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Personality Trait Theory

Personality Trait Theory

Author: Erick Taggart

This lesson will introduce trait theory and its early history.

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Introduction to Psychology

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Hello, class. So today's lesson, we're going to be talking about trait theory of personality. So what is a personality trait? Well, a personality trait is the basic, stable, and consistent qualities that people show over time and in different kinds of situations. So these are the things that are stable and enduring, and they don't tend to change for the person as much. These are the sorts of building blocks of a person self, the things we put together to say who they are or what they're like.

And personality traits can have an influence on our behaviors. So if somebody is an angry or irritable person, they're more prone to do things out of anger or violence. They can also predict what will most likely happen based on the traits. So again, if somebody's angry, you can reasonably assume that a certain type of situation will set them off in this kind of way.

Alternatively, a sociable person is somebody who will talk to people regardless of the situation. They might be at work, they might be out in public, or they might be at a party.

A trait theorist is a personality psychologist that attempts to identify and measure these particular pieces or aspects of a person's personality, these tricks. It's a very sort of scientific study of personality, which is to say, we're trying to identify and measure these different parts of personality. It's also very reductive, like structuralism, as a theory, because it tries to break it down into the smallest possible parts.

One of the founding figures in trait theory of personality is Gordon Allport. Allport was one of the first of the personality psychologists, one of the founders of the area, and he studied and lived during the first half of the 1900s. And his major contribution to personality trait theory was the identification of different levels and categories of traits. So he was trying to put them into categories.

And the first one that he had was the idea of general versus specific trait in personality. So a very general trait is what he called a common trait. Common traits are traits that are recognized and shared by most people within a certain culture. So it's shared by a group of people. For example, in the United States, competitiveness is a trait that is shared and valued by people in the US.

But it might be different in other cultures. For example, in more collective or more group oriented cultures in Africa or Asia, those groups might not value the trait of competitiveness as highly.

And then going down to a more specific trait, we have individual traits. And these are traits that are unique and specific to each person over time. For example, how outgoing or aggressive person might be, regardless of the competitiveness of the culture. So I might be a very shy and less outgoing person while still sharing that competitiveness at a general level. So individual traits are the focus of our trait theories.

Within individual traits, Allport further identified levels of importance for those traits. So people might take certain traits as being more important or more influential to their own ideas and behavior.

For example, a cardinal trait is the most influential and important trait that can be in a person, and they're essentially behind every kind of action that the person takes. It's a trait that a person might become known for. For example, Mother Teresa had a cardinal trait of kindness, because that guided essentially all of her actions within life. Now, cardinal traits are very rare, since people are generally not defined by a single trait, but they are evident in some people, as Allport said.

The next level is central, and this is probably the most important, again, to the trait theory. Central traits are the prominent, influential traits that are at the core of the personality. They don't completely define a person, but at the same time, it's the way that people usually act. For example, a person might be humorous, intelligent, or shy.

And then the final level is the secondary traits. And secondary traits are a lot less influential. They might be things like preferences-- what you like about food, or colors. Those are not necessarily as important to the person. It could also be certain kinds of traits that are only shown in certain situations or circumstances.

For example, you might only be shy or anxious when you're speaking in public. You have public speaking anxiety. So that would only be a secondary trait, as opposed to being a central trait, because otherwise you might be an outgoing person.

  • Common Traits

    Traits shared by most members of a specific culture.

  • Individual Traits

    Specific person’s unique personality traits.

  • Central Traits

    Core qualities of a personality; major characteristics you would use to describe an individual.

  • Secondary Traits

    Preferences or dependent on the environment.

  • Cardinal Traits

    Traits that are so basic that all of a person’s activities can be traced back to the trait.

  • Trait Theorist

    A personality psychologist that attempts to identify and measure particular aspects or pieces of a person’s personality (or traits).

  • Personality Trait

    The basic and stable and consistent qualities people show over time and in different situations; the building blocks of a person’s self, or sense of who they are.

  • Allport’s “Lexical Hypothesis”

    Gordon Allport identified 18,000 words representing traits in the dictionary and organized these into levels of traits.