Psychologists often talk about personality traits, but what exactly is a trait? How do mental health professionals define this term? It is our personalities that help make us unique individuals, but not everyone agrees on exactly how many different traits exist. Some break personality down into very narrow and specific traits, while others prefer to look at traits much more broadly.
Let’s take a closer look at how traits are defined, the different types of personality traits that exist, and the various influences that contribute to the development of personality traits.
How Are Personality Traits Defined?
Traits are typically defined as the different characteristics that make up an individual’s personality. In the Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, authors Roberts, Wood, and Caspi define personality traits as “the relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that distinguish individuals from one another.”
Trait theory suggests that our personalities are made up of a number of different broad traits. Extroversion, for example, is a personality dimension that describes how people interact with the world. Some people are very extroverted and outgoing, for example, while others are more introverted and reserved.
Until fairly recently, it was believed that personality traits changed very little over the course of a lifetime. Some newer longitudinal studies have revealed that traits are a bit more nuanced than previously believed and that some changes can and do occur over time.
How Do These Personality Trait Changes Take Place?
When it comes to some of the broad, dominant traits, change tends to be difficult. When it does occur, these changes tend to be very subtle. A very extroverted person, for example, might become somewhat more reserved over time. This does not mean that they will transform into an introvert. It simply means that a subtle shift has occurred and the person’s extroversion has been slightly modified. The individual is still outgoing and gregarious, but they might find that they also enjoy solitude or more quiet settings on occasion.
An introvert, on the other hand, may find themselves becoming somewhat more extroverted as they grow older. This does not mean that the individual suddenly develops a desire to be the center of attention or to spend every Friday night at a large party. However, this person may find that they begin to enjoy social events a bit more and feel less exhausted and drained after they spend time socializing.
In both of these examples, the individual’s core personality trait has not changed altogether. Instead, changes over time, often the result of experiences, have led to subtle shifts in these central traits.
The Principles of Personality Traits
In their handbook of personality, Roberts and his colleagues describe a few basic principles that have been derived from personality research:
The maturity principle: People tend to become more agreeable, emotionally stable, and socially dominant as they grow older.
Identity development principle: People develop a stronger identity as they age and maturity brings a greater commitment to and maintenance of this sense of self. During the younger years of life, people are still exploring different roles and identities. As people age, they begin to feel a stronger loyalty to the identity they have forged over the course of their life.
Plasticity principle: While personality traits tend to be stable, they are not set in stone. They are subject to environmental influences at any stage of life.
Role continuity principle: It is the consistency of roles that leads to continuity in personality traits rather than consistency in environments.
Types of Personality Traits
What would you say if someone asked you to list of the personality traits that best describe you? You might rattle off a variety of traits such as kind, aggressive, polite, shy, outgoing, or ambitious. If you were to make a list of every personality trait, it would probably include hundreds or even thousands of different terms used to describe different aspects of personality.
Psychologist Gordon Allport once created a list of personality traits that included more than 4,000 terms.
The question of just how many personality traits there is has been the subject of debate throughout much of psychology’s history, but many psychologists today rely on what is known as the big five model of personality.
According to the big five model, personality is composed of five broad dimensions. Individual personalities may be either high, low, or somewhere in between on each of the five core traits.
The five traits that make up personality are:
Most of the characteristics you might use to describe your own personality fall under one of these broad headings. Personality traits such as shy, outgoing, friendly, and sociable are aspects of extroversion while traits such as kind, thoughtful, organized and ambitious would be part of the conscientiousness spectrum.
Each of these five traits represents a continuum. Some people are low in certain traits and high in others. In fact, many people are somewhere in the middle on many or most of these characteristics.
Are They Caused by Genes or Environment?
What matters more when it comes to personality, nature or nurture? Just how much does your DNA influence your personality?
Researchers have spent decades studying family, twins, adopted children and foster families to better understand how much of personality is genetic and how much is environmental.
Both nature and nurture can play a role in personality, although a number of large-scale twin studies suggest that there is a strong genetic component.
One well-known study in this area known as the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart studies 350 pairs of twins between 1979 and 1999. The participants included sets of both identical and fraternal twins who were either raised together or apart. The results revealed that the personalities of identical twins were very similar whether they were raised in the same household or raised apart, suggesting that at least some aspects of personality are largely influenced by genetics.
This certainly does not mean that the environment does not play a role in shaping personality. Twin studies suggest that identical twins share approximately 50 percent of the same traits, while fraternal twins share only about 20 percent.
Personality traits are complex and research suggests that our traits are shaped by both inheritance and environmental factors. These two forces interact in a wide variety of ways to form our individual personalities.
By Kendra Cherry and Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician