17+ Cardinal Traits (Definition + Examples)

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Can you think of a historical person who stands out for a very specific personality trait? Probably, you thought of Mother Teresa, who was known for her charity and kindness, or Sigmund Freud, who was known for being super analytical.

A cardinal trait is a powerful force within a person that guides a lot of their actions and decisions. If your friend had to describe you with one word, that would be your cardinal trait.

Cardinal traits aren't like regular traits. They are rare, as in not everyone is defined by a cardinal trait. Let's try to better understand cardinal traits, look at a few examples, and even take a test to see if you might have a cardinal trait!

What are Personality Traits?

When we talk about someone’s personality, we’re talking about the special mix of qualities and characteristics that make that person different from everyone else. It’s like each of us is a unique painting, with different colors and brush strokes that create our own one-of-a-kind picture. In psychology, these individual characteristics that make up our personality are called traits.

Think of your personality as a big, colorful quilt. Each patch or square on the quilt represents a different part of who you are. One square might represent that you are kind and enjoy helping others. Another might show that you are creative, always coming up with new ideas and love to draw or write stories. Yet another might reflect that you tend to be calm, even when everyone else is stressed out.

These 'squares' or characteristics are your personality traits. They are the consistent patterns in how you think, feel, and behave. Here are some important points to understand about personality traits:

  1. Consistency: Your traits are relatively stable over time. That means if you are a kind and caring person now, you are likely to be kind and caring as you grow older.
  2. Differences Between People: Your traits make you different from others. While you might be outgoing and love talking to new people, your best friend might be more reserved and prefer listening rather than speaking in a conversation.
  3. Influence on Behavior: Your traits guide how you act. For instance, if one of your strong traits is being adventurous, you might be the first one to try a new sport or travel to a new place.
  4. Many Shades: Traits are not just black and white; they have many shades. For example, being outgoing is a trait, but it doesn’t mean you want to be the center of attention all the time. Some days you might feel more like staying in and reading a book.
  5. Everyone Has Them: Every single person has personality traits. There are no two people in the world with the exact same combination of traits, which is why every individual is unique.

Gordon Allport, a psychologist from the 20th century, really liked thinking about these traits. He believed that understanding a person’s traits could give us a clear and deep picture of who that person is. But he also knew that not all traits are created equal. Some are like big, bold squares in the middle of our quilt, while others are smaller and towards the edges.

And that brings us to a very special kind of trait, the ones that Allport thought were the most powerful and defining of a person’s character—and also rare: the cardinal traits.

Who is Gordon Allport?

gordon allport illustration

Gordon Allport was born in 1897, in the United States, in a small town in Indiana. He was one of four boys in his family, and guess what? His big brother also became a famous psychologist! Talk about a family of brainy people.

As a young man, Allport was incredibly curious about why people do what they do. He wanted to understand what makes each person unique, and he decided to study psychology to find the answers. He was a student who asked lots of questions and was eager to learn.

He didn't just learn psychology; Allport also taught it. He became a professor at one of the most famous universities in the world, Harvard University. There, he inspired lots of students with his ideas and helped train a new generation of ‘mind detectives’.

Allport is often called one of the founding figures of personality psychology. This means he was one of the first people to really study and write about personality in a deep and systematic way. He didn't just go with the flow; he developed his own theories and wasn’t afraid to challenge the ideas that were popular at the time.

One of Allport’s most famous ideas is what we call the Trait Theory of Personality. He believed that our personalities are made up of different traits, and these traits guide how we act, think, and feel. He also introduced the idea of different kinds of traits – some that are front and center in our personalities (like cardinal traits), and others that play a smaller role.

Allport never stopped being curious. He spent his entire life studying, exploring new ideas, and writing about what he discovered. He wrote lots of books and articles that other psychologists – and regular folks, too – still read and learn from today.

So, in a nutshell, Gordon Allport was like a superstar detective of the mind. He spent his life trying to crack the code of what makes people who they are. He knew that understanding our traits is like having a map of our personality, and he was passionate about helping us all read that map a little better.

And of course, one of his most exciting ideas was about those big, bold, defining traits that can shape our whole lives. Those are the traits that he called cardinal traits, and they are the stars of our story today.

Why Are Cardinal Traits Important?

Allport said that these are the most powerful traits of all. They are the big, bright stars in the sky of our personality. If someone has a cardinal trait, it's like a theme that runs through almost everything they do. It’s not just a casual quality, like preferring vanilla ice cream over chocolate. It’s deeper than that. It’s a core part of who they are.

