The Trait Approach to personality is one of the main theoretical fields in personality studies. Overall, this is a combination of theories that suggest that human personalities are unique and represent combinations of specific characteristics that account for the ways people act. The trait theory views a personality as a complex phenomenon and a broad disposition. Personality is thought to be made up by traits that characterize each individual in a distinctive way. Thus, the primary focus of the Trait Approach is to locate and measure those traits that make up every individual (Kleinman, 2012, p.176).
This paper aims at providing critical assessment of practical value of several trait theories. To achieve the aim, I will reflect on the selected theories validity and assess their reliability in terms of practical application to everyday life. The paper will end with a general summary of the strong and weak aspects of the Trait Approach.
To begin with, historically, the Trait Theory originated from the works of Sir Francis Galton. Galton is thought to have been the first scientist to support the Lexical Hypothesis. That was the idea that individual differences between personalities were encoded into human language. It is assumed that sampling of the human language is a method of building a comprehensive and reliable taxonomy of people’s traits.
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The value of the Lexical Hypothesis for the development of personality psychology is widely recognized and cannot be underestimated. Galton’s research provided a solid foundation for the subsequent research, in particular it became the basis of the HEXACO model of personality structure, as well as 16 PF Questionnaire, both of which have been used in psychological research with focus on linguistic and cultural contexts.
As for the HEXACO model, this is a personality model that derived from the language-based taxonomy first introduced by Galton. It uses adjectives that can be found in an individual’s language to describe his/her behavior or major tendencies. This model might serve as a useful tool of research that focuses on the three of its six dimensions that distinguish it from other models, namely Agreeableness, Honesty-Humility, and Emotionality. Yet, the model seems to be rather subjective as to differences in adjectives use found among languages, as well as to subjectivity of factors’ interpretation on the part of researchers. Based on Galton’s lexical hypothesis approach, the HEXACO model may be effectively used to research work behaviors. Specifically, I would use it to explore the relationship between identified Honesty-Humility level and people’s behavior at work (productivity, creativity, etc). The relevance of the model has been demonstrated by a series of research works, for example Zettler & Hilbig (2010, pp. 569-582) and Silva et al (2011, pp. 687-689). The advantages/disadvantages of using the 16 PF Questionnaire will be discussed later in the paper, with focus on Cattell’s contribution to the Trait Theory.
Gordon Allport & H.S. Odbert put to practice the Lexical Approach with providing a list of all trait words in the Webster’s Dictionary 1925 edition. We learned from the lectures that having first compiled a list of 17, 953 words that described a personality, they later reduced it to 4,503 adjectives which were believed to represent permanent and well observable traits. Despite the fact Allport and Odbert’s contribution is quite important – they provided the basis for further fruitful research, in particular by Cattell, Tupes & Cristal, and other scientists – their approach is quite inconvenient since the adjectives that represent personality traits are too numerous and thus heavy to operate.
It seems that even the attempts to group words “descriptive of personality or personal behavior” into four major groups as “neutral terms, designating possible personal traits”, “terms primarily descriptive of temporary moods or activities”, “weighted terms conveying social or characterial judgements of personal conduct” and “miscellaneous terms” did not make Allport & Odbert’s theory more practical as to possible uses in psychology research. Thus, I totally agree with Pervin (1993) who came to a conclusion that Allport and Odbert’s contribution remains appreciated not for its scientific value but for the issues which their theory raised (Tyler, 2012). For example, Allport may-trait approach has become the basis of Cattell’s work. Specifically, Allport’s idea that personality is the cause of behavior was the basis of Cattwell’s research. Also, he viewed personality in terms of dynamics and development, which was later developed by Erikson.
Within the many trait approach, Cattell’s contribution needs to be acknowledged. Cattell turned Allport’s model into more manageable by reducing it to 35+ clusters that comprised trait synonyms (Cattell, 1986 cited in Boyle, 2008, p. 2). His sampling methodology relied on recognition of the English language as a source of major encoded attributes of a personality. It gave start to subsequent research that produced the lexically-based Five Factor Model that is still popular today.
The model of personality structure, also known as FFM, derives from Cattell’s research. It was empirically constructed by Costa & McCrae (1992). It distinguishes between the following traits: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness to Experience – Intellectance (O), Conscientiousness (C), and Agreeableness (A) (Boyle, 2008, p.4). The Five Factor Model, which is still popular today, provides an acceptable account of a personality structure. However, some fair criticism reduces its applicability. For instance, researchers have found that FFM does not include some important traits by relying on five dimensions. Such traits as Religiosity, Conservativeness, Conceit, Honesty, Deceptiveness, Thriftiness, Sensuality, Humorousness, Masculinity and Femininity are not included. This seems to be one of the major flaws along with doubtful techniques used to extract factors employed by Costa & McCrae on the basis of Cattell’s theoretical contribution.
