Personality/Lectures/Dispositional perspectives

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About this pageEdit

  • This page contains lecturer's notes for a 2nd-year undergraduate tertiary-level unit on "Personality and Individual Differences" at the University of Canberra, 2008. These notes were contributed to (offline) by two key authors - James Neill and Michele Fleming and then converted to wikitext from .doc using, so they still need some tidying up.
  • Feel free to help out and to improve the material, although it may be better to copy the material and then link to and build specific pages.
  • The purpose of this lecture is to introduce and discuss dispositional perspectives of personality, particularly personality types and personality traits, to consider the personality vs. situation debate and the notion of interactionism.


Sometimes you see the terms “traits” and “dispositions’ used interchangeably. However, the trait perspective is really only a part of the dispositional perspective (albeit the largest part).

Dispositions refer to underlying, relatively stable, characteristic psychological that people carry around with them, that are somehow part of them” (Carver & Scheier, 2000, p.54). Or “a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character”.

The “trait” approach most clearly emphasizes what is known more broadly as the dispositional perspective but another way to approach the concept of dispositions is to consider people as “types” or alternatively to view people’s dispositions in terms of their enduring motivational characteristics that vary in strength from person to person (i.e. their needs and motives). So today we’ll have a look at types as well as traits and we’ll look at peoples needs and motives as though they were specific traits.

Some of the things we’ll consider today are:

  • Types
  • Traits
    • many
    • single
    • essential
  • Situation versus Personality Debate
  • Interactionism
  • Strengths and Limitations

Major themes and underlying assumptionsEdit

Dispositional perspectivesEdit

The dispositional perspective is the most basic, traditional approach to personality. It creates systems for classification and description of characteristics on which:

  • people differ
  • and which individuals consistently display:
    • between situations
    • over time

Two major themes and assumptionsEdit

STABILITY of personality i.e. people display consistency in their actions, thoughts, and feelings BETWEEN situations and OVER time. In other words, unpredictability is the exception rather than the rule (i.e. unpredictability doesn’t define the essence of personality).

Note that some psychologists, such as social psychologists, would argue that too much emphasis is placed on the stability of personality. The idea behind this assumption is that YOU ARE THE SAME PERSON YOU USED TO BE AND WILL BE IN THE FUTURE.

2. DIFFERENCES between people. The composition of dispositions varies from person to person. Each person’s personality consists of a pattern of dispositional qualities which form a unique combination in each person.

Types versus TraitsEdit

  • Traits are now more in favour than types.

(put in table)

  • categoryCharacterNumber
  • Type discontinuous, discrete,Few qualitative
  • Traitcontinuous, degree,Many
  • quantitative


Type theory aims to classify people into distinct CATEGORIES. i.e. this type or that. Types are regarded as categories that are distinct and discontinuous. e.g. you are one or the other. Male/Female are discontinuous categories.

Ancient Greek HumoursEdit

Ancient Greeks (e.g. Hippocrates 400 BC, Galen, 140/150 AD): 4 types of people:

Excess of one of 4 bodily fluids determined personality (put into table)

  • Humor/PersonalityFluidCharacterBig 5
  • Cholericyellow bileIrritableAgreeable
  • Melancholicblack bileDepressed Neurotic
  • SanguinebloodOptimisticOpenness
  • PhlegmaticphlegmCalm Neurotic
  • So, no conscientiousness or extraversion.

Sheldon's SomatotypesEdit

  • William Sheldon (1940, 1942, cited in Phares, 1991) classified according to body type. He called this a person’s somatotype. An individual is given a rating from 1 to 7 on each of three body types:

(convert to table)

  • Body TypeCharacterShape
  • Ectomorphcerebrotonic (quiet, fragile
  • restrained, nonassertive,lean
  • somewhat withdrawn delicatesensitivepoor muscles
  • Mesomorphsomatotonic (active, muscular
  • assertive, vigorous,
  • combative
  • Endomorphviscerotonic (relaxed, plump
  • sociable, comfort-lovingbuxom
  • tolerant, peaceful

Sheldon measured the proportions of hundreds of juvenile delinquent boys and concluded that they were generally mesomorphs (Ornstein, 1993).

