In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Introduction to Trait Theories of Personality 2. The Search for Basic Traits- Initial Efforts by Allport and Cattell 3. The “Big Five” Factors- The Basic Dimensions of Personality? 4. Trait Theories- An Evaluation.
Introduction to Trait Theories of Personality:
When we describe other persons, we often do so in terms of specific personality traits stable dimensions of personality along which people vary, from very low to very high. This strong tendency to think about others in terms of specific characteristics is reflected in trait theories of personality.
Such theories focus on identifying key dimensions of personality the most important ways in which people differ. The basic idea behind this approach is as follows- once we identify the key dimensions along which people differ, we can measure how much they differ and can then relate such differences to many important forms of behavior.
Unfortunately, this task sounds easier than it actually is. Human beings differ in an almost countless number of ways. How can we determine which of these are most important and stable (i.e., lasting)? One approach is to search for clusters groups of traits that seem to go together.
One of the first efforts to identify key human traits—the most important dimensions along which personalities vary was the work of Gordon Allport. He proposed that personality traits could be divided into several categories that varied in their importance. The least important are secondary traits; these are traits that exert relatively weak and limited effects on behavior.
More important are central traits five to ten traits that together account for the uniqueness of an individual’s personality. Such traits are stronger and more resistant to situational forces. Finally, Allport noted that a few people are dominated by a single all-important cardinal trait. A few examples of such persons and the cardinal traits that seemed to drive their personalities- Napoleon (ambition), Florence Nightingale (empathy), Alexander the Great (lust for power), and Don Juan (just plain lust).
Perhaps an even more important aspect of Allport’s theory of personality is his concept of functional autonomy the idea that patterns of behavior that are initially acquired under one set of circumstances, and which satisfy one set of motives, may later be performed for very different reasons. For example, initially a child may learn to read because this pleases his teachers and parents and because failure to do so is punished.
Later in life, however, the same person may read because he has come to enjoy this activity in and of itself it is intrinsically motivated. Notice how this contrasts with Freud’s view that the roots of adult personality are planted firmly in the soil of childhood that, as Freud put it, “The child is the father [mother] of the man [woman].” For Allport, such connections are not necessarily present, and our adult behavior may spring from roots entirely different from those that gave rise to our childhood behavior.
Another, and in some ways more sophisticated, trait theory was proposed by Raymond Cattell. He and his colleagues focused on the task- identifying the basic dimensions of personality. Instead of beginning with hunches or insights, however, Cattell used a very different approach. He conducted extensive research in which literally thousands of persons responded to measures designed to reflect individual differences on hundreds of traits.
These responses were then subjected to a statistical technique known as factor analysis. This technique reveals patterns in the extent to which various traits are correlated. In this manner, it can help to identify important clusters of traits, groups of traits that seem to be closely linked to one another. As such clusters are identified, Cattell reasoned, the number of key traits in human personality can be reduced until we are left with those that are truly central.
Using this approach, Cattell and his associates identified sixteen source traits dimensions of personality that underlie differences in many other, less important surface traits. A few of the source traits identified by Cattell- cool versus warm, easily upset versus calm and stable, not assertive versus dominant, trusting versus suspicious, and undisciplined versus self-disciplined. It is not yet clear whether Cattell’s list is actually valid, but at least this list is considerably briefer than previous ones.
By now, you may be running out of patience. “OK,” we can almost hear you saying, “how many basic traits or dimensions of personality are there?” This is one time when we can offer you a fairly definite answer, because research conducted during the past twenty years has converged on the following conclusion- in fact, there may be only five key or central dimensions of personality.
These are sometimes labeled the “big five,” and they can be described as follows:
A dimension ranging from energetic, enthusiastic, sociable, and talkative at one end to retiring, sober, reserved, silent, and cautious at the other.
A dimension ranging from good-natured, cooperative, trusting, and helpful at one end to irritable, suspicious, and uncooperative at the other.
