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Trait theory is an approach to personality theory based on personality traits.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, personality traits are "prominent aspects of personality that are exhibited in a wide range of important social and personal contexts." In other words, persons have certain characteristics which partly determine their behavior. According to the theory, a friendly person is likely to act friendly in any situation because of the traits in his personality.

Specific trait theories

  • Gordon Allport delineated different kinds of traits, which he also called dispositions. Central traits are basic to an individual's personality, while secondary traits are more peripheral. Common traits are those recognized within a culture and thus may vary from culture to culture. Cardinal traits are those by which an individual may be strongly recognized.

  • Raymond Cattell's research propagated a two-tiered personality structure with sixteen "primary factors" (16 Personality Factors) and five "secondary factors." A different model was proposed by Hans Eysenck, who believed that just three traits - extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism - were sufficient to describe human personality. Differences between Cattell and Eysenck emerged due to preferences for different forms of factor analysis, with Cattell using oblique, Eysenck orthogonal, rotation to analyse the factors that emerged when personality questionnaires were subject to statistical analysis. Today, the Big Five factors have the weight of a considerable amount of empirical research behind them. Building on the work of Cattell and others, Lewis Goldberg proposed a five-dimension personality model, nicknamed the "Big Five":
  1. Extraversion (i.e., "extraversion vs. introversion" above; outgoing and physical-stimulation-oriented vs. quiet and physical-stimulation-averse)
  2. Neuroticism (i.e., emotional stability; calm, unperturbable, optimistic vs. emotionally reactive, prone to negative emotions)
  3. Agreeableness (i.e., affable, friendly, conciliatory vs. aggressive, dominant, disagreeable)
  4. Conscientiousness (i.e., dutiful, planful, and orderly vs. spontaneous, flexible, and unreliable)
  5. Openness to experience (i.e., open to new ideas and change vs. traditional and staid)
  • John L. Holland's RIASEC vocational model, commonly referred to as the Holland Codes, stipulates that there are six personality traits that lead people to choose their career paths. This model is widely used in vocational counseling and is a circumplex model where the six types are represented as a hexagon where adjacent types are more closely related than those more distant [1].

General discussion

The most common models of traits incorporate four or five broad dimensions or factors. The least controversial dimension, observed as far back as the ancient Greeks, is simply extraversion vs. introversion (outgoing and physical-stimulation-oriented vs. quiet and physical-stimulation-averse).

The emotions, thoughts and behaviour patterns that a person has are typically referred to as a personality (Kassin, 2003) and can vary immensely between individuals. In making the area amenable to scientific enquiry some, using the statistical technique of factor analysis, have hypothesized that the personality contains prominent aspects that are stable across situations called - traits. In particular, Eysenck (1967,1991) has suggested that personality is reducible to three major traits (3F) whilst others (e.g. McCrae and Costa, 1987) have suggested there are five (5F). The first to come up with five basic personality traits of the human psyche was the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in his classic work: Analytical Psychology. There are other proponents who suggest there are more factors than this (e.g. Saucier and Goldberg, 1998).

How the taxonomy is defined

The 3F model is comprised of the traits, ‘extraversion’, ‘neuroticism’ and ‘psychoticism’ whilst the 5F model contains ‘openness’, ‘conscientiousness’, ‘extraversion’, ‘agreeableness’ and ‘neuroticism’. These traits exist because they are the highest-level factors of a hierarchical taxonomy based on the statistical technique factor analysis. They are the result of factor analysis on lower-order traits which themselves are the product of factor analysis on habits which in turn exist because of factor analyses on behaviors. Indeed, such a method produces factors that are continuous, bipolar, can be distinguished from states and can describe individual differences (Goldberg, 1993). Indeed, both approaches use self-report questionnaires to try and capture the top-level factors by means of the lower levels. However, although they use broadly the same methodology there are some differences. Firstly, the nature of the questionnaires are subtly different; for example, 3F use a binary answering system of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ whilst 5F use a five-point scale. Secondly, there are organisational differences; for instance, the 3F model is strict in as much as a four tier hierarchy is adhered to and the three top-level factors are intended to be orthogonal (uncorrelated) (Eysenck, 1990), although Eysenck & Eysenck (1991) found small positive correlations between psychoticism and the two other traits particularly in males. Conversely, the 5F model has been criticized for mixing up these levels and corrupting the orthogonal relationships (Block, 1995; Draycott and Kline, 1995). Eysenck (1992a) argued that fewer factors were superior to a larger number of party related ones. Thus whilst the two approaches are comparable because of the use of factor analysis to construct hierarchical taxonomies they differ in their setup. In particular, there are differences in the organization and number of high-level factors. However, there are similarities and differences between lower-order factors too.

