Personality Trait Theory

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Published by:
Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

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 illustrate our unique traits compared to others, yet occasionally, we discover commonalities in our responses with friends and neighbors.

But how does the trait perspective of psychology work? How have psychologists organized different traits? Let's find out. 

What Is The Trait Theory of Personality?

Traits describe stable, consistent, and meaningful differences among individuals. Using language, traits describe people's objective behaviors. They are displayed on a dimension or spectrum. Personalities are made up of these traits assigned to individuals to show how they differ from others.

What Are Traits?

Before we dive deeper into personality, let's talk about traits.

Meaningful Differences

Traits describe meaningful differences among individuals. For example, everyone eats food - a behavior we all participate in to survive. It is driven by biology. However, The way you eat your food 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 mouths 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 see how genetics, culture, and personality all form a complicated spider web that can be hard to trace.

Stable and Consistent

Second, traits are stable and consistent. People display signs of personality traits across different situations throughout their lives. Again, culture, rules, and the context of a situation will greatly impact how someone behaves. But if someone is honest, 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.

Dimensions of Spectrums

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 between these two extremes.


Fourth, traits rely on language. We can't call it a trait if we don’t have a word describing how a person “is” or how they act.

Lexical Hypothesis in Personality Psychology 

Lexical Hypothesis is a theory 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 or useful to personality psychology.

Objective Behavior 

Last but certainly not least, traits are objective behavior. This is especially important to remember when 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 “good” or “bad.” Culture, again, plays a part here. Competitive behavior may be advantageous in growing your startup, but 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 worldwide 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; 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 lives organizing traits into a central group of terms or spectrums that can be applied to everyone. (Basically, they interpret what our answers are and what the responses mean.)

Let’s get to know them.

Gordon Allport 

Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport is a great trait theorist to start with. In the early part of the 20th century, he searched 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.

Cardinal 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 three words, these three words would most likely be Cardinal Traits. Some traits are named after people: Machiavellian, Freudian, Christ-like. 

Central Traits

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.

Secondary Traits 

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, people may see a rude side to you. Another word for these are "attitudes" or "preferences". 


Looking 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 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 similar to "Loner" under Independence. 


Eysenck had a specific job when he developed his theory. Around the same time 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 condensed the most important personality traits into 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. Skin conductance measures the skin's electrical conductivity, which increases with sweat gland activity. In extroverts, who are considered "under-aroused," this method helps assess their level of arousal during social activities.

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 these traits, but we just expressed them differently. 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 this 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, the OCEAN Theory, or the Five Factor Model. Similar to the PEN Model, OCEAN is an acronym for five different traits that all humans display some degree of.

Five Factor Model

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 that 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 you are an introvert, you can use this knowledge to create a schedule or pursue opportunities that allow introverts to shine.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, January). Personality Trait Theory. Retrieved from

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