Trait Approach To Personality Essay Sample

In psychology, trait theory (also called dispositional theory) is an approach to the study of human personality. Trait theorists are primarily interested in the measurement of traits, which can be defined as habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion.[1] According to this perspective, traits are aspects of personality that are relatively stable over time, differ across individuals (e.g. some people are outgoing whereas others are not), relatively consistent over situations, and influence behavior. Traits are in contrast to states which are more transitory dispositions.

In some theories and systems, traits are something a person either has or does not have, but in many others traits are dimensions such as extraversion vs. introversion, with each person rating somewhere along this spectrum.

There are two approaches to defining traits: as internal causal properties or as purely descriptive summaries. The internal causal definition states that traits influence our behaviours, leading us to do things in line with that trait. On the other hand, traits as descriptive summaries are descriptions of our actions that don't try to infer causality.[2]


Gordon Allport was an early pioneer in the study of traits, which he also referred to as dispositions. When Allport was 22 he met with Sigmund Freud, and during their meeting was when he learned to examine surface level aspects of personality before looking into the unconscious side of things.[3] In his approach, "cardinal" traits are those that dominate and shape a person's behavior; their ruling passions/obsessions, such as a need for money, fame etc. By contrast, "central" traits such as honesty are characteristics found in some degree in every person - and finally "secondary" traits are those seen only in certain circumstances (such as particular likes or dislikes that a very close friend may know), which are included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.

A wide variety of alternative theories and scales were later developed, including:

Currently, two general approaches are the most popular[citation needed]:

Comparing EPQ and Big Five[edit]

Testing methodology, and factors[edit]

Both the EPQ and Big Five approaches extensively use self-report questionnaires. The factors are intended to be orthogonal (uncorrelated),[8] though there are often small positive correlations between factors. The five factor model in particular has been criticized for losing the orthogonal structure between factors.[9][10]Hans Eysenck has argued that fewer factors are superior to a larger number of partly related ones.[11] Although these two approaches are comparable because of the use of factor analysis to construct hierarchical taxonomies, they differ in the organization and number of factors.

Whatever the causes, however, psychoticism marks the two approaches apart, as the five factor model contains no such trait. Moreover, psychoticism, unlike any of the other factors in either approach, does not fit a normal distribution curve. Indeed, scores are rarely high, thus skewing a normal distribution.[12] However, when they are high, there is considerable overlap with psychiatric conditions such as antisocial and schizoid personality disorders. Similarly, high scorers on neuroticism are more susceptible to sleep and psychosomatic disorders.[13] Five factor approaches can also predict future mental disorders.[14][15]

Lower-order factors[edit]

There are two higher-order factors that both taxonomies clearly share: extraversion and neuroticism. Both approaches broadly accept that extraversion is associated with sociability and positive affect, whereas neuroticism is associated with emotional instability and negative affect.[12]

Many lower-order factors, or facets, are similar between the two taxonomies. For instance, both approaches contain factors for sociability/gregariousness, for activity levels, and for assertiveness within the higher order factor extraversion. However, there are differences too. First, the three-factor approach contains nine lower-order factors and the five-factor approach has six.[12]

Eysenck's psychoticism factor incorporates some of the polar opposites of the lower order factors of openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. A high scorer on tough-mindedness in psychoticism would score low on tender-mindedness in agreeableness. Most of the differences between the taxonomies stem from the three factor model's emphasis on fewer high-order factors.


Although both major trait models are descriptive, only the three-factor model offers a detailed causal explanation. Eysenck suggests that different personality traits are caused by the properties of the brain, which themselves are the result of genetic factors.[16] In particular, the three-factor model identifies the reticular system and the limbic system in the brain as key components that mediate cortical arousal and emotional responses respectively. Eysenck advocates that extraverts have low levels of cortical arousal and introverts have high levels, leading extraverts to seek out more stimulation from socializing and being venturesome.[17] Moreover, Eysenck surmised that there would be an optimal level of arousal, after which inhibition would occur and that this would be different for each person.[18]

In a similar vein, the three-factor approach theorizes that neuroticism is mediated by levels of arousal in the limbic system and that individual differences arise because of variable activation thresholds between people. Therefore, highly neurotic people when presented with minor stressors, will exceed this threshold, whereas people low in neuroticism will not exceed normal activation levels, even when presented with large stressors. By contrast, proponents of the five-factor approach assume a role of genetics[7] and environment[19] but offer no explicit causal explanation.

Given this emphasis on biology in the three-factor approach, it would be expected that the third trait, psychoticism, would have a similar explanation. However, the causal properties of this state are not well defined. Eysenck has suggested that psychoticism is related to testosterone levels and is an inverse function of the serotonergic system,[20] but he later revised this, linking it instead to the dopaminergic system.[21]

List of personality traits[edit]

Openness to experienceComposed of two related but separable traits, Openness to Experience and Intellect. Behavioral aspects include having wide interests, and being imaginative and insightful, correlated with activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Considered primarily a cognitive trait.[22]
ConscientiousnessScrupulous, meticulous, principled behavior guided or conforming to one's own conscience. Associated with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.[23][24][25]
ExtraversionGregarious, outgoing, sociable, projecting one's personality outward. The opposite of extraversion is introversion. Extraversion has shown to share certain genetic markers with substance abuse. Extraversion is associated with various regions of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.[26][27][28]
AgreeablenessRefers to a compliant, trusting, empathic, sympathetic, friendly and cooperative nature.[29][30][31]
NeuroticismIdentifies people who are prone to psychological distress. Individuals who are high in neuroticism tend to be anxious, depressed, self-conscious, impulsive, vulnerable and display angry hostility. "Neuroticism is the major factor of personality pathology" (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1969). Neuroticism has been linked to serotonin transporter (5-HTT) binding sites in the thalamus: as well as activity in the insular cortex.[32][33][34] Neuroticism also predicts the occurrence of more negative life experiences.[19]
Honesty-HumilityTendency towards sincerity, modesty, fairness, and greed avoidance. Those who score high on this trait feel little desire to manipulate others or to break the rules for personal gain. Negatively correlated with the Dark triad.
Self-esteem (low)A "favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the self" (Rosenberg, 1965). An individual's sense of his or her value or worth, or the extent to which a person values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself" (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991).[35][36][37]
Harm avoidanceA tendency towards shyness, being fearful and uncertain, tendency to worry. Neonatal complications such as preterm birth have been shown to affect harm avoidance. People affected by eating disorders exhibit high levels of harm avoidance.[38] The volume of the left amygdala in girls was correlated to levels of HA, in separate studies HA was correlated with reduced grey matter volume in the orbitofrontal, occipital and parietal regions.[39][40][41][42]
Novelty seekingImpulsive, exploratory, fickle, excitable, quick-tempered, and extravagant. Associated with addictive behavior.
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS)The defining trait of highly sensitive persons, characterized by the increased depth of processing of sensory input that underlies HSPs' greater proclivity to overstimulation, emotional reactivity and empathy, and sensitivity to stimuli.[43][44]
Perfectionism"I don't think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive" (Paul Hewitt, PhD)

Socially prescribed perfectionism – "believing that others will value you only if you are perfect."

Self-oriented perfectionism – "an internally motivated desire to be perfect."

Perfectionism is one of the traits associated with obsessional behavior and like obsessionality is also believed to be regulated by the basal ganglia.[45][46][47]

