When we talk about personality we are looking for certain traits which are common among different people. These traits are consistent over time and they are what determines and shapes our personality .
Trait theory is the biggest area of research in personality development. Trait theories state that human beings possess wide varieties of characteristics that are constant over time, not everyone will share the same characteristics or traits; but, all of us will share from the same pool of characteristics that make up the psyche of all humans. The different combination of traits found in each of us are what makes us unique. Trait theories are therefore, primarily concerned with the differences in people with regards to their own set of personality traits.
We all characterize the traits we see in people all the time, for example we might say, “My dad is outgoing, fun-loving, and extremely active for his age.”
The psychologist Gordon Alport based his three-tier theory of traits in 1936, when he discovered over 4,000 listed personality traits.
Trait categories according to Gordon Alport
Cardinal traits are very dominating traits that characterize a person throughout life. Many times, people are known by these traits; for example, you often hear people classified as Nerd, Christ-Like, anal, bad-tempered, drama queen, and so on. According to Gordon Alport, these cardinal traits usually develop later on in life. However, other theorists as you might imagine will say that they may be present from birth. Drama Queens are often drama princesses as young children.
Central traits are not as dominating, yet still basic for most individuals. To illustrate what I mean, a Nerd is a special term often reserved for extremely bright people; however, a central trait would be intelligent and this trait is distributed more evenly among people. Other central traits would include: honest, shy, anxious, happy, resourceful, etc.
Secondary traits are traits that appear as a reaction to a situation; but, may not be overly dominating the personality of the person experiencing them. For example, a person may be impatient waiting in a line, or waiting on someone to call, but that same person may be very patient helping an elderly individual, or helping a child with his or her homework.
Trait theorist, psychologist, Raymond Cattell, reviewed Alport’s 4,000 trait list and reduced personality traits to 171. He eliminated most uncommon traits in favour of traits commonly found among most humans. He utilized what is known as a factor analysis and by combining traits with striking similarities; he further reduced the number of traits down to 16. He is known for his famous, Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) which is widely used as a personality test worldwide.
Psychologist, Hans Eysenck decided to do one better and he devised a personality theory based on just three universal personality traits. Though this theory may sound strikingly odd we are familiar with some of the concepts or traits he proposed.
Introversion is the focus on the inner person. Introverts are often shy and reserved and tend to be loners.
Extroversion is the focus on the environment and other people. Extroverts tend to be outgoing, friendly, and very social. They prefer to be with other people more often than being alone.
Emotional Stability versus neuroticism
Emotional stability is a trait whereby humans are able to remain calm and even-tempered in most situations in life, of course there will be exceptions such as a death in the family; but, basically they are even-tempered in most situations.
Neurosis is the condition where people tend to get anxious or emotional more often than not. People who are natural worry-warts are prime examples of your classic neurotic. In general, these people are not even-tempered they are very moody. Eysenck called this trait neuroticism.
Later, Han Eysenck added a third category to his trait theory after studying mentally ill patients. He called it psychoticism.
The people who fall under this category are out of touch with reality and they can be antisocial, non-empathic, manipulative and hostile.
The Big 5 Theory of Personality
Of course these theories have been researched and criticized. Cattell had produced too many traits and according to the critics Eysenck had produced too little. Is here a happy median somewhere?
The Big 5 Theory of Personality hypothesizes that there are 5 core personality traits common to humans. Though they might be given different synonyms basically they are listed as: Extraversion, Openness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.
The debate continues
The big 5 Theory will not be the final say on personality traits, researchers continue to debate, criticize and refine the theory. While other theorists challenge the whole concept of personality traits saying that the defining traits do not address how the traits were generated or developed in the first place, others ignore the work of Gordon Alport who suggested that traits can be cardinal ( permanent), central (at the core of our personality) or secondary (situational). Apparently these theorists have forgotten the work of Gordon Alport.
Trait theory is useful up to a point; there are many factors which contribute to the development of the human personality including biological factors, such as our basic DNA and social factors such as nurturing, culture, religious believes, and so on.