Psychology Dictionary of Arguments

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Author Item Summary Meta data
Corr I 89
Personality traits/Deary: There are still issues about how psychologists know whether traits, and any given model of traits, are the right way to construe human personality differences, and their nature is still largely mysterious.
Corr I 91
Temporal stability/traits/developmental psychology/Deary: The stability of personality trait ratings has been questioned. A review of over 152 longitudinal studies with over 3,000 correlation coefficients found that trait stability increased from childhood to adulthood, rising from about 0.3 to over 0.7 (Roberts and DelVecchio 2000)(1). This supported earlier research with traits from the Five Factor Model (Costa and McCrae 1994(2)) and Eysenck’s factors (Sanderman and Ranchor 1994)(3), which had found stability coefficients of well above 0.6, rising to above 0.8, for periods of between six and thirty years. The stability of individual differences among children can be high, given an appropriate measurement instrument. Using the Berkeley Puppet Inventory, in which identical puppets make opposite statements, and the children choose which applies better to them, the stability coefficients between age six and seven years were often well above 0.5, and considerably higher when corrected for period-free unreliability (Measelle, John, Ablow et al. 2005)(4). Traits are stable aspects of people’s (including children’s) make-up.
Heritability of traits: There is (…) the well-supported heritability of traits including those of the Five Factor Model (Bouchard and Loehlin 2001)(5). However, in ten years of molecular genetic studies of personality, there are still no solid associations between genetic variations and personality traits (Ebstein 2006)(6).
Animals/traits: There is evidence that other species, including primates (Weiss, King and Perkins 2006)(7) and others (Gosling 2001)(8), have something like a Five-Factor Model of personality.
See >Five-Factor model, >personality traits.
Some milestones in the research on personality traits:
Corr I 99
The starting point for Tupes and Christal (1961)(9) was the thirty-five trait variables developed by Cattell (1947)(10), whose work in turn derived from the identification of dictionary trait terms by Allport and Odbert (1936)(11).
The result (Tupes and Christal 1961(9), p. 232): from their eight heterogeneous studies ‘five fairly strong rotated factors emerged’: Surgency (Extraversion), Agreeableness, Dependability (Conscientiousness), Emotional Stability (opposite of Neuroticism) and Culture. This was a breakthrough in dispelling some uncertainty about the structure of personality trait ratings.
At about the same time, citing the same empirical history and with a similar aim, Norman (1963)(12) found similar results. The focus was on clarifying the observational language of personality, arguing that research into personality ‘will be facilitated by having available an extensive and well-organised vocabulary by means of which to denote the phenotypic attributes of persons’ (Norman 1963, p. 574).
Corr I 100
One of Norman’s (1963) conclusions was that researchers should go back to the pool of trait items to search for traits beyond the five. By this stage, one can discern three processes (there might be more) going on in the trait approach to personality.
(1) There was good progress in identifying traits for measurement and predictive validity.
(2) There was the process of defending the trait approach from whatever was the zeitgeist in psychology (Freudiansim, behaviourism, situationism, etc.). (VsPsychoanalysis, VsBehaviorism, VsSituationism).
(3) There was the process of thinking about and studying what traits actually were, beyond scores from an inventory or rating scales.
Meehl (1986)(13) addressed the third issue by going back to Cattell’s (e.g. 1945)(14) surface traits and source traits distinction. He gave a good account of how, in everyday language we make trait attributions, and how these generalize from narrow to broader traits. He gave a good account of how, in everyday language we make trait attributions, and how these generalize from narrow to broader traits. These are from observed behaviours, and they are surface traits. Narrow traits that go to make up broader traits are ‘related by a) empirical covariation and b) content similarity’ (p. 317).
For today’s discussion see >personality traits/Tellegen, >personality traits/McCrae.

1. Roberts, B. W. and DelVecchio, W. F. 2000. The rank-order consistency of personality from childhood to old age: a quantitative review of longitudinal studies, Psychological Bulletin 126: 3–25
2. Costa, P. T., and McCrae, R. R. 1994. Set like plaster? Evidence for the stability of adult personality, in T. Heatherton and J. Weinberger (eds.), Can personality change?, pp. 21–40. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
3. Sanderman, R. and Ranchor, A. V. 1994. Stability of personality traits and psychological distress over six years, Perceptual and Motor Skills 78: 89–90
4. Measelle, J. R., John, O. P., Ablow, J. C., Cowan, P. A. and Cowan, C. P. 2005. Can children provide coherent, stable, and valid self-reports on the Big Five dimensions? A longitudinal study from ages 5 to 7, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89: 90–106
5. Bouchard, T. J. and Loehlin, J. C. 2001. Genes, evolution, and personality, Behaviour Genetics 31: 243–73
6. Ebstein, R. P. 2006. The molecular genetic architecture of human personality: beyond self-report questionnaires, Molecular Psychiatry 11: 427–45
7. Weiss, A., King, J. E. and Perkins, L. 2006. Personality and subjective well-being in orangutans, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90: 501–11
8. Gosling, S. D. 2001. From mice to men: what can we learn about personality from animal research?, Psychological Bulletin 127: 45–86
9. Tupes, E. C. and Christal, R. E. 1961. ASD Technical Report (reprinted in 1991 as Recurrent personality factors based on trait ratings), Journal of Personality 60: 225–51
10. Cattell, R. B. 1947. Confirmation and clarification of primary personality factors, Psychometrika 12: 197–220
11. Allport, G. W. and Odbert, H. S. 1936. Trait-names: a psycho-lexical study, Psychological Monographs 47: No. 211
12. Norman, W. T. 1963. Toward an adequate taxonomy of personality attributes, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66: 574–83
13. Meehl, P. E. 1986. Trait language and behaviourese, in T. Thompson and M. Zeiler (eds.), Analysis and integration of behavioural units, pp. 315–34. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
14. Cattell, R. B. 1945. The principal trait clusters for describing personality, Psychological Bulletin 42: 129–61


Ian J. Deary, “The trait approach to personality”, in: Corr, Ph. J. & Matthews, G. (eds.) 2009. The Cambridge Handbook of Personality Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Deary, Ian J.
Corr I
Philip J. Corr
Gerald Matthews
The Cambridge Handbook of Personality Psychology New York 2009


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