Trait Theories of Personality

Dr. C. George Boeree

A trait is what we call a characteristic way in which an individual perceives, feels, believes, or acts.  When we casually describe someone, we are likely to use trait terms:  I am, for example, somewhat of an introvert, a pretty nervous person, strongly attached to my family, frequently depressed, and awesomely intelligent.  I have a good sense of humor, fond of languages, very fond of good food, not at all fond of exercise, and a little obsessive.  You see:  I have just given you ten traits that actually go a long way towards describing me!

Psychologists, especially personologists, are very interested in traits.  They are especially interested in finding which traits are broad and possibly genetically based, as opposed to ones that are rather peculiar and can change easily.  Over the years, we have had a number of theories that attempt to describe the key traits of human beings.

Carl Jung and the Myers-Briggs

One of the earliest trait theories was introduced by a colleague of Sigmund Freud's by the name of Carl Jung.  Jung was never completely sold on Freud's ideas, and soon left his circle to develop his own theory.  This is not the place to go into details, but one aspect of the theory concerned traits that Jung felt were inborn.  These inborn, genetically determined traits are usually called temperaments.

Later, two students of Jung's theory named Myers and Briggs - mother and daughter - developed a personality test based on Jung's temperaments called the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, or MBTI.  It has gone on the become the most famous personality test of all time.

The traits are seen as opposites, and the first set is introversion and extraversion.  Introversion refers to a tendency to prefer the world inside oneself.  The more obvious aspects of introversion are shyness, a distaste for social functions, and a love of privacy.

Extraversion is the tendency to look to the outside world, especially people, for one's pleasures.  Extraverts are usually outgoing and they enjoy social activities, but they don't like to be alone.

The majority of people in the world are extraverts, so introverts often feel a bit out of it.  A society like ours is very pro-extravert, even to the point of seeing introversion as abnormal and shy people in need of therapy!  There are some cultures, however, that see extraverts as the oddballs. We should note that it was Jung who first used the terms introversion and extraversion!

Jung believed that introversion-extraversion was either-or. You are born one or the other and remain that way for the rest of your life.  Now you could, as an introvert, learn to behave more like an extravert, or, as an extravert, learn to behave more like an introvert.  But you can't really switch.  If this is true, that would suggest that introversion-extraversion is determined by a single gene, something that is pretty unusual even for more physical differences!  Nevertheless, it seems that introversion-extraversion is a very significant and fairly stable trait.

Next, we have the contrast between sensing people and intuiting people.  Sensing types, as the name implies, get all their information about life from their senses.  They tend to be realistic, down-to-earth people, but they tend to see everything in rather simplistic, concrete, black-or-white terms.

Intuiting people tend to get their information from intuition.  This means that they tend to be a little out of touch with the more solid aspects of reality - a little "flakey", you might say - but may see "the big picture" behind the details better.  Intuiting people are often artistic and can be rather philosophical.

Again, the majority of people are sensing, and that can make intuiters feel rather lonely and under-appreciated.  Our society tends to be distrustful of dreamers, artists, and intellectuals - but other societies may be more appreciative.

Next, there's the contrast between thinkers and feelers.  Thinking people make their decisions on the basis of thinking - reasoning, logic, step-by-step problem solving. This works very well for physical problems, but can leave something to be desired when dealing with something as complex as people.

Feeling people make their decisions based on their feelings.  While this doesn't work so well when trying to fix you car or your computer, feelings are a kind of intuition that works very well when dealing with people.

Half of all people are thinking and half are feeling, but the proportions differ when we start looking at gender:  The majority of men are thinkers and the majority of women are feelers.  This goes along well with old stereotypes as well as recent research:  Men tend to do better with step-by-step problem solving, especially involving mechanical things; Women tend to do better in social situations.  Some people have criticized Jung for this apparent sexism, but we should note that a good third of men are feelers, and a good third of women are thinkers, so it is not a simple "men vs. women" kind of thing.  Plus, Jung said that there is no reason to value thinking over feeling - each has its strengths and weaknesses.  Note also that feeling men may feel odd, as may thinking women.  Stereotypes do the greatest harm when they prevent individuals from being what they in fact are!

The last contrast is judging versus perceiving.  Judging people tend to be more like Freud's anal retentive types - neat, orderly, hardworking, always on time, scheduling things very carefully.  College professors tend to be judging!

