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5.1: Introduction to Personality

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    Personality Theory

    You have probably noticed that some people are very social and outgoing while others are very quiet and reserved. Some people seem to worry a lot while others never seem to get anxious. Each time we use words like social, outgoing, reserved or anxious to describe people around us, we are talking about a person’s personality. Personality is one of the things that make us unique from one another. Our personalities are thought to be long term, stable, and not easily changed (Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005) leading some psychologists argue that personality is heritable and biological.

    Personality is not the same thing as character, which refers to qualities that a culture considers good and bad. Temperament is hereditary and includes sensitivity, moods, irritability, and distractibility. In this way, temperament can be seen as part of our personality and offers support for biological and universal aspects of personality.

    Once we understand someone’s personality, we can predict how that person will behave in a variety of situations. Think about what it takes to be successful in college. You might say that intelligence is factor in college success and you would be correct but personality researchers have also found that traits like Conscientiousness play an important role in college success. Highly conscientious individuals study hard, get their work done on time, and are less distracted by nonessential activities that take time away from school work. Over the long term, this consistent pattern of behaviors can add up to meaningful differences in academic and professional development. Personality traits are not just a useful way to describe people; they actually help psychologists predict if someone is going to be a good worker, how long he or she will live, and the types of jobs and activities the person will enjoy.

    There are many psychological perspectives that try to explain personality including behaviorist, humanist and sociocultural perspectives. This page will focus on the trait theory of personality and how combinations of traits create unique personality profiles as well as the cross-cultural dimensions of the approach. 


    Major Approaches to Personality Psychology 

    Psychodynamic: Focuses on how unconscious drives, wishes, needs, and childhood experience drive personality development

    Biological/Evolutionary: Anatomical, bio-chemical, genetic, and evolutionary theories used to explain personality.

    Phenomenological/Humanistic: Looks at how conscious awareness produces uniquely human attributes that influence personality.

    Behavioral/Cognitive/Social Cognitive: Behaviors, thoughts, life experiences influence and shape personality

    Traits: Categorizes our characteristic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior.

    Trait Theory

    Personality traits reflect people’s characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Trait theory in psychology rests on the idea that people differ from one another based on the strength and intensity of basic trait dimensions. There are three criteria that characterize personality traits: (1) consistency, (2) stability, and (3) individual differences.

    • 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.
    • A trait must also be somewhat stable over time as demonstrated behaviors related to the trait. For example, at age 30 if someone is talkative they will also tend to be talkative at age 40.
    • People differ from one another on behaviors related to the trait. People differ on how frequently they talk and so personality traits such as talkative exist.

    A major challenge for trait theorists was how to identify traits. They started by generating a list of English adjectives (after reading about bias in Chapter 3 I bet you can see a problem here). Early trait theorists Allport and Odbert identified about 18, 000 words in the English language that could describe people (Allport & Odbert, 1936). The list was later reduced to 4,500 by Allport but even this was far too many traits. In an effort to make the list of traits more manageable, Raymond Cattell (1946, 1957) narrowed the list to 16 factors and developed a personality assessment called the 16PF. Later, psychologists Hans and Sybil Eysenck focused on temperament (Eysenck, 1990, 1992; Eysenck and Eysenck, 1963) and hypothesized two specific personality dimensions: extroversion/introversion and neuroticism/stability.

    While Cattell’s 16 factors may be too broad, the 2-factor system proposed by the Eysenck’s has been criticized for being too narrow. Another personality theory, called the Five Factor Model (FFM), effectively hits a middle ground. The five factors are commonly referred to as the Big Five personality traits (McCrae & Costa, 1987). It is the most popular theory in personality psychology today and the most accurate approximation of the basic trait dimensions (Funder, 2010). Traits are scored along a continuum, from high to low rather than present or absent (all or none). This means that when psychologists talk about Introverts (e.g., quiet, withdrawn, reserved) and Extroverts (e.g., outgoing, social, talkative), they are not really talking about two distinct types of people but rather they are talking about people who score relatively low or relatively high along a continuous dimension.

    The five traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A helpful way to remember the traits is by using the mnemonic OCEAN.

    Big 5 Personality trait scale

    Scores on the Big Five traits are mostly independent which means that a person’s position on the continuum for one trait tells very little about their standing on the other traits. For example, a person can be extremely high in Extraversion and be either high or low on Neuroticism. Similarly, a person can be low in Agreeableness and be either high or low in Conscientiousness. In the FFM you need five scores to describe most of an individual’s personality.

    Cross-Cultural Considerations

    We have learned that culture is transmitted to people through language, as well as through social norms which establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviors which are then rewarded or punished (Henrich, 2016; Triandis & Suh, 2002). With an increased understanding of cultural learning, psychologists have become interested in the role of culture in understanding personality. 

    The idea that personality can be described and explained by five traits has important implications but the experience of reality might be different across cultures. Western ideas about personality may not apply to other cultures (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2008).

    There are two main cultural approaches for researching personality.

    • Etic traits are considered universal constructs that are evident across cultures and represent a biological bases of human personality. If the Big Five are universal then they should appear across all cultures (McCrae and Allik, 2002).
    • Emic traits are constructs unique to each culture and are determined by local customs, thoughts, beliefs, and characteristics. If personality traits are unique to individual cultures then different traits should appear in different cultures.

    Cross cultural research of personality uses an etic framework and researchers must ensure equivalence of the personality test through validation testing. The instrument must include equivalence in meaning, as well as demonstrate validity and reliability (Matsumoto & Luang, 2013). For example, the phrase feeling blue is used to describe sadness in Westernized cultures but does not translate to other languages. Differences in personality across cultures could be due to real cultural differences, but they could also be consequences of poor translations, biased sampling, or differences in response styles across cultures (Schmitt, Allik, McCrae, & Benet-Martínez, 2007).

    Rentfrow, Kosinski, Stillwell, Gosling, Jokela and Potter (2013) identified regional personality differences within the United States using the Big Five personality dimensions. The researchers analyzed responses from over 1.5 million individuals found that there are three distinct regional personality clusters

    U.S. Regional Personality Clusters

    Cluster 1 is in the Upper Midwest and Deep South and is dominated by people who fall into the friendly and conventional personality which is defined by moderately high levels of Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, moderately low Neuroticism, and very low Openness. The cluster has predominantly White residents with comparatively low levels of education, wealth, economic innovation, and social tolerance but are civically engaged in their communities.

    Cluster 2 includes the West and is dominated by people who are more relaxed, emotionally stable, calm, and creative which is defined as low Extraversion and Agreeableness, very low Neuroticism, and very high Openness. There are disproportionate numbers of non-White residents in this region, in addition to people who are wealthy, educated, and economically innovative.

    Cluster 3 includes the Northeast which has more people who are stressed, irritable, and depressed. The personality profile shows low Extraversion, very low Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, very high Neuroticism, and moderately high Openness. There are disproportionate numbers of older adults and women in this region, in addition to affluent and college-educated individuals.

    One explanation for the regional differences is selective migration (Rentfrow et al., 2013). Selective migration is the concept that people choose to move to places that are compatible with their personalities and needs. For example, a person high on the agreeable scale would likely want to live near family and friends, and would choose to settle or remain in such an area. In contrast, someone high on openness would prefer to settle in a place that is recognized as diverse and innovative (such as California).

    Most of the cross-cultural research on FFM and Big Five has been done using the NEO-PI (and its subsequent revisions) which has demonstrated equivalence, reliability and validity across several cross-cultural studies (Costa & McCrae, 1987; McCrae, Costa & Martin, 2005). Research using the NEO-PI found support for the entire Five-Factor Model in Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Hungarian, German, Australian, South African, Canadian, Finnish, Polish, Portuguese, Israeli, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino samples, in addition to other samples (McCrae, Costa, Del Pilar, Rolland, & Parker, 1998).

