Personality: Type and Trait Approaches of Personality

Satchit Ghimire- Personality refers to the behavior patterns a person shows across situations or the psychological characteristics of a person that lead to those behavior patterns (Morgan & King 2008).

Imagine that you meet your school friend after a decade. Your friend most likely had changed physically, but deep down inside you might easily recognize him as the same person you had known before. This stable trait of an individual is called personality.

No single definition and theory of personality is acceptable to all psychologists. As a result personality has been studied in numerous ways and many theories have been developed to explain the origins and makeup of personality. These theories are grouped into four major categories. They are:

1) Type and trait approaches

2) Dynamic approaches

3) Learning and behavioral approaches

4) Humanistic approaches

Type and Trait Approaches

This approach focuses on the personal characteristics of the people.

Type Theories

This theory classifies people into various types based upon their characteristics. Type theory is one of the oldest ideas to study the personality of the people, and its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece.

Hippocrates, also known as the Father of Medicine in around 400 BC, grouped people into four temperament types. The types were Sanguine– cheerful, vigorous, confidently optimistic; Melancholic– depressed, morose; Choleric– hot tempered, and Phlegmatic– slow moving, calm, unexcitable. There are other forms of grouping people as well.

Many other ways of grouping people have been extensively tried as well. These groupings or sets are called typologies. In American culture, people are classified as leaders or followers, liberals or conservatives, losers or winners, whereas the popular college campuses typologies include jocks, preps, geeks, punks, nerds, and so on. Types when put together form typologies.

According to Morgan and King (2001), a type is simply a class of individuals that shares a common collection of characteristics.

Let’s take an example of two popular typologies- introverts and extroverts. Introverts are generally used to describe people who share characteristics; such as shyness, social withdrawal; and a tendency to not talk much. In contrast extraverts are outgoing, friendly and talkative. it is important to note that distinct/sharp typologies do not work effectively. Not a single person can be entirely attributed to a single typology and many dimensions of personality such as friendliness and sociability are distributed.

Since, it is clear that it is difficult to classify people into distinct personality types, Psychologists tried different approaches. One of the approaches to develop theories about specific types by treating each type as a personality dimension.

Eysenck hierarchical theory

Eysenck In 1967 gave a theory that each type of personality is made up of a set of personality characteristics. For instance, people of extroverted type are supposed to have characteristics like sociability, liveliness and excitability.

Eysenck gave a notion that each one of these characteristics can be broken into certain habitual responses applicable to several situations. Further, each of these habitual responses can be broken down into specific responses within specific situations. As this theory progresses from a broad ,global type down to specific situation-bound responses. The Eysenck Approach is called the Eysenck hierarchical theory.

Trait Theories

If someone asks you to describe your friends you’re most likely to do it with a list of traits like friendly, kind, rude, arrogant, and so on. Trait theories of personality tend to identify others in terms of specific characteristics.

One of the most important features of trade theory is that it doesn’t assume that some people have a trait while others do not. It believes that all people possess certain traits, but the degree or amount of that particular trait may vary among the people.

Allport’s theory

Gordon Allport was one of the first people to identify key human traits. In the 1930s Allport came up with around 18,000 treat-like terms that describe how people act, think, perceive, and feel. He narrowed down the list to 4500 descriptions after eliminating words with the same meaning. Finally, he distilled it by suggesting that the characteristics of individuals can be described by three fundamental categories of traits. They are: Cardinal, Central, and Secondary.

A cardinal trait is that single characteristic that directs most of a person’s activities. These dominant trades are often called by names drawn from key historical figures like Christlike, Machiavellian, Florence Nightingale, and so on. For example, a selfless woman may be driven by a strong desire to help others (Florence Nightingale and the influence of other traits are overshadowed.)

Allport believed that most people do not develop a true cardinal trait but have a set of central traits that make up the core of personality. Central traits consist of five to ten traits that make up an individual’s personality. Similarly, secondary traits are characteristics that are relatively weak and have limited influence on their behavior.

Cattel: Factoring out Personality

Using factor analysis, Cattell and his colleagues presented another model of trait theory.

He conducted comprehensive research on thousands of people regarding their traits. These responses were subjected to factor analysis. Factor analysis is a statistical technique that reveals patterns in the extent to which various traits are correlated. Raymond Cattel then suggested 16 pairs of traits that represent the basic dimension of personality.

Using the 16 pairs of traits, he also developed the 16 personality factor questionnaire(16 PF), a personality scale that we still use today.

Big Five Personality Test

The Big Five Model of Personality Traits measures personality using five dimensions. They are:

(We can remember them using the acronym- OCEAN)

  • Openness to experience- Willingness to try new things.
  • Conscientiousness- Level of reliability and thoughtfulness.
  • Extraversion- Person’s level of comfort with expressiveness and sociability.
  • Agreeableness- Level of cooperation
  • Neuroticism- Ability to tolerate stress


Morgan, C. T., King, R. A., Weisz, J. R., & Schopler, J. (2001). Introduction to psychology