What Is the Trait Theory of Personality?

The Trait Approach to Personality

People with different personality traits
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If someone asked you to describe a close friend's personality, what kind of things would you say? A few things that might come to mind are descriptive terms, such as outgoing, kind and even-tempered. All of these represent traits. What exactly does this term mean?

A trait can be thought of as a relatively stable characteristic that causes individuals to behave in certain ways. The trait approach to personality is one of the major theoretical areas in the study of personality.

The trait theory suggests that individual personalities are composed of these broad dispositions.

Unlike many other theories of personality, such as psychoanalytic or humanistic theories, the trait approach to personality is focused on differences between individuals. The combination and interaction of various traits form a personality that is unique to each individual. Trait theory is focused on identifying and measuring these individual personality characteristics.

Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory

In 1936, psychologist Gordon Allport found that one English-language dictionary alone contained more than 4,000 words describing different personality traits. He categorized these traits into three levels:

  • Cardinal Traits: These are traits that dominate an individual’s whole life, often to the point that the person becomes known specifically for these traits. People with such personalities often become so known for these traits that their names are often synonymous with these qualities. Consider the origin and meaning of the following descriptive terms: Freudian, Machiavellian, narcissistic, Don Juan, Christ-like, etc. Allport suggested that cardinal traits are rare and tend to develop later in life.
  • Central Traits: These are the general characteristics that form the basic foundations of personality. These central traits, while not as dominating as cardinal traits, are the major characteristics you might use to describe another person. Terms such as intelligent, honest, shy and anxious are considered central traits.
  • Secondary Traits: These are the traits that are sometimes related to attitudes or preferences and often appear only in certain situations or under specific circumstances. Some examples would be getting anxious when speaking to a group or impatient while waiting in line.

Raymond Cattell’s Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire

Trait theorist Raymond Cattell reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of over 4,000 down to 171, mostly by eliminating uncommon traits and combining common characteristics. Next, Cattell rated a large sample of individuals for these 171 different traits. Then, using a statistical technique known as factor analysis, he identified closely related terms and eventually reduced his list to just 16 key personality traits.

According to Cattell, these 16 traits are the source of all human personality. He also developed one of the most widely used personality assessments known as the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF).

Eysenck’s Three Dimensions of Personality

British psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a model of personality based upon just three universal trails:

  1. Introversion/Extraversion:
    Introversion involves directing attention on inner experiences, while extraversion relates to focusing attention outward on other people and the environment. So, a person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extraversion might be sociable and outgoing.
  2. Neuroticism/Emotional Stability:
    This dimension of Eysenck’s trait theory is related to moodiness versus even-temperateness. Neuroticism refers to an individual’s tendency to become upset or emotional, while stability refers to the tendency to remain emotionally constant.
  3. Psychoticism:
    Later, after studying individuals suffering from mental illness, Eysenck added a personality dimension he called psychoticism to his trait theory. Individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic and manipulative.

The Five-Factor Theory of Personality

Both Cattell’s and Eysenck’s theory have been the subject of considerable research, which has led some theorists to believe that Cattell focused on too many traits, while Eysenck focused on too few. As a result, a new trait theory often referred to as the "Big Five" theory emerged. This five-factor model of personality represents five core traits that interact to form human personality. While researchers often disagree about the exact labels for each dimension, the following are described most commonly:

  1. Extraversion
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Conscientiousness
  4. Neuroticism
  5. Openness

Assessing the Trait Approach to Personality

While most agree that people can be described based on their personality traits, theorists continue to debate the number of basic traits that make up human personality. While trait theory has an objectivity that some personality theories lack (such as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory), it also has weaknesses. Some of the most common criticisms of trait theory center on the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behavior. While an individual may score high on assessments of a specific trait, he or she may not always behave that way in every situation. Another problem is that trait theories do not address how or why individual differences in personality develop or emerge.


Boeree, C.G. (2006). Gordon Allport. Personality Theories. Found online at http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/allport.html

McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1997) Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.

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