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31.1: Introduction

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    75837
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    Personality traits reflect people’s characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Personality traits imply consistency and stability—someone who scores high on a specific trait like Extraversion is expected to be sociable in different situations and over time. Thus, trait psychology rests on the idea that people differ from one another in terms of where they stand on a set of basic trait dimensions that persist over time and across situations. The most widely used system of traits is called the Five-Factor Model. This system includes five broad traits that can be remembered with the acronym OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each of the major traits from the Big Five can be divided into facets to give a more fine- grained analysis of someone’s personality. In addition, some trait theorists argue that there are other traits that cannot be completely captured by the Five-Factor Model. Critics of the trait concept argue that people do not act consistently from one situation to the next and that people are very influenced by situational forces. Thus, one major debate in the field concerns the relative power of people’s traits versus the situations in which they find themselves as predictors of their behavior.


    When we observe people around us, one of the first things that strikes us is how different people are from one another. Some people are very talkative, whereas others are very quiet. Some are active, whereas others are couch potatoes. Some worry a lot, others almost never seem anxious. Each time we use one of these words—words like “talkative,” “quiet,” “active,” or “anxious”—to describe those around us, we are talking about a person’s personality: the characteristic ways that people differ from one another. Personality psychologists try to describe and understand these differences.

    Although there are many ways to think about the personalities that people have, Gordon Allport and other “personol- ogists” claimed that we can best understand the differences between individuals by understanding their personality traits. Personality traits reflect basic dimensions on which people differ (Matthews et al., 2003). According to trait psychologists, there are a limited number of these dimensions (such as Extraversion, Conscientiousness, or Agreeableness), and each individual falls somewhere on each dimension, meaning that they could be low, medium, or high on any specific trait.

    An important feature of personality traits is that they reflect continuous distributions rather than distinct personality types. This means that when personality psychologists talk about Introverts and Extraverts, they are not really talking about two distinct types of people who are completely and qualitatively different from one another.

    Behaviorism_1.gif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): “Are you an introvert”? In popular culture it’s common to talk about people being introverts or extraverts, as if these were precise descriptions that meant the same thing for everyone. But research shows that these traits and others are quite variable within individuals. [“Fwd: How Not To Manage An Introvert?” by Nguyen Hung Vu is licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

    Instead, they are talking about people who score relatively low or relatively high along a continuous distribution. In fact, when personality psychologists measure traits like Extraversion, they typically find that most people score somewhere in the middle, with smaller numbers showing more extreme levels. Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) shows the distribution of Extraversion scores from a survey of thousands of people. As you can see, most people report being moderately, but not extremely, extraverted, with fewer people reporting very high or very low scores.

    Behaviorism_1.gif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Distribution of extraversion scores in a sample. Higher bars mean that more people have scores of that level. This figure shows that most people score toward the middle of the extraversion scale, with fewer people who are highly extraverted or highly introverted. [This work, “Level of Extraversion,” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Judy Schmitt. It is a derivative of “Figure 1” by Edward Diener and Richard E. Lucas/Noba, which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

    There are three criteria that characterize personality traits:

    (1) consistency, (2) stability, and (3) individual differences.

    1. To have a personality trait, individuals must be somewhat consistent across situations in their behaviors related to the trait. For example, if they are talkative at home, they tend also to be talkative at work.
    2. Individuals with a trait are also somewhat stable over time in behaviors related to the trait. If they are talkative, for example, at age 30, they will also tend to be talkative at age 40.
    3. People differ from one another on behaviors related to the trait. Using speech is not a personality trait and neither is walking on two feet—virtually all individuals do these activities, and there are almost no individual differences. But people differ on how frequently they talk and how active they are, and thus personality traits such as Talkativeness and Activity Level do exist.

    A challenge of the trait approach was to discover the major traits on which all people differ. Scientists for many decades generated hundreds of new traits, so that it was soon difficult to keep track and make sense of them. For instance, one psychologist might focus on individual differences in “friendliness,” whereas another might focus on the highly related concept of “sociability.” Scientists began seeking ways to reduce the number of traits in some systematic way and to discover the basic traits that describe most of the differences between people.

    The way that Gordon Allport and his colleague Henry Odbert approached this was to search the dictionary for all descriptors of personality (Allport & Odbert, 1936). Their approach was guided by the lexical hypothesis, which states that all important personality characteristics should be reflected in the language that we use to describe other people. Therefore, if we want to understand the fundamental ways in which people differ from one another, we can turn to the words that people use to describe one another. So if we want to know what words people use to describe one another, where should we look? Allport and Odbert looked in the most obvious place—the dictionary. Specifically, they took all the personality descriptors that they could find in the dictionary (they started with almost 18,000 words but quickly reduced that list to a more manageable number) and then used statistical techniques to determine which words “went together.” In other words, if everyone who said that they were “friendly” also said that they were “sociable,” then this might mean that personality psychologists would only need a single trait to capture individual differences in these characteristics. Statistical techniques were used to determine whether a small number of dimensions might underlie all of the thousands of words we use to describe people.


    This page titled 31.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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