Personality Traits

By Gerald Matthews; Ian J. Deary et al. | Go to book overview

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 thirty 'characters' or personality types, of which a translator remarked that Theophrastus's 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 (Hofstee, 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. In other words, there are differences between individuals that are apparent across a variety of situations. We might expect a student we have noted as a 'worrier' to be unusually disturbed and worried in several different contexts such as examinations, social occasions and group discussions. Stability distinguishes traits from more transient properties of the person, such as temporary mood states. Second, it is generally believed that traits directly influence behaviour. If a person spontaneously breaks into cheerful song, we might 'explain' the behaviour by saying that he or she has a happy disposition. Such lay explanations are, of course, on shaky ground because of their circularity. Aristotle

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Personality Traits
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Figures x
  • Tables xiii
  • Boxes xvi
  • Preface to the First Edition xix
  • Preface to the Second Edition xxiii
  • I - The Nature of Personality Traits 1
  • 1 - The Trait Concept and Personality Theory 3
  • 2 - Persons, Situations and Interactionism 39
  • 3 - Personality Across the Life Span 58
  • 4 - Stable Traits and Transient States 77
  • 5 - Alternatives to Trait Theory 112
  • II - Causes of Personality Traits 133
  • 6 - Genes, Environments and Personality Traits 135
  • 7 - The Psychophysiology of Traits 166
  • 8 - The Social Psychology of Traits 204
  • III - Consequences and Applications 239
  • 9 - Stress 241
  • 10 - Traits and Health 273
  • 11 - Abnormal Personality Traits? 294
  • 12 - Personality, Performance and Information-Processing 325
  • 13 - Applications of Personality Assessment 357
  • 14 - Conclusions 391
  • References 411
  • Author Index 482
  • Subject Index 487
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