Cattell’s division of traits and introduction of personality testing has been quite important since it enabled to test personality in a standardized way. In relation to this, Cattell’s 16 PF Questionnaire is still used today. The questionnaire measures the traits that are considered primary (16 of them), along with secondary traits known as Big Five. The validity of Cattell’s 16 P Questionnaire has been proved by numerous published research works. Besides, the fact that it has been refined for 4 times – most recently in 1993 – adds confidence as to its validity and reliability. Thus, I believe Cattell’s 16 PF Questionnaire is a useful tool of understanding and explaining an individual’s personality profile. It helps to get an idea of the highest level of the personality organization and provides a chance of getting a broader view of personality structure. Some other advantage is the questionnaire’s ease of application: it takes nearly 30 minutes to administer, which is enough to get a profile on each trait – how much of it in a personality.
Hans Eysenck was one of those theorists who criticized Cattell’s approach for misinterpreting the positive and the negative. He believed that a personality may be reduced to three traits. These are extraversion, neuroticism, and psychotics. Importantly, he introduced three factors: positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and constraint. Eysenck Personality Questionnaire along with its revised version known as EPQ-R were developed as an alternative to FFM since Eysenck believed that the personality structure could not be described with the help of the suggested criteria because of their insufficiency. He introduced Agreeableness and Conscientiousness as the major traits to be considered.
While Eysenck’s questionnaire seems less convenient and less practical than the FFM, it may effectively be used to study the causes of personality rather than focusing on a personality profile. In addition, Eysenck’s theory has not been supported by a number of subsequent studies, which found flaws in it. It presents just one of a set of possible interpretations of personality (specifically, as of a set of steady traits which urge people to act consistently in every situation) (Sammons, 2012).
Literature search has enabled me to identify well supported reasons to rely on the Big Five factors while evaluating a personality. Despite the fact, the so-called Big Five does not focus on causes of a personality’s behavior, since it provides a reliable insight into individual’s traits.
The contribution of Tupes and Christal (1961) as well as Goldberg from the Oregon Research Institute (1981) who persistently sought to empirically confirm the existence of the Big Five factors cannot be overestimated. Tupes and Christal offered an initial model of the Big Five back in 1950s, while Goldberg extended it to the highest possible level of organization in 1993.
The contributions of these researchers have helped to develop a test that assists in defining 5 major personality traits in an individual. This can be done either as an online test today, or may be carried out through the assistance of a qualified psychologist. Most often it is used to determine what career choice a person should make, based on natural traits in his/her personality. It is believed to be highly reliable as to the matter of choosing a future occupation and career, and I personally find it helpful given numerous examples of the test’s validity, including my personal experience.
One more aspect that contributes to the Big Five theory ease of application is its accuracy in defining the five major factors. One may easily remember the principal factors by using a mnemonic exercise of OCEAN. Each of the factors includes precise characteristics that may be listed and remembered. For example, extroversion relates to being sociable, dominant, outgoing, active, forceful, outspoken, forceful, spunky, energetic, higher achievers, adventurous, more physically attractive than introverts, engaged, living longer, more satisfied with jobs, ambitious, having greater involvement in communities, and occupying positions of leadership. This and the rest of factors evidently help to determine the type of personality and create a personality profile. On the basis of recognizing a personality as extrovert or introvert, as well as on the ground of identification of the levels of personality in terms of neuroticism (whether an individual is effective or not in dealing with stress, has problems in family, poorly handles problems, is anxious, unhappy, displaying negative reaction to stress, etc), agreeableness (levels of conformity, likeability, love, warmth, friendly compliance, sense of humor, involvement in religious activities, etc), and openness to experience (also known as intellect) involves being imaginative, curious, more likely to believe in astrology, supernatural phenomena, UFOs, politically liberal, and inventive.
Further, Costa and McCrae developed a specific psychological personality inventory that is known as NEO-PI-R. This is a 240-item measure (in a short version – a 60-item one) of the Big Five Model. It allows measuring 6 dimensions for each of the factors additionally. Importantly, the research of Costa and McCrae enhanced and developed the Big Five Theory and added to confirming the fact that changes in the measurement of traits are quite modest and limited to the period of early adulthood. They have also contributed to understanding that these changes may be attributed to intrinsically-based maturation rather than factors of the environment. It has been established that change rates within a personality significantly drop after an individual turns 30 (Wilks, 2009). Their research helps to consider the aspect of traits change within time period and maturation issues.
In summary, Trait Theory can be helpful in predicting human behavior and identifying reasons for this behavior. This well applies in such situations when an overview of a personality profile is needed, especially as a result of a standardized test. With the trait-approach the questionnaires have been developed that facilitate understanding of human personality’s individual traits, which helps to choose a career or occupation, and simply to explain people’s behavior. Additionally, factors of the Big Five and other models (for example, the HEXACO model) are important for the studies which focus on some specific traits and how they relate to people’s behavior in organizations, if to consider modern research trends. At the same time, limitations of the Trait Theory should be considered derive from its simplicity, focus more on the static rather than dynamic, dominance of self-report measures to obtain data, and lack of agreement as to factor analysis approach.
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