When people describe themselves and others, they tend to use trait descriptors. A trait is marked by the tendency to act, think, and feel in a certain way—over time and across situations. Terms such as disposition, construct, dimension, and personality variable have very similar meanings and psychologists often use them interchangeably.
Traits indicate that the probability of certain behavior is high, but they are not to be understood in a deterministic sense. Even the cruelest person will have moments of tenderness. Strictly speaking, traits describe behavior but do not explain it. Socialization or genetic factors can be used to explain how traits develop in a person. Some authors have regarded traits as fictions that do not exist outside the mind of observers; others have searched for their neurophysiological basis.
Historical and Contemporary Approaches to Traits
Hippocrates (460 B.C.E.) stated that an imbalance of body fluids leads to physical and mental illness. Galen (130-200 C.E.) asserted that four temperaments are based on the dominance of one of those fluids: blood (sanguine, optimistic), yellow bile (choleric, irritable), black bile (melancholic, sad), and phlegm (phlegmatic, calm). These historical assumptions influenced the development of other trait theories. Gordon Allport (1897-1967) supported an idiographic approach and emphasized that there are unique personal dispositions in addition to general dispositions. Raymond B. Cattell (1905-1998) used factor analysis, a statistical tool, to identify the traits that are most relevant in distinguishing people. He proposed 16 Personality Factors (16 PF). Hans Eysenck (1916-1997) identified three supertraits (the Gigantic Three): extraversion (outside or inward orientation), neuroticism (emotional stability or lability), and psychoticism (antisocial behavior or friendliness). In the 1970s, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae suggested that five trait dimensions are optimal for describing personality. Even though there are authors who favor six, four, or three factors, the Big Five (Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness) are currently the most popular approach in studying traits.
Traits or Situations?
In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel dealt a heavy blow to the trait approach. He pointed out that traits lack cross-situational consistency and predictive validity. In other words, what we do depends a lot on the situation, and what we will do in the future cannot be easily predicted with the help of personality questionnaires. The fact that someone who is outgoing in one situation might be shy in another situation led to the situation-ist approach: People’s behavior was understood as a consequence of situational forces. Later on, Walter Mischel left that radical position and proposed an interactionist approach that considers behavior to be guided by situational cues as well as traits. Recently Yushi Shoda and Walter Mischel have used situation profiles to describe the stable patterns with which individuals react to different situations. Today one will not find a reasonable theorist who will deny the relevance of traits or the relevance of situations.
- Matthews, G., Deary, I. J., & Whiteman, M. C. (2003). Personality traits (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.