Trait Perspective: Theory & Definition

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  • 0:42 Theorist Gordon Allport
  • 1:47 Theorist Raymond Cattell
  • 3:08 Theorist Hans Eysenck
  • 4:10 The Big Five…
  • 5:11 Criticism of Trait Perspective
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea McKay

Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

Do your friends describe you as calm, or excitable? Are you careful, or careless? These characteristics indicate something about your personality, and psychologists study these traits to discover what makes each of us unique.

Defining Traits

Psychologists typically define personality as your characteristic patterns of thinking and behavior. The trait perspective of personality explores your personality traits and how many traits you have.

A personality trait is a broad behavioral element that defines your personality. While early personality theories hoped to explain how personality develops, trait theorists seek to describe differences and similarities between people based on traits. Are you shy or outgoing? Thoughtful or moody? How many traits do we need to fully describe an individual's personality? Many psychologists differ on the number of traits that are important, but each theorist defines personality traits along several broad type spectrums.

Theorist Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport (1897-1967) was one trait theorist who believed personalities are unique. Allport believed personality was so unique, he categorized over 18,000 words to describe personality! Eventually, Allport categorized traits into three main dimensions: cardinal, central and secondary traits.

Cardinal traits are fundamental to the direction of your life. Cardinal traits are the big characteristics across your life, most likely described towards the end of your life as the main characteristic you have become synonymous with. Not all people display a cardinal trait.

Central traits are the characteristics people come to expect from you on a daily basis. These are the traits others would typically use to describe your personality.

Secondary traits are seen only in specific situations. Perhaps you are a relatively calm individual. . . until someone threatens your young child, and you attack like a mother bear!

Theorist Raymond Cattell

Raymond Cattell (1905-1998) broke personality traits into 16 categories using a statistical measure known as factor analysis to calculate the relationships among traits. Cattell hoped to determine how each trait influenced other traits in the same individual. For each of the 16 categories, Cattell measured a high end and a low end along a spectrum. For example, you might measure high on the cheerful - serious spectrum and low on the practical - imaginative spectrum. Cattell's categories of traits include:

  1. Reserved - outgoing
  2. Less intelligent - more intelligent
  3. Emotional stability - emotional instability
  4. Submissive - dominant
  5. Serious - cheerful
  6. Nonconforming - conforming
  7. Timid - bold
  8. Insensitive - sensitive
  9. Trusting - suspicious
  10. Practical - imaginative
  11. Open - private
  12. Secure - insecure
  13. Traditional - radical
  14. Group-oriented - self-reliant
  15. Undisciplined - self-disciplined
  16. Relaxed - tense

Theorist Hans Eysenck

While Cattell argued personality traits could be measured along 16 spectrums, Hans Eysenck used statistical analysis to break traits into two broad dimensions that he believed were biologically determined. According to Eysenck, individuals fall somewhere on an 'extraversion - introversion' scale and an 'emotionally stable - emotionally unstable' scale.

Extraverts tend to be sociable and outgoing, while introverts are more reserved and thoughtful. Emotionally stable individuals are reliable and make good leaders, while emotionally unstable (sometimes called neurotic) people are moody, anxious and restless.

Eysenck's work in personality trait theory is often noted for the resemblance to ancient Greek ideas on personality development. Ancient Greeks typically described personality according to four body humors - melancholic (depressed), choleric (irritable), phlegmatic (cool and unemotional) and sanguine (cheerful and warm).

Are you an extravert or an introvert? Where do you fall along the emotional stability dimension?

The Big Five Personality Traits

Much current research about personality traits is devoted to the Big Five personality dimensions, an expansion of Eysenck's less-developed categories. Research surrounding the Big Five indicates that these traits remain stable over time, particularly in adulthood. The Big Five trait spectrums include:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism (emotional stability vs. instability)

Notice you can use the acronym 'OCEAN' to remember the Big Five categories. Each trait is roughly 50% heritable, leaving the environment room to further shape these traits. Where a person falls on each of the Big Five categories can be used to predict his or her political party affiliation, grades and even whether or not he or she has gotten a speeding ticket! The Big Five seems to be our best method for describing personality traits today.

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