In psychology, trait theory (also called dispositional theory) is an approach to the study of human personality. Trait theorists are primarily interested in the measurement of traits, which can be defined as habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion.According to this perspective, traits are relatively stable over time, differ across individuals (e.g. some people are outgoing whereas others are shy), and influence behavior. Traits are in contrast to states which are more transitory dispositions.
In some theories and systems, traits are something a person either has or does not have, but in many others traits are dimensions such as extraversion vs. introversion, with each person rating somewhere along this spectrum.
Gordon Allport was an early pioneer in the study of traits, which he also referred to as dispositions. In his approach, “cardinal” traits are those that dominate and shape a person’s behavior; their ruling passions/obsessions, such as a need for money, fame etc. By contrast, “central” traits such as honesty are characteristics found in some degree in every person – and finally “secondary” traits are those seen only in certain circumstances (such as particular likes or dislikes that a very close friend may know), which are included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.
A wide variety of alternative theories and scales were later developed, including:
- Raymond Cattell‘s 16PF Questionnaire
- J. P. Guilford‘s Structure of Intellect
- Henry Murray‘s System of Needs
- Timothy Leary‘s Interpersonal circumplex
- Myers–Briggs Type Indicator
- Gray‘s Biopsychological theory of personality
Currently, two general approaches are the most popular:
- Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, (“the three-factor model”). Using factor analysis Hans Eysenck suggested that personality is reducible to three major traits: neuroticism, extroversion, and psychoticism .
- Big Five personality traits, (“the five-factor model”). Many psychologists currently believe that five factors are sufficient: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Neuroticism is a fundamental personality trait in the study of psychology characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness. Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than the average to experience such feelings as anxiety, anger, envy, guilt, and depressed mood. They respond more poorly tostressors, are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They are often self-conscious and shy, and they may have trouble controlling urges and delaying gratification. Neuroticism is a prospective risk factor for most “common mental disorders“, such as depression, phobia, panic disorder, other anxiety disorders, and substance use disorder—symptoms that traditionally have been called neuroses.
Neuroticism appears to be related to physiological differences in the brain. Hans Eysenck theorized that neuroticism is a function of activity in the limbic system, and his research suggests that people who score highly on measures of neuroticism have a more reactive sympathetic nervous system, and are more sensitive to environmental stimulation.
A study with positron emission tomography has found that healthy subjects that score high on the NEO PI-R neuroticism dimension tend to have high altanserin binding in the frontolimbic region of the brain—an indication that these subjects tend to have more of the 5-HT2A receptor in that location. Another study has found that healthy subjects with a high neuroticism score tend to have higher DASB binding in the thalamus; DASB is a ligand that binds to the serotonin transporter protein.
Another neuroimaging study using magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain volume found that the brain volume was negatively correlated to NEO PI-R neuroticism when correcting for possible effects of intracranial volume, sex, and age.
The results of one study found that, on average, women score moderately higher than men on neuroticism. This study examined sex differences in the ‘Big Five’ personality traits across 55 nations. It found that across the 55 nations studied, the most pronounced difference was in neuroticism. This study found that in 49 of the 55 nations studied, women scored higher in neuroticism than men. In no country did men report significantly higher neuroticism than women.
Neuroticism, along with other personality traits, has been mapped across states in the USA. People in eastern states such as New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Mississippi tend to score high on neuroticism, whereas people in many western states, such as Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, Oregon, and Arizona score lower on average. People in states that are higher in neuroticism also tend to have higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy.
One of the theories regarding evolutionary approaches to depression focuses on neuroticism. A moderate amount of neuroticism may provide benefits, such as increased drive and productivity, due to greater sensitivity to negative outcomes. Too much, however, may reduce fitness by producing, for example, recurring depressions. Thus, evolution will select for an optimal amount and most people will have neuroticism near this optimum. However, because neuroticism likely has a normal distribution in the population, a minority will be highly neurotic.