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10.5: Basic Concepts of Cattell's Theory

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    Cattell studied a variety of personality types and personality traits. Of particular interest to Cattell was how to assess personality, and his work is heavily influenced by the systematic collection of scientific data. This is quite different than many of the psychodynamic and humanistic theorists, who based their theories on clinical observation, but it is similar to the learning theorists, who also value careful, objective observation and the collection of scientific data. Neither approach is inherently better, since they each serve a different purpose. Cattell’s approach, however, has had a dramatic effect on psychological testing.

    Types and Traits

    A psychological type refers to a broader description of personality than a psychological trait, and is often associated with abnormal psychology. According to Cattell, a type can only be understood in terms of personality traits. For example, a villain is a type based on a pattern of associated traits such as immorality, cruelty, and disregard for the law and the rights of others. Cattell considered types to fall into one of five principal categories: temperamental characteristics, interests and character, abilities, disposition, and disintegration and disease processes. As further examples, and in accordance with Cattell’s type categories, we can include the ancient personality types of Hippocrates (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic), the oral-erotic and anal-erotic types of Sigmund Freud, musical vs. mathematical geniuses, unrestrained vs. restrained personalities, and various neurotic and psychotic syndromes (Cattell, 1946, 1950a,b, 1965).

    Cattell believed that clinical psychologists always took personality traits for granted, but focused their attention on the patterns of traits that defined clinical syndromes (or types). However, if one wishes to conduct a thorough description and measurement of personality, traits must be the target of that investigation. Thus, Cattell focused his attention on the details of understanding and describing traits. He agreed with Allport’s description of individual vs. common traits, though he preferred the use of the term unique traits to describe the former. Cattell described a trait as a collection of reactions or responses bound by some sort of unity, thus allowing the responses to be covered by one term and treated similarly in most situations. The challenge lies in identifying the nature of the unity, which has been done in different ways throughout the history of studying personality. For Cattell:

    …the unity of a set of parts is established by their moving - i.e., appearing, changing, disappearing - together, by their exercising an effect together, and by an influence on one being an influence on all. (pg. 71; Cattell, 1946)

    Thus, a trait guides behavior in a specific direction, by connecting all aspects of that trait into a unit (whether the process is directed outward, a response, or the result of external stimuli, a reaction). Since an understanding of an individual’s traits would allow us to predict the nature of such responses or reactions, Cattell offered a rather simple definition of personality:

    Personality is that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation. (pg. 2; Cattell, 1950b)

    According to Cattell, traits and types are not fundamentally different, but rather opposite extremes of the same statistical measures. The fundamental, underlying traits are known as source traits. Source traits often combine and/or interact in ways that appear, on the surface, to indicate a single trait. For example, in the area of abilities, a unitary intelligence shows itself in good academic performance, such a child who does well in school. Of course, children who do well in school typically do well in most areas, such as math, English, social studies, etc. What may now appear to be a type, a “good student,” can also be described as a surface trait (Cattell, 1950b). As useful as surface traits, or types, may be descriptively, in order to truly understand personality, one must address the source traits. First, however, they must be identified.

    Source Traits and Factor Analysis

    Cattell used the factor-analytic technique to identify sixteen source traits. He often uses the terms source trait and factor interchangeably. Factor analysis is a statistical technique that determines a number of factors, or clusters, based on the intercorrelation between a number of individual elements. Cattell considered factor analysis to be a radical departure from the personality research that preceded his, because it is not based on an arbitrary choice as to which variables are the most important. Instead, the factor-analytic technique determines the relevant variables, based on the available data:

    …the trouble with measuring traits is that there are too many of them!...The tendency in the past has been for a psychologist to fancy some particular trait, such as ‘authoritarianism’, ‘extraversion’, ‘flexibility-vs-rigidity’, ‘intolerance of ambiguity’, etc., and to concentrate on its relations to all kinds of things…individual psychologists lead to a system which tries to handle at least as many traits as there are psychologists! (pg. 55; Cattell, 1965)

    When Cattell applied factor analysis to the list of words identified by Allport and Odbert, he identified 16 personality factors, more or less. The reason for saying more or less is that any statistical technique is subject to known probabilities of error. Thus, Cattell considered his sixteen factors to be only an estimate of the number of source traits (Cattell, 1952). As potential source traits were identified that Cattell found difficult to put into words, he assigned them a Universal Index (U.I.) number, so that they could be kept for consideration until they could be studied and explained. Cattell identified as many as forty-two personality factors (see Cattell, 1957). By 1965, when Cattell wrote The Scientific Analysis of Personality, he had included three additional factors to his primary list, giving him nineteen personality factors, and kept thirteen of the remaining factors on his list as yet to be confirmed (though each one had a tentative name).