Perceiving people are more spontaneous.  They prefer to do things as the spirit moves them.  They are probably more fun than the judging types but, as you can imagine, they tend not to get things done. It often seems to us college professors that college students are all perceiving.

Actually, the distribution of judging and perceiving people is pretty even - 50-50.

When you take the Myers-Briggs or similar tests like the Keirsey, you get a set of four letters:  I for introvert or E for extravert, S for sensing or N for intuiting, T for thinking or F for feeling, and J for judging or P for perceiving.  I, for example, am an INFP, which is in fact quite accurate.  My wife is an ISFJ -- she is more down-to-earth and organized than I will ever be.  That's why she controls the family finances!  On the other hand, we are both introverted and feeling, which means that you are more likely to find us crying over a rented movie than out at some wild party!

Hans Eysenck

Hans Eysenck was the first psychologist to make this trait or temperament business into something more mathematical:  He gave long lists of adjectives to hundreds of thousands of people and used a special statistics called factor analysis to figure out what factors - trait dimensions - carry the most weight.  He took the results of this work and created a test called the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ).

Instead of making these traits either-or, like Jung did, he saw them as dimensions.  His first trait dimension was, like Jung, extraversion-introversion.  But rather than say you were one or the other (an I or an E), he gave you a score on extraversion-introversion:  A low score meant you were introverted, a high score extraverted.  Of course, this meant you could be halfway in-between - as in fact most people are!

His second trait dimension he called neuroticism.  If you scored high on this scale, that meant you tended to be a very nervous, emotional sort of person.  While it doesn't mean you are necessarily a neurotic, it does mean you are more likely to develop neurotic problems such as phobias, obsessions, compulsions, and depression than someone who scores low.  Low neuroticism is nowadays often called emotional stability.

The third dimension is called psychoticism.  He added this later in his research, after he had gotten more data from people who were in mental institutions.  As the name implies, these are people with tendencies to psychosis, meaning that they are more likely to have problems dealing with reality.  Psychotic people sometimes have hallucinations and often have delusions such as odd beliefs about being watched, perhaps by the CIA or even by creatures from other planets.  A middle score on psychoticism might mean that you are a bit eccentric or that you take risks that other people aren't as likely to take.  A low score means that you are pretty normal in this regard.

Eysenck's research gets a great deal of respect, and most psychologists see his theory as on the right track.

The Big Five

More recently, a number of researchers have been using the latest in computer technology to redo the work that Eysenck and other earlier researchers did in far more laborious ways.  This has lead to what is known as the "big five" or the "five factor" theory.

The first dimension is, again, extraversion-introversion.

The second is usually called emotional stability, and is simply the reverse of Eysenck's neuroticism.

The third is called agreeableness.  A high score means that you tend to be friendly and accommodating - a nice person.  You don't need to be extraverted:  I am an introvert, but I score high on agreeableness.  If you score low, you are likely to be more idiosyncratic and have trouble getting along with people.  This is not entirely negative:  Agreeable people often get their nice reputation by by conforming and compromising on their principles, while non-agreeable people are more likely to stick to what they think is right even if it's unpopular.  Then again, some are just plain disagreeable!

The fourth is conscientiousness.  This parallels closely with Jung's judging-perceiving.  People who score high on conscientiousness are orderly, get their work done, arrive on time, and care about doing things right.  Score low on conscientiousness and that probably means you tend to slack off on your work, rarely worry about deadlines or neatness, and are more interested in taking it easy.

The fifth has come with several different labels, such as culture, openness to experience, or just openness.  If you score high on openness, you are more likely to enjoy cultural pursuits such as art, music, dance.  You are more likely to go to museums, the symphony, the ballet.  You are more likely to want to travel to exotic countries and meet people different from yourself.  You are more open to new experiences, such as trying foods you've never tried before or listening to music from all over the world.  You are more likely to be interested in reading about philosophies and religions other than your own, and  so on.  If you score low, you are more likely to seek out the McDonalds, even when you are in Paris or Bangkok.

These five have stood up so well to research that I suspect most psychologists today accept them, at least until something even better comes along.  It is also becoming clear that these are in fact strongly influenced by genetics.  In other words, you are born with at least the general outline of your personality traits already laid out for you.  That doesn't mean you can't change - it just means that it is less likely and more difficult.

© Copyright 2003, 2009, C. George Boeree