Body types have been criticized for very weak empirical methodology and are not generally used in psychology. Type theory in general has been criticized as over-simplistic because it overlooks the multi-dimensional nature of personality.

Types: An updateEdit

Having said that however, there is still a lot of interest in Jungian types, as witnessed by the popularity of the MBTI. Some would say that Individual Differences may be qualitative not quantitative. That is that there may be a difference in the qualities that people possess rather than, as trait theory would have us believe, we all possess certain traits it’s just a case of how much or how little we possess (the quantity).

Block (1971) identified 5 personality types among male participants in a study. Now these types were found only to exist in mostly white, intelligent and relatively affluent males. A number of subsequent studies conducted in the 1990s, however seems to bear out three of Block’s 5 identified types.

  • Well-adjusted or Resilient person: adaptable, flexible, resourceful, interpersonally successful
  • Overcontrolling: this is a maladjusted type; uptight, and difficult to deal with ===
  • Undercontrolled: another maladjusted type; impulsive, psooible risky, delinquent or even criminal behaviour; unsafe sex etc.

The Trait ApproachEdit

Allport and Odbert (1936) “Those individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people’s lives will eventually become encoded into their language; the more important such a difference, the more likely is it to become expressed as a single word”.

This has become known as the lexical approach or hypothesis (lexical = having to do with words or a vocabulary).

What Allport and Odbert did, though, was to go through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at the time, and extracted 17,953 words to describe the way people are psychologically different from each other: personality-describing adjectives that they found describing observable and relatively permanent traits.

e.g. shy, trustworthy, laconic, phlegmatic, kind, conscientious, anxious, etc. all these words describe personality traits Trait approach tries to formalise this and use traits to explain and predict behaviour


  • Traits are distinguishing qualities or characteristics of a person
  • Traits are a readiness to think or act in a similar fashion in response to a variety of different stimuli or situations

In general, trait theory assumes that people differ on variables or dimensions that are CONTINUOUS. People are seen to differ in the AMOUNTS or QUANTITIES of a characteristic rather than differ in the QUALITY of their characteristics.

Traits: Nomothetic vs IdiographicEdit

However the whole issue of whether a trait exists in all people to a greater or lesser degree is complicated by different views of the trait perspective.

There are two different views as to whether all traits exist in all people. These two views, called the Idiographic and the Nomothetic approach, were named as such by Gordon Allport, often known as the father of personality theory.

  • The Idiographic view emphasizes that each person has a unique psychological structure and that some traits are possessed by only one person; and that there are times when it is impossible to compare one person with others. This viewpoint also emphasizes that traits may differ in importance from person to person (cardinal, central and secondary traits). It tends to use case studies, bibliographical information, diaries etc for information gathering.
  • The Nomothetic view, on the other hand, emphasizes comparability among individuals but sees people as unique in their combination of traits. This viewpoint sees traits as having the same psychological meaning in everyone. The belief is that people differ only in the amount of each trait. It is this which constitutes their uniqueness. This approach tends to use self-report personality questions, factor analysis etc. People differ in their positions along a continuum in the same set of traits. Most contemporary psychologists tend towards a nomothetic approach (and the trait approach is often viewed solely as a nomothetic approach these days), but they are aware of how a trait may be slightly different from person to person in the way that it is expressed.

Basic questionsEdit

  • What traits are basic/essential to personality?
  • How many are there?
  • How do we find out?
  • Note that labeling of traits is subjective: hence different theorists label similar or same traits using different words.

Need to look for the meaning that underlies the trait, rather than simply at the name.

Allport (1897-1967)Edit

Gordon Allport, as I mentioned is often called the father of personality theory: He was very much a trait theorist and believed in the individuality and uniqueness of the person and that people have consistent personalities. As long ago as 1921, he and his brother Floyd, published a book called Personality Traits: Their Classification and Measurement.

Allport attempted to blend nomothetic and idiographic perspectives: he called this blend the morphogenic approach.