    Personality tests rely on self-report which is susceptible to response bias like socially desirability responding. To evaluate this possibility, McCrae and colleagues (2005) recruited students from 50 cultural groups and modified the NEO-PI to be in the third person (i.e., he, she, his, her). The research participants were asked to complete the form on someone else that they knew very well (McCrae et al., 2005). The same five factors emerged in this study. These results provided empirical support for the FFM and for the use of self-report instruments when conducting cross-cultural personality research. Think about it – there was no reason for the students to respond in a desirable way because they were answering questions about someone else.

    Finding similar factors across many cultures has provided support for the universality of of the FFM personality trait structure. The five dimensions (Big Five) also seem to emerge in similar developmental stages (McCrae & Costa, 1997; McCrae et al., 1999) which provides additional support for universal traits. Longitudinal studies have found consistency in personality changes that occur across the lifetime, in both adults and adolescents (McCrae, et al., 1999; McCrae et al., 2000). Big Five research conducted with American and Flemish teens showed similar changes in personality from ages 12 to 18 (McCrae, et al., 2000) In addition, the period from young adulthood to middle adulthood is associated with increases in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008) and decreases in Neuroticism, Openness, and Extraversion in several countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Croatia, and South Korea (McCrae, et al.,1999; Terracciano, McCrae, Brant, & Costa, 2005).

    Big Five or More?

    Although support for the Big Five across cultures is strong, it is unclear whether or not the Big Five personality traits are the best possible measure of personality for all cultures. Some researchers suggest that important aspects of some cultures are not captured by the Five Factor Model (Funder, 2010; Ashton, et al., 2004; Ashton & Lee, 2007). Results from several European and Asian studies have found overlapping dimensions with the Five Factor Model, as well as additional, culturally unique dimensions (Church, 2002). Several cross-cultural studies have identified other dimensions of personality not captured by the Big Five including traits unique to China, Denmark, Bolivia and the Philippines.

    Chinese psychologists created an indigenous personality test named the Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI) which identified several traits that were not part of the Big Five that have been labeled Interpersonal Relatedness (Cheung, Leung, Fan, Song, Zhang, & Zhang, 1996; Cheung, et al., 2001). Support for this model was originally developed in studies conducted in mainland China and Hong Kong, China, but the existence of the Interpersonal Relatedness dimension of personality has also been found in samples from Singapore, Hawaii, and the Midwestern United States.

    A distinct Filipino personality structure was also identified when an indigenous personality test was used in conjunction with a Western developed personality test. Church and colleagues (1998, 2002) used indigenous Filipino personality scales and the revised NEO-PI and found that there was overlap between the Filipino scales and the Five Factor Model. Researchers also found several unique indigenous factors such as Pagkamadaldal (Social Curiosity) and Pagkamapagsapalaran (Risk-Taking) that had predictive power greater than the Five Factor Model alone (Katigbak, Church, Guanzon-Lapeña, Carlota, & del Pilar, 2002). These new indigenous factors are highly predictive of smoking, gambling, praying and tolerance of behaviors outside of social norms (Matsumoto & Luang, 2013).

    Studies conducted in Denmark and the Netherlands found an authoritarian personality structure. Hofstede and colleagues (1993) analyzed data from 1,300 Danes and found a sixth dimension not related to the five-factor model which they labelled Authoritarianism. This is an interesting finding because dominance and authoritarianism is connected to animal studies and animal personality (Hofstede, Bond & Luk, 1993).

    Tsimane, a horticultural group living in the Bolivian Amazon were administered a modified version of the FFM and there was little support for the five factors – two factors emerged that were not part of the Big Five. This is an example of research that used a non-industrial, non- WEIRDO sample and raises questions about whether FFM can generalize to non-industrial cultures (Gurven et al., 2013).

    Ashton and Lee (2007) identified Honesty-Humility as a sixth dimension of personality when using English and Asian based adjectives to describe traits. People high in this trait are sincere, fair, and modest; whereas those low in the trait are manipulative, narcissistic, and self-centered. The HEXACO model is often used when traits of agreeableness or emotions are of particular interest in research. It should be clear that although there is strong support for the Big Five across cultures, some research suggests the existence of other traits besides simply the Big Five, which may ultimately improve our understanding of personality across different cultures.


    This page titled 5.1: Introduction to Personality is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Ounjian via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.