Course Learning Outcomes for Unit IV
Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:
- Analyze trait theory’s techniques for determining personality.
4.1 Investigate results based upon the five-factor model.
Video: Defining Typologies and Factor Analysis
Unit IV Scholarly Activity
Required Unit Resources
Chapter 7: Trait Theories of Personality: Allport, Eysenck, and Cattell
Chapter 8: Trait Theory: The Five-Factor Model and Contemporary Developments
This unit introduces us to a theory that is pretty different from what you have read to date. Remember that we
have had to admit that psychoanalytic and humanistic paradigms were fascinating creations (still in use today)
but also that we cannot prove the efficacy of their claims very easily. If you want a theory that stands up more
strongly to scientific rigor, read on.
Trait Theory: The Basics
“Personality traits are psychological characteristics that are stable over time and across situations” (Cervone
& Pervin, 2019, p. 180). Without overthinking, what is a word that you might attribute to your best friend?
What is a word you would use to describe your mother? You are working toward identifying an overarching
trait. There is, of course, more to the issue than thinking of a funny friend or a domineering mommy; to be
more scientific, we can look to the scientific method. Recall from Unit I that science strives to be systematic,
testable, and comprehensive. While it is hard to describe or even completely grasp self-actualization or the
machinations of the id, we might be able to identify and describe traits in a more systematic way. It is also
notable that Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers did not work to produce tools of scientific measurement; trait
theory arose, in part at least, to address this procedural gap.
While we have very famous names upon which to reflect in our earlier units, there is not a single, unifying
individual behind trait theory. We will address some of the influential psychologists in this unit lesson, but their
names may not ring a bell right away.
We look at traits as a central figure of personality—a relatively consistent pattern we can identify (Cervone &
Pervin, 2019). What stands out to you about a person, and do you think others would agree? While trait
theory looks for consistency, this is not an all-or-nothing approach, and there is room for situational
determination. The example of the funny friend might not be as funny at a funeral, and this is to be expected.
We also want to identify that which is distinctive about an individual compared to the broader population. If
Melanie goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable in almost any setting without a harsh word toward
anyone, we could say that she is consistently agreeable. While we all fill many roles in life, what is relatively
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consistent and distinct about each of us? Perhaps one of your traits is a preference for ordered, logical
thought; you might have a trait for studying trait theory!
Trait theory broadly has three goals within the scientific realm, and they are description, prediction, and
(sometimes) explanation. Description means that we can describe a person—perhaps a lot of people who
happen to share the same set of traits. Trait taxonomy is a term introduced to describe how trait theorists
classify people. Prediction means that, given an understanding of someone’s traits, we are generally able to
know how he or she might act in a given situation. We can generally assume that Melanie from the previous
paragraph might be a good houseguest, even though we have not directly observed her in that setting. Some
trait theorists work to explain why a given trait lines up with particular behavioral patterns. Is this the question
of correlation rather than causation? Many trait theorists think there is a strong biological component to our
most distinctive traits, which means that Melanie is hardwired to be agreeable and perhaps Mom was just
born pushy. Again, we do not have one central character to point to, so there are several ideas out there in
the trait theory ethos.
One name that you may recognize is Gordon Allport who proposed that “traits are the basic units of
personality” (as cited in Cervone & Pervin, 2019, p. 187).
Allport believed in three levels of traits: cardinal, central, and secondary dispositions (Cervone & Pervin,
2019). As you may suppose, a cardinal trait is the most overarching. Perhaps this could be thought of like a
Jungian archetype: Do you serve as the court jester in life or the protective father figure? Central traits are
also important but less predominant than these broad brush strokes. A secondary disposition, while
sometimes present, is less recognized as the main portrait of an individual. Remember again the idea of
situational determination; we would expect a secondary disposition to appear less frequently than a central
trait and a central less than a cardinal trait in varied settings.
Stop and think: What were the basic units of personality proposed by some of our prior
Allport’s three levels of traits
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A final note on Allport is that he, too, used idiographic or case study research much like the psychologists
before him (Cervone & Pervin, 2019). While he helped to set up a theory with the ability for scientific rigor, his
own emphasis was on describing the unique and noteworthy makeup of singular individuals. Other theorists
would branch out and apply trait theory to broader populations.
