The Trait Perspective of Personality

05.11.2019 |

Episode #2 of the course Introduction to personality psychology: The Big 5 traits by Dr. Daniel McGrath


Welcome back! In today’s lecture, we are going to briefly touch on the history of personality psychology and what led us to the trait theory. To get a full appreciation of the Big 5 model, I think it’s important to first discuss the roots of personality psychology and a few of the original theories of human personality.

To start, there were numerous theories of personality proposed throughout the 20th century. For example, Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis, introduced the first major personality theory. Freud argued that personality resides in hidden structures of the mind (the id, ego, and superego) that are largely unconscious to us. He also believed that personality is shaped by psychosexual stages that we all go through as we grow from infants to adults. While this theory was intriguing, it soon fell out of favor with psychologists as they turned away from psychoanalytic theory and moved toward empirically-based scientific methods.

In contrast to Freud, other theories like the behaviorist perspective, most commonly associated with B.F. Skinner, suggested that the environment provides rewards and punishments that ultimately shape an individual’s personality. For example, if a person acts in an outgoing way and they are then rewarded for it, they become more likely to do it again. If you think of the class clown in school, they get attention from other children, and this makes them more likely to continue being extraverted. However, the behaviorist perspective has also been heavily criticized. In particular, it essentially overlooks internal biological dispositions that can be inherited (nature) and overemphasizes the role of the environment (nurture).

While the early theories of personality were certainly interesting and informative, they each had serious flaws. If you think back to the definition of personality, these theories lacked validity and were not good at predicting how people would behave in various situations or across time.

In contrast, the trait theory has been found to be valid and reliable over time. The trait theory of personality was introduced and refined by influential psychologists Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, and Hans Eysenck in the mid-1900s. It became incredibly popular among psychologists in the 1980s following the research of Lewis Goldberg. This perspective views personality as being made up of internal “dispositions” that all people have. In other words, we are born with a set of traits that will guide our behavior, and they represent one of the most important causes of how we act.

Even though it is presumed that we all have the same traits, individual people vary in where they land on a continuum from low to high for each trait. For example, some of us may be high on extraversion, others are low on this trait, and still others are somewhere in the middle. When you group all these individual traits together, you have what psychologists call a trait taxonomy or trait model.

Since the early days of the trait theory, much research in personality psychology has been focused on trying to identify exactly how many human personality traits there actually are. Several theorists have proposed a different number of traits, from Eysenck’s three “super traits” to Cattell’s 16 factors. In recent decades, the broad consensus among most personality researchers is that personality can be narrowed down to approximately five key traits. Each of these five traits further contains six smaller traits, called facets.

The exact number of traits in human personality is an important question. Another critical question is whether these traits are universal across countries and cultures. With cross-cultural research, it turns out that personality traits as measured in the Big 5 model are quite universal. In other words, the same traits are seen in people who live in different countries, with a high degree of consistency.

Today’s Task: Take some time to think about these perspectives of personality. I mentioned that most psychologists now believe the trait model is the right one. What do you think? Can you name a few of these traits at this point? Which traits do you think you have?

In tomorrow’s lesson, I am going to formally introduce you to the Big 5 model, discuss how it was developed, and begin to delve into how this model explains human personality.


Recommended book

The Story of Psychology by Morton Hunt


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