What Are Cardinal Traits?

Lincoln's cardinal trait was honesty
Honesty was Abraham Lincoln's cardinal trait.. Tetra Images / Getty Images

Cardinal traits are those that dominate an individual’s personality to the point that the individual becomes known for them. Don Juan, for example, was so renowned for his sexual exploits that his name became a synonym for heartbreaker and libertine. The young Narcissus of Greek mythology was so enamored with his own reflection that his name became the root of the term narcissism or excessive self-obsession.

The Cardinal Trait's According to Allport

Psychologist Gordon Allport was interested in discovering just how many personality traits existed.

After combing through an English-language dictionary for terms related to personality, he suggested that there were more than 4,000 different terms describing personality traits. After analyzing these terms, he developed three different categories that each term could fall into.

1. The Cardinal Traits

Cardinal traits were the most dominant, but also the rarest. Such traits are so intrinsically tied to an individual's personality that the person becomes almost synonymous with those qualities.

Cardinal traits often develop later in life and serve to shape almost all aspects of an individual's purpose, behavior, and attitudes. Historical figures are often thought of in terms of their cardinal traits.

Some examples include:

  • Mother Teresa is strongly associated with goodness and charity. Today, her name is virtually synonymous with those traits.
  • Adolph Hitler is associated with evil, and his name evokes the embodiment of ruthlessness and depravity.
  • Einstein is known for his genius, and today his name is often used to as a synonym for brilliance.
  • Machiavelli (ruthlessness)
  • Christ-like (good, faithful, holy)
  • Ebenezer Scrooge (greedy)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (justice and equality)

2. The Central Traits

Allport believed that central traits are much more common and serve as the basic building blocks of most people’s personality. If you think of the major terms you might use to describe your overall character; then those are probably your central traits. You might describe yourself as smart, kind, and outgoing. Those are your central traits.

Allport believed that most people have about five to ten central traits and that most people contain many of these traits to a certain degree. A few examples of central traits include honesty, friendliness, generosity, anxiety, and diligence.

3. The Secondary Traits

The secondary traits were the third category of traits that Allport described. Such personality traits that tend to present themselves in certain situations. For example, you might normally be a pretty easy-going person, but you might become short-tempered when you find yourself under a lot of pressure.  Such traits often reveal themselves only in certain situations.

A normally cool, collected person, for example, might become very anxious when faced with speaking in public.

Final Thoughts on the Cardinal Traits

While the cardinal traits are considered among the most dominant of characteristics, they are also quite rare. Few people are so ruled by a singular theme that it shapes the course of their entire life.

The trait theories of personality suggest that each person’s personality is composed of a number of different characteristics. While early conceptualizations of the trait approach suggested hundreds or even thousands of traits existed (such as Allport’s approach), modern ideas propose that personality is composed of approximately five broad dimensions.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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