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What Are Cardinal Traits in Personality?

What Are Cardinal Traits in Personality?

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Personality traits are fairly consistent and predictable patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Cardinal traits are dominant personality characteristics that strongly determine a person’s behavior. Such traits are so strong and persistent that the individual becomes associated with that quality.

While other personality traits are present earlier in life, cardinal traits become more apparent as people age. These traits are also rare since few people become intrinsically associated with a specific quality.

Characteristics of Cardinal Traits

Cardinal traits:

  • Dominate personality
  • Tend to be uncommon
  • Shapes a person’s attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs
  • Define a person’s entire life

Most people don’t tend to have their entire life and personality defined by a single dominating characteristic. For this reason, cardinal traits are uncommon or even rare.

History of Cardinal Traits

It was psychologist Gordon Allport who introduced the concept of cardinal traits as part of his trait theory of personality. Allport was one of the first to focus on the study of personality specifically. He is considered a founding figure in personality psychology.

Allport was interested in determining how many personality traits existed, which led him to utilize a dictionary to come up with an exhaustive list of more than 4,000 different traits.

Taking this list, he then categorized personality traits into three main types:

  • Cardinal traits: Traits that dominate an individual’s personality.
  • Central traits: These are the primary traits that compose personality. Most people have between five to 10 central traits.
  • Secondary traits: These are situation-specific traits that emerge under certain conditions. For example, a normally patient person might become irritable and anxious when driving in rush-hour traffic.

Examples of Cardinal Traits

Most people don’t have cardinal traits. Instead, their personalities are composed of a mix of central and secondary traits. Some of these central traits might be strong or more dominant, but they typically don’t become what that person is defined by. 

To see examples of central traits, consider some of the following examples:

  • Albert Einstein: Intelligence
  • Abraham Lincoln: Honesty
  • Martin Luther King Jr: Justice; equality
  • Mother Teresa: Altruism; charity
  • Jesus Christ: Faithful, godly, virtuous
  • Mahatma Gandhi: Peaceful
  • Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalytic
  • Joan of Arc: Heroism; self-sacrifice

Characters from mythology and literature often possess cardinal traits. Shakespeare’s Romeo (romantic) and Narcissus of Greek legend (vain, conceited).

In some cases, the cardinal traits associated with an individual become so well-known that eponymous adjectives emerge from their names. Examples include:

  • Draconian (from Draco, the Ancient Greek legislator)
  • Machiavellian (from the philosopher and politician Niccolò Machiavelli)  
  • Kafkaesque (from the novelist Franz Kafka)

Contemporary Views

Today, modern psychologists believe that personality is made up of several broad dimensions. One of the prevailing theories of personality is the five-factor model, also known as the “big five” dimensions theory of personality.

According to the Big 5 theory, personality is made up of five dimensions, each of which represents a continuum. People can be high, low, or somewhere in the middle of each trait.

The five traits described by the Big 5 theory are:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

This theory proposes that each individual’s personality is made of a unique mix of characteristics.

For example, someone might be high in extroversion and conscientiousness, low in neuroticism, and somewhere in the middle in terms of openness to experience and agreeableness.

Such theories suggest that it is rare for an individual to have a cardinal trait that dominates their entire personality. For example, while you might be very high in agreeableness, you also have other characteristics that make up your personality. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the three types of traits?

According to Gordon Allport’s trait theory, the three main types of traits fall into one of three categories: cardinal traits, central traits, and secondary traits.

What is the difference between cardinal and central traits?

Cardinal traits are dominating and all-encompassing. They essentially guide a person’s entire life to the point that they are strongly associated with that trait.

Central traits can also be strong, but they act more as a mix of building blocks that compose the main structure of an individual’s personality. Most people have at least five of these central traits but may have as many as 10.

What are some drawbacks of cardinal traits?

Cardinal traits can be an interesting way to think about personality, but it is important to remember that even people who are almost synonymous with their cardinal traits (such as Einstein with genius or Mother Teresa with charity) were complex, multi-faceted people. 

While we may know them solely by these cardinal traits, those who knew them more intimately likely knew more about their central and secondary characteristics. Reducing any individual to their most prominent characteristic misses the full picture of who they are or were.

Is narcissism a cardinal trait?

The term narcissism itself stems from the legend of Narcissus, who was so enamored with his own reflection that he slowly died once he realized his reflection could not return his affections. 

Narcissism is sometimes considered a cardinal trait, but it may also represent a type of mental disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder. People with this condition have an excessive need for admiration, a grandiose sense of self, and a disregard for the feelings of others.

Is kindness a cardinal trait?

Kindness can be a cardinal trait, such as in the case of Mother Teresa. In most cases, however, this would be a type of central trait. Kindness can also be an aspect of agreeableness, one of the big five dimensions of personality.

Agreeableness refers to a person’s concern for social harmony. People who are high in this trait tend to be kind, trustworthy, helpful, and considerate.


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