Personality: Trait Theory

Trait approach to personality

This approach assumes that behaviour is determined by relatively stable traits which are the fundamental units of one's personality. Traits predispose one to act in certain ways, regardless of the situation. This means that traits should remain consistent over situations and time, but may vary between individuals. Individuals are presumed to differ in their personality traits due to genetic differences

Traits can be defined as habitual patterns of behaviour, thought, and emotion.

Trait theory is best for describing the content of people's personality and is successful in describing the ways people differ from one another. It is less successful in explaining the dynamic processes of personality

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Eysenck's Personality Theory

Eysenck developed an influential model of personality. Based on the results of factor analyses of responses on personality questionnaires, he identified 3 dimensions of personality: extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism
Eysenck (1947) gave a battery of questions about behaviour to 700 soldiers who were being treated for neurotic disorders at a psychiatric hospital he worked at. He found that the soldier's answers seemed to link naturally with one another, suggesting that there were a number of different personality traits which were being revealed by the soldier's answers. He called these first order personality traitsHe used a technique called factor analysis. This technique reduces behaviour to a number of factors which can be grouped together under separate dimensions. Eysenck found that the soldier's behaviour could be represented by 2 dimensions: introversion/extroversion; neuroticism/stability. Eysenck called these second order personality traits. The 2 dimensions of neuroticism and extroversion combine to form a variety of personality characteristics.

Eysenck (1966) later added a third trait/dimension - psychoticism
Eysenck related the personality of an individual to the functioning of their autonomic nervous system (ANS). Personality is dependent on the balance between excitation and inhibition process of the nervous system. Neurotic individuals have an ANS that responds quickly to stress

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Cattell's 16PF Trait Theory

Cattell (1965) disagreed with Eysenck's view that personality can be understood by looking at only 2-3 dimensions of behaviour. He argued that it's necessary to look at a much larger number of traits to get a complete picture of one's personality
Eysenck based his theory on the responses of hospitalised servicemen where he worked. Cattell collected data from a range of people through 3 different sources of data: L-Data - this is life record data such as school grades and absences. Q-Data - this was a questionnaire designed to rate an individual's personality. T-Data - this is data from objective tests designed to 'tap' into a personality construct.
Cattell analysed the T-Data and Q-Data using factor analysis to look at which types of behaviour tended to be grouped together in the same people. He identified 16 personality traits which were common to all people
Cattell distinguished between source and surface traits. Surface traits are very obvious and can be easily identified by other people, whereas source traits are less visible to other people and appear to underlie several different aspects of behaviour.
Cattell produced a personality test that measured each of the 16 traits. The 16 Personality Factors Test has 160 questions in total, 10 questions relating to each personality factor.

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Big Five (five factor model)

This model is based on common language descriptors of personality. When factor analysis is applied to personality survey data, some words used to describe aspects of personality are often applied to the same person. 

This theory suggests five broad dimensions to describe the human personality and psyche. The five factors are defined as: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (acronyms "OCEAN" or "CANOE"). Beneath each proposed global factors, a number of correlated and more specific primary factors are claimed. For example, extraversion is said to include such related qualities as gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, warmth, activity, and positivity.

The big five personality traits was the model to comprehend the relationship between personality and academic behaviours. The model was defined by several independent sets of researchers. These researchers began by studying relationships between a large number of known personality traits. They reduced the lists of these traits by 5-10 fold and then used factor analysis to group the remaining traits.

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Allport's Trait Theory

Allport was one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of personality. He emphasised the uniqueness of each individual, and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding the personality.
One of his earliest projects was to go through the dictionary and locate every term that he thought could describe a person. From this, he developed a list of 4,500 trait-like words. He organised these into 3 levels of traits. These 3 trait levels were: 

  • Cardinal trait - this is the trait that dominates and shapes a person's behaviour. These are the ruling passions/obsessions, such as a need for money, fame etc. 
  • Central trait - this is a general characteristic found in every person, to some degree. These are the basic building blocks that shape most of our behaviour, although they are not as overwhelming as cardinal traits. An example would be honesty. 
  • Secondary trait -  these characteristics are seen only in certain circumstances. They must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.
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