The term metatraits refers to differences in the extent to which people possess a given trait. Consider the trait of friendliness. People may differ not only in how friendly they are, but also in how much friendliness is relevant to their personality and guides their behavior. Friendliness may be a central aspect of Jane’s personality and influence how she acts in many situations (e.g., with friends, romantic partners, coworkers, family members). However, friendliness may not be very relevant to Sue’s personality, and therefore will not predict how friendly she acts around different people. The existence of metatraits means that when people measure a person’s standing on a given trait (e.g., Agreeableness), they need to know not only where the person stands on the trait (e.g., how agreeable he or she is), but also how relevant the trait is to his or her personality (e.g., is agreeableness a relevant trait for the individual?).
When someone asks you to describe your personality, you will likely give a description that includes at least some personality traits. When describing other people, people also frequently describe the personality traits they possess. One person you know may be shy, responsible, and determined, whereas another person you know may be open to new experiences, extraverted, and lazy. Most psychologists agree that people’s personality can be defined, at least in part, based on their standing on personality traits.
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Although psychologists agree that an individual’s personality consists of where he or she stands on particular traits, they disagree about whether different traits are more important and relevant to some individuals than others. Researchers who adopt a nomothetic approach to personality argue that an individual’s personality can be understood by finding out where he or she falls on a relatively small number of traits, and that one does not need to understand how these traits differ in their importance or relevance to the individual. Researchers who adopt an idiographic approach to personality argue that some traits are more relevant to some individuals than to others, and that failing to consider differences in how relevant traits are to individuals leads to important information being lost about the individual’s personality. The concept of metatraits comes from the idiographic approach to personality.
Measurement of Metatraits
Although it is relatively straightforward to measure a person’s standing on a personality trait (e.g., to measure Extraversion, one might ask individuals to rate how outgoing they are, how much they like to be around others), it has proven more difficult to measure how relevant that trait is to the individual. One approach researchers have taken is to see how variable people’s responses are to items measuring the same personality trait. Imagine you are completing a 10-item scale assessing your ability to empathize with others. If you respond very differently to items that are all supposedly measuring empathy, then an argument could be made that where you stand on empathy is not as relevant to your personality as to someone who responds in a consistent manner to all the items. Although this approach is reasonable, one problem with the method is that factors other than the relevance of the trait may produce variability in item responses (e.g., poor intelligence, laziness).
Therefore, researchers have recommended additional measures to assess metatraits. Some researchers have measured metatraits by seeing how stable people’s responses to a personality trait scale are over three administrations (separated by at least a week). The more stable an individual’s scores on the personality trait, the more relevant that trait is to the individual. Other researchers have recommended measuring trait relevance by measuring how fast someone responds to items measuring a trait (the faster the individual responds, the more relevant the trait), or by counting how many times a trait is mentioned when a person describes his or her life story (the more times a trait is mentioned when talking about yourself, the more relevant the trait to your personality).
Evidence of Metatraits Importance
Understanding metatraits is important because the relevance of a given trait to an individual’s personality is expected to determine whether the trait influences the individual’s experience and behavior. Early research supported the hypothesis that personality traits would better predict behavior when the trait was more relevant to the individual. However, other researchers failed to replicate this relationship. More recently, researchers have found that the relationship between a person’s self-ratings of personality and other people’s ratings of the person’s personality is stronger for those traits most relevant to his or her personality. This suggests that other people are more accurate at rating a person on traits more relevant to his or her personality. Recent research has shown that personality is a better predictor of objective job performance when the traits being assessed are more relevant to the individual’s personality.
Future Research on Metatraits
An exciting area for future research on metatraits is whether some personality traits are more relevant to people in general than others. For example, researchers have argued five primary traits underlay our personality: Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. These traits may be more relevant to people in general than are traits such as empathy, self-consciousness, and body image. The differences among traits in their relevance to individuals emphasize the importance of developing measures to assess how relevant a given trait is to the population of interest. To take an extreme example, imagine a culture in which personal ambition is de-emphasized and individuals are expected to do what they are told by authorities. In such a culture, the trait of achievement striving would not be relevant to the population, and therefore if members of this culture were to complete a measure of achievement striving, their scores on the measure would be largely meaningless. Understanding the relevance of a trait to different samples will help researchers select participants for whom scores on the trait are most meaningful.
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