Lower order factors

Similarities between lower-order factors for ‘psychoticism’ and the low-order facotors ‘openness’, ‘agreeableness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (Data from Matthews, Deary & Whiteman, 2003)

There are two top level factors that both approaches agree on: 'extraversion' and 'neuroticism'. Both approaches broadly accept that extraversion is associated with sociability and positive affect whilst neuroticism is associated with emotional instability and negative affect (Matthews, Deary & Whiteman, 2003). Indeed, many of the lower-order factors employed are similar. For instance, both approaches contain a factor for sociability/gregariousness, for activity levels and for assertiveness for the high-order factor 'extraversion'. However, there are differences too. Firstly, the 3F approach contains nine lower-order factors whilst the 5F approach has six (Matthews et al., 2003), which is a generalized difference between the two approaches. More specifically, the lower-order factors differ between high-order factors. For instance, within 'extraversion' the 3F approach includes ‘carefree’ as a factor whilst the 5F approach makes no such reference. Similarly, there are differences within 'neuroticism', with ‘guilt’ as a factor in the 3F approach but not in the 5F approach. The pattern that emerges is that the 3F approach is more willing to condense more lower-order factors into fewer high-order factors. In fact, such a pattern is true when other high-order factors are examined. For instance, 'psychoticism' incorporates some of the polar opposites of the lower-order factors of ‘openness’, ‘agreeableness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (Matthews et al., 2003). A high scorer on tough-mindedness in ‘psychoticism’ would score lowly on tender-mindedness in ‘agreeableness’ (see image below for more examples). Therefore, whilst the two approaches contain similarities in their lower-level factors there are also large differences. In particular, most of the differences stem from the 3F approach’s emphasis on fewer high-order factors, which means many of the low-order factors for ‘psychoticism’ are observable in the lower order factors of the 5F approach and vice versa.

Causal claims

So far it has been shown that the two approaches tend to be comparable and differ in their organization of factors. However, the two approaches differ in their causal claims. Whilst both models are descriptive only the 3F offers any detailed causal explanations and this sets the two approaches apart. Whilst Costa and McCrae (1992) have suggested that traits are a mixture of environment and genetics, the 3F approach suggests explicitly that different personality traits are caused by the properties of the brain, which themselves are the result of genetic factors (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1985). In particular, the 3F model identifies the reticulo-cortical and reticulo-limbic circuits in the brain as key parts of the conceptual nervous system with the specific functions of mediating cortical arousal and emotional responses respectively. Eysenck (1967) advocates that extroverts have low levels of cortical arousal whilst introverts have high levels, leading extroverts to seek out more stimulation from socialising and being venturesome. Moreover, Eysenck (1994) surmised that there would be an optimal level of arousal after which inhibition would occur and that this would be different depending where on the factor continuum a person was. In a similar vein, the 3F approach theorizes that the factor neuroticism is mediated by levels of arousal in the limbic circuit with individual differences arising because of variable activation thresholds between people. Therefore, highly neurotic people when presented with minor stressors will exceed this threshold, whilst very weakly neurotic people would not exceed idiosyncratic activation levels even when presented with large stressors. The individual differences in both extraversion and neuroticism according to the 3F approach have genetic and physiological antecedents. By contrast, proponents of the 5F approach assume a role of genetics and environment but offer no explicit causal information.

