Dictionary of Arguments

Philosophical and Scientific Issues in Dispute

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Personality Traits Allport Corr II 29
Trait-names/personality traits/lexicon/study background/ Allport/Odbert/Saucier: The essence of [Allport’s and Odbert’s article ‘Trait-names: A psycho-lexical study’] was a classification of (…) English ‘trait-name’ words (terms distinguishing the behavior of one human being from another) into four categories. (…) from a scientific standpoint, some of the most basic personality attributes might be discovered from studying conceptions implicit in use of the natural language. If a distinction is highly represented in the lexicon – and found in any dictionary – it can be presumed to have practical importance. This is because the degree of representation of an attribute in language has some correspondence with the general importance of the attribute in real-world transactions. Therefore, when a scientist identifies personality attributes that are strongly represented in the natural language, that scientist is simultaneously identifying what may be the most important attributes.
II 30
Study Design/Allport/Odbert: Allport and Odbert turned to Webster’s New International Dictionary (1925)(1), a compendium of approximately 400,000 separate terms. Combining judgments of three investigators (themselves plus a person designated only as ‘AL’, (…)), they built a list of 17,953 trait-names in the English language that drew on the following criterion for inclusion: ‘the capacity of any term to distinguish the behavior of one human being from that of another’ (p. 24) (1). Allport and Odbert went further and differentiated terms into four categories or columns. The (…) terms in Column I were ‘neutral terms designating possible
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personal traits’ (p. 38)(1), more specifically defined as ‘generalized and personalized determining tendencies – consistent and stable modes of an individual’s adjustment’ to his/her environment (p. 26)(1). The (…) terms in Column II were ‘terms primarily descriptive of temporary moods or activities’ (…). The (…) terms in Column III were ‘weighted terms conveying social and characterial judgments of personal conduct, or designated influence on others’ (p. 27)(1) (…).The other (…) terms fell into the miscellaneous category in Column IV, labeled as ‘metaphorical and doubtful terms’ (p. 38)(1). This last grab-bag category included terms describing physical characteristics and various abilities (…).
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Findings/Allport/Odbert: 1. Allport and Odbert cogently argue that, basically, normal human life cannot proceed without some reference to personality dispositions. There is no better argument than their trenchant words from the monograph: “Even the psychologist who inveighs against traits, and denies that their symbolic existence conforms to ‘real existence’ will nevertheless write a convincing letter of recommendation to prove that one of his favorite students is ‘trustworthy, self-reliant, and keenly critical’” (pp. 4–5)(1).
2. Allport and Odbert indicate that the dispositions to which trait-names refer are more than conversational artifact, a form of everyday error (though in part they may be that). They are to some degree useful for understanding and prediction, as confirmed by later research (Roberts et al., 2007)(3). [The follow-on assertion constitutes that] the degree of representation of an attribute in language has some correspondence with the general importance of the attribute in real-world transactions.
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3. (…) science can lean on and build on the body of commonsense concepts in language. Rather than relying exclusively on the top-down gambits of theorists, there is opportunity for a generative bottom-up approach.
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4. (…) Allport and Odbert recognized a difficulty inherent in personality language: trait-names mean different things to different people. To a degree, these meanings are contingent on one’s ‘habits of thought’ (p. 4)(1). One reason builds on the polysemy (multiple distinct meanings) that many words have. 5. Within science, the difficulty might be even further resolved by explicit communication and consensus. For Allport and Odbert, this meant naming traits in a careful and logical way, and not merely codifying but also ‘purifying’ natural-language terminology (p. vi)(1).
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6. Allport and Odbert’s prime interest was in tendencies that are ‘consistent and stable modes of an individual’s adjustment to his environment’ rather than ‘merely temporary and specific behavior’ (p. 26)(1). 7. (…) trait-names reflect a combination of the biophysical influences and something more cultural (perhaps historically varying). (…) characterizations of human qualities are determined partly by ‘standards and interests peculiar to the times’ (p. 2)(1) in a particular social epoch. [In this way] culture, trait-names are partly ‘invented in accordance with cultural demands’ (p. 3)(1).
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1. (…) they ignore and give short-shrift to culture, both with regard to issues of cross-cultural generalizability and of how traits themselves may reflect culture-relevant contents. 2. According to their distinctive ‘trait hypothesis’ (p. 12), no two persons ‘possess precisely the same trait’ (p. 14)(1) and each ‘individual differs in every one of his traits from every other individual’ (p. 18)(1). The problem is not that individualism is wrong; rather, it may be ethnocentric to impose an individualistic filter throughout personality psychology, and in fact such idiothetic approaches are outside the mainstream of current and recent personality psychology.
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3. Another aspect of the thinking (…) that might appear odd, in retrospect, is the notion of a single, cardinal trait that provides determining tendencies in an individual life. (…) a particular attribute becomes so pervasive in a person that it becomes a distinct focus of organization. Seventy years later, there seems still to be a lack of evidence for cardinal traits that perform a more or less hostile take-over, coming to determine and structure the remainder of the personality system.
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4. Allport and Odbert argue for the desirability of neutral terminology in science. Unfortunately, it appears that they extend the desire for unweighted emotion-free vocabulary into the very attribute-contents evident in the trait-names in language, with confusing consequences. On this view, the trait-names in language that are judgmental and ‘emotionally toned’ (p. v)(1), having affective polarity, are suspect and less worthy of study than the neutral ones. But affectively toned concepts like evil and virtue are particularly worthy of study particularly because of their extreme affective tone (…).
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5. (…) the numerically largest category of trait-names was social evaluation. However, they offer no account for why the third column – reflecting social judgments likely unconnected with biophysical traits – would be the biggest component in person perception. 6. (…) the notion that censorial and moral terms – and virtues,
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vices, whatever is associated with blame or praise, not to mention social effects – have no use for a psychologist seems now obsolete. 7. To accept at face value the particular Allport and Odbert classification of trait-names into four categories is to take on the assumptions of a specialized theory of traits, whose main propositions can be construed based on the classification itself. (…) attention to emotions and morality would distract us from the central aspects of personality which reflect enduring consistencies operating intrinsically in the person, and outside the influence of society (…).

1. Webster’s new international dictionary of the English language (1925). Springfield, MA: Merriam.
2. Allport, G. W., & Odbert, H. S. (1936). Trait-names: A psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47 (1, Whole No. 211).
3. Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A., & Goldberg, L. R. (2007). The power of personality: The comparative validity of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 313–345.

Saucier, Gerard: “Classification of Trait-Names Revisiting Allport and Odbert (1936)”, In: Philip Corr (Ed.), 2018. Personality and Individual Differences. Revisiting the classical studies. Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne: Sage, pp. 29-45.

Corr I
Philip J. Corr
Gerald Matthews
The Cambridge Handbook of Personality Psychology New York 2009

Corr II
Philip J. Corr (Ed.)
Personality and Individual Differences - Revisiting the classical studies Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne 2018