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The Trait Approach

The Trait Approach

In psychology, personality has always been an area of immense interest. Even in the 1900s, Freud and Jung were interested in how personality differed between individuals and how exactly it was formed. In more recent years, one approach that has been taken to understanding differences in personality is the Trait Approach. This involves measuring the strength of various traits (key behavioural elements) in individuals to see where certain people score higher or lower. Anyone who is a fan of ‘the Sims’ games will know that Sims are based on this principle, whereby their behaviour is controlled by their score on a variety of different traits. Many see this idea as a little too simplistic, but without further development it will likely remain a popular way of understanding personality and its link to behaviour. If it is unscientific as a tool for explaining behaviour, it is at the very least is a good way of describing the personality of an individual.

When an individual has a specific trait, it is usually identified by habits and trends in their behaviour. Traits are thought to differ greatly between individuals, yet be relatively stable in those individuals over time. Traits can be contrasted to States, which as a term describes trends in behaviour that are much more short-term and are generally specific to the situation that the individual has been in. For example, a person can be highly neurotic, meaning that in general they worry a lot more about problems than other people, and this would be a trait attached specifically to them. However, a person can also simply be worried about a specific situation, since most individuals will at some point in their lives be caused to worry about something. The latter is a state that will only last for a short period of time, and is not a constant part of their personality.

There are an extremely large number of traits that could be used to describe an individual’s personality, since each individual really is completely unique, yet it has been seen from data across time that many different traits will correlate (occur together in a pattern),  reliably with one another and therefore it is sometimes easier to group these traits together. It is because of this, that the majority of psychologists today believe that five factors alone can describe an individual’s personality in sufficient detail for research, since most other traits can be predicted from knowing how an individual scores on these five traits. This is due to the hierarchical nature of traits, since while there will be some differing on lower level traits, knowing how an individual scores on the main five can give us quite a broad understanding of what their personality will be like already. These ‘Big Five’ traits are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The model is often referred to as OCEAN, which is an acronym of the five traits it describes. Within the ‘Big Five’ model, the traits are not thought to overlap, and are believed to cover all possible lower level traits in an individual’s personality. The model has also been tested across different ages and cultures and has been quite reliably successful, so it is relatively easy to see why it is the most popular trait model in psychology today.

There are of course other models of trait based personality, for example the three trait approach that was suggested by Hans Eysenck, whereby the key traits were neuroticism, extroversion, and psychoticism. There is also the HEXACO model of personality, which is made up of six dimensions, these being Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness. The HEXACO model is quite unique in its use of Honesty-Humility as a trait.

As mentioned earlier, there are some problems with the approach as whole, since it is a little simplistic, and treats us like we are computers, when obviously in the real world, we are much more complex than ‘The Sims’ or any other computer models of personality. One major issue is based around the person–situation debate, which concerns whether the person or the situation an individual finds themselves in is more influential in determining their behaviour. When using the Trait approach, many criticise that individuals do not act the same in all situations and so traits are much more complex than is supposed. While trait models assume consistency of personalities that guide our behaviour across situations, Situationists would argue that individuals are not consistent enough between situations to be categorised quite so broadly.

While this is certainly an issue, until we can develop much more complex models of personality that take situation into account, the Trait approach will continue to thrive, since it offers a simple and easy way of sorting individuals by personality for experimentation and research purposes, and this is something that is needed. The only way in which this approach will lose support and stop being used in the future, is if a more scientific, valid and reliable method comes along which can be used in its place, and this kind of model would take years of development. For now though, I think that the trait approach is deeply enough embedded in research practice that it is safe for years to come.


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