From here on, it will be helpful for you to think of our discussion of traits as existing somewhere on a
spectrum. You have probably heard of extroversion and introversion with everyone falling somewhere on a
line between the two. To borrow from our next theorist, consider the same spectrum for concepts like
trusting/suspicious and relaxed/tense (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
Cattell worked to expand the scientific, data-driven nature of this study of personality. To organize such a
broad field of terms—basically any adjective you could apply to a person—he used factor analysis to
demonstrate which variables were generally correlated (Cervone & Pervin, 2019). As an example, we may
have a general idea of what it means to be altruistic, but the kind of work Cattell did moved out of the common
knowledge or intuitive realm. If he could demonstrate that people labeled with this trait would volunteer, tithe
at church, and state that they felt bad taking the last slice of pizza, then we would have documented
correlations about the altruistic trait. He furthered the scientific nature of his work by using various forms of
data; out of the LOTS identified in Unit I, he documented L, O, and S (life data, observed data, and subjective
data). He also used large numbers of participants, whereas we know previous researchers often had a
sample size of one.
Cattell identified two different kinds of traits—those on the surface (observable) and those source traits that
were behind the behavior. Psychology is generally concerned with what is behind a given behavior, so Cattell
boiled all of his work down to 16 personality factors as found on Table 7.1 on page 193 of the textbook, and
the chart is also provided below (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
Cattell’s 16 Personality Factors Derived from Questionnaire Data
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As a final note, Cattell did recognize that traits were not perfectly experienced at all times. He identified state
and role as confounds to complete stability (Cervone & Pervin, 2019). If you are in a particular state, such as
extreme fatigue, you probably are not your normal self. Role refers to the social rules of a particular situation.
A good scientist has to be able to admit his or her work is never perfect.
If you were asked to list all 16 of Cattell’s source traits without looking back, that might be a tall order. Turn
your attention now to the three-factor model of Hans Eysenck and his superfactors (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
Take a look at the video Defining Typologies and Factor Analysis, wherein the theorist himself describes his
views on trait theory and factor analysis (The University of Akron, 1970). What if we could boil this all down to
psychoticism, extroversion, and neuroticism (i.e., P, E, and N)? (The transcript for the Defining Typologies
and Factor Analysis video can be found by clicking on “Transcript” in the gray bar at the top of the video in the
Films on Demand database.)
Eysenck did come up with measurement tools of his own to measure for these superfactors and posited about
biological causation for his findings. Once again, we see that the goal of trait theory ties back to physiological
causation; results of Eysenck’s own findings on this topic were mixed. While he believed that nature (biology)
could set someone up for future difficulties, he also believed that behavioral therapy could be a useful tool to
offer relief (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
Perhaps 16 was a lot for you but three might have been a little short. Chapter 8 introduces us to a theory in
popular use today: the five-factor model (Cervone & Pervin, 2019). The five-factor model is written in plain
language and can be scientifically supported. These “Big Five” dimensions of openness, extroversion,
conscientiousness, and agreeableness are meant to cover broadly other specific factors that we have
previously isolated. They are even easy to remember with a quick acronym—OCEAN!
You will find that, just as was noted
previously, we can view these traits
on a continuum running from one
extreme to another. If 0 is agreeable
and helpful, then 10 might be rude
and uncooperative (Cervone &
Pervin, 2019). Everyone will fall
somewhere on this line. The fivefactor model is favored by some
researchers and academics because
it produces consistent results within
the realms of research validity and
reliability. Assessments of OCEAN
are relatively stable over time, though
exceptions can apply. Remember that
we are looking at long-term patterns
of personality; therefore, barring some
traumatic event, we might expect your
results of each trait to align with your
results from 20 years ago. This seems to be true across cultures, though some research suggests that we
need to make allowances for those difficult teenage years. There is also correlational evidence of biological
connections between certain traits and brain volume—even in other species!
One respected tool utilizing the five-factor model is the NEI-PI-R, which is a questionnaire that assesses each
of our five factors as well as six sub-factors (or facets) of each (Cervone & Pervin, 2019). Take a moment to
read Table 8.2 on page 211 of the textbook.
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Assessments like the NEI-PI-R, which assess for the Big Five and have stood the test of scientific rigor, have
application in a variety of settings. Perhaps you have taken some version of this assessment when applying
for a job or when searching out possible career paths. Certainly, these types of measures have clinical
application within the field of psychology, and they can even give us an indication of subjective well-being and
long-term health. Additional research has taken place to determine if we should be looking at a Big Six rather
than a Big Five; the new factor would be a combination of honesty and humility (Cervone & Pervin, 2019).
Consider this as you complete the lesson: Do you think a sixth factor is necessary for this model?
Cervone, D., & Pervin, L. A. (2019). Personality: Theory and research (14th ed.). Wiley.
The University of Akron (Producer). (1970). Defining typologies and factor analysis (Segment 4 of 8) [Video].
In Dr. Hans Eysenck. Films on Demand.