Personality Traits

Trait Models of Personality

Statistical models tested with samples from around the world support the Five Factor Model of personality. The five core traits are neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

A trait is a defined pattern of behavior that distinguishes one person from another. A personality trait is an enduring characteristic reflected in a person's mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns.

Trait theorists believe all people have ways of behaving that are a fundamental part of their character. In 1936, trait theorist Gordon Allport attempted to describe all human personality traits and found 4,500 words in the English language to describe people. He organized these traits into three categories: cardinal traits that dominate an entire personality and life (e.g., greed or altruism), central traits that combine to make up a personality (e.g., loyalty, friendliness, or kindness), and secondary traits that are more situational and not as consistent (e.g., preferences and attitudes).

In 1957, trait theorist Raymond Cattell narrowed this list to under 200 traits which he divided into 16 personality factors. He measured these traits on a continuum, scoring people from high to low, rather than seeing traits as present or absent. Psychologist Hans Eysenck also followed a continuum model, focused on three dimensions. He saw key traits as introversion–extraversion (reserved versus outgoing and risk-taking) and neuroticism–stability (anxious versus calm). He later added a psychoticism/socialization dimension, focusing on a person's likelihood to conform to social norms.

The Five Factor Model is the personality model with the strongest research support. Unlike other theories of personality, which were largely developed by individuals, the Five Factor Model has been tested by numerous researchers. Research on the Five Factor Model began in 1949, when D.W. Fiske tried to substantiate Cattell's 16 factors but could instead identify only five. Other researchers also arrived at five factors, including psychologists Paul Costa and Robert McCrae. These five factors are often referred to as the Big Five: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. OCEAN is a common acronym used to remember these traits.

Big Five Personality Traits

Personality Factor Low Score High Score
Openness to experience Prefers familiarity/routine, avoids new things Curious, has a wide range of interests, imaginative
Conscientiousness Lacks discipline, procrastinates Hardworking, orderly, dependable
Extraversion Quiet, introspective, reserved Outgoing, warm, gregarious, thrill-seeking
Agreeableness Blunt, sarcastic, uncooperative Pleasant, trustworthy, good-natured
Neuroticism Calm, confident, even-tempered Sensitive to threat, moody, self-conscious

The Big Five personality traits have been found in people of all ages and in cultures around the world. People may range from low to high on each trait.

The Big Five is supported by factor analysis, a statistical technique that identifies clusters of related items. In personality research, factor analysis is used to identify traits by seeing which behaviors typically co-occur. For example, people may complete personality questionnaires asking them to indicate the extent to which a word or phrase describes their personality. They may rate themselves on words such as tense, curious, irritable, creative, moody, artistic, nervous, and unconventional. In general, people who rate themselves as being tense are also likely to rate themselves as irritable, moody, and nervous. People who rate themselves as not curious are also likely to rate themselves as not creative, artistic, or unconventional. The statistical techniques used in factor analysis identify the similarities in ratings for the first group of words and the second group of words. Factor analyses conducted on personality data collected around the world consistently identifies the Big Five personality traits across age groups, genders, and cultures. The Big Five personality factors each represent a continuum, with most people falling somewhere in the middle rather than at the extremes. In this model, traits are considered continuous (occurring to varying degrees) rather than discontinuous (existent or not).

Childhood Big Five traits predict adult personality traits, but personality continues to develop and change through early adulthood. By around age 30 personality traits are relatively stable. Although major personality changes are rare in the adult years, aging does produce predictable shifts.

During the adult years, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness tend to decline while agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase. These changes are subtle, as Big Five traits tend to remain relatively stable over one's lifetime. In other words, someone who is extremely extraverted as a young adult is likely to remain highly extraverted relative to other people their age. However, that person may be less outgoing in their 70s than they had been in their 20s.

Trait-Environment Interactions

Trait models of personality have limits, as people behave inconsistently across environments. Personality traits are more useful for explaining individual differences than for predicting specific behaviors.

People have stable individual differences that persist across situations and over time. However, those individual differences are not always useful for predicting specific behavior. Some environments constrain behavior, leading most people to act similarly regardless of their personality types. For example, watching strangers ride an elevator would not provide many clues to personality traits, as most people enter quietly, stand facing the front, and have few interactions with other riders. Personality traits are more likely to emerge in informal, unstructured situations.

Different types of situations elicit different individual reactions because some environments are accompanied by specific expectations. Weak situations are situations with ambiguous demands, which make it possible for people to reveal more aspects of their personality. Strong situations are situations with clear demands, which make it likely that people will behave similarly regardless of their personality traits. A large summer cookout is a weak situation. Some people may dive into the center of the social action, while others may retreat to the fringes. Some may behave boisterously; others may sit quietly. Placing an order at a busy fast-food restaurant is a strong situation because it carries a clear set of behavioral expectations. Typically, most people in a fast-food restaurant handle the situation similarly, namely by placing an order at the counter and then waiting for the food to be prepared. Their behavior while ordering is unlikely to reveal much about whether they are conscientious, agreeable, or high in openness to experience.

In a critique of trait models of personality, Walter Mischel noted that people show behavioral inconsistencies across environments. In other words, environmental influences on behavior lead to different behaviors across environments. One example of this is through trait-situation interaction, or situational specificity, in which a person acts in a specific way under certain circumstances. For example, a doctor might behave in one way while in the office seeing patients, another way when visiting family, and yet another way when socializing with friends. Similarly, a student who is typically calm and clear-headed may become anxious and unfocused during a difficult exam. These types of situational differences led psychologist Seymour Epstein to suggest that personality should be assessed across many situations rather than only under highly specific circumstances.

Cultural Influences

An individualistic culture emphasizes independence and uniqueness, whereas a collectivistic culture focuses on interpersonal connections.

Culture also influences personality traits. Although the Big Five traits occur in people around the world, there are cultural differences in scores on those traits. For example, Americans tend to exhibit more extraversion than people in China. Extraversion is also perceived differently across cultures. In America, being a talkative, adventurous person is typically considered a positive trait. In other cultures, the same behavior would be considered rude.

One of the most crucial cultural influences on personality is the extent to which a culture emphasizes independence versus interdependence (mutual dependence on others). Individualistic cultures emphasize self-reliance and uniqueness. They offer more freedom but less support and interpersonal connection. Collectivistic cultures prioritize the group over the individual and focus on group goals. Collectivists gain a network of support and connection with others but tend to lose some individuality and sense of freedom.

The United States and European nations tend to exhibit more individualistic cultures than Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and South American cultures. People from individualistic cultures tend to be more outgoing and assertive but also experience more stress and loneliness. People from collectivistic cultures tend to value humility, show respect for elders, and avoid direct confrontation.

Individualism Scores by Country

High scores on individualism indicate that a culture values individual independence, free choice, and self-reliance. Low scores indicate that a culture values group harmony and extended family relationships.