AlexithymiaThe inability to express emotions. "To have no words for one's inner experience" (Rený J. Muller PhD). In studies done with stroke patients, alexithymia was found to be more prevalent in those who developed lesions in the right hemisphere following a cerebral infarction. There is a positive association with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), childhood abuse and neglect and alexithymia. Utilizing psychometric testing and fMRI, studies showed positive response in the insula, posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and thalamus.[48][49][50]
RigidityInflexibility, difficulty making transitions, adherence to set patterns. Mental rigidity arises out of a deficit of the executive functions. Originally termed frontal lobe syndrome it is also referred to as dysexecutive syndrome and usually occurs as a result of damage to the frontal lobe. This may be due to physical damage, disease (such as Huntington's disease) or a hypoxic or anoxic insult.[51][52][53][54]
ImpulsivityRisk taking, lack of planning, and making up one's mind quickly (Eysenck and Eysenck). A component of disinhibition. Abnormal patterns of impulsivity have been linked to lesions in the right inferior frontal gyrus and in studies done by Antonio Damasio author of Descartes Error, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has been shown to cause a defect in real-life decision making in individuals with otherwise normal intellect. Those who sustain this type of damage are oblivious to the future consequences of their actions and live in the here and now.[55][56][57][58][59][60]
DisinhibitionBehavioral disinhibition is an inability or unwillingness to constrain impulses, it is a key component of executive functioning. Researchers have emphasized poor behavioral inhibition as the central impairment of ADHD. It may be symptomatic of orbitofrontal lobe syndrome, a subtype of frontal lobe syndrome which may be an acquired disorder as a result of traumatic brain injury, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), anoxic encephalopathy, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, bacterial or viral infections such as Lyme disease and neurosyphilis. Disinhibition has been consistently associated with substance abuse disorders, obesity, higher BMI, excessive eating, an increased rate of eating, and perceived hunger.[61][62][63][64][65][66][67][68]
PsychoticismPsychoticism is a personality pattern typified by aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility, one of four traits in Hans Eysenck's model of personality. High levels of this trait were believed by Eysenck to be linked to increased vulnerability to psychosis such as schizophrenia. He also believed that blood relatives of psychotics would show high levels of this trait, suggesting a genetic basis to the trait.[69][70]
ObsessionalityPersistent, often unwelcome, and frequently disturbing ideas, thoughts, images or emotions, rumination, often inducing an anxious state. Obsessionality may result as a dysfunction of the basal ganglia.[71][72][73]

See also[edit]


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Similarities between lower-order factors for psychoticism and the facets of openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (from Matthews, Deary & Whiteman, 2003)

Theories of Personality

Saul McLeod, updated 2017

What is this thing we call personality? Consider the following definitions, what do they have in common?

"Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics behavior and thought" (Allport, 1961, p. 28).

“The characteristics or blend of characteristics that make a person unique” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).

Both definitions emphasize the uniqueness of the individual and consequently adopt an idiographic view.

The idiographic view assumes that each person has a unique psychological structure and that some traits are possessed by only one person; and that there are times when it is impossible to compare one person with others. It tends to use case studies for information gathering.

The nomothetic view, on the other hand, emphasizes comparability among individuals. This viewpoint sees traits as having the same psychological meaning in everyone. This approach tends to use self-report personality questions, factor analysis, etc. People differ in their positions along a continuum in the same set of traits.

We must also consider the influence and interaction of nature (biology, genetics, etc.) and nurture (the environment, upbringing) with respect to personality development.

Trait theories of personality imply personality is biologically based, whereas state theories such as Bandura's (1977) Social Learning Theory emphasize the role of nurture and environmental influence.

Sigmund Freud's psychodynamic theory of personality assumes there is an interaction between nature (innate instincts) and nurture (parental influences).

Freud's Theory

Personality involves several factors:

Personality development depends on the interplay of instinct and environment during the first five years of life. Parental behavior is crucial to normal and abnormal development. Personality and mental health problems in adulthood can usually be traced back to the first five years.

Psychosexual Development

People – including children – are basically hedonistic – they are driven to seek pleasure by gratifying the Id’s desires (Freud, 1920). Sources of pleasure are determined by the location of the libido (life-force).

As a child moves through different developmental stages, the location of the libido, and hence sources of pleasure, change (Freud, 1905).

Environmental and parental experiences during childhood influence an individual's personality during adulthood.

For example, during the first two years of life, the infant who is neglected (insufficiently fed) or who is over-protected (over-fed) might become an orally-fixated person (Freud, 1905).

Tripartite Theory of Personality

Freud (1923) saw the personality structured into three parts (i.e., tripartite), the id, ego, and superego (also known as the psyche), all developing at different stages in our lives.

These are systems, not parts of the brain, or in any way physical.

The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and aggressive (death) instinct - Thanatos.

It operates on the pleasure principle (Freud, 1920) which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences.

The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world (like a referee). It is the decision-making component of personality

The ego operates according to the reality principle, working our realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.

The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one's parents and others. It is similar to a conscience, which can punish the ego through causing feelings of guilt.

Trait Approach to Personality

This approach assumes behavior is determined by relatively stable traits which are the fundamental units of one’s personality.

Traits predispose one to act in a certain way, regardless of the situation. This means that traits should remain consistent across situations and over time, but may vary between individuals. It is presumed that individuals differ in their traits due to genetic differences.

These theories are sometimes referred to a psychometric theories, because of their emphasis on measuring personality by using psychometric tests. Trait scores are continuous (quantitative) variables. A person is given numeric score to indicate how much of a trait the they possess.

Eysenck’s Personality Theory

Eysenck (1952, 1967, 1982) proposed a theory of personality based on biological factors, arguing that individuals inherit a type of nervous system that affects their ability to learn and adapt to the environment.

During 1940s Eysenck was working at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London. His job was to make an initial assessment of each patient before their mental disorder was diagnosed by a psychiatrist.

Through this position, he compiled a battery of questions about behavior, which he later applied to 700 soldiers who were being treated for neurotic disorders at the hospital (Eysenck (1947). He found that the soldiers' 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 traits

He used a technique called factor analysis. This technique reduces behavior to a number of factors which can be grouped together under separate headings, called dimensions.

Eysenck (1947) found that their behavior could be represented by two dimensions: Introversion / Extroversion (E); Neuroticism / Stability (N). Eysenck called these second-order personality traits.

Each aspect of personality (extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism) can be traced back to a different biological cause. Personality is dependent on the balance between excitation and inhibition process of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).


Extraverts are sociable and crave excitement and change, and thus can become bored easily. They tend to be carefree, optimistic and impulsive. They are more likely to take risks and be thrill seekers. Eysenck argues that this is because they inherit an under aroused nervous system and so seek stimulation to restore the level of optimum stimulation.

Introverts on the other hand lie at the other end of this scale, being quiet and reserved. They are already over-aroused and shun sensation and stimulation. Introverts are reserved, plan their actions and control their emotions. They tend to be serious, reliable and pessimistic.


A person’s level of neuroticism is determined by the reactivity of their sympathetic nervous system. A stable person’s nervous system will generally be less reactive to stressful situations, remaining calm and level headed.

Someone high in neuroticism on the other hand will be much more unstable, and prone to overreacting to stimuli and may be quick to worry, anger or fear. They are overly emotional and find it difficult to calm down once upset. Neurotic individuals have an ANS that responds quickly to stress.


Eysenck (1966) later added a third trait / dimension - Psychoticism – e.g., lacking in empathy, cruel, a loner, aggressive and troublesome. This has been related to high levels of testosterone. The higher the testosterone, the higher the level of psychoticism, with low levels related to more normal balanced behaviour.

According to Eysenck, the two dimensions of neuroticism (stable vs. unstable) and introversion-extroversion combine to form a variety of personality characteristics.

Critical Evaluation

Twin studies can be used to see if personality is genetic. However, the findings are conflicting and non-conclusive.

Shields (1976) found that monozygotic (identical) twins were significantly more alike on the Introvert – Extrovert (E) and Psychoticism (P) dimensions than dizygotic (non-identical) twins.

Loehlin, Willerman, and Horn (1988) found that only 50% of the variations of scores on personality dimensions are due to inherited traits. This suggests that social factors are also important.

One good element of Eysenck’s theory is that it takes into account both nature and nurture. Eysenck’s theory argues strongly that biological predispositions towards certain personality traits combined with conditioning and socialisation during childhood in order to create our personality. This interactionist approach may therefore be much more valid than either a biological or environmental theory alone. It also links nicely with the diathesis stress model of behaviour which argues for a biological predisposition combining with a environmental trigger for a particular behaviour.

Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI)

Cattell's 16PF Trait Theory

Cattell (1965) disagreed with Eysenck’s view that personality can be understood by looking at only two or three dimensions of behavior.

Instead, he argued that that is was necessary to look at a much larger number of traits in order to get a complete picture of someone’s personality.

Whereas Eysenck based his theory based on the responses of hospitalized servicemen, Cattell collected data from a range of people through three different sources of data.

  • L-data - this is life record data such as school grades, absence from work, etc.
  • Q-data - this was a questionnaire designed to rate an individual's personality (known as the 16PF) .
  • T-data - this is data from objective tests designed to 'tap' into a personality construct.

Cattell analyzed the T-data and Q-data using a mathematical technique called factor analysis to look at which types of behavior tended to be grouped together in the same people. He identified 16 personality traits / factors common to all people.

Cattell made a distinction 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 behavior.

Cattell regarded source traits are more important in describing personality than surface traits.

Cattell produced a personality test similar to the EPI that measured each of the sixteen traits. The 16PF (16 Personality Factors Test) has 160 questions in total, ten questions relating to each personality factor.

Allport's Trait Theory

Allport's theory of personality emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and the internal cognitive and motivational processes that influence behavior. For example, intelligence, temperament, habits, skills, attitudes, and traits.

Allport (1937) believes that personality is biologically determined at birth, and shaped by a person's environmental experience.

Authoritarian Personality

Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the results of an individual’s personality type. They piloted and developed a questionnaire, which they called the F-scale (F for fascism).

Adorno argued that deep-seated personality traits predisposed some individuals to be highly sensitive to totalitarian and antidemocratic ideas and therefore were prone to be highly prejudicial. 

The evidence they gave to support this conclusion included:

    Case studies, e.g., Nazis

    Psychometric testing (use of the F-scale)

    Clinical interviews revealed situational aspects of their childhood, such as the fact that they had been brought up by very strict parents or guardians, which were found of participants who scored highly on the F-scale not always found in the backgrounds of low scorers.

Those with an authoritarian personality tended to be:

• Hostile to those who are of inferior status, but obedient to people with high status

• Fairly rigid in their opinions and beliefs

• Conventional, upholding traditional values

Adorno concluded that people with authoritarian personalities were more likely to categorize people into “us” and “them” groups, seeing their own group as superior.

Therefore, the study indicated that individuals with a very strict upbringing by critical and harsh parents were most likely to develop an authoritarian personality. 

Adorno believed that this was because the individual in question was not able to express hostility towards their parents (for being strict and critical).  Consequently, the person would then displace this aggression / hostility onto safer targets, namely those who are weaker, such as ethnic minorities.

Adorno et al. felt that authoritarian traits, as identified by the F-Scale, predispose some individuals towards 'fascistic' characteristics such as:

    • Ethnocentrism, i.e., the tendency to favor one's own ethnic group:

    • Obsession with rank and status

    • Respect for and submissiveness to authority figures

    • Preoccupation with power and toughness.

In other words, according to Adorno, the Eichmanns of this world are there because they have authoritarian personalities and therefore are predisposed cruelty, as a result of their upbringing.

There is evidence that the authoritarian personality exists. This might help to explain why some people are more resistant to changing their prejudiced views.

Critical Evaluation

There are many weaknesses in Adorno’s explanation of prejudice:

• Harsh parenting style does not always produce prejudice children / individuals

• Some prejudice people do not conform to the authoritarian personality type.

• Doesn’t explain why people are prejudiced against certain groups and not others.

Furthermore, the authoritarian explanation of prejudice does not explain how whole social groups (e.g., the Nazis) can be prejudiced. This would mean that all members of a group (e.g., Nazis) would have an authoritarian personality, which is quite unlikely.

Cultural or social norms would seem to offer a better explanation of prejudice and conflict than personality variables. Adorno has also been criticized for his limited sample.

Also, Hyman and Sheatsley (1954) found that lower educational level was probably a better explanation of high F-scale scores than an authoritarian.


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How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Theories of personality. Retrieved from

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