trait theory

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.[1]According to this perspective, traits are relatively stable over time, differ across individuals (e.g. some people are […]

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.[1]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:

Currently, two general approaches are the most popular:

Neuroticism is a fundamental personality trait in the study of psychology characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness.[1] Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than the average to experience such feelings as anxiety, anger, envy, guilt, and depressed mood.[2] 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“,[3] such as depression, phobia, panic disorder, other anxiety disorders, and substance use disorder—symptoms that traditionally have been called neuroses.[3][4][5][6][7]

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.[20]

Behavioral genetics researchers have found that a significant portion of the variability on measures of neuroticism can be attributed to genetic factors.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35]

Big Five personality traits

The Big Five personality traits, also known as the five factor model (FFM), is a widely examined theory of five broad dimensions used by some psychologists to describe the human personality and psyche.[1][2] The five factors have been defined as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Acronyms to aid in remembering the five […]

The Big Five personality traits, also known as the five factor model (FFM), is a widely examined theory of five broad dimensions used by some psychologists to describe the human personality and psyche.[1][2] The five factors have been defined as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Acronyms to aid in remembering the five traits include OCEAN and CANOE. Beneath each proposed global factor, a number of correlated and more specific primary factors are claimed. For example, extraversion is said to include such related qualities as gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, warmth, activity, and positive emotions.[3]

Five factors

  • Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent, and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. High openness can be perceived as unpredictability or lack of focus. Moreover, individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences, such as skydiving, living abroad, gambling, et cetera. Conversely, those with low openness seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance, and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret and contextualize the openness factor.
  • Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness are often perceived as stubborn and obsessive. Low conscientiousness are flexible and spontaneous, but can be perceived as sloppy and unreliable.[4]
  • Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. High extraversion is often perceived as attention-seeking, and domineering. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed.[5]
  • Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentative or untrustworthy.[5]
  • Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control and is sometimes referred to by its low pole, “emotional stability“. A high need for stability manifests as a stable and calm personality, but can be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned. A low need for stability causes a reactive and excitable personality, often very dynamic individuals, but they can be perceived as unstable or insecure.[5]