Personality Trait Theory

Personality Trait Theory

The words “personality” and “trait” go hand in hand. When you take online quizzes about your personality, you probably get traits as your answer. These quizzes show us how we are different to other people - but sometimes, we share the same answers as our friends and neighbors.

In this video, I’ll discuss how trait perspective of psychology works - and how psychologists have organized different traits to show how we relate to other people.

Traits of a Trait

What is a trait? What’s not a trait? I’ll show you - by describing different traits of traits.

First, traits describe meaningful differences among individuals. Let’s talk about eating food. Everyone eats food - that is a behavior that we all participate in to survive. It is driven by biology. The way that you eat your food, however, could be a sign of different personality traits. Sometimes, the habits in which you eat your food can be signs of cultural differences. Some people are taught to eat with their hands; others are taught to keep their mouth closed or slurp their soup.

But if someone is in a room with people who have different eating habits, their personality may greatly influence how they approach the situation. Are they conscious of how people are eating around them? Do they care to fit in?

Already, you can start to see how genetics, culture, and personality all form a complicated spider web that can be hard to trace.

Second, traits are stable and consistent. People display signs of personality traits among different situations throughout their lives. Again, culture, rules, and the context of a situation will have a big impact on how someone behaves. But if someone is an honest person, this trait will heavily influence what it takes for the person to lie (or justify these actions later.) Social psychology really likes to look at instances when people break their normal personality traits. 

For example, if you were to take a personality test, you should answer the questions in the same manner for many years. 

Third, traits are usually displayed as dimensions or spectrums with extremes at both ends. Introvert vs. extrovert is one of the most common sets of personality traits that we know and talk about. But I’m sure that you know not everyone identifies or displays the behaviors of an extreme introvert or an extreme extrovert. Some people are “ambiverts” and fall in the middle of these two extremes.

Fourth, traits rely on language. If we don’t have a word that can describe how a person “is” or how they act, we can’t call it a trait.

There's something called Lexical Hypothesis that says if there's a behavior so prominent throughout time, we create a word for that word. If we don't have a word that describes a trait, then it must not be very prevalent. Lexical Hypothesis is a theory. 

Last, but certainly not least, traits are objective behavior. This is especially important to remember when you are describing yourself or another person’s personality traits. An introvert is not necessarily “good,” full stop. Introversion may benefit a person in certain situations, but you can’t write any trait off as simply “good” or “bad.” Culture, again, plays a part here. Where competitive behavior may be an advantage is growing your startup, it may be a disadvantage in developing meaningful relationships.

You may be raised in a culture that teaches you to be agreeable or amicable; someone across the world may be raised to be independent and put themselves first. Both traits may seem more positive or negative depending on your goals, values, or beliefs.

Also, traits must be a behavior. For example, we can say that someone is 6 feet tall. That isn't a personality trait though, it's a physical trait. It's not a behavior!

There are four people to know in the world of trait psychology. These psychologists have spent their life work looking at how we can organize traits into a central group of terms or spectrums that can be applied to all people. (Basically, they write in the answers to our personality quizzes.)

Let’s get to know them.

Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport is a great trait theorist to start off with. Back in the early part of the 20th century, he went through the dictionary and found over 4,500 words that could be considered personality traits. (Nowadays, we have about 18,000 trait-descriptive adjectives.) From those 4,500 words, he came up with three different types of traits.

The first category consists of cardinal traits. These traits and behaviors rule how you approach the things you are passionate about. Punctual is a classic example of a cardinal trait; it is usually influenced by some desire to impress or be ready to get to work. If someone had to describe you in 3 words, these 3 words would most likely be Cardinal Traits. In fact, some traits are named after people: Machiavellian, Freudian, Christ-like. 

The second category is central traits. These traits are found to a certain degree in every person. Honesty, agreeableness, or jealousy may all be considered central traits that may or may not come from our genetic makeup.

Last is secondary traits. These traits may apply to different situations depending on the context of said situation. In general, you may be a respectful person. But if you dislike a certain authority figure or person in your life, people may see a rude side to you. Another word for these are "attitudes" or "preferences". 


When you look at 4,500 words, you’re bound to find some repeats and synonyms. In the 60s, Cattell took the 4,500 trait words from Allport and narrowed them down to 171 traits. He wasn’t done yet. He used factor analysis to look for trends in these 171 words and narrowed them down to the most influential traits.

He came down to 16 using a process called Factor Analysis. Factor analysis can be used to look at enormous amounts of data in order to look for trends and to see which elements are the most influential or important.

Remember what we said about how traits can be on a spectrum? So were Cattell’s 16 personality traits. Each of these 16 words had a direct opposite. Most people fit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Here's a table of those 16, along with their dimensions:










Emotional Stability












Social Assertiveness






























As you can see, some of these personality traits are very similar. For example, "Private" under Introversion is very similar to "Loner" under Independence. 


Eysenck had a specific job when he developed his theory. Around the same time that Cattell was developing his theories on personality, Eysenck worked at a psychiatric hospital in London. His job was to make an initial assessment of the patients. Eysenck noticed certain trends; he found that soldiers, for example, seemed to answer questions in a similar way. Maybe, these answers revealed specific traits that led a person to become a soldier.

Eysenck called these traits first-personality traits.

What Eysenck is most known for, however, is the PEN Model. He narrowed down the most important personality traits down to just three traits: psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism.

These seem like negative traits, but let's look at what they mean:

Psychoticism: When an individual engages in risky and irresponsible behavior. People with high psychoticism usually have a more aggressive temperament. 

Extraversion: When an individual engages in a lot of social activities. Also, an extravert is considered "under-aroused" and their cortical arousal can be measured with skin conductance. 

Neuroticism: When an individual's mood and emotions fluctuate more than normal. Eysenck said these people experienced more flight-or-fight reactions than most people.

 Again, these are all on spectrums. Eysenck theorized that we all displayed some level of all of these traits, but we just express them in different degrees. Part of his theory comes from the belief that our personality traits come from our genetics.

Big Five

I save The Big Five for last because we will go through his theory in more detail in another article. Psychology credits a small group of psychologists with the development of this theory. It is a “happy medium” between the three personality traits developed by Eysenck and the 16 developed by Cattell. 

These are the Big Five, also known as the OCEAN Theory. Similar to the PEN Model, OCEAN is an acronym for five different traits that all humans display some degree of.

Take some time to think about your personality traits. You certainly have a lot of ways to assess the traits that you hold. Family and friends probably already have a few choice words to describe your personality.

The more you reflect on your personality (and remember, these traits are objective,) the more you can understand yourself. This self-awareness will help you find and approach opportunities that best fit your personality traits. If you know that you are an introvert, you can use this knowledge to create a schedule or pursue opportunities that allow introverts to shine.

About the author 


Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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