A dimension ranging from well-organized, careful, self-disciplined, responsible, and precise at one end to disorganized, impulsive, careless, and undependable at the other.
4. Emotional Stability (Sometimes Labeled Neuroticisim):
A dimension ranging from poised, calm, composed, and not hypochondriacal at one end to nervous, anxious, high-strung and hypochondriacal at the other.
5. Openness to Experience:
A dimension ranging from imaginative, witty, and having broad interests at one end to down-to-earth, simple, and having narrow interests at the other.
How basic, and therefore how important, are the “big five” dimensions? Although there is far from complete agreement on this point, many researchers believe that these dimensions are indeed very basic ones. This is indicated, in part, by the fact that these dimensions are ones to which most people in many different cultures refer in describing themselves, and by the fact that we can often tell where individuals stand along at least some of these dimensions from an initial meeting with them that lasts only a few minutes.
How do we know this is true? From several studies in which strangers meet and interact briefly with each other, then rate each other on measures of the big five dimensions. When these ratings by strangers are then compared with ratings by other people who know the participants in the study very well (e.g., their parents or best friends), substantial agreement is obtained for at least some of the big five dimensions.
For instance, strangers who meet each other for a few minutes are quite accurate in rating each other with respect to the dimensions of extraversion and conscientiousness. This may seem surprising, but it actually fits quite well with our informal experience. Think about it; if someone met you for the first time, could they tell right away whether you are friendly and outgoing or shy and reserved? Whether you are neat and orderly or impulsive and disorganized? The answer offered by research findings is clear that they probably could.
Why are we so good at recognizing where others stand on these dimensions? Evolutionary psychology suggests that this is because such information is very useful to us from the point of view of survival. We need to know quickly whether others will cooperate with us (i.e., be agreeable), whether they will be dependable (i.e., high in conscientiousness), whether they will make a good leader (e.g., by being high in extraversion and low in neuroticism), and so on. Of course, this is just speculation, but it is interesting food for thought.
If the big five dimensions of personality are really so basic, then it is reasonable to expect that they will be related to important forms of behavior. And in fact, many studies indicate that this is the case. Where people stand on the big five dimensions is closely linked to important outcomes, such as their success in performing many jobs. The main point here is that there is a large and growing body of evidence suggesting that these dimensions are indeed very basic ones where personality is concerned.
One final point- Although many psychologists now view the big five dimensions as truly basic, there is not total consensus on this point. For example, Eysenck (1994), one expert on personality, believes that there are only three basic dimensions—extraversion, neuroticism (emotional instability and apprehensiveness), and psychoticism (a tendency toward psychopathology, especially impulsivity and cruelty).
Other psychologists believe that the methods on which the big five dimensions are based (largely the statistical technique known as factor analysis) are inadequate. By and large, though, many psychologists view the big five as providing important insights into the key dimensions of personality.
At present, most research on personality by psychologists occurs within the context of the trait approach. Instead of seeking to propose and test grand theories such as the ones offered by Freud, Jung, and Rogers, most psychologists currently direct their effort to the task of understanding specific traits.
This is not to imply that the trait approach is perfect, however. On the contrary, it too can be criticized on several grounds. First, the trait approach is largely descriptive in nature. It seeks to describe the key dimensions of personality but does not attempt to determine how various traits develop, how they influence behavior, or why they are important. This is true with respect to the “big five” model, which was based, initially, on the fact that when asked to describe others, most people use these dimensions.
Second, despite several decades of careful research, there is still no final agreement concerning the traits that are most important or most basic. The big five dimensions are widely accepted, but they are far from universally accepted, and some psychologists feel that they are far from the final answer to these issues.
These criticisms relate primarily to what the trait approach has not yet accomplished rather than to its findings or proposals. All in all, we can conclude that this approach to personality has generally been a very valuable one. Attempting to understand how people differ appears to be a useful strategy for understanding the uniqueness and consistency of key aspects of human behavior.