At various points in psychology history, researchers have tried to come up with a comprehensive list of personality traits. Traits are often defined in a variety of ways, but in psychology they are generally thought of as characteristic forms of behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that tend to be relatively stable and consistent.
If someone asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? If you are like many people, you would probably rattle off a list of words that describe different aspects of your personality. It can be difficult at times to think about your own personality in an objective way. You may actually find it easier to describe the personality of a friend of family member.
If you had to estimate how many personality traits exist, what would your guess be? Tens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands? Over the years, researchers have proposed a number of estimates, ranging from a miniscule number of just three to several thousand.
So what’s the real number? Well, that depends on how you decide to classify and categorize different traits. Let’s take a closer look at a few estimates and learn why many psychologists today prefer to look at personality dimensions rather than lists of individual traits.
A Quick Look at the History of Personality Trait Research
Psychologist Gordon Allport was one of the first to create a personality taxonomy, arriving at a grand list of more than 4,000 different traits. Other psychologists later suggested that many of these traits were merely variations of broader dimensions and attempted to whittle down the list to something much more manageable. Cattell suggested there were 16 key traits, while Eysenck believed there were really just three. Today, many contemporary psychologists believe that personality is composed of five broad dimensions.
So just what are some of these many traits that have been identified and described by psychologists at various points in history?
Some of these traits include:
- Emotionally stable
- Open to experience
Individual Personality Traits vs. Broader Personality Dimensions
As you browsed through this list, you may have already spotted one of the problems faced by psychologists when attempting to create personality taxonomies. Do each of these terms really indicate a separate and distinct personality trait, or are they simply aspects of a much broader trait? For example, is daringness truly a distinctive trait, or is it simply a subtrait of something like risk-taking or self-confidence? Are all of those simply subsets of a much broader trait like extraversion?
Rather than creating a massive list of words related to personality traits (many of which might really just be describing the same thing), many psychologists today prefer to focus on identifying the broad dimensions that make up personality.
The big five theory of personality is one of the most popular of these theories, and it suggests that personality is composed of five key trait dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of these dimensions exists as a continuum, and each person’s unique personality lies somewhere between the two extremes. On a trait such as extroversion, for example, a person might be very extroverted, not at all extroverted (aka introverted), or they might lie somewhere in the middle of the continuum.
If you looked at a broad trait like extroversion in a hierarchical manner, extroversion might lie at the peak with mid-level traits such as sociability and sensation-seeking in the center and lower-level traits like sensation-seeking and talkativeness at the base of the trait pyramid.
So, while it is possible to list off thousands of words that describe or relate to different personality traits, many contemporary theories propose that the majority of these can be grouped into between three and five broad categories. Take a closer look at some of the many personality traits listed above and consider how you might go about grouping them into related categories.
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