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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Discuss early trait theories of Cattell and Eysenck
  • Discuss the Big Five factors and describe someone who is high and low on each of the five traits

Trait theorists believe personality can be understood via the approach that all people have certain traits    , or characteristic ways of behaving. Do you tend to be sociable or shy? Passive or aggressive? Optimistic or pessimistic? Moody or even-tempered? Early trait theorists tried to describe all human personality traits. For example, one trait theorist, Gordon Allport (Allport&Odbert, 1936), found 4,500 words in the English language that could describe people. He organized these personality traits into three categories: cardinal traits, central traits, and secondary traits. A cardinal trait is one that dominates your entire personality, and hence your life—such as Ebenezer Scrooge’s greed and Mother Theresa’s altruism. Cardinal traits are not very common: Few people have personalities dominated by a single trait. Instead, our personalities typically are composed of multiple traits. Central traits are those that make up our personalities (such as loyal, kind, agreeable, friendly, sneaky, wild, and grouchy). Secondary traits are those that are not quite as obvious or as consistent as central traits. They are present under specific circumstances and include preferences and attitudes. For example, one person gets angry when people try to tickle him; another can only sleep on the left side of the bed; and yet another always orders her salad dressing on the side. And you—although not normally an anxious person—feel nervous before making a speech in front of your English class.

In an effort to make the list of traits more manageable, Raymond Cattell (1946, 1957) narrowed down the list to about 171 traits. However, saying that a trait is either present or absent does not accurately reflect a person’s uniqueness, because all of our personalities are actually made up of the same traits; we differ only in the degree to which each trait is expressed. Cattell (1957) identified 16 factors or dimensions of personality: warmth, reasoning, emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism, and tension ( [link] ). He developed a personality assessment based on these 16 factors, called the 16PF. Instead of a trait being present or absent, each dimension is scored over a continuum, from high to low. For example, your level of warmth describes how warm, caring, and nice to others you are. If you score low on this index, you tend to be more distant and cold. A high score on this index signifies you are supportive and comforting.

Personality factors measured by the 16pf questionnaire
Factor Low Score High Score
Warmth Reserved, detached Outgoing, supportive
Intellect Concrete thinker Analytical
Emotional stability Moody, irritable Stable, calm
Aggressiveness Docile, submissive Controlling, dominant
Liveliness Somber, prudent Adventurous, spontaneous
Dutifulness Unreliable Conscientious
Social assertiveness Shy, restrained Uninhibited, bold
Sensitivity Tough-minded Sensitive, caring
Paranoia Trusting Suspicious
Abstractness Conventional Imaginative
Introversion Open, straightforward Private, shrewd
Anxiety Confident Apprehensive
Openmindedness Closeminded, traditional Curious, experimental
Independence Outgoing, social Self-sufficient
Perfectionism Disorganized, casual Organized, precise
Tension Relaxed Stressed

While Cattell’s 16 factors may be too broad, the Eysenck’s two-factor system has been criticized for being too narrow. Another personality theory, called the Five Factor Model    , effectively hits a middle ground, with its five factors referred to as the Big Five personality traits. It is the most popular theory in personality psychology today and the most accurate approximation of the basic trait dimensions (Funder, 2001). The five traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A helpful way to remember the traits is by using the mnemonic OCEAN.

A diagram includes five vertically stacked arrows, which point to the left and right. A dimension's first letter, name, and description are included inside of each arrow. A box to the left of each arrow includes traits associated with a low score for that arrow's dimension. A box to the right of each arrow includes traits associated with a high score for that arrow's dimension. The top arrow includes the trait “openness,” which is described with the words, “imagination,” “feelings,” “actions,” and “ideas.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “practical,” “conventional,” and “prefers routine,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “curious,” “wide range of interests,” and “independent.” The next arrow includes the trait “conscientiousness,” which is described with the words, “competence,” “self-discipline,” “thoughtfulness,” and “goal-driven.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “impulsive,” “careless,” and “disorganized,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “hardworking,” “dependable,” and “organized.” The next arrow includes the trait “extroversion,” which is described with the words, “sociability,” “assertiveness,” and “emotional expression.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “quiet,” “reserved,” and “withdrawn,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “outgoing,” “warm,” and “seeks adventure.” The next arrow includes the trait “agreeableness,” which is described with the words, “cooperative,” “trustworthy,” and “good-natured.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “critical,” “uncooperative,” and “suspicious,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “helpful,” “trusting,” and “empathetic.” The next arrow includes the trait “neuroticism,” which is described as “tendency toward unstable emotions.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “calm,” “even-tempered,” and “secure,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “anxious,” “unhappy,” and “prone to negative emotions.”
In the Five Factor Model, each person has five traits, each scored on a continuum from high to low. In the center column, notice that the first letter of each trait spells the mnemonic OCEAN.

The Big Five personality factors each represent a range between two extremes. In reality, most of us tend to lie somewhere midway along the continuum of each factor, rather than at polar ends. It’s important to note that the Big Five traits are relatively stable over our lifespan, with some tendency for the traits to increase or decrease slightly. Researchers have found that conscientiousness increases through young adulthood into middle age, as we become better able to manage our personal relationships and careers (Donnellan&Lucas, 2008). Agreeableness also increases with age, peaking between 50 to 70 years (Terracciano, McCrae, Brant,&Costa, 2005). Neuroticism and extroversion tend to decline slightly with age (Donnellan&Lucas; Terracciano et al.). Additionally, The Big Five traits have been shown to exist across ethnicities, cultures, and ages, and may have substantial biological and genetic components (Jang, Livesley,&Vernon, 1996; Jang et al., 2006; McCrae&Costa, 1997; Schmitt et al., 2007).

Summary

Trait theorists attempt to explain our personality by identifying our stable characteristics and ways of behaving. They have identified important dimensions of personality. The Five Factor Model is the most widely accepted trait theory today. The five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits occur along a continuum.

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Source:  OpenStax, Chapter 12: personality sw. OpenStax CNX. Jun 08, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11812/1.1
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