general perceptive. Introversion is more focused on inner energy and being shy in front of other people where extroversion is more focused on being social and outgoing activities. In short, introverts are mostly shy people whereas extroverts are the people who are more social. 

extrovert <—-> introvert

2. Neuroticism/Emotional Stability:

This dimension covers up even temperedness to moodiness. Neuroticism refers to the state when a person is emotional or upset basically when emotions of a person are unstable whereas emotional stability means as the term suggests, a state where the emotions are constant or stable. 

neurotic <—-> normal (or stable)

3. Psychoticism

This is the third dimension that was later included in the model by Eyesenck. This dimension was added after a study was conducted on patients with mental illness. People who have a high rate in this trade can be suggested to have a tendency towards mental illness or are mentally not stable and might have trouble while dealing with reality. People having high traits in this dimension mostly show the general characteristics of being manipulative, hostile, antisocial and non-empathetic.

Criticisms of Eysenck’s Theory

  • The model was developed with the studies conducted on a very small group of people which has led to the oversimplification of the model. 
  • The testing in this case was highly based on reports generated by the patient so they were likely to be influenced by the mood the respondent was in while responding to the study.
Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

Raymond Cattell’s Trait Theory of personality

Raymond based his research and theory on multiple sources unlike Eysenck. The fundamental component around which cattell’s trait theory of personality was built is the use of factor analysis, a mathematical technique introduced by Charles Spearman. Using factor analysis, Cattell was able to categorize and review a large number of traits and further simplify them by selecting the most useful and basic ones which helped him in developing a scheme for their classification.

This classification further shortened the 4000 words initially presented by Allport to only 171 different traits. He further enhanced his work by identifying the ones which are related and shortening this list of 171 to only 16 most basic traits. According to Cattel, these 16 are the most basic traits for a human personality. Catell further divided these traits into two types, the ones which are easily visible to any observer named as surface traits and the one which were not visible known as source traits or the basic 16 traits of personality.

  • Surface Traits – related behaviors in a personality that can be observed in specific situations.
  • Source Traits – Defining the basic 16 traits of personality considered as the root of all behavior.

The Big Five Factors Theory of Personality

  • Openness to Experience (consistent/cautious vs. inventive/curious) 

This trait basically includes the appreciation for emotion, adventure, art, unusual ideas, variety of experience and curiosity. Openness basically reflects on a person’s personality related to intellectual creativity, curiosity and preference for experience, novelty and adventures. It can also be taken to describe the extent to which a person is independent or imaginative and also can define the preferences of a person in a strict routine for a number of activities.  The people who love to experience novelty, creativeness usually score high on this trade while people who are good with a low routine in their life score low in this trade.

  • Conscientiousness (easy-going/careless vs. efficient/organized)

This trait defines a person’s tendency toward dutifulness, self-discipline, achievement-striving, competence and thoughtfulness. It is different from the general moral implication of “having a conscience”; instead of this moral implication this trait mainly focuses on the deliberation thought or intention put towards a certain behavior by a person. Individuals who prefer to have planned behavior rather than spontaneous ones are often high in conscientiousness and have the basic traits of hardworking, dependable and organized. Numerous studies also suggest that people having high conscientiousness are often more successful in academics. 

  • Extraversion (solitary/reserved vs. outgoing/energetic)

The individuals whose extraversion score is high are usually characterized by positive emotions, assertiveness, high energy, sociability, talkativeness and are more sociable. Whereas the people whose score is low enjoy more smaller groups or solitude, prefer doing some activities alone and enjoy quiet and avoid social gatherings. In general people who score high in both openness and extraversion are the ones that might take more risks and adventures due to their excitement-seeking nature (Tok, 2011).

  • Agreeableness (cold/unkind vs. friendly/compassionate)

This trait is usually the measure of one’s tendency towards cooperative and compassionate rather than antagonistic and suspicious towards other people. This also measures whether the nature of a person is helpful and trusting and also if they are well-tempered or not. People who score much lower on this trait are usually described as uncooperative and rude.

  • Neuroticism (secure/confident vs. sensitive/nervous

This trait usually measures the characteristic of a person to experience emotions either unpleasant or pleasant. High scores usually tend towards unpleasant emotions like depression, anger, anxiety or vulnerability. These people also experience hostile nature, emotional instability and impulsiveness in their nature. Whereas the people who score low in this trait are more even-tempered and calm.

Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

Criticisms of the Five Factor Model

Some of the critics that were approached on this model were the arguments put forward that the patterns of variability involved in different situations are basically crucial in determining personality. One of the other arguments put forward is that the model is limited when it comes to predictive or explanatory theory and the explanation given in this theory does not cover all of the personality traits present in humans. Some arguments are also raised on the point of neglection of some domains of personality like manipulativeness/machiavellianism, religiosity, thriftiness, honesty, sense of humor, etc. Another fundamental argument is that the basis of the five factor model is not based on any solid theory but is a mere empirical finding and descriptors which are grouped together under factor analysis. 

Strengths of the Trait Perspectives

Main strength of these trait perspectives is that the observable behaviors can be categorized easily. Researchers have concluded from different studies that by observing the behavior of an individual for some period of time and in different situations provides the evidence for these categorization in trait theory of personality according to the personality traits. 

Another positive point of this trait theory of personality is that it uses an objective criteria for measuring behavior and categorizing. One of the possible proof of the fact is that when factor analysis was used to develop a certain set of traits, these trait theories were developed without depending upon each other. Trade theorists while developing their traits independently often come to the same set of traits.

Limitations of the Trait Perspectives

One of the limitations observed in trait perspectives is the lacking in their predictive value. Most of the criticism is on their incompetency to predict correct behavior in every situation. Some psychologists also argue on the basis of that the variables related to situation and circumstances are more influential to behavior than traits while some go with the combination of both.

Another limitation for these trait perspectives is the requirement of personal observation or sef-reports to measure these traits. Self-reports require that the person submitting the report should have a profound understanding of their behavior and should be able to measure their own responses to different situations correctly. Similarly, personal observations require the person to be observed a number of times in different situations and enough to be sure of an accurate assessment of their behaviors without any chance of a misjudgement. As both of these measures are subjective so there is always a chance of a mistake or inaccuracy in their measurement. 

Another limitation of these theories is the criticism that they do not explain the why factor in individual behaviors. Trait theory of personality provides information related to people and their behaviors but there is no information about why these traits are developed in a person under a certain situation. 

Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

FAQs about trait theory of personality

What are the trait theories of personality?

Traits can be described as the part of behavior of a person that comes forward in certain situations as a response. According to trait theory of personality these responses are always constant irrespective of the situation that person is in. 

What are the main principles of the trait theory of personality?

The most widely used and accepted trait theory of personality today is the five factor model which includes the principles of: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness.

What is a trait of personality?

The traits that reflect on the characteristic patterns of feelings, thoughts and behavior of a person are known as personality traits. The scores in these traits imply whether the person is stable and consistent in some behavior or not. 


Trait Theory of personality (A Comprehensive Guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.