For example, let’s think about Mother Teresa. She dedicated her entire life to helping others, especially the poor and sick. This wasn’t just something she did on weekends or when she had free time; it was her entire life. We might say that her cardinal trait was her extraordinary compassion and selflessness.

But here’s a twist: not everyone has a cardinal trait. Most people have a mix of many different traits that guide their actions in different situations. For some people, though, one trait is so strong that it’s the captain steering the ship of their personality.

If your cardinal trait is a deep love for animals, for instance, you might find yourself wanting to become a veterinarian or a wildlife conservationist. It’s like your trait is a magnet, pulling you towards the things you love and are passionate about. These traits also act like our personal decision-making helpers. If your cardinal trait is honesty, you'll likely choose to tell the truth, even when it's tough.

Knowing our cardinal traits is like having a mirror that shows us who we really are. It can help us understand why we think and feel certain ways, and why we do the things we do. By understanding our own traits and realizing that other people have their own different traits, we can learn to get along better with others. For example, if you have a friend whose cardinal trait is being super-organized, you’ll understand why they always want plans to be set in advance.

Sometimes life throws challenges our way, like conflicts with friends or stress at school. In these moments, understanding our cardinal traits can be like having a trusty lantern in the dark, helping us navigate through tough times in a way that stays true to who we are. Cardinal traits aren't a box that traps us; they can be a foundation that helps us grow. Knowing your cardinal traits can help you set goals and work on areas you want to improve, like becoming more patient or learning to stand up for yourself.

And there's one more beautiful part: sometimes, when we meet someone who shares a similar cardinal trait, it's like finding a kindred spirit. It can be the start of a deep and meaningful friendship or partnership because you understand each other on a fundamental level.

In a nutshell, cardinal traits are more than just a fancy psychology term. They are powerful forces that can shape our entire lives, helping us understand who we are, how we relate to others, and how we navigate the big, wide world around us. They are like the script for our life’s play, the melody for our life’s song, or the compass for our life’s journey. And understanding them can turn what feels like wandering in the dark into a purposeful and meaningful adventure.

How Are Cardinal Traits Different From Other Traits?

illustration of girl holding cat

Taking us back to the quilt metaphor, some patches are big and vibrant, catching your eye the moment you see the quilt. Others are more common but just as important, making up the majority of the quilt's pattern. And then, there are a few unique and special patches that only appear here and there.

In the world of personality, Gordon Allport, likened these different 'patches' of our personality to Cardinal Traits, Central Traits, and Secondary Traits. Let’s sew together an understanding of what makes each type of trait special and different from the others:

  • Cardinal Traits: These are the big, standout patches in our quilt. They are the traits that are so strong and dominant that they shape almost everything about a person’s life. If someone is known for one big thing, like their endless curiosity or their drive to help others, that’s probably a cardinal trait. It’s like the centerpiece of their personality quilt, defining the whole design.
  • Central Traits: These are the regular patches that make up most of our quilt. Central traits are the basic building blocks of our personality, but they aren’t as dominating as cardinal traits. They’re the general characteristics that describe you, like being friendly, responsible, or nervous. These traits are the steady patterns that make the quilt uniquely yours, without screaming for attention.
  • Secondary Traits: Think of these as the surprise patches in our quilt, the ones that only show up in a few places and add a special touch. They are traits that come to the surface under certain conditions or situations. Maybe you’re incredibly patient when you’re teaching your little sister to play a game, but not so much when you’re waiting for your turn at the dentist. These traits pop up in specific scenarios, but they aren’t a major part of your overall personality design.

So, while cardinal traits are the bold and defining patches that set the tone for the entire quilt, central traits are more like the steady and consistent patterns that fill in the majority of the space. And secondary traits? They’re like the unexpected and delightful accents that make your quilt uniquely yours, appearing here and there to add a little extra flair.

Together, these three types of traits stitch together to create the intricate, beautiful quilt that is you – your unique and wonderful personality.

What Are Some Real-life Examples?

Let’s peek into the lives of a few people to see some examples of these standout patches, these cardinal traits, in action:

  1. Innovation - Steve Jobs: When you think of Steve Jobs, what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s his knack for innovation. Jobs wasn’t just a tech guy; he was a visionary who constantly pushed for new and groundbreaking ideas. His quilt was stitched with bold patches of innovation, making it unmistakable and distinct.
  2. Courage - Rosa Parks: Remember Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus became a symbol of the fight against racial segregation? Her cardinal trait was her courage. It wasn't that she was never afraid; it’s that her quilt of life was marked by a big, brave patch of courage that guided her actions, inspiring countless others.
  3. Determination - Thomas Edison: Think about Thomas Edison, the famous inventor. He once said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Edison’s cardinal trait? Determination. His quilt was woven with a relentless drive to keep trying, no matter how many times he faced setbacks.