Given this emphasis on biology in the 3F approach it would be expected that the third trait, psychoticism, would have a similar explanation. However, the causal properties of this state are not well defined. Eysenck (1992b) has suggested that psychoticism was related to testosterone levels and was inverse function of the serotonergic system but later revised this (Eysenck, 1997) linking it instead to the dopaminergic system. Whatever the causes, however, psychoticism marks the two approaches apart as the 5F model contains no such trait, although as has been demonstrated, it can be viewed as an amalgam of factors in the 5F approach. Moreover, apart from simply being a different high-level factor ‘psychoticism’, unlike any of the other factors in either approach does not fit a normal distribution curve. Indeed, scores are rarely high thus skewing a normal distribution (Matthews, et al., 2003). However, when they are high there is considerable overlap with psychiatric conditions such as antisocial and schizoid personality disorders. Similarly, high scorers on ‘neuroticism’ are more susceptible to sleep and psychosomatic disorders (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1991). Although 5F approaches can predict future mental disorders (e.g. Costa & McCrae, 1990, Lynam et al, 2005) it is important to note that the motivation for such a model was primarily taxonomic. Although ‘psychoticism’ may contain lower-order factors from the 5F approach and although ‘neuroticism’ is a higher-order factor in both approaches, the 3F model stands alone as a model created with the aim of predicting for psychiatric disorders, like psychosomatism or psychosis (Heath and Martin, 1990). That said, Eysenck and Eysenck (1991) contend that ‘psychoticism’ and ‘neuroticism’ are typical traits in individuals. Therefore, the high-order factor ‘psychoticism’ like others in the 3F approach is suggested to have (rather unspecified) biological causes, which although uneven distributed in a population are normal according the 3F approach. Moreover, whilst both approaches can be used as predictive tools the 3F approach was the first to notice this.


The debate between three- and five-factor approaches to understanding personality has been perhaps the largest in all individual differences research and for good reason. The two approaches are in many ways identical: for instance, in their use of hierarchical factor analysis, their use of traits themselves as continuous, bipolar dimensions of personality, the questionnaires used to capture the essence of such traits, the emphasis on taxonomy, the sharing of two important traits and the similar organisation of many of the lower-level factors. However, the differences are typically subtle ones. Contrasts can be made between the answering style in the questionnaires, the organisation and number of the lower-order factors, the emphasis of the three factor approach to condense more into less whilst the five factor approach is content with more and also the predictive claims made by the 3F approach. However, perhaps the most marked difference is that of causality. The 5F approach focuses on taxonomy and suggests that both nature and nurture are important causal factors, but that the former should be developed before any work should be done on the latter. By contrast, the three-factor approach assumes the differences arise from physiology, defined by genetics. For individual differences in typical humans the 5F approach is probably better operationally as it is more nuanced and theoretically because it assumes more liberal causal factors; however, such an approach would never have been possible without the work into 3F approach.

See also


Allport, Floyd H. & Allport, Gordon W. (1921). Personality traits: Their classificiation and measurement. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 16, 6-40. Full text

Allport, Gordon W. (1927). Concepts of trait and personality. Psychological Bulletin, 24, 284-293. Full text

Block, J. (1995). A contrarian view of the five-factor approach to personality description. Psychological Bulletin, 117(2), 187–215.

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1990). Personality disorders and the five factor model of personality. Journal of Personality Disorders, 4, 362-371

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 653-665.

Draycott, S. G., & Kline, P. (1995). The Big Three or the Big Five - the EPQ-R vs the NEO-PI: a research note, replication and elaboration. Personality and Individual Differences, 18, 801-804

Eysenck, H. J. (1990). Biological dimensions of personality. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 244-276). New York: Guilford.

Eysenck, H. J. (1992a). A reply to Costa and McCrae. P or A and C--The role of theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 867-868.

Eysenck, H. J. (1992b). The definition and measurement of psychoticism. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 757-785.

Eysenck, H. J. (1994). Creativity and personality: Word association, origence, and Psychoticism. Creativity Research Journal, 7, 209-216

Eysenck, H. J. (1997). Personality and experimental psychology: The unification of psychology and the possibility of a paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1224-1237.

Eysenck, H. J., & Eysenck, M. W. (1985). Personality and individual differences: A natural science approach. New York: Plenum.

Eysenck, H.J. (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Thomas

Eysenck, H.J. (1991). Dimensions of personality: 16: 5 or 3? Criteria for a taxonomic paradigm. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 773-90.

Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48(1), 26–34.

H. J. Eysenck and S. B. G. Eysenck. (1991). The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-Revised. Sevenoaks: Hodder & Stoughton

Heath, A. C., & Martin, N. G. (1990). Psychoticism as a dimension of personality: A multivariate genetic test of Eysenck and Eysenck's psychoticism construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 111-121.

Kassin, S. (2003). Psychology. USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc..

Lynam, D. R., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Raine, A., Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (2005). Adolescent psychopathy and the Big Five: Results from two samples. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33, 431-443

Matthews, G., Deary, I.J., & Whiteman, M.C. (2003). Personality Traits (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. C., Jr. (1987). Validation of the five-factor model across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81–90.

Saucier, G., & Goldberg, L. R. (1998). What is beyond the Big Five? Journal of Personality, 66, 495–524

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