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Personality as Traits

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Personalities are characterized in terms of traits, which are relatively enduring characteristics that influencour behavior across many situations. Personality traits such as introversion, friendliness, conscientiousness, honesty, and helpfulness are important because they help explain consistencies in behavior.

The most popular way of measuring traits is by administering personality tests on which people self-report about their own characteristics. Psychologists have investigated hundreds of traits using the self-report approach, and this research has found many personality traits that have important implications for behavior. You can see some examples of the personality dimensions that have been studied by psychologists and their implications for behavior in Table 11.1, and you can try completing a trait measure at the website shown in  "Example of a Trait Measure".

Table 11.1 Some Personality Traits That Predict Behavior



Examples of behaviors exhibited by people who have the trait

Authoritarianism (Adorno, Frenkel- Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950)

A cluster of traits including conventionalism, superstition, toughness, and exaggerated concerns with sexuality

Authoritarians are more likely to be prejudiced, to conform to leaders, and to display rigid behaviors.

Individualism- collectivism (Triandis, 1989)

Individualism is the tendency to focus on oneself and one’s personal goals; collectivism is the tendency to focus on one’s relations with others.

Individualists prefer to engage in behaviors that make them stand out from others, whereas collectivists prefer to engage in behaviors that emphasize their similarity to others.

Internal versus external locus of control (Rotter, 1966)

In comparison to those with an external locus of control, people with an internal locus of control are more likely to believe that life events are due largely to their own efforts and personal characteristics.

People with higher internal locus of control are happier, less depressed, and healthier in comparison to those with an external locus of control.

Need for achievement

(McClelland, 1958)

The desire to make significant accomplishments by mastering skills or meeting high standards

Those high in need for achievement select tasks that are not too difficult to be sure they will succeed in them.

Need for cognition

(Cacioppo & Petty, 1982)

The extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive activities

People high in the need for cognition pay more attention to arguments in ads.

Regulatory focus (Shah, Higgins, & Friedman,1998)

Refers to differences in the motivations that energize behavior, varying from apromotion orientation(seeking out new opportunities) to apreventionorientation(avoiding negative outcomes)

People with a promotion orientation are more motivated by goals of gaining money, whereas those with prevention orientation are more concerned about losing money.

Self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Sheier, & Buss, 1975)

The tendency to introspect and examine one’s inner self and feelings

People high in self-consciousness spend more time preparing their hair and makeup before they leave the house.

Self-esteem (Rosenberg,


High self-esteem means having a positive attitude toward oneself and one’s capabilities.

High self-esteem is associated with a variety of positive psychological and health outcomes.

Sensation seeking

The motivation to engage in extreme and risky

Sensation seekers are more likely to

(Zuckerman, 2007)


engage in risky behaviors such as extreme and risky sports, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and crime.


Example of a Trait Measure

You can try completing a self-report measure of personality (a short form of the Five-Factor Personality Test) here. There are 120 questions and it should take you about 15–20 minutes to complete. You will receive feedback about your personality after you have finished the test.

As with intelligence tests, the utility of self-report measures of personality depends on their reliability and construct validity. Some popular measures of personality are not useful because they are unreliable or invalid. Perhaps you have heard of a personality test known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). If so, you are not alone, because the MBTI is the most widely administered personality test in the world, given millions of times a year to employees in thousands of companies. The MBTI categorizes people into one of four categories on each of four dimensions: introversionversus extraversion,sensingversus intuiting, thinking versus feeling, and judging versus perceiving.

Although completing the MBTI can be useful for helping people think about individual differences in personality, and for “breaking the ice” at meetings, the measure itself is not psychologically useful because it is not reliable or valid. People’s classifications change over time, and scores on the MBTI do not relate to other measures of personality or to behavior (Hunsley, Lee, & Wood, 2003). 1 Measures such as the MBTI remind us that it is important to scientifically and empirically test the effectiveness of personality tests by assessing their stability over time and their ability to predict behavior.

One of the challenges of the trait approach to personality is that there are so many of them; there are at least 18,000 English words that can be used to describe people (Allport & Odbert, 1936). 2 Thus a major goal of psychologists is to take this vast number of descriptors (many of which are very similar to each other) a nd to determine the underlying important or “core” traits among them (John, Angleitner, & Ostendorf, 1988). 3

The trait approach to personality was pioneered by early psychologists, including Gordon Allport (1897–1967), Raymond Cattell (1905–1998), and Hans Eysenck (1916–1997). Each of these psychologists believed in the idea of the trait as the stable unit of personality, and each attempted to provide a list or taxonomy of the most important trait dimensions. Their approach was to provide people with a self-report measure and then to use statistical analyses to look for the underlying “factors” or “clusters” of traits, according to the frequency and the co-occurrence of traits in the respondents.

Allport (1937) 4 began his work by reducing the 18,000 traits to a set of about 4,500 traitlike words that he organized into three levels according to their importance. He called them “cardinal traits” (the most important traits), “central traits” (the basic and most useful traits), and “secondary traits” (the less obvious and less consistent ones). Cattell (1990) 5 used a statistical procedure known as factor analysis to analyze the correlations among traits and to identify the most important ones. On the basis of his research he identified what he referred to as “source” (more important) and “surface” (less important) traits, and he developed a measure that assessed 16 dimensions of traits based on personality adjectives taken from everyday language.

Hans Eysenck was particularly interested in the biological and genetic origins of personality and made an important contribution to understanding the nature of a fundamental personality trait: extraversion versus introversion (Eysenck, 1998). 6 Eysenck proposed that people who are extroverted (i.e., who enjoy socializing with others) have lower levels of naturally occurring arousal than do introverts (who are less likely to enjoy being with others). Eysenck argued that extroverts have a greater desire to socialize with others to increase their arousal level, which is naturally too low, whereas introverts, who have naturally high arousal, do not desire to engage in social activities because they are overly stimulating.

The fundamental work on trait dimensions conducted by Allport, Cattell, Eysenck, and many others has led to contemporary trait models, the most important and well-validated of which is the Five-Factor (Big Five) Model of Personality. According to this model, therearefivefundamental underlying trait dimensions that arestableacross time, cross-culturallyshared, and explain a substantial proportion of behavior(Costa & McCrae, 1992; Goldberg, 1982). 7 As you can see in Table 11.2, the five dimensions (sometimes known as the “Big Five”) are agreeableness,conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. (You can remember them using the watery acronyms CANOE or OCEAN.)

Table 11.2 The Five Factors of the Five-Factor Model of Personality


Sample items


Examples of behaviors predicted by the trait

Openness to experience

“I have a vivid imagination”; “I have a rich vocabulary”; “I have excellent ideas.”

A general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience

Individuals who are highly open to experience tend to have distinctive and unconventional decorations in their home. They are also likely to have books on a wide variety of topics, a diverse music collection, and works of art on display.


“I am always prepared”;

A tendency to show self-

Individuals who are conscientious have


“I am exacting in my work”; “I follow a schedule.”

discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement

a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior.


“I am the life of the party”; “I feel comfortable around people”; “I talk to a lot of different people at parties.”

The tendency to experience positive emotions and to seek

out stimulation and the company of others

Extroverts enjoy being with people. In groups they like to talk, assert themselves, and draw attention to themselves.


“I am interested in people”; “I feel others’ emotions”; “I make people feel at ease.”

A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic toward others; reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony

Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. They are generally considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise their interests with those of others.


“I am not usually relaxed”; “I get upset easily”; “I am easily disturbed”

The tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression; sometimes called “emotional instability”

Those who score high in neuroticism are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They may have trouble thinking clearly, making decisions, and coping effectively with stress.


A large body of research evidence has supported the five-factor model. The Big Five dimensions seem to be cross-cultural, because the same five factors have been identified in participants in China, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, and many other countries (Triandis & Suh, 2002). 8 The Big Five dimensions also accurately predict behavior. For instance, a pattern of high conscientiousness, low neuroticism, and high agreeableness predicts successful job performance (Tett, Jackson, & Rothstein, 1991). 9 Scores on the Big Five dimensions also predict the performance of U.S. presidents; ratings of openness to experience are correlated positively with ratings of presidential success, whereas ratings of agreeableness are correlated negatively with success (Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, & Ones, 2000). 10 The Big Five factors are also increasingly being used in helping researchers understand the dimensions of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression (Oldham, 2010; Saulsman & Page, 2004). 11

An advantage of the five-factor approach is that it is parsimonious. Rather than studying hundreds of traits, researchers can focus on only five underlying dimensions. The Big Five may also capture other dimensions that have been of interest to psychologists. For instance, the trait dimension of need for achievement relates to the Big Five variable of conscientiousness, and self-esteem relates to low neuroticism. On the other hand, the Big Five factors do not seem to capture all the important dimensions of personality. For instance, the Big Five does not capture moral behavior, although this variable is important in many theories of personality. And there is evidence that the Big Five factors are not exactly the same across all cultures (Cheung & Leung, 1998). 12