Humanistic Approaches to Positive Growth and Self-Acceptance

Trait Theory

Trait theory seeks to explain, in a straightforward way, the consistencies in individuals’ behavior.  Traits are enduring patterns of behavior, such as thinking acting, and feeling, that are relatively consistent across different situations.  Traits tend to lead to characteristic responses:


  • People can be described in terms of the basic ways they behave, such as whether they are outgoing and friendly or dominant and assertive
  • People who have a strong tendency to behave in these ways are described as high on the traits; those who have a weak tendency to behave in certain ways are described as low on the traits


Five-Factor Model

For the last two decades, the most influential trait approach contends that five traits or factors lie at the core of personality

Researchers have identified a similar set of five factors that underlie personality

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism


The Five-Factor Model of Personality

The big five factors of personality (“supertraits”) are thought to describe the main dimensions of personality—specifically, neuroticism (emotional instability), extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Use the acronym OCEAN to remember the big five personality factors:




Gordon Allport (1897-1967)

Sometimes referred to as the father of American personality psychology, Allport was particularly bothered by the negative view of humanity that psychoanalysis portrayed:

  • Allport rejected the notion that the unconscious was central to an understanding of personality
  • He believed that to understand healthy people, we must focus on their lives in the present, not on their childhood experiences
  • In defining personality, Allport (1961) stressed the uniqueness of each person and his/her capacity to adapt to the environment

Evaluating Trait Perspectives

In the late 1930s, Allport and his colleague H.S. Odbert (1936) identified 4500 words (traits) that could be used to describe a person—a method called the lexical approach.

In 1946, Raymond Cattell applied the relatively new statistical procedure of factor analysis to the Allport and Odbert traits.

  • Cattell concluded that 16 underlying factors summarized the lexical data.
  • This work led to the development of the 16PF, a personality scale that is still used today.

In 1963, W.T. Norman reanalyzed Cattell’s data and concluded that only five factors were needed to summarize these traits.

Trait/Genetic Theories of Personality

Genetic or biological factors of personality focus on biological and physiological factors as determinants of behavior. Trait theory is a means to explain in a straightforward way the consistencies in a person’s behavior. Traits are described as behavioral patterns; thinking, acting, and feeling that are relatively consistent in people in different situations and those traits determine specific characteristic responses.

Biological factors of personality according to the beliefs and research of Gordon Allport. are that people can be described in terms of the basic way they behave. Referred to as the father of American personality psychology, Allport disagreed with the negative views of humanity that Freudian psychoanalytical perspectives portrayed. In response to the Freudian/NeoFreudian perspectives of personality Allport rejected the theory that the unconscious was central to understanding personality. Allport believed that to understand healthy behavior that one must focus on the individual’s life in the present, not his or her childhood experiences. In defining personality, Allport stressed that individual uniqueness is derived from the person’s capacity to adapt to the environment and Allport concluded that the ability to adapt is derived by genetic, biological personality traits.

The trait approach is comprised of three basic assumptions. These assumptions are that specific genetics or traits are relatively consistent and can be predicted over time, across situations, and that people with the same traits will differ contingent upon the level of trait possessed. Allport’s original trait theory consisted of central and secondary traits. Allport and his colleague H.S. Odbert, identified 4500 words or traits that could be used to describe a person; this method of determining personality was referred to as the lexical approach. In response to this method, Raymond Cattell applied factor analysis to the Allport and Odbert traits and concluded that 16 underlying factors of personality could summarize the lexical data. This work led to the development of Cattell’s 16PF personality scale. W.T. Norman reanalyzed Cattell’s data and concluded that only five factors were needed to determine personality traits. To date, these five traits are known as the “Big Five Model of Personality.” The big five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

After researching the big five traits using factor analysis Hans Eysenck concluded that personality is determined by two factors, Introversion/Extraversion and Emotionality/Stability. Eysenck argued that personality variations were related to one’s biology specifically the nervous system and the individual’s brain. Eysenck suggested a connection between extroverts inheriting lower levels of arousal and introverts inheriting higher levels of arousal. Eysenck also argued the different levels of stress that one could tolerate would influence a person’s stability or emotional instability.

Bernstein, D.A. & Nash, P.W. (2008). Essentials of psychology (4th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Feldman, R. (2013). Essentials of understanding psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Friedman, H.S. & Schustack, M.W. (2012), Personality: classic theories and modern research (5th ed). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
McGraw-Hill.McGraw Hill Higher Education (2013), The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.
Ryckman, R. M. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

23 thoughts on “Trait Theory

  1. Read and understood, OCEAN is used to describe the 5 personality factors showing the highs and lows of each factor and how these can depict a persons personality trait. Allport believed in looking into a persons present day experiences opposed to childhood experiences t determine personality.


  2. Read and somewhat understood. It seemed to me as though people who had an overall higher score on the big five factors (besides neuroticism) would find jobs more easily than people who had lower scores since they have the traits that most employers look for in their trainees.


  3. Read and somewhat understood. After reading this, I have perceived a new different view about traits, since we are taught in science class that they are genetic.


  4. read and understood that trait theory states that personality comes from patterns of behavior and uses description. I feel as though personality and traits usually become interchangeable however multiple traits build personality.


  5. Read and somewhat understood. I find it interesting that Allport believed that one’s personality can’t be defined by their childhood. I always thought that childhood had a major impact on our behavior, especially by the way we were raised.


  6. read and only somewhat understood so out of Eysenc Allport or Catell which trait test does one use ? are they all intertwined i was a little confused i know what they are each associated with just no clue on how to use each theory ?


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