Theoretical Issues

Trait theories of personality of fer a collection of viewpoints about the fundamental building blocks of human nature. As we saw in Chapter 3, there are dif ferences among the various theories concerning what constitutes a trait, how many traits exist, and what are the best methods for discovering basic traits. Despite their differences, trait theories share three important assumptions about personality traits. These assumptions go beyond any one theory or taxonomy of personality traits and, so, form the basic foundation for trait psychology . These three important assumptions are

• Meaningful individual dif ferences.

• Stability or consistency over time.

• Consistency across situations.

Meaningful Differences between Individuals

Trait psychologists are primarily interested in determining the ways in which people are different from each other. Any meaningful way in which people dif fer from each other may potentially be identified as a personality trait. Some people like to talk lot; others don't. Some people are active; others are couch potatoes. Some people enjoy working on dif ficult puzzles; others avoid mental challenges. Because of it emphasis on the study of dif ferences among people, trait psychology has sometimes been called differential psychology in the interest of distinguishing this field fro other branches of personality psychology (Anastasi, 1976). Dif ferential psychology includes the study of other forms of individual dif ferences in addition to personality traits, such as abilities, aptitudes, and intelligence. In this chapter , however, we will focus mainly on personality traits.

The Color Wheel. The infinite hues of color are created from a combination of three primary colors. Similarly, trait psychologists hold that the infinite variety of personalities are created from a combination of a few primary traits.

The trait perspective historically has been concerned with accurate measurement. It takes a quantitative approach, which emphasizes how much a given individual differs from an agreed-upon average. Of all the perspectives and strategies for studying personality, the trait approach is the most mathematically and statistically oriented, due to its emphasis on amount. After all, people dif fer from each other in the amounts of the various traits.

You might be wondering how the vast dif ferences among people could be captured and represented by a few key personality traits. How is it that the uniqueness of every individual can be portrayed by just a few traits? Trait psychologists are somewhat like chemists. They argue that, by combining a few primary traits in various amounts, they can distill the unique qualities of every individual. This process is analogous to that of combining the three primary colors. Every visible color in the spectrum, from dusty mauve to burnt umber , is created through various combinations of the three primary colors: red, green, and blue. According to trait psychologists, every personality, no matter how complex or unusual, is the product of a particular combination of a few basic and primary traits.

Consistency over Time

The second assumption made by all trait theories is that there is a degree of consistency in personality over time. If someone is highly extraverted during one period of observation, trait psychologists tend to assume that he or she will be extraverted tomorrow, next week, a year from now , or even decades from now . The view that many broadbased personality traits show considerable stability over time has been supported by a large number of research studies, which we will review in Chapter 5. Traits such as intelligence, emotional reactivity, impulsiveness, shyness, and aggression show high test-retest correlations, even with years or decades between measurement occasions. Personality traits that are thought to have a biological basis, such as extraversion, sensation seeking, activity level, and shyness, also show remarkable consistency over time. Attitudes, however, are much less consistent over time, as are interests and

Low Medium High

Impulsiveness measured in 2024

Figure 4.1

Hypothetical regression lines between impulsiveness measured 20 years apart. Line A represents an age change in impulsiveness, with all persons scoring as less impulsive in later life. Line B represents no change in impulsiveness over twenty years. Both lines represent rank order consistency, however, and thus test-retest correlations.

Low Medium High

Impulsiveness measured in 2024

Figure 4.1

Hypothetical regression lines between impulsiveness measured 20 years apart. Line A represents an age change in impulsiveness, with all persons scoring as less impulsive in later life. Line B represents no change in impulsiveness over twenty years. Both lines represent rank order consistency, however, and thus test-retest correlations.

opinions (Conley, 1984a, 1984b). Of course, people do change in important behavioral ways throughout adulthood, whether in terms of their political involvement, their attitudes toward social issues, or their participation in social change movements or perhaps through psychotherapy (Stewart, 1982). When it comes to broad personality traits, consistency over time is more often the rule than the exception (Izard et al., 1993).

Although a trait might be consistent over time, the way in which it manifests itself in actual behavior might change substantially . Consider the trait of disagree-ableness. As a child, a highly disagreeable person might be prone to temper tantrums and fits of breath holding, fist pounding, and undirected rage As an adult, a disagreeable person might be dif ficult to get along with and hence might have trouble sustainin personal relationships and holding down a job. Researchers have found, for example, a correlation of - .45 between throwing temper tantrums in childhood and being able to hold a job as an adult 20 years later (Caspi, Elder , & Bem, 1987). This finding i evidence of consistency in the underlying trait (disagreeableness), even though the manifestation of that trait changes over time.

What about traits that decrease in intensity with age, such as activity level, impulsiveness, or sociopathy? How can there be consistency in a trait if it is known to change with age? For example, criminal tendencies usually decrease with age, so that a 20-year -old sociopath becomes much less dangerous to society as he or she ages. The answer to this question lies in the concept of rank order. If all people show a decrease in a particular trait at the same rate over time, they might still maintain the same rank order relative to each other. Accounting for general change with age can be compared to subtracting or adding a constant to each participant' s score on the trait measure. Figure 4.1

The Hartshorne and May study examined cross-situational consistency in academic and play situations in children. While they found little evidence for consistency in such traits as honesty, the study has been criticized for measuring behavior on one occasion in each situation. Studies that aggregate measurements over several occasions in each situation find much higher levels of cross-situational consistency.

The Hartshorne and May study examined cross-situational consistency in academic and play situations in children. While they found little evidence for consistency in such traits as honesty, the study has been criticized for measuring behavior on one occasion in each situation. Studies that aggregate measurements over several occasions in each situation find much higher levels of cross-situational consistency.

illustrates how a general decrease in impulsiveness with age might have no real ef fect on the correlation between measures obtained 20 years apart. People in general can show a decrease in impulsiveness as they get older , yet those individuals who were the most impulsive at an earlier age are still the ones who are most impulsive at a later age. We will revisit the idea of rank order consistency , as well as the whole notion of stability and change, in Chapter 5.

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment