Traits and Trait Taxonomies

What Is a Trait? Two Basic Formulations

Traits as Internal Causal Properties Traits as Purely Descriptive Summaries

The Act Frequency Formulation of Traits—An Illustration of the Descriptive Summary Formulation

Act Frequency Research Program Critique of the Act Frequency Formulation

Identification of the Most Important Traits

Lexical Approach Statistical Approach Theoretical Approach

Evaluating the Approaches for Identifying Important Traits

Taxonomies of Personality

Eysenck's Hierarchical Model of Personality Cattell's Taxonomy: The 16 Personality Factor System Circumplex Taxonomies of Personality Five-Factor Model

Summary and Evaluation Key Terms


People readily form i^essions of others that can be described uppose that you walk into a party with a friend, who introduces you to using a few traits of the host, an acquaintance of hers. The three of you chat for 10 minutes, and then personality, such as you mingle with the other guests. Later , as you leave the party with your friend, whether or not the she asks what you thought of the host. As you mull over the 10-minute interac- person is friendly, tion, what springs to mind? Perhaps you describe the host as friendly (she smiled generous, and poised. a lot), generous (she told you to help yourself to the bountiful spread of food), and poised (she was apparently able to juggle the many demands of her guests as they came and went). These words are all examples of trait-descriptive adjectives — words that describe traits, attributes of a person that are reasonably characteristic of the person and perhaps even enduring over time. Just as you might describe a glass as brittle or a car as reliable (enduring characteristics of the glass and the car), the use of trait-descriptive adjectives when applied to people connotes consistent and stable characteristics. For much of the past century , many psychologists have focused on identifying the basic traits that make up personality and identifying the nature and origins of those traits.

Most personality psychologists hypothesize that traits (also called dispositions) are reasonably stable over time and consistent over situations. The host of the party just described, for example, might be friendly , generous, and poised at other parties later on—illustrating stability over time. And she might also show these traits in other situations—perhaps showing friendliness by smiling at people on elevators, generosity by giving homeless persons money , and poised by maintaining her composure when called on in class. However , the actual degree to which traits show stability over time and consistency across situations has been the subject of considerable debate and empirical research.

Three fundamental questions guide those who study personality traits: The firs question is "How should we conceptualize traits?" Every field needs to define its k terms explicitly. In biology, for example, species is a key concept, so the concept of species is defined explicitly (i.e., a group of o ganisms capable of reproducing with each other). In physics, the basic concepts of mass, weight, force, and gravity are defined explicitl . Because traits are central concepts in personality psychology , they, too, must be precisely formulated.

The second question is "How can we identify which traits are the most important traits from among the thousands of ways in which individuals dif fer?" Individuals differ in many ways that are both characteristic and enduring. Some individuals are extremely extraverted, enjoying loud and crowded parties; others are introverted, preferring quiet evenings spent reading. Some people talk a lot and seek to be the center of attention in most social encounters; some prefer to be quiet and let others do the talking. A crucial goal of personality psychology is to identify the most important ways in which individuals dif fer.

The third question is "How can we formulate a comprehensive taxonomy of traits— a system that includes within it all of the major traits of personality?" Once the important traits have been identified, the next step is to formulate an o ganized scheme—a taxonomy—within which to assemble the individual traits. The periodic table of elements, for example, is not merely a random list of all the physical elements that have been discovered. Rather, it is a taxonomy that or ganizes the elements using a coherent principle—the elements are arranged according to their atomic numbers (which refer to the number of protons in the nucleus of a given atom). Within biology, to use another example, the field would be hopelessly lost if it were to merely list all of the thousand of species that exist, without relying on an underlying or ganizational framework. Thus, the individual species are or ganized into a taxonomy—all the species of plants, animals, and microbial species are linked systematically through a single tree of descent. Likewise, a central goal of personality psychology is to formulate a comprehensive taxonomy of all important traits. This chapter describes how personality psychologists have struggled with these three fundamental questions of trait psychology .

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