Allport believed that each person had traits of various types:

  1. Individual: traits possessed by one person
  2. Common: traits possessed by many people
  3. Cardinal traits: One trait that dominates the person
  4. Central traits: small number of traits important traits that may affect many behaviours
  5. Secondary traits: many consistent traits which are not often exhibited
  6. Motivational traits: Very strongly felt traits
  7. Stylistic traits: Less strongly felt traits.

Allport believed that through autobiographies, letters and diaries an understanding of an individual’s personality could be gained. He studied 301 letters written by a woman he called Jenny Gove Masterson over a period of 11 years and was able to describe Jenny in terms of 8 traits. He published this a work in 1965 called Letters from Jenny.

The Many Trait ApproachEdit

  • Some theorists look at many traits at once when investigating personality. They try to determine which traits are correlated with certain behaviours, thereby gaining understanding of the underpinnings of various behaviours as well as the more general workings of personality. An example of this approach is to look at correlates of different behaviours, such as the ability to delay gratification, political orientation and drug taking as some examples.
  • Example: An interesting study was one in which young children who were rated as being emotionally unstable, disobedient, domineering, aggressive, teasing, fidgety, restless, and susceptible to stress were found nearly a decade later at age 14 years to be using illegal drugs. The implication of using this many trait approach is you can get to have an understanding of what sort of personality underpins a certain type of behaviour (in this case drug-taking). The practical implications of this are that instead of anti-drug campaigns targeted at 14 year olds we should have campaigns at helping problem behaviours and susceptibility to stress at an earlier age.

The Single Trait ApproachEdit

  • Much research focuses on a single trait: its origin, nature, and consequences. An example of three single traits that have received wide attention and have been the subject of investigation in hundreds of studies. These are:
    • conscientiousness
    • self-monitoring
    • authoritarianism

Single Trait: AuthoritarianismEdit

The personality trait of authoritarianism has been extensively studied for the last 50 years. Much initial research was done as a reaction to the outrages which occurred in Nazi Germany during WWII. Authoritarianism began to be studied in order to try to understand its nature and its origin. Authoritarianism is felt to lie at the heart of racial prejudice. The Authoritarian personality may be described a person who is unthinking and inflexible, is submissive to authority, is aggressive, (in other words they are often worshipful up and contemptuous down) superstitious, fascinated by power, cynical and hostile, and may be sexually repressed.

The origins of authoritarianism have also been studied but the research is extremely difficult to conduct. It is difficult to determine the early childhood experiences of adult authoritarians in any detail and then it is hard to extricate what might be learned attitudes, or down to oppressive parental child-rearing styles or even to some gene being implicated.

The Essential Trait ApproachEdit

  • Many psychologists have tried to reduce the many traits to a few essential ones:
    • Murray (1938): 27 “needs”
    • Cattell (1949) (16 traits)
    • Eysenck (e.g. 1967; Eysenck & Eysenck, 1968): 3 traits
    • Costa & McCrae (e.g. 1985, 1988; McCrae & Costa, 1986, 1987): 5 traits

Needs: Murray (1893 - 1988)Edit

  • Henry Murray was active in developing a theory of motivation throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Murray was in fact the author of the TAT (which you looked at in tutes last week). He believed that a need is a “potentiality or readiness to respond in a certain way under certain given circumstances… It is a noun which stands for the fact that a certain trend is apt to recur” (Murray, et al. 138, p. 124).
  • A major assumption of Murray’s theory was that behaviour is driven by an internal state of disequilibrium. In other words we have a LACK of something and this drives us. We are dissatisfied and we desire something. Murray classified needs as being either
  • Primary needs (or viscerogenic needs, which are biologically based):
    • food, water, air, sex, avoidance of pain
  • Secondary needs (or psychogenic needs, which either derive from our biological needs or are inherent in our psychological nature):
  • Murray came up with 27, psychogenic needs which he saw as largely unconscious needs: e.g.
    • achievement, recognition, acquisition
    • dominance, aggression, autonomy
    • affiliation, rejection, harmavoidance
    • nurturance, play, cognizance (asking questions of others)
  • The strength of a need depends on how it compares with your other needs rather than how other people rate on that need:
Exam tomorrow vs Excellent Party tonight
Achievement Need vs Affiliation, or Play Need
  • Murray believed that whether a need is activated or not can very much depend on the situation (what he called the press). If passing the exam is going to mean passing or failing the whole course and then getting kicked out of home then your Harmavoidance Need and your Achievement needs might come into play and overwhelm your Affiliation or Play needs so you stay at home and study!
  • Murray believed that stronger needs are expressed more often over time and lead to more intense behaviour.