Here are some other examples:

4. Altruism: An overriding desire to help others, often at the cost of one’s own interests.

5. Ambition: A consuming desire for success or achievement.

6. Dominance: A strong inclination to exert control and influence over others.

7. Introversion: A central focus on inner experience and avoidance of social activities.

8. Extroversion: A dominant focus on interacting with the external world, often being sociable and outgoing.

9. Perfectionism: An overwhelming desire to achieve flawlessness in various aspects of life.

10. Nurturing: An inherent drive to care for, protect, and nurture others.

11. Adventurousness: A compelling need to seek new experiences and take risks.

12. Cautiousness: A defining tendency to avoid risks and to carefully consider options before acting.

13. Independence: A pervasive preference for self-reliance and a resistance to being dependent on others.

14. Empathy: An overriding capacity to understand and share the feelings of others.

15. Competitiveness: An all-encompassing drive to win and be the best in various situations.

16. Optimism: A dominant tendency to consistently expect positive outcomes.

17. Pessimism: A central inclination to frequently anticipate negative or undesirable outcomes.

These are not just traits; they are the central themes of these individuals’ lives, the defining patterns in their quilts of personality.

It’s important to remember that not everyone has a cardinal trait. Most of us have quilts made up of many different patches, with no single one dominating the entire design. And that’s perfectly okay! Every quilt, every personality, is beautiful and valuable in its own unique way.

So, take a moment and think: if your life were a quilt, is there a cardinal trait, a standout patch, that defines your pattern? Or is your quilt a harmonious blend of many different, colorful patches?

How do Cardinal Traits Develop?

Just like crafting a quilt, our personalities are also a work in progress, continually being shaped as we grow and experience life. One intriguing question is: how do some people end up with a cardinal trait, that bold and defining pattern in their personality quilt? Let’s unravel this mystery step by step.

Early Influences

Think back to when you were a little kid. Do you remember watching your family, teachers, or favorite characters in stories? We learn a lot from the people around us when we're young. These early influences are like the first patches in our quilt, setting the base for what’s to come. Sometimes, a cardinal trait begins to form because of a strong influence from someone we look up to.

Life Events

Imagine a big, memorable event in your life – maybe moving to a new place, gaining a sibling, or facing a tough challenge. These significant experiences can act like a needle pulling a new thread through our quilt, potentially introducing a bold pattern that becomes a cardinal trait. For instance, someone who has overcome a significant hardship might develop a cardinal trait of resilience.

Choices and Decisions

As we grow up, we start making more and more of our own decisions, from small choices like what to have for lunch, to big decisions like what hobbies to pursue or how to treat other people. Every choice is like adding a new patch to our quilt, and some of these choices can lead to the development of a cardinal trait. Choosing to stand up against bullying, for example, might lead to a cardinal trait of bravery.

illustration of a quilt

Nurturing and Encouragement

Sometimes, a trait becomes cardinal because it’s nurtured and encouraged by others. Imagine your family sees you have a knack for painting, so they get you art lessons, and you practice every day until art becomes the centerpiece of your life. That’s your cardinal trait of creativity being nurtured and sewn firmly into your quilt.

Reflection and Self-Understanding

As we get older, we also spend more time thinking about who we are and who we want to be. This process of reflection is like carefully planning out the design of our quilt, deciding which patches we want to be the most noticeable and vibrant. Through this self-understanding, we might identify and embrace a cardinal trait as a key part of who we are.

Just like no two quilts are the same, everyone’s path to developing a cardinal trait (or not) is unique. It’s a mix of our experiences, choices, influences, and self-reflection, all stitching together the intricate and beautiful quilt that represents who we are.

So, as you continue to craft your own life’s quilt, think about the patches you’re adding. Are there patterns you want to make bolder? Or new designs you’d like to start weaving in?

Do You Have A Cardinal Trait?

There isn't a simple test that will tell you if you have a cardinal trait, because they are complicated. Allport looked through a dictionary and found 4000 words that describe a personality!

But there are a few ways you can try to determine if you have a cardinal trait (and we've created a mini quiz after this you can take if you still aren't sure).