    In the late 1940s, Cattell and his colleagues developed the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (commonly known as the 16-PF), based on the 15 factors they considered best established by their data, plus general intelligence as the sixteenth factor (see Cattell, 1956). The sixteen factors are described in Table 13.1. In a very interesting chapter written by Heather Cattell (Cattell’s third wife), the 16-PF profiles are presented, and compared, for a married couple in which the husband was undergoing therapy with Heather Cattell (see H. Cattell, 1986). She described how the profiles offer insight into the problems occurring for Mr. A (as the husband is identified in the chapter), both in his personal life and in his marriage. Although the marriage ended in divorce, a subsequent follow-up found both Mr. A and Mrs. A seemingly doing well in their separate lives.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Sixteen Personality Factor

    Questionnaire Dimensions


    Low Score Description

    High Score Description

    A Reserved - detached, critical,aloof, stiff Outgoing- warmhearted,easy-going, participating
    B Less Intelligent - concrete-thinking More Intelligent - abstract-thinking, bright
    C Affected By Feelings - emotionally less stable, easily upset, changeable Emotionally Stable - mature,faces reality, calm
    E Humble - mild, easily led, docile, accommodating Assertive - aggressive, stubborn, competitive
    F Sober - taciturn, serious Happy-Go-Lucky - enthusiastic
    G Expedient - disregards rules Conscientious - persistent, moralistic, staid
    H Shy - timid, threat-sensitive Venturesome - uninhibited, socially bold
    I Tough-Minded - self-reliant, realistic Tender-Minded - sensitive, clinging, overprotected
    L Trusting - accepting conditions Suspicious - hard to fool
    M Practical - “down-to-earth” concerns Imaginative - bohemian,absent-minded
    N Forthright - unpretentious,genuine but socially clumsy Astute - polished, socially aware
    O Self-Assured - placid, secure, complacent, serene Apprehensive - self-reproaching, insecure, worrying, troubled
    Q1 Conservative - respecting traditional ideas Experimenting - liberal,free-thinking
    Q2 Group-Dependent - a “joiner” and sound follower Self-Sufficient - resourceful, prefers own decisions
    Q3 Undisciplined Self-Conflict - lax, follows own urges, careless of social rules Controlled - exacting will power, socially precise, compulsive
    Q4 Relaxed - tranquil, unfrustrated, composed Tense - frustrated, driven, overwrought

    For examples of 16-PF profiles used in a therapy setting see H. Cattell (1986).

    The Types of Data Used in the Assessment of Personality

    In a rather obvious statement, Cattell noted that in order for a psychologist to study correlations there must be two measures available to be correlated. The systematic measure of various aspects of the mind, including personality, has led to the development of a specific branch of psychology known as psychometry. In order for a psychometrist to get a complete and unbiased measure of personality, they must have a concept of the individual’s total behavior, what Cattell called the personality sphere. Cattell believed this could best be accomplished by taking a sample 24-hour period in the person’s life and collecting three types of data: measures of the individual’s “life-record,” or L-data; information provided by questionnaires, or Q-data; and data on their personality structure provided by objective tests, or T-data (Cattell, 1965).

    L-data deals with the individual’s actual everyday situations. Ideally, L-data can be collected without the need for the judgment of a trained psychometrist. Examples of specific behaviors include things such as their grades in school, the number of automobile accidents a person has had, the number of times they have been arrested by the police, how many organizations they belong to, etc. Sometimes these data are not so easy to obtain, and must be gathered from someone who knows the person well. For example, we may ask friends or family members to rate the person in terms of how sociable they are in school, how emotionally stable they are when playing sports, or how responsible they are (Cattell, 1965).

    Q-data is obtained by having the person fill out a questionnaire, such as the information sheet you fill out when waiting to see a doctor for a medical exam. Unfortunately, these data are subject to a number of problems, such as distortions due to poor self-knowledge, delusions about the self, or the deliberate intention to fake the outcome of the questionnaire. Therefore, it is very important that a psychologist choose the right words when developing a questionnaire:

    Although a questionnaire looks like a simple series of questions to which a person underlines a brief answer, such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘generally’, [sic] etc., actually a great deal of art enters into the psychologist’s choice of words, the direction of the question, the use of adjectives to ensure that all alternatives are well used, and so on. (pg. 61; Cattell, 1965)

    As noted above, T-data is obtained from objective tests. According to Cattell, questionnaire may seem objective, since their scoring is objective, but the process involves having the individual evaluate themselves. In truly objective tests the individual’s specific behaviors or thoughts are directly and precisely measured. It is essential that only closed-ended questions are used, such as multiple choice or Yes-No options. If open-ended questions are used, such as “How do you feel when you wake up in the morning?” it is possible that two psychologists will interpret the answer quite differently. If there is a possibility of different interpretations, obviously the test cannot be objective.

    In comparing the three types of data, Cattell made some interesting observations regarding L-data. Although it occurs naturally, measuring it is artificial and somewhat arbitrary. Although it is objective in the sense that it is real behavior, it is neither created nor controlled, it is simply observed. It is also subject to cultural differences much more so than Q-data and T-data. Of particular concern to Cattell, however, was the commonplace nature of L-data:

    Much of the irresponsible theorizing on personality criticized in Chapter 1 happens to have grown up in the realm of L-data, for this has been the traditional field of observation of the philosopher, the armchair observer, and the clinician, whereas Q- and T-data have been developed by the psychometrist concerned with the more disciplined methods. L-data is, indeed, the field of behavior that is the common property of everyone…there arises at this point the need for a proper development of measurement techniques particularly as they apply to L-data… (pp. 54-55; Cattell, 1957)

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Cattell believed that personality assessment worked best when the psychologist understood a person’s entire personality sphere. To accomplish this, one needs to measure L-data, Q-data, and T-data. Do these data provide a complete picture of the person? What data do you think might be the most difficult to obtain, and how might that affect the overall personality picture?

    Stages of Development

    Cattell described six principal life stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, maturity, middle age, and old age. Infancy, from birth to 6 years old, is the “great formative period for personality” (pg. 211; Cattell, 1950a). In relation to its family members, the infant develops its basic social attitudes, sense of security or insecurity, the strength of various defense mechanisms (which determine whether the individual will be prone to neuroses), and the general strength of the ego and super-ego. Childhood, the period from age six to fourteen years old, is, according to Cattell, a relatively easy period of consolidation. The child grows toward independence, moving from its family to relationships with peers. Children are primarily realists, but they may have an active day dream life as they long for the status and privilege of adult life (Cattell, 1950a,b).

    Adolescence is, of course, a period of psychological storm and stress, requiring many adjustments and readjustments in one’s life. Covering the ages of approximately 14 to 23 years old, Cattell believed that the stress experienced by normal individuals could best be illustrated by its consequences in extreme personalities. Adolescence is the time when some individuals become delinquents, whereas others show the initial signs of mental illness and neurotic behavior. While many of the changes occurring during adolescence are due to the physiological changes associated with puberty, external factors are also critical. All cultures appear to have some ritual associated with the break between childhood and adulthood, and many arrange for an initiation or formal ritual to take place. Of course, there are also positive changes associated with adolescence, such as increased interest in the arts of emotionality and love: poetry, religion, and drama (Cattell, 1950a,b).

    Indeed adolescence is the time when even the dullest clod knows that he possesses a soul; and it has been said of the genius that he lives in a perpetual adolescence. (pg. 215; Cattell, 1950a)

    Adulthood brings with it maturity, and the pursuit of a career, a mate, a family, and a home. From age 23 to 46 years old, personality becomes set, and the chosen habits of adolescence become settled. Cattell considered it a busy and happy time for most people, but not for those few who failed to resolve their adolescence. They become, in Cattell’s words, shipwrecked in physical disease, mental illness, and the persistent inability to solve the questions of work and wife (or husband, as the case may be; Cattell, 1950a). Middle age is characterized by the beginning of certain physical and mental changes that begin the inevitable decline toward old age and death. Thus, middle age demands a reevaluation of one’s life values, and often leads to the search for some philosophy to make sense of life. Positive changes include an increase in leisure. First, the responsibilities for raising children lessen as the children move out on their own, and later, one approaches the age of retirement.

    Old age requires further adjustment, as one begins to question one’s place and value in society. This can cause the frustration of ego needs and a sense of insecurity, which can lead to a restricted range of interests, “crabbiness,” and constant worry about one’s financial state and physical health. However, many people retain their general intellectual capacity and positive attitude toward life unimpaired until death. Even in 1950, Cattell took note of the growing number of people who were living longer and doing so in better health, thus making our understanding of the psychology of old age an increasingly important issue (Cattell, 1950a,b). That trend not only continues today, but may actually be increasing as our knowledge of medicine and interests in health psychology continue to grow.

    National Character and Intelligence

    Cattell was interested in measuring intelligence throughout his career. Just before coming to the United States, he published A Guide to Mental Testing (Cattell, 1936), which covered topics as diverse as the measurement of intelligence, aptitudes (mechanical, musical, artistic, etc.), scholastic attainment, temperament, interests, and character. Much later in his career, Cattell confirmed his controversial interest in the relationship between intelligence and national achievement (see Cattell, 1983). What made this research controversial was the apparent racist overtones of the research. As noted above, Cattell claimed that his views were taken out of context, and that the most controversial claims were made in the 1930s, before he even came to the United States. However, consider some of the following statements written by Cattell in 1983!

    In the state of Hawaii, where I happen to be writing, there are at least a dozen ethnic groups of good sample size and differing in racial composition and life style. The lack of seriousness about education, and lack of concern with conversations on things of the mind, can be well brought into relief by comparing some low groups (which shall be nameless) with say, high groups such as the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Jews, whose literacy, school achievement, and employment rates are high. (pg. 12; Cattell, 1983)

    …a 15 point difference in average tells us nothing immediately about an individual, White or Black. It does tell us that there will be considerable overlap of the two groups…It also tells us, however, that if we look for persons with I.Q.s of above, say, 130…the chances of finding a Black among 1,000 or of a White among 1,000 to exceed 130 is far higher in the second group. (pg. 41; Cattell, 1983)

    …regarding special educational expenditure. Should it be on the top, say, 10% of highly gifted children or on the lagging 10% of dull and backward children?...A eugenist is compelled to argue that the social conscience should, in terms of family planning have shifted the higher birth rate in the first place from the I.Q. 70-80 range to the I.Q. 120-130 range. (pg. 59; Cattell, 1983)

    Incidentally one would expect most effect on both productivity and potency of national defense to derive from the magnitude of the supply in the topmost ranges of intelligence, from which, given appropriately more advanced education, resourceful management and beneficial invention result. The numbers in that range depend both on their birth rates and the assortiveness of mating, and a rise in the latter could admittedly temporarily offset a decline in the former. Surely everyone will agree that the schools should turn to giving appropriate education to these much brighter individuals, but it will take a more far-sighted public to encourage measures for their greater production. (pp. 14-15; Cattell, 1983)

    Taken together, these suggestions lead to very clear impression of Cattell’s opinions and goals: there are “low” groups and “high” groups of people, Blacks in America are a “low” group, special education spending should not be wasted on people of low intelligence, the families who produced those children should not have any more children, and “resourceful management” should be used to ensure that “high” groups have more children and “low” groups do not! What makes these views most disturbing is not that one person has them, but rather, that Cattell has colleagues who agree with him. Most notorious, in recent times, was the publication of The Bell Curve by Herrnstein & Murray (1994; for a discussion of some of the problems associated with The Bell Curve see Belgrave & Allison, 2006).

    The suggestion of people like Cattell, Herrnstein, & Murray, that society should discard whole groups of people is unconscionable to many people, and should have no place in a psychology that emphasizes the improvement of the human condition. Another somewhat controversial figure, Arthur Jensen, also argues that general intelligence, or g as it was first described by Spearman, is largely inherited, but at the same time he acknowledges that there is an environmental component to even this most basic aspect of intelligence (Jensen, 1998). Considering any role for environmental factors in intelligence, we must then take into serious consideration the discriminatory practices that denied adequate education to minorities throughout history, both in America and elsewhere. When provided with good education, Blacks have demonstrated an equal ability to learn as compared to Whites (see Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Miller & Garran, 2008). Thus, rather than seeking to exclude people from opportunities to advance within our society, we should be encouraging, as much as possible, equal access to educational support systems.

    In a somewhat related article, Robert McCrae (whose research on the Big Five personality traits will be examined below) and Antonio Terracciano examined whether or not there is a valid basis for determining national character based on personality traits. People in all cultures have shared perceptions of what people are like in both their own culture and in other cultures, perceptions which form the basis of stereotypes. After examining data from nearly fifty different countries, McCrae & Terracciano concluded that national character stereotypes are unfounded, even when examining people’s impressions of their own country (McCrae & Terracciano, 2006)! Clearly, if stereotypes based on personality are not accurate reflections of personality, how can stereotypes based on measures of intelligence have a meaningful bearing on our decisions regarding social programs?

    Discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Cattell created a great deal of controversy with his views on nationality, race, intelligence, and achievement. What effect, if any, do you think it has on the field of psychology when one of its leading scientists makes an issue of such controversy? How much worse, if at all, did it make it when he claimed he was being persecuted for comments made in the 1930s as a young man, when in fact, he had continued to publish these ideas as late as 1983!

    This page titled 10.5: Basic Concepts of Cattell's Theory is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.