Basic needsEdit

  • Since the 1960s and 1970s the main Needs studies have focused on Achievement, Power, Affiliation and Intimacy.

Need for Achievement (Achievement Motivation) Studied extensively by David McLelland in the 70s.

  • single most researched need
  • desire to do things well, overcome obstacles, to do thing better

high AM  choosing more difficult task than low AM (because they want to find out about their abilities)

Need for Power: studied intensely by David Winter in the 70s

  • desire to have dominance, impact on others, prestige, position, and influence over others
  • concerned about controlling the image of themselves that is portrayed to others

Need for Affiliation: studied by McAdam in the 80s

  • desire to spend time with other people
  • there are thought to be a number of subcomponents: e.g. need for social comparison, need for emotional support, need for positive stimulation, and need for attention from others
  • Need for Intimacy
    • desire to experience warm, close, and communicative exchanges with another person ---> desire to merge self with another
    • need for more one to one interactions
    • higher levels of self-disclosure, more listening
    • correlates .58 with need for affiliation (medium to high correlation)
  • Murray’s Needs’ theory is sometime studied as part of the trait perspective as “needs” are seen as akin to traits. But often you’ll see Needs’ theory studied within the psychoanalytic perspective as it is seen as a DRIVE theory of personality.

Traits: Cattell (1905 - present)Edit

Language is a useful source of information about personality. A quality described by many words is likely to be a more important part of personality. Cattell used this lexical criterion in determining his original list of trait names. He narrowed Allport and Odbert’s (1936) listing of 17,000+ words down to 171 trait names. Cattell collected self-ratings on these words and then conducted factor analysis. He used both observer and behavioural data. The result was his 16 personality factors (16 PF):

Details of 16PFEdit

  1. WARMTH: reserved v warm
  2. REASONING: concrete reasoning v abstract reasoning
  3. EMOTIONAL STABILITY: reactive v emotionally stable
  4. DOMINANCE: deferential v dominant
  5. LIVELINESS: serious v lively
  6. RULE CONSCIOUSNESS: expedient v rule-conscious
  7. SOCIAL BOLDNESS: shy v socially bold
  8. SENSITIVITY: utilitarian v sensitive
  9. VIGILANCE: trusting v vigilant
  10. ABSTRACTNESS: practical v imaginative
  11. PRIVATENESS: forthright v private
  12. APPREHENSION: self-assured v apprehensive
  13. OPENNESS TO CHANGE: traditional v open-to-change
  14. SELF: group-oriented v self-reliant
  15. PERFECTIONISM: tolerates disorder v perfectionist
  16. relaxed v tense

Hans Eysenck (1916 -1997)Edit

Eysenck believed initially that all people could be described in terms of two supertraits, which he believed had a biological basis:

  1. Introversion-extraversion (continuum of sociability, dominance, liveliness etc).
  2. Emotionality-stability (neuroticism) (continuum of upset and distress).

Eysenck’s proposals for a biological basis for these dimensions will be examined in the next lecture.

Psychoticism added later: less researched. This was a predisposition towards becoming either psychotic or sociopathic (psychologically unattached to other people). Also, a tendency to be hostile, manipulative, and impulsive.


  • 2nd-order Factor Analysis of the 16PF shows two factors:
    • introversion/extraversion and anxiety. So the underlying factors of Cattell’s scales are very similar to Eysenck’s.

The Big FiveEdit

A remarkably strong consensus of what traits are basic has emerged over the last 20 years. Five superordinate factors have emerged and are referred to as the Big Five or the 5-factor model. These five factors are well supported by a wide variety of research.

The early evidence supporting a 5-factor model was first published by Fiske, in 1949. During the 1980s and 90s a vast array of research has combined to support the 5 factors. Not everyone however agrees in the naming of the five supertraits.

The 5-factor model is commonly measured by the NEO by Costa and McCrae (1985, 1988, McCrae & Costa, 186, 1987).

The Big 5 according to the NEO are Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (Remember OCEAN).

Each Supertrait is measured by 6 facets (or subordinate traits).

Table giving details of the Big Five

Table giving details of the Big Five facet scales

Anxiety Warmth Fantasy Trust Competence
Angry hostility Gregariousness Aesthetics Straightforward-ness Order
Depression Assertiveness Feelings Altruism Dutifulness
Self-consciousness Activity Actions Compliance Achievement striving
Impulsiveness Excitement-seeking Ideas Modesty Self Discipline
Vulnerability Positive emotion Values Tender-mindedness Deliberation

Table of labels used by authors to refer to the big 5% traits.

Author(s) 1 2 3 4 5
Fiske, 1949 Emotional control Social adaptability Inquiring intellect Conformity Will to achieve
Norman, 1963 Emotionality Surgency Culture Agreeableness Conscientiousness
Orgatta, 1964 Emotionality Assertiveness Intelligence Likeability Responsibility
Digman, 1990 Neuroticism Extraversion Intellect Friendly compliance Will to achieve
Costa & McCrae, 1985 Neuroticism Extraversion Openness to experience Agreeableness Conscientiousness
Peabody & Goldberg, 1989 Affect Power Intellect Love Work

The last row provides a characterization by Peabody & Goldberg, 1989 of the life domain to which the trait pertains.

Although I said there is quite a degree of consensus about the factors some theorists actually feel that they should be labeled one way or another, ALSO just what a factor looks like depends what measures were included in the study!

Factor 3, as I have it listed here, openness to experience, is probably the factor about which there is the LEAST consensus. Some theorists suggest that this factor is measuring a kind of intellect: the imaginative side rather than the logical side.

Some theorists, such as Eysenck suggest that personality can be explained in as little as three factors, others see the need for one or two more factors than 5. Recently, some theorists have posited that personality is more fully explained by a 6-factor model (Ashton, et al., 2004; Ashton & Lee, 2001). The extra 6th factor that emerges is typically one that revolves around honesty, fairness, sincerity, modesty and lack of greed. It has been named Honesty-Humility by Lee and Ashton, 2004. This addition of a 6th factor represents a major departure from the Big 5 model. The Honesty-Humility factor comprises four facets: sincerity, fairness, modesty and greed avoidance. The 6-factor model has been called the HEXACO model by Lee and Ashton (2004).

Traits: Stable?Edit

Costa, McCrae and Arenberg (1980) conducted a longitudinal study of 460 males aged 17-85 over a 6 to 12 year period. They found correlations of .70+ over time for extraversion and high correlations for neuroticism. Studies generally show decline in E and N as people age and indeed increases in A from 60s to 80s & 90s (Field & Millsap, 1991)

Helson and Moane (1987) studied women from 27 to 43 in their longitudinal study; Helson and Wink (1993) then assessed them at age 52 and found women become more dominant, independent, and self-confident over time

Individual differences in stability/consistency

Situation vs Personality DebateEdit

In 1968, Walter Mischel published a book Personality and Assessment (this book is in fact usually interpreted as arguing that Personality doesn’t exist and can’t be assessed!). Mischel argues that was not actually his point. What he in fact argued was that personality is too variable from one situation to the next to allow individual differences to be characterized accurately in terms if broad personality traits, and furthermore that trait measures don’t predict behaviour as well as many psychologists claim. Thus the person-situation debate was born.

EXAMPLE: Girl very anxious sitting in Doctors, keeps looking at time, screwing up her hanky, jumps whenever a name is called.

Now, is she behaving in that fashion because of her PERSONALITY (highly anxious personality) or because of the SITUATION ( because she’s worried about finding out whether she’s pregnant or not!)?

Does the personality of an individual transcend the immediate situation and moment to provide a consistent guide to his or her actions OR is what a person does completely dependent upon the situation he or she is in at the time?


