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Trait Theory and the Big Five. Introduction. Traits. Gordon Allport wrote the influential book, “ Personality” in 1937. He developed his ideas about “traits” viewing these as the basic structural elements of personality.

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  • Gordon Allport wrote the influential book, “Personality” in 1937. He developed his ideas about “traits” viewing these as the basic structural elements of personality.
  • Traits were defined as a predisposition to respond in a particular way to a broad range of situations. So an even-tempered person remains calm across a broad range of situations. The situations or stimuli are rendered “functionally equivalent” - opportunities to exercise restraint. Each person has a certain expressive and adaptive style that they bring to the situation.
allport more on traits
Allport: More on Traits
  • According to Allport, traits have an actual physical location in the nervous system; we infer its existence because of consistency of behavior.
  • Dissimilar stimuli are capable of arousing the trait. So for example, a shy person faced with invite a party-avoids going; looking for a hobby-chooses a solitary activity like model building; takes a class at collge-doesn’t raise hand
  • Allport also made the distinction as to whether traits could be used to describe people in general or just a single individual. Nomothetic traits were trait units that could be applied to all people. Idiographic traits were those unique to the individual.
categories of traits
Categories of Traits
  • Cardinal Traits-pervasive

example: stingy w/ money, time,

compliments or person like Marquis de Sade

  • Central Traits- represent dispositions that are more limited in range; broadly consistent but perhaps not always
  • Secondary Dispositions-least conspicuous and generalized. Peripheral disposition.

example: likes Coca Cola; prefers Italy to France

  • Allport has a special name for what we would normally called the self-called proprium.
  • Proprium goes beyond the traits of the person and includes habits, interests, skills along with traits.
  • Thus, traits are components of self that initiate and direct behavior in unique ways.
personality unique
Personality Unique?
  • Allport felt that the personality was unique and that the assessment of personality should take this in to account.
  • Idiographic Approach was therefore his favored method.
  • Did not use factor analysis because he felt it emphasized the average and individual got lost in the process.
  • More important to know about organization of traits w/i the person rather than to look where they stand on common traits relative to others.
  • Finally, he rejected the idea that human motivation could be limited to a few motives (sex and aggression for example). This couldn’t adequately describe the varied functioning of people
big five
Big Five
  • Taxonomy- a scientific classification system. Involves ordering, naming and systematically distinguishing between things. Should help you understand how things differ.
  • Applying this concept to personality, Allport and Odbert (1936) were early innovators in trying to describe differences in personality using a so-called lexical approach.
  • They found that the English dictionary contained roughly 1800 descriptors of persons. Allport and Odbert were looking at “natural language.” This is the rub. There is no reason to assume that all the important ways that people differ exist in the natural language. But it was a start.
more on taxonomies
More on Taxonomies
  • There are many other potential starting points for taxonomies of human differences other than the dictionary and natural language.
  • We could start for instance with the insights of psychiatrists and psychologists about their patients.
  • Or develop a taxonomy based on body type as William Sheldon did-psychological types based on body type.
  • Endomorphyis centered on the abdomen, and the whole digestive system. A soft and round person around middle
  • Mesomorphy is focused on the muscles and the circulatory system. Individual is muscular.
  • Ectomorphy is characterized as thin and delicate. Limbs relatively long with drooping shoulders
  • Each person rated on a seven point scale for each attribute, so a 7:1:1 is an extreme endomorph.
  • Or we could examine individual differences in motives and goals. In fact, Murray’s taxonomy (1938) was based on a classification of twenty motives.
  • However, each approach has its problems.
  • The major problem with the original lexical approach was not so much one of ultimate truth about personality but rather one of “unwieldiness.” How to make it more manageable. There were too many descriptive terms to be of much value. None-the-less, the lexical system became the foundation for the Big Five
the lexical approach becomes more manageable
The Lexical Approach Becomes More Manageable
  • In 1967, Norman attempted to reduce the number of descriptive terms in the lexical approach (to make it user friendly!).
  • He did this by making a rational decision to initially eliminating evaluative words (for example, the word nice), words not typically known to literate speakers of English, and words describing physical characteristics (short-tall).
  • This left about 8,000 words.
  • He further pruned to including only traits (broad descriptions of behavioral tendencies with some implied stability) yielding 1600 terms.
  • Eventually, Norman’s further explorations left us with 1400 words, grouped by him into 75 clusters (based on prior studies and insights). He then assigned each cluster to one of five dimensions.
analyzing the set of terms
Analyzing the Set of Terms
  • The terms defined by Norman’s work could be “dimensionalized.”
  • One thing this means we could look at them on a continuum by creating their negations…

not irascible……………………….irascible

(quick-tempered, easily provoked)


  • Once the terms were dimensionalized, a person could be rated on each dimension (five or seven point scale for instance). Then statistical techniques like factor analysis could be used to explore relationships among the ratings.
goldberg s work
Goldberg’s Work
  • Goldberg (1990) did a factor analysis of rating scores based on Norman’s work.
  • Goldberg had college students rate their personalities on 1400 dimensions.
  • He used Norman’s classifications to form 75 clusters.
  • Next, he summed scores for dimensions that belonged to the same cluster.
  • He then used factor analysis to analyze relationships of the cluster scores.
factor analysis
Factor Analysis
  • He also looked at the relationships between all possible pairs of dimensions to see if they were correlated. Could the 75 factors be collapsed?
  • In a perfect world, if we might take our 75 clusters and find that 35 load on one factor (Factor 1) at a 1.0 correlation and 0.0 on some other factor (Factor 2). The opposite would be true of the other 35 clusters. They would load on Factor 2 at 1.0 and 0.0 on Factor 1.
  • But this isn’t a perfect world…
  • So for example, in the real world, we could look at the correlation between introverted-extraverted and quiet-talkative. If the correlation is say .50, we know they are related. We might say that individuals who describe themselves as extraverted also tend to describe themselves as talkative.
  • So the question answered by factor analysis is , “ Are sets of dimensions correlated” and ultimately can they be collapsed?
factor analysis14
Factor Analysis
  • In the end, the result of a factor analysis is the discovery of a so-called factor.
  • The factor is an abstract concept. It is whatever the interrelated measures have in common. We can give the commonality a name. This can be the subject of debate.
  • Some dimensions may load (correlation between the measure and factor) on a particular factor. These are called marker variables. Dimensions that load highly on more than one factor are called blends.
  • For example…dimension courteous p. 89 loads on two factors…agreeableness and conscientiousness…perhaps being courteous is an offshoot of being careful in an interpersonal sense.
big five factors
Big Five Factors
  • Goldberg found five factors.
  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism
  • What does it spell?
  • Go to page 28 in Brody and Ehrlichman.
more on big five
More on Big Five
  • These factors have been found to be quite robust across cultures.
  • However not everyone agrees with five factor model. Some people talk about more factors being needed; others less (Eysenck -3 factors-extraversion, introversion, psychoticism)
  • Vagaries of factor analysis means that there could be more than one acceptable factor solution for the same set of data.
neo pi r five factor inventory
NEO-PI-R Five factor Inventory
  • Questionnaire associated with Big Five Model. Developed by Costa and McCrae.
  • Designed to provide a general description of normal personality.
  • Authors argue strongly for use of questionnaires to assess personality and are critical of projective testing.
  • Current version 243 items/approx 45 minutes to complete
  • Five point scale is used and the person self-assesses how characteristic or uncharacteristic a certain statement is characteristic or representative of them.
evolutionary psychology and the big five
Evolutionary Psychology and the Big Five
  • Has been used to explain the origin of the Big Five.
  • Evolutionary psychology-emphasizes importance of judging the behavior of others in terms of promoting survival.
  • In this regard, we might look at the Big Five in terms of specific issue of partner selection and interpersonal relations.
  • Most people might therefore want an agreeable, extraverted, conscientious, energetic, non-neurotic partner as opposed to the opposite.
evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary Psychology
  • This question of selection interweaves with the issue of our survival as individuals and as a race.
  • Put another way, a certain set of traits in the other person might mean having a partner who is cooperative. Or the traits in us might make us more attractive to others and insure that our genes survive.
  • But we are sill left with the important question of why people differ on these traits. How do those with less preferable traits survive? And how do these traits survive? What is the answer?
birds of a feather flock together
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
  • Example might be two librarians marry, as actually was the case with to of one of my clients who was a librarian. The introverted stayed with the introverted.
  • Moral of the story: Perhaps every Bonnie needs a Clyde!
trait situation controversy
Trait-Situation Controversy
  • We have examined the historical development of trait theory from Allport to the present.
  • One important notion embedded in trait theory is the notion that personality is consistent and stable. This has been an explicit or implicit assumption of trait theorists.
  • In this sense trait models were similar to psychodynamic models, especially the Freudian model, which also proposed that personality was stable
trait situation controversy22
Trait-Situation Controversy
  • In the trait camp are people like Allport, Eysenck and Catell on up to Costa and McCrae. This is a well-entrenched theoretical point of view.
  • None-the-less, the question eventually arose as to whether situations could override personality variables and affect behavior.
  • This was, in part, due to the ascendance of models like that of B.F. Skinner. Skinner showed us that reinforcement contingencies could influence behavior. In fact, Skinner thought personality was essentially the product of history of reinforcement
cognitive revolution
Cognitive Revolution
  • And personality theorists were also being influenced by the cognitive revolution…
  • Kelly- idea of constructs which were defined as ways of construing, perceiving and interpreting events. Constructs and construct systems became the basic unit of personality.
  • Ellis in the 50’s, developed Rational Therapy which later became Rational-EmotiveTtherapy and now is REBT and theory.
  • This work set the stage for the social-cognitive theories of Mischel and Bandura and what became the trait controversy.
transitioning from behaviorism to cognitive approaches dollard and miller
Transitioning from Behaviorism to Cognitive ApproachesDollard and Miller
  • In the 50’s. D and M also wanted to extend Behaviorism to deal with issues like cognition and motivation.

