The Trait Perspective

Overview

Trait theories emphasize a surface-oriented approach to personality. They describe the conscious and concrete aspects of personality in straightforward terms (e.g., “friendliness,” “ambitiousness”), while deemphasizing the unconscious and abstract explanations of human behavior. They are based on empirical research, rather than on clinical observation.


Gordon W. Allport

Originated trait theory in response to what he regarded as Freud’s excessive emphasis on hidden motives and meanings. Personality is an organizing force within the individual that determines characteristic patterns of behavior. These patterns of behavior take the form of traits, such as friendliness and ambitiousness, although every personality is unique and cannot be accurately described with single words. We are motivated both by the desire to reduce drives and to seek out drive increases. The unconscious and defense mechanisms are important only in unhealthy personalities. Allport draws some of the most unique and controversial conclusions in all of personality theory: infancy is not particularly important for personality development; adult motives differ in kind from childhood motives; psychopathology differs in kind from healthy behavior (rather than in degree); description is sufficient for psychology, and there is no need to probe for deeper explanations. “A man likes blue because he likes blue.”


Raymond B. Cattell

Used the statistical technique of factor analysis to determine which of the thousands of traits are most important. There are sixteen major personality traits, some of which support Freudian constructs and the unconscious. Cattell’s theory is based on a vast amount of research; but because of his unusual and difficult terminology, the impact of his theory has been limited.


Hans J. Eysenck

Three traits consistently emerge from his factor-analytic research as the most important: introversion–extraversion, neuroticism–stability, and psychoticism. Eysenck sought to make trait theory more explanatory by relating traits to physiological and social causes.

“Big Five” Theory Five traits consistently emerge from factor-analytic research as the most important: introversion–extraversion (reserved vs. outgoing), neuroticism (calm and secure vs. nervous and insecure), conscientiousness (lazy and unreliable vs. hard-working and reliable), agreeableness (suspicious and uncooperative vs. trusting and helpful), and openness (conventional vs. creative).