1960/1970s, evidence suggested low correlation between personality and behaviour (i.e. personality coefficient of approx. .20 to .40. If you use the common squared correlation method there is an upper limit of only 16% i.e. only 16% of variance in behaviour is explained by personality. So what use are traits if they explain so little of behaviour? And are situational variables better predictors of behaviour!? NO. Situational variables are no better at predicting behaviour than personality variables e.g. .36-.42 (similar upper limit) (Funder & Ozer, 1983)


Low correlations between personality traits and behaviour do not necessarily prove the value of situational variables (the “cause” of the behaviour may be an unmeasured personality variable!). Bear in mind that there is not a high correlation between situational variables and behaviour.

Lack of ability of traits to predict behaviour is based upon trying to predict specific behaviours e.g. how happy you will be in next week’s lecture versus how happy you will be over the entire year! So much research in the past tried to predict single acts at single times.

Rosenthal and Rubin (1982, as cited in Funder, 2001) claim that we should not consider that a correlation of .40 leads to only 16% of the variance being explained, rather they suggest using the Binomial effect size display (BEFD) which would lead to a correlation of .40 meaning 70% accuracy in predicting behaviour!

People choose situations: that is, personality predisposes peoples’ choice of environment (librarian versus salesperson – VPI).

Interactionism: Interactionist PerspectiveEdit

Traits and Situations interact to influence behaviour

(How else could it be? - like the genetics vs. environment issue, one cannot exist without the other)

Trait and Situationist perspective are too simplistic: it is more complex than that. Different situations affect different people in different ways. Some situations allow expression of personality; other situations provoke a narrower range of behaviour.

Behaviour = personality x interpretation of the situation

Individual differences in personality-situation consistency: e.g. high and low self-monitors. High self-monitors display less consistency in their behaviour and try to adapt more to the situation.

Research has shown that a trait will show up only in a situation where it is relevant (Kenrick & Funder, 1991). So anxiety may only show up in certain situations. Thus the situation may to a certain extent predict the behaviour but the personality of the individual will predict if and how much anxiety will be shown. And of course some situations bring out the similar behaviours in most everyone whereas some situations will lead to real differences in behaviours.

Some situations allow expression of personality, others provoke narrower range of behaviour Some individuals more consistent


  • Traits do not have a constant influence on behaviour...sometimes trait differences matter a lot, sometimes only a little
  • People display traits by choosing situations, not just by reacting to them

Person-situation debate has lead to more dynamic approach to understanding how personality traits and situations interact to produce a person’s behaviour. INCLUDE QUOTE FROM PHARES (1991, p. 244)

Critique of trait perspectiveEdit


  • Doesn’t explain how or why personality works: naming a phenomenon doesn’t explain it
  • Poor decisions may be made on the basis of trait scores (e.g. diagnosis of someone as in need of institutionalization – more likely to have happened in the past than now).
  • Arbitrary decisions about traits (through factor analysis: what to study and what constitutes a trait)
  • Behaviour is not always consistent: this is a challenge for trait theorists who see traits as consistent over time and place
  • Possibly limited predictive ability: cannot explain why people may behave differently in different situations (though could be due to the way it has been studied)
  • Little explanation for origins of traits: with the exception of Eysenck


  • Useful description and assessment of personality
  • Some stability across time and situations has been found – element of predictive power (been with my husband for nearly 25 years – glad my husband’s personality doesn’t keep changing!)
  • Although decisions arbitrary, several researchers, using different approaches, coincided in similar views
  • Personality traits useful for research purposes
  • Allows comparison of individual differences & provides an objective, scientific approach
  • Thus, an interactionist perspective is considered important for the future.


  • Burger, J. M. (1993). Personality (3rd ed.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Perspectives on personality (4th ed.) Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.
  • Funder, D. C. (1997). The personality puzzle. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Kenrick, D. T., & Funder, D. C. (1991). The person-situation debate: Do personality traits really exist? In V. J. Derlega, B. A. Winstead, & W. H. Jones, W. H. (Eds.) Personality: Contemporary theory and research (Chapter 6).
  • Ornstein, R. (1993). The roots of the self: Unraveling the mystery of who we are. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Phares, J. E. (1991). Introduction to personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

External linksEdit