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Trait Theory

Psychology (Year 12) - Personality

Jessica Pratt

What is 'personality'?

The term ‘personality’ refers to the characteristic ways in which an individual thinks, feels and behaves. It appears to be relatively stable upon reaching adulthood as views, attitudes and beliefs become less likely to change. It is also consistent across situations as there is a recognisable order and regularity to behaviours.

Trait Theory

Trait theory suggests that personality is comprised of broad dispositions called traits. A trait is an enduring and relatively stable characteristic that may be genetically determined. Traits can often predict other personal attributes and behaviours.

In 1936, Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert formed a list of 4500 terms relating to personality traits. It provided the initial foundation for the work of other psychologists. Cattell and Colleagues used factor analysis in the 1940s to narrow down Allport’s list to sixteen terms. In the 1970s, Robert McCrae and Paul Costa surveyed thousands of people, eventually validating data in 1987 on their five-dimension theory. They compared self-reports and peer ratings of 275 subjects, finding strong agreement in traits people saw in themselves vs. what others saw in them.

McCrae and Costa eventually composed a theory known as the “Big Five” theory. It is made up of five dimensions that are broad categories of traits. They are essentially ‘buckets’ that hold traits that tend to occur together. The definition of each dimension attempts to describe the common element among the traits.

They are remembered as OCEAN.

Importance of Trait Theory

  • can predict behaviour in different circumstances

  • has a wide application, including being a diagnostic tool for mental health, predicting criminal behaviour, shows employment suitability and job satisfaction, and for dating services.


  • dimensions are too broad to capture all variation in personality

  • “openness” does not generalise well cross-culturally - can emphasise unconventionality and rebellion

  • partial attribution to inheritance and the environment does not explain much

  • fails to consider the unconscious processes that contribute to personality

  • traits are generally poor predictors of behaviour, only being useful for rough distinctions

  • the theory relies on self-reports and honesty for trait identification

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