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Personality Trait Theory

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

When you ask people to describe their personalities, typically they will describe themselves in terms of Personality Traits that they embody. They may be nervous or laid-back, for instance; highly social or retiring. Researchers studying individual differences in personality invariably end up using the same approach; describing a set of traits that identify and capture the various ways that people are different from one another. Though multiple different personality trait models exist today, they vary primarily on the numbers of traits that are identified; the fineness of the categories with which researchers attempt to slice up personality, and not so much on what the important major traits themselves are. The popular "five factor model" variously created by researchers Costa and McCrae and (separately) by Goldberg embodies the major agreed upon traits fairly well. They are there described as:

  • Extraversion (or Surgency) describing people's preferences with regard to socialization;
  • Agreeableness, describing how willing or unwilling people are to please others;
  • Conscientiousness, describing how seriously people take responsibilities and commitments;
  • Emotional Stability (or Neuroticism), describing how prone to nervousness and depression people are, and;
  • Openness to Experience (or Intellect), describing how willing people are to try new experiences or support non-traditional agendas

Research shows that adults' measurements on tests of the five factor model tend to remain fairly stable across long periods of time (up to 45 years duration in some studies!). This suggests that, while there is room for people to grow and mature as they age, personality traits tends to stay consistent, once it is formed.

One reason that personality traits do tend to stay stable is that they reflect, in large part, the influence of genetically determined temperaments (inborn dispositions present from birth that set the tone for later personality; for example, when babies are "colicky" vs. "easy"), and also the influence of early formative experience. The trait of emotional stability is known to run in families, for instance and may represent a genetic vulnerability towards those people developing mood and anxiety disorders during their lifetimes.

People's personality traits influence how easy or difficult certain tasks are for them to take on. For instance, it is far easier for an extraverted person to find success in a people-oriented sales job than it is for an introverted person to succeed in that same job. On the other hand, extraverted people have a much harder time working from home than do introverted people, who typically are much better than extraverted people at concentrating while alone. For this reason, knowledge concerning your personality style is something you should take into account while making important decisions about how you will live your life, such as what sort of job you end up doing, or who you form relationships with. It is important that your personality dispositions not conflict seriously with the type of work you take on, or the people you spend time with. Mismatches between your personality style and your environment can lead to uncomfortable problems.

The key insights to take home from personality trait theory are that: 1) people differ in their personalities according to regular patterns, 2) once set, personality styles tend not to change much over time, and 3) many personality preferences may be present as a result of genetic influences (known as temperaments). Gaining insight into your own personality and those of people who are important to you will help you gain insight into the nature of your problems, possibly helping you to understand part of the reason those problems are difficult to correct. Because personality styles are resistant to change, it is important that you emphasize your personality strengths as much as you can; it will be much harder to try to remove personality "weaknesses" you might have.