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Critically evaluate trait theories of personality Assignment

“There are as many definitions of personality as there are personality psychologists” is what Sternberg stated about personality (Intelligence and Personality /Sternberg). Unfortunately, this statement isn’t far from the truth. Personality is one of the most general and unclearly defined terms in psychology (Eysenck, 1957).

This essay evaluates trait theories of personality on the basis of Block, Weiss and Thorne’s (1979) definition of personality: Personality refers to “more of less stable internal factors that make one person’s behaviour consistent from one time to another, and different from the behaviour other people would manifest in comparable situations”.

To begin with it will present a general description of trait theories. It then assesses trait theories on several levels of analysis. It begins by looking at the validity and reliability of assessment forms for traits and the resulting predictive value specific traits in people will have on behaviour. It then evaluates individual and situational factors that affect predictability. The extent to which trait theories can be used to predict behaviour and in which situations. An assessment of the practical application and benefit the development of trait theories has had in different areas follows. Finally trait theories of personality are compared to other personality theories. It will conclude that….

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Trait theories focus on describing personality by rating people as high or low on a limited number of traits (characterisitics or tendencies to behave in a specific kind of way in specific situations) or dimensions ( continuum of possible traits running between two opposite traits). The theories differ from one another mainly in terms of how many traits or dimensions are considered necessary to adequately describe personality. This can, to a large extent, be explained by the fact that the different theories deal at different levels of generality.

Cattell for example, deals at primary factor level (gives more detailed picture of personality, but reliability and separaility is questionable). Eysenck in contrast, deals on a second order level. Cattels 16 factors or traits are intercorrelated, they can be further factor analyzed. When they are factor analysed, Eysenck’s 2 traits appear as superfactors. A description of personality in which more factors or traits are used will produce a more differentiated description of personality in which less distinctions are lost, whilst a theory in which fewer more general traits are used will yield more stable results that are more probable to recur in other analyses.

The most widely accepted trait theory nowadays is McCrae and Costa’s “Five Factor Theory of Personality (1987)” It claims that people’s personalities can be described using five factors, the “Big Five”. Different theories still name and interpret these factors differently. A widely used way to summarize them however is by using the acronym OCEAN (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism).

The validity and reliability of assessement forms for trait personality tests is influenced by a number of factors.

First of all, personality tests are greatly affected by a person’s mood when taking the tests, which makes them less reliable. Reliability can be determined by comparing the person’s scores if they take the same test twice (test-retest reliability), comparing scores on two different versions of the same tests (interform reliability), or comparing score on two parts of the same test (e.g., even versus odd questions – split-half reliability). Secondly, reliability and validity of personality tests can also be affected by the inconsistency between self report and actual behavior.

A person’s might desire to convey a particular impression to the person scoring the test or using the test results and give answers that do not point towards what they would truly do or think; but rather what they may they think the examiner wants to hear, or that they think will make them look best. Thirdly, there is the possibility of discrepancy in how others view a person compared to how the person sees her/himself. People are often unaware of the biases they possess about themselves. Through these factors, the main criticism about trait theories can be understood: Personality traits often do not predict or correlate with behaviour.

The predictability of behaviour can be affected by individual and situational factors.First of all, people who describe their behaviour as dependent on the situation, luck or behaviour of powerful others shape are difficult to predict because they are controlled from without, not within.

Secondly people who are conscious or defensive of socially desirable things to do or be. will not behave according to their natural preferences, but to what they believe will get more approval. This again, makes them more difficult to predict.

Thirdly, traits are better predictors of behaviour when the social content is familiar, informal and private; when instructions are general or don’t really exist and when there is a range of choice for behaviours and responses are broad based.

Bearing in mind the mentioned points affecting behaviour predictability, ways in which the predictive validity in trait ratings can be increased is now considered. First of all, multiple behavioural observations should be made. A combination of various personality assessement forms such as interviews, rating scales, personality inventors and projective techniques to predict behaviour is likely to yield better results. Secondly, raters should be very familiar with the person that is being rated. Thirdly, it is wise to have several people observe the behaviour to avoid subjective ratings. Finally it is important, that assessement forms with the most valid available measure of the attributes in question are selected.

In the following section, the benefits of trait theories of personality are discussed.

First of all, according to Allport, trait theories of personality provide means of understanding the uniqueness of people’s styles and behaviour. As traits initiate and direct the individual’s behaviour in unique ways, knowledge of their operation increases the understanding of individuals immensely.

Introversion and extroversion traits are found in most trait theories. In Eysenck’s trait theory of personality especially, these traits are found to play a major role in prediciting behaviour in various situations.

First of all, extroverts have a much higher pain tolerance.

Thirdly, introverts are expected to perform more poorly in the presence of music or any kind of external stimuli. They will take less study breaks and be more vigilant in tasks. Because they consider less information in stressful conditions then extroverts do they will come to a decision more quickly and are likely to make ill-informed judgements. more likely to base their judgements of others on stereotypic information when pressured. This could result in unfair decisions about job candidates.

Introveraion va extrovertion also has implications on suggested diats and health issues. It has for example been found, that the performance of both introverts and extroverts increases with the consumption of moderatle levels of drinks containing caffeine. However, the performance of introversts declines considerablewith higher levels of caffeinated corree, whears the performance of extraverts continues to improve.

Neuroticism versus stability traits, such as those represented in Eysenck’s trait theory also influence behaviour in significant ways.. Neurotics experience high levels of fear and anxiety in stressful situations such as getting involved in very intimate relationships. And are therefore predicted to try and decrease levels of intimacy (Campbell & Rushton, 1978). ntroverts ;earn rules more quickly and efficiently. Because it is more difficult to condidtion extraverts, they experience less inhibition with respect antisocial behaviour. This has as a result, that criminals tend to be extroverts.

A further criticism is that the testing is based entirely on self-reports and is therefore likely to be heavily influenced by the respondent’s mood at the time.

f) Trait theorists would argue, that a person’s behaviour is consistent and predictable in different situations. However, situationists claim that behaviour varies significantly from situation to situation and interactionists argue that behaviour is defined by the continuous interaction between the person and the situation. (p at work)

Humanists and Existentialists tend to focus on the understanding part. They believe that much of what we are is way too complex and embedded in history and culture to “predict and control.” Besides, they suggest, predicting and controlling people is, to a considerable extent, unethical. Behaviorists and Freudians, on the other hand, prefer to discuss prediction and control. If an idea is useful, if it works, go with it! Understanding, to them, is secondary.

A large number of psychologists regard the discovery and validation of the Big Five as one of the major breakthroughs of contemporary personality psychology.

This essay examines the successes and failures of trait theories on … levels.

1) It examines whether the measuring instruments to define traits used in these theories are valid and reliable.

2) Then it will examine the differences and similarities between several trait theories and the relevance on credibility these have.

3) Predictive value of trait theories on real life behaviour.

4) Individual and behavioural differences in quality of predictions of trait theories.

Both Eysenck and Cattell made use of questionnaires or rating scales in which the participants were asked to answer carefully phrased questions concerning themselves. The data assembled was then evaluated by intricate statistical techniques to provide scores indicating the strength of the factor in each individual.

The impact results of research in this area have had on the development of psychology (nor in laboratory or in clinic). The reasons for this are amongst others the relatively low reliability (i.e. reproducibility) of the data; another the controversial nature of statistical techniques; It is also very difficult to make predictions about behaviour in the complex social setting of real life from responses made in the miniature situation of a test. (Dictionary of the mind)



The first degree of analysis should constitute of an evaluation of the achievements and strengths of trait theories.

First of all, trait theories are empirical, testable and they have been tested. Secondly, trait theories have provided a technology for scientific research (which many other versions of personality theories have not), linking studies of individual differences to general psychology.

Many things can be criticised about trait theories as well however. As Mischel (1968) put it, general traits are an illusion. Questions about how important the situation is in determining behaviour have to be asked. Studies such as Zimbardo’s prison experiment point towards the fact, that situations play a significant role in determining behaviour.

It can furthermore be noticed, that trait theorists need to pay more attention to personality in social context. Furthermore, trait theories tend to generalise very much and do not yield an in-depth description of the person tested.

In Personality: a psychological interpretation (1937) Allport reviewed almost 50 different definitions of personality. The statements by these psychologists clearly show, that simply due to the fact, that there will be many different theories of personality. Amongst these, this essay examines trait theories of personality, which again are numerous with many different approache.


They do not attempt to explain how a person got the personality that he/she has.

Allport described personality as open and constantly evolving, changing and becoming. He found situational influences to have an effect, but behaviour is ultimately determined by the individual’s own perception of these influences. This means, that behaviour that seems to be controlled by external forces is really controlled by internal forces. He was convinced, that the individual is unique in behaviour and thought and that the traits people seem to share with others are actually also unique or idiosyncratic. Allport strongly pushed what he called idiographic methods — methods that focused on studying one person at a time, such as interviews, observation, analysis of letters or diaries, and so on.

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