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For a long time, the behavior of individuals had been explained by character, good or bad, but the 20th century saw the rise of Behaviourism, individuals’ behavior were the results not of their character but of environmental forces beyond the control of individuals. The notion of human nature had been cast aside, but all the while psychologists of personality persevered in their efforts to understand it (Seligman, 2002, pp. 125-129). The American Psychology Association defines personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving” (American Psychology Association, nd). Trait theory uses a nomothetic approach by looking to describe these patterns by identifying personality factors that appear to be universally shared by individuals and defining individual personality as a balance of these factors. These factors or traits were thought of as stable and enduring patterns of thought, feelings, and behavior that become increasingly stable with age (Costa & McCrae, 1997). Trait theory in the form of the Five-factor Model, of the Big Five, has become the most commonly used tool of personality assessment in academic psychology, in spite of which it continues to have many detractors. This essay will endeavor to understand the trait theory and its critics and to evaluate its implications.
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Modern trait theory was heavily influenced by the lexical hypothesis, i.e the theory according to which the more salient and socially relevant individual differences would be encoded into language and the most important into single words. This hypothesis led to Allport and Odbert (1936) to identify 4500 adjectives which described observable and relatively permanent traits (Allport & Odbert, 1936). Raymond Cattell (1965) then used factor analysis to develop trait theory. For him, the personality is the characteristics of an individual that will enable you to predict how they will behave in a specific situation. He differentiates between constitutional traits (genetically determined), and environmental-mold traits. To differentiate them, Cattell developed the multiple abstract variance analysis. Cattell identifies sixteen dimensions of human personality traits, known as the 16PF (Cattell, 1965). Hans J. Eysenck (1982) argued that personality was the result of biological predispositions towards certain personality traits combined with conditioning and socialization during childhood. He identified two dimensions of behaviour: Introversion / Extroversion (E); Neuroticism / Stability (N) (Eysenck,1982).
Despite their differences of opinions, these three pioneers of trait theory agreed on some basic assumptions about traits: traits describe the structure of personality, they account for inter-individual differences, they are measurable, and are independent of one another. The most common of these patterns in trait theory is the Five-Factor Model (FFM), it organizes all personality traits along a continuum of five factors: openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These factors were identified through the lexical approach, and by psychologists. It uses factor analysis to identify groups of related traits that are more or less independent of the other groups. (McCrae & Costa, 2013) The five identified factors of FFM were re-examined in light of the lexical approach and described in lay terms in what is now known as “The Big Five”. (McCrae & Costa, 2013). The Big Five test is the most commonly used personality test. Trait theory has a lot of implication in the way we view and measure personality today, we will now consider some of the criticism it has faced. The purpose of the psychology of personality is to understand human nature, which should by nature by universal. However, trait theory is based in a large part of a lexical approach, that is to say, a study of language, which is by nature restricted to a particular culture.
An interesting study by De Raas et al. (2010) looked the five factors ( and Honesty-Humility) across 12 languages and found that like many other studies, even using the absolute low criterion of 0.80 as a threshold congruence, the factors Emotional Stability, Intellect, and Honesty-Humility are not generally replicable across languages. The only structure which could potentially be replicated systematically and coherently in these 12 languages, would be a three-factor structure with Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness as its typical distinguishing features (De Raad et al., 2010). A 2013 study looked for the first time at the trait structure to a small-scale, indigenous society—the Tsimane horticulturalists of Bolivia—and fail to robustly replicate the Big Five. They found that Tsimane personality variation may instead be organized along fewer and differently composed dimensions. The Tsimane Big Two seem to be organized according to two factors: pro-sociality and industriousness in the context of subsistence labor (Gurven, von Rueden, Massenkoff, Kaplan, & Lero Vie, 2013).
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Trait theory was not designed with universality in mind, and despite affirmations by some researchers that the structure of the FFM is a biologically based human universal that transcends language and other cultural differences (Costa & McCrae, 1997), studies have shown that not to be true, and it is an on-going question, as to what extent should we try and apply FFM across culture or endeavour to redefine these factor from a universalist standpoint. Another point of contention is the stable nature of personality traits, that is to say, if we define an individual’s personality as a structure of stable traits, then these traits should be manifest themselves into consistent behavior over a lifespan, but all be consistent cross situationally. In order to measure whether traits were indeed stable, personality psychologists have conducted longitudinal studies with mixed results (Fajkowska &Kreitler, 2018). In 2000, Roberts and DelVecchio conducted a quantitative review of longitudinal studies on the consistency of personality traits from childhood to old age and found that trait consistency increases in a linear fashion and reaches its peak around 50(Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000). This is later than what was previously assumed by the researcher and could be accounted for by the fact that today individuals continue to face challenges until later in life. Cobb-Clark & Schurer (2012) conducted a study that found that Big Five personality traits were stable over four years. It concluded that personality traits do appear to be stable among working-age adults and that intra-individual personality was not likely to be caused by adverse employment, health, or family events that individuals experience (Cobb-Clark & Schurer, 2012).
One of the main criticism of trait theory is that it is not an accurate predictor of behavior. Indeed, cross-situational consistency is at the basis of our understanding of personality, that is to say, the belief that there is an underlying genotypic consistency in the personality. Bem and Allen (1974) conducted a study that assessed traits but also variability in behavior across situations. They found that there are important individual differences in the degree to which people respond consistently to situations over time and across contexts, but that as of yet studies have not been able to associate underlying personality traits with individual differences in consistency (Bem & Allen, 1974). Sherman, Nave, and Funder (2010) used a standardized taxonomy of situational characteristics and was able to assess the effects of both traits and situations on behavior. They found that behavioral consistency in daily life, is strongly and positively related to situational similarity, but that person can also explain individual differences in behavioral consistency (Sherman, Nave, &Funder, 2010).
However, the fact that environment, and personality both have an effect on behavior is not inconsistent with trait theory to the extent that trait theory is based on a balance of factors, that balance can be affected by circumstances. This has led to the development of “Whole Trait Theory” which posits that models of traits should include mechanisms of differential reaction to situations (Fleeson & Jayawickreme, 2015). Fajkowska (2018) argues that the relationship between traits and behavior is not direct, but transactional, a particular trait might be indirectly connected with a group of behavioral markers (Fajkowska &Kreitler, 2018). Trait theory seems to reinforce the belief that personality is stable, even if individuals’ behavior is not always consistent in all situations, and that even if personality traits are not universal they are common to the most developed country. The way we measure and assess personality also has implications for our understanding of human nature. The psychodynamic school would measure personality through projective tests, such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test, Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and human figure drawings. These tests are still used today, but their scientific validity has been criticised (Wade & Baker, 1977).
Trait theory was born out of a desire to find a way to scientifically measure the elements/structures of the personality of the basis of observable elements such as behaviors instead of subconscious thoughts. Since the 20th century psychometrics have been the main tool of personality assessment, with the development of instruments such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the Five-Factor Model (or “Big 5”) and tools such as Personality and Preference Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. They all use self-report but have all been criticised for various reasons. The MMPI was designed to assess personality traits and psychopathology, it is primarily intended to test people who are suspected of having mental health or other clinical issues. Research has shown that personality and personality traits if they show a degree of stability, and increasingly consistency over a lifespan do change(Hampson & Edmonds, 2018).
If personality traits at a fixed point in time are indicators of risk factors and/or future well-being (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998), then understanding the factors of these changes could be fundamental to improving psychological well-being. Indeed, if the idea of a fixed personality makes for more easily measurable factors, but it does not seem the most conducive to psychological well-being is that it does not leave much space for growth. Carol Dweck (
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