  1. Memory Lane Trip: Think back to your younger days. Were there activities or behaviors that you always leaned towards, things that you just couldn’t stay away from? Maybe you were always organizing games for your friends, hinting at a leadership trait. Reflecting on our past can sometimes show patterns that have been with us for a long time.
  2. Ask Your Cheer Squad: Sometimes, the people close to us see patterns that we might miss. Ask your family or friends about what they think stands out the most in your personality. Is there a trait they always associate with you? Their insights can be like holding up a mirror to your quilt, revealing patterns you might not have noticed.
  3. Diary Dive: If you keep a journal or a diary, it’s a goldmine! Look through your old entries. Are there recurring themes or feelings that pop up often? Maybe you frequently write about helping others, indicating a possible compassion trait. Your written words can be like threads weaving a revealing pattern.
  4. Daydream Detective: What do you daydream about? Our daydreams can offer clues about our passions and desires. If you often find yourself imagining standing up for others, you might have a cardinal trait of courage or justice.
  5. Photo Album Exploration: Go through old photos or videos of yourself. What activities are you mostly engaged in? Are you always the center of attention, hinting at extroversion? Or are you often seen exploring nature, pointing towards a love for the environment? Pictures can paint a thousand words, or in this case, show patterns on our quilt.
  6. Feedback Flashcards: Make a little game out of it! Ask a bunch of friends or classmates to write one word or trait they associate with you on a card. Then, collect and see if there’s a repeated word or theme. This might just be your cardinal trait waving hello!

Remember, not everyone will have a clear-cut cardinal trait, and that's completely okay! Our quilts are beautiful, whether they have a dominant design or a mix of various patterns. The goal is to learn more about yourself and appreciate the unique quilt that represents who you are. So, enjoy the journey of discovery and have fun with these techniques. Who knows, you might just uncover the bold, beautiful pattern that's been there all along!

Cardinal Trait Quiz

Answer each question honestly with "Yes," "No," or "Sometimes." There are no right or wrong answers – this is just a tool to help you explore your personality!

  1. Is there one quality or behavior that you believe defines you above all else?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  2. Do people often associate you with one particular characteristic (like being incredibly kind, adventurous, or ambitious)?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  3. Have you always felt a strong pull towards a specific passion or cause?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  4. Do you feel out of character when you aren’t able to express this particular quality?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  5. Have your friends or family ever described you as ‘the [insert trait] one’ in the group?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  6. Do you make major life decisions (like your career or where to live) based on this defining quality?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  7. Do you find yourself daydreaming about activities or scenarios that involve this specific quality?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  8. Have you been consistently drawn to this trait or behavior since you were a child?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  9. Does this characteristic influence most of your daily interactions and relationships?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  10. Would you feel incomplete or fundamentally different without this trait?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  11. Do you often receive feedback (positive or negative) from others about this specific quality?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes
  12. If you could only use one word to describe yourself, would it align with this particular quality?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Sometimes


  • Mostly ‘Yes’ answers: It’s highly possible that you have a cardinal trait – a dominant quality that plays a central role in your personality and actions. This seems to be your bold, defining pattern in the quilt of your personality!
  • Mostly ‘No’ answers: It looks like you may have a more balanced array of traits, without one single dominant pattern. Your personality quilt is rich and varied, with many different designs!
  • Mixed or ‘Sometimes’ answers: Your personality might be a blend, with certain traits being more prominent at different times. Your quilt is dynamic, constantly evolving and changing its patterns.

Remember, this quiz is just a fun and simple tool for self-discovery. Everyone’s personality quilt is unique and special, whether it has a bold cardinal trait or not!

The Controversies and Criticisms of Cardinal Traits

illustration of a ship on the ocean

When we talk about cardinal traits, we're dipping our toes into a hot topic in the world of psychology. the concept of cardinal traits is a topic of lively debate in the world of psychology.

Some psychologists are passionate advocates of the idea, finding it a valuable lens through which to understand and describe personality. Others, however, view it more skeptically, seeing it as an oversimplified picture rather than a comprehensive map of someone's character.

The concept of cardinal traits isn't embraced by everyone, and here’s why:

Is One Pattern Too Dominant?

Critics of the cardinal trait theory question whether one single pattern, or trait, can really dominate a person’s entire quilt of personality. They argue that people are more complex than that, with a rich tapestry of various traits interacting with one another.

Does Everyone Have a Cardinal Trait?

Gordon Allport himself believed that cardinal traits are rare. Not every quilt, he said, has one overwhelmingly dominant pattern. Critics ask: Is it helpful or accurate to categorize people this way? Some argue that it might be overly simplistic.

The Changing Patterns of Life

People change, just like how a quilt might be updated with new patches over time. Critics of cardinal traits suggest that having a single defining trait doesn’t leave room for the natural growth and change that happens as we move through life.

Measuring a Cardinal Trait

Critics point out that it’s challenging to accurately measure and identify a cardinal trait. It’s like trying to decide which pattern in a quilt is the most important – it can be subjective, varying from one viewer (or psychologist) to another.

Are We Defined by One Trait?

Some critics worry that labeling someone with a cardinal trait might limit how we see them – or how they see themselves. It’s like saying a quilt is only about its central pattern, overlooking all the other beautiful patches that contribute to its overall design.

Cultural Differences

Different cultures have diverse perspectives on personality. What one culture sees as a cardinal trait, another might view as just a regular part of a person’s character. It’s like different cultures having different traditions and styles of behavior.

Personality, like any aspect of human behavior, can be intricate and multifaceted. Different psychologists, based on their training, experience, and perspective, might have their own unique ways of interpreting and understanding it.

So, as you reflect on your own personality, it’s essential to consider these criticisms and controversies. They serve as a reminder that psychology, as a field of study, is teeming with diverse ideas and interpretations. And this rich diversity of thought is part of what makes psychology such a captivating and dynamic field!

Recent Research and Developments

As the world of science marches forward, so too does our understanding of personality and cardinal traits.

Here’s a look at some of the latest explorations and findings in this intriguing part of psychology:

  1. The Flexibility of Traits:
    Recent studies suggest that our traits, even those that seem dominant or ‘cardinal,’ might be more flexible than we once thought. Researchers are finding evidence that significant life events, like moving to a new country or recovering from an illness, can lead to changes in our personality traits.
  2. The Role of Genetics and Environment:
    How much of our personality is written in our DNA, and how much is shaped by the world around us? This is a burning question in recent research. Studies are digging into the balance between nature (our genetics) and nurture (our environment) in the development of cardinal traits.
  3. Measuring Cardinal Traits:
    How can we accurately identify a cardinal trait in a person? This is a hot topic. Scientists are creating new, more precise tools and tests to measure and describe personality traits, aiming for a clearer picture of what cardinal traits look like in real life.
  4. Cardinal Traits in Different Cultures:
    Our world is wonderfully diverse, and research is expanding to explore how cardinal traits might appear in different cultures. Are they a universal part of human personality, or do they vary significantly from one culture to another? This is a growing area of study.
  5. The Impact of Technology:
    In our digital age, researchers are curious about how technology, like social media, might be shaping our personalities and potential cardinal traits. Are we adapting new traits because of our online lives, or do our existing traits dictate how we behave on the internet? It’s a modern twist to a classic subject.
  6. Link to Mental Health:
    Recent research is exploring the connections between cardinal traits and mental health. For example, can a dominant trait, if overly rigid, contribute to stress or anxiety? Or, conversely, can having a strong, positive cardinal trait contribute to overall well-being?

In summary, the study of cardinal traits is alive and buzzing, with new insights and questions popping up continually. As our world changes and evolves, so does the fascinating research on personality traits.


Our journey through the world of cardinal traits comes to a close, but that doesn't mean the exploration has to end. In fact, the beauty of psychology is that there is always more to learn, more to understand, and more to discover about ourselves and others.

As we've seen, cardinal traits are a thought-provoking concept. They are those big, defining traits that some people believe steer the course of our lives, like a captain guiding a ship. Whether we possess such a trait ourselves, or whether we see them in the people around us, they are an engaging way to think about personality.

But, as we've also discussed, the idea of cardinal traits is not without its critics. Just as a coin has two sides, the world of psychology is often filled with different perspectives. Some psychologists stand firmly behind the notion of cardinal traits, while others question if they are too simple a lens through which to view the rich, intricate nature of human personality.

Recent research in this field is like a vibrant, ever-changing landscape, with new discoveries that challenge our thinking and deepen our understanding. As scientists continue to study and debate, they are constantly adding to the story of what makes us unique individuals.

What's important, and what this article hopes to inspire in you, is curiosity. Curiosity about yourself, about others, and about the incredible field of psychology. So, as you move forward, consider your own traits, those aspects of your personality that make you who you are. Reflect on how they influence your actions, your choices, and your interactions with the world.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, August). 17+ Cardinal Traits (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/cardinal-traits/.

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