Psychologists often talk about personality traits, but what exactly are traits? How do mental health professionals define this term? It is our personality that makes us a unique individual, but not everyone agrees on how many different characteristics there are. Some people break down personality into very narrow and specific characteristics, while others prefer to look at characteristics more broadly.
What are personality traits?
Traits are usually defined as the different characteristics that make up an individual’s personality.
inside Personality Handbook: Theory and Research, Authors Roberts, Wood, and Caspi define personality traits as “relatively persistent patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that distinguish an individual from others.”
Trait theory shows that our personality is composed of many different and broad traits. For example, extroversion (often called extroversion) is a personality dimension that describes how people interact with the world. For example, some people are very extroverted (or extroverted) and extroverted, while others are more introverted and reserved.
Until recently, it was believed that personality characteristics hardly changed in a lifetime. Some newer longitudinal studies have shown that traits are more subtle than previously thought, and that some personality changes can and do occur over time.
If someone asked you to list the traits that best described you, what would you say? You may chatter about various characteristics, such as kindness, combativeness, politeness, shyness, outgoing, or ambitiousness. If you were to list each personality trait, it might contain hundreds of different terms to describe different aspects of the personality.
Psychologist Gordon Allport once created a list of personality traits containing more than 4,000 terms.
For most of the history of psychology, how many personality traits have been the subject of debate, but today many psychologists rely on the so-called Big Five personality model.
According to the Big Five personality model, personality is composed of five broad dimensions. In each of the five core characteristics, personal personality may be high, low, or somewhere in between.
The five characteristics that make up a personality are:
- Agreeableness: trust, altruism, kindness, affection and other pro-social behaviors
- Conscientiousness: Highly considerate, good impulse control and goal-oriented behavior
- Extroversion: sociability, talkative, self-confidence and excitement
- Neuroticism: sadness, moodiness, emotional instability, worry about many different things
- Openness: creative, willing to try new things, willing to think about abstract concepts
Most of the characteristics you might use to describe your personality fall into one of these broad headings. Character traits such as shy, outgoing, friendly, and sociable are extroverted aspects, while traits such as kindness, thoughtfulness, organization, and ambitiousness are part of conscientiousness.
Each of these five characteristics represents a continuum. Some people are low in some traits and high in others. In fact, many people are in the middle of many or most of these characteristics.
Genetic and environmental causes
Which is more important in terms of personality, innateness or nurture? How much influence does your DNA have on your personality? Researchers have spent decades studying families, twins, adopted children, and foster families to better understand how many personalities are genetic and how many are environmental.
Both nature and nurture can play a role in personality, although some large-scale twin studies have shown that there is a strong genetic component.
A study called “Study on Raising Twins Separately in Minnesota” studied 350 pairs of twins between 1979 and 1999. Participants include identical twins and fraternal twins raised together or separately. The results showed that whether identical twins grew up in the same family or separated, their personalities were similar, indicating that certain aspects of their personalities were genetically affected.
This of course does not mean that the environment has not played a role in shaping personality. Twin studies have shown that identical twins have about 50% of the same characteristics, while fraternal twins have only about 20%.
Personality traits are complex, and research shows that our traits are shaped by both genetic and environmental factors. These two forces interact in many ways to form our personality.
When it comes to a number of broad, dominant features, change is often difficult. When it does happen, these changes are often very subtle.
For example, a very extroverted person may become more conservative over time. This does not mean that they will become an introvert. It just means that a subtle change has taken place, and the person’s extroversion has slightly changed. The person is still outgoing and gregarious, but they may find that they sometimes also prefer to be alone or in a quieter environment.
On the other hand, introverts may find themselves more extroverted with age. This does not mean that individuals suddenly want to be the center of attention or attend large gatherings every Friday night. However, the person may find that they start to enjoy social activities more and feel less tired and exhausted after they spend time socializing.
In these two examples, the individual’s core personality traits have not completely changed. On the contrary, over time (usually the result of experience) leads to subtle changes in these core characteristics.
Key research principles
In their Personality Handbook, Roberts and his colleagues describe some basic principles derived from personality research:
- Principles of identity development: As people grow older and mature, people will develop stronger identities, which will lead to greater commitment and maintenance of this self-awareness. In the young years, people are still exploring different roles and identities. As people get older, they begin to become more loyal to the identities they have established throughout their lives.
- The principle of maturity: As people grow older, people tend to become more easy-going, emotionally stable, and dominate the society.
- The principle of plasticity: Although personality traits tend to be stable, they are not static. They will be affected by the environment at any stage of their lives.
- The principle of role continuity: It is the continuity of the roles that leads to the continuity of personality traits, not the continuity of the environment.