When you describe someone as impulsive, unreliable, and lazy, what specifically ar you referring to? Personality psychologists dif fer in their formulations of what these traits mean. Some personality psychologists view these traits as internal (or hidden) properties of persons that cause their behavior. Other personality psychologists make no assumptions about causality and simply use these trait terms to describe the enduring aspects of a person's behavior.
When we say that Dierdre has a desire for material things, that Dan has a need for stimulation, or that Dominick wants power over others, we are referring to something inside of each that causes him or her to act in particular ways. These traits are presumed to be internal in the sense that individuals carry their desires, needs, and wants from one situation to the next (e.g., Alston, 1975). Furthermore, these desires and needs are presumed to be causal in the sense that they explain the behavior of the individuals who possess them. Dierdre' s desire for material things, for example, might cause her to spend a lot of time at the shopping mall, work extra hard to earn more money, and acquire many household possessions. Her internal desire influence her external behavior, presumably causing her to act in certain ways.
Psychologists who view traits as internal dispositions do not equate traits with the external behavior in question. This distinction is most easily explained using a food example. Harry may have a strong desire for a lar ge hamburger and fresh french fries. However, because he is trying to lose weight, he refrains from expressing his desire in behavioral terms—he looks at the food hungrily but resists the temptation to eat it. Similarly, Dominick may have a desire to take char ge in most social situations, even if he does not always express this desire. For example, some situations may have an already identified leade , such as in a class discussion with his psychology professor . Note that this formulation assumes that we can measure Dominick' s need for power independently of measuring Dominick's actual behavioral expressions.
These examples are analogous to that of a glass, which has the trait of being brittle. Even if a particular glass never shatters (i.e., expresses its brittleness), it still possesses the trait of being brittle. In sum, psychologists who view traits as internal dispositions believe that traits can lie dormant in the sense that the capacities remain present even when particular behaviors are not actually expressed. Traits—in the sense of internal needs, drives, desires, and so on—are presumed to exist, even in the absence of observable expressions.
The scientific usefulness of viewing traits as causes of behavior lies in rulin out other causes. When we say that Joan goes to lots of parties because she is extraverted, we are implicitly ruling out other potential reasons for her behavior (e.g., that she might be going to a lot of parties simply because her boyfriend drags her to them, rather than because she herself is extraverted). The formulation of traits as internal causal properties dif fers radically from an alternative formulation that considers traits as merely descriptive summaries of actual behavior .
Proponents of this alternative formulation define traits simply as descriptive summaries of attributes of persons; they make no assumptions about internality or causality (Hampshire, 1953). Consider an example in which we ascribe the trait of jealousy to a young man named Geor ge. According to the descriptive summary viewpoint, this trait attribution merely describes Geor ge's expressed behavior. For example, Geor ge might glare at other men who talk to his girlfriend at a party , insist that she wear his ring, and require her to spend all of her free time with him. The trait of jealousy , in this case, accurately summarizes the general trend in George's expressed behavior, yet no assumptions are made about what causes Geor ge's behavior.
Although it is possible that George's jealousy stems from an internal cause, perhaps deeply rooted feelings of insecurity , his jealousy might instead be due to social situations. George's expressions of jealousy might be caused by the fact that other men are flirting with his girlfriend and she is responding to them (a situational cause) rather than because Geor ge is intrinsically a jealous person. The important point is that those who view traits as descriptive summaries do not prejudge the cause of someone's behavior. They merely use traits to describe, in summary fashion, the trend in a person's behavior. Personality psychologists of this persuasion (e.g., Saucier &
Goldberg, 1998; Wiggins, 1979) ar gue that we must first identify and describe th important individual dif ferences among people, then subsequently develop causal theories to explain them.
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