For our purposes, we will look at 3 ideas of

D and M. which might be called transitional ideas moving toward cognitive theories and the social-cognitive models of Mischel and Bandura.

What D and M did…

  • Identified 4 shortcomings of Behaviorism
  • Developed notion of a “habit hierarchy.”
  • Discussed Freudian defense mechanisms as “cognitive behaviors.”
beyond bfs
Beyond BFS
  • These ideas (Kelly and Ellis and D and M) were taking us further away from Skinner’s pure behavioral theory which was not phenomenological or cognitive in the least. Behavior was the unit of analysis in Operant conditioning and the components to be studied were
  • Antecedents
  • Behaviors
  • Consequences

Traffic Light Example

Traffic Light Example

walter mischel s model social learning theory
Walter Mischel’s Model Social Learning Theory
  • Mischel, first of all, was mentored by Kelly so he had a cognitive bent.
  • In 1968, he came forward with his critique of trait theory and over the ensuing years to the present, he attempted to develop an alternative conceptualization of personality.
three key points
Three Key Points
  • Situational Specificity
  • Discrimination
  • Adaptive or self-regulation aspects of personality functioning
units of mischel cognitive reconceptualization of personality
Units of Mischel’ Cognitive Reconceptualization of Personality
  • People have personal constructs-encoding strategies. Emphasis on how people construe data-self, other world.
  • People have subjective values, preferences and goals (can visualize end points).
  • People have expectancies about probable outcomes. If…then thinking. This means behavior in two situations may differ-child rewarded in school with attention for good behavior may behave badly at home.

4.Cognitive and Behavioral competencies- people differ in their ability to use information- related to potential achievement. Actual achievement may vary dependent on other factors.

  • Self-regulatory systems- refers to the individual’s ability to develop and enact long-term plans. This involves dealing with frustration, selecting plans for achieving goals, etc.

6. More recently a new unit of personality has been added- affects.

  • Finally, Mischel has emphasized the interaction of all of these units 1-6 Cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS)