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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - The trait concept and personality theory


Introduction: conceptions of traits

Everyday conceptions of traits

The idea of personality traits may be as old as human language itself. Aristotle (384–322 BC), writing the Ethics in the fourth century BC, saw dispositions such as vanity, modesty and cowardice as key determinants of moral and immoral behaviour. He also described individual differences in these dispositions, often referring to excess, defect and intermediate levels of each. His student Theophrastus (371–287 BC) wrote a book describing 30 ‘characters’ or personality types, of which a translator remarked that Theophrastus' title might better be rendered ‘traits’ (Rusten, 1993). Basic to his whole enterprise was the notion that individual good or bad traits of character may be isolated and studied separately.

Contemporary English is replete with terms used to describe personal qualities. Table 1.1 shows some examples: the five words rated by American college students as the most and least favourable words in Anderson's (1968) survey of 555 personality terms, together with five words given a neutral rating. Allport and Odbert (1936) identified almost 18,000 English personality-relevant terms; more words than Shakespeare used! Nouns, sentences and even actions may also have personality connotations (Hofstede, 1990). The language of personality description permeates our everyday conversation and discourse.

Everyday conceptions of personality traits make two key assumptions. First, traits are stable over time. Most people would accept that an individual's behaviour naturally varies somewhat from occasion to occasion, but would maintain also that there is a core of consistency which defines the individual's ‘true nature’: the unchangeable spots of the leopard.

Further reading
Boyle, G. J., Matthews, G. and Saklofske, D. H. (eds.) (2008) Handbook of personality theory and assessment, vol. 2: Personality measurement and testing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Raad, B. and Perugini, M. (2002) Big Five assessment. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe & Huber.
McCrae, R. (2009) The Five-Factor Model of personality traits: consensus and controversy. In Corr, P. L. and Matthews, G. (eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.