In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trait Perspective

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Traits
  • The Person-Situation Debate
  • Evaluating the Structure of Personality Traits

Psychology Trait Perspective
M. Brent Donnellan, Christopher Hopwood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0060


Personality traits, or relatively enduring and global patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, are thought to be a foundational element of personality by many researchers. Gordon Allport is widely recognized as the founder of academic personality psychology, and his perspectives on the trait concept continue to be influential today. Following Allport, many contemporary trait psychologists theorize that traits are rooted in biological processes but shaped by life experiences. Moreover, contemporary trait psychologists believe personality traits have causal implications, meaning that they affect how individuals interpret and respond to the challenges of life as well as the responses that individuals evoke from others. To be sure, personality traits work together and in concert with situational factors to generate behavior, which is an idea with a long history in psychology. Despite the popularity of trait concepts in lay theories of human behavior, the existence and importance of personality traits has been a controversial topic in academic psychology. The goal of this bibliography is to introduce readers to the trait concept and to the debates surrounding personality traits by providing references to both classic and contemporary readings. The first sections (see General Overviews) provide references that give an overview of personality traits, cover issues in the concept of Defining Traits, and discuss the role of personality traits in the broader field of personality psychology. These introductory sections are followed by an overview of The Person-Situation Debate, a critical conflict in the history of trait psychology. We refer to classic readings in this debate and cover Responses to the Person-Situation Debate. These reactions to the person-situation debate have come to define, in part, how modern trait psychologists view their field. Trait psychology is often strongly identified with personality assessment; thus the next section in this bibliography covers issues in Assessing Personality Traits including measurement validity, reliability, and the utility of various measurement methods. Improvements in assessment have led to one of the major accomplishments in trait psychology: the delineation of a common structure for higher order personality traits in the form of the “Big Five” domains (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability or neuroticism, and openness). The next section includes readings on Evaluating the Structure of Personality Traits and includes papers from both proponents and critics of the Big Five/five-factor models. A major accomplishment following the person-situation debate was a more precise articulation of the developmental course, biological correlates, and impacts of traits for understanding adaptation across the lifespan. Thus, the final three sections include readings about Personality Trait Development Across the Lifespan, Biological Perspectives on Traits, and Personality Traits and Life Outcomes.

General Overviews

Personality psychology is broadly concerned with all aspects of human individuality ranging from biologically based attributes of temperament to identities constructed from lives lived in particular social and cultural contexts. Trait perspectives are but one active branch of contemporary personality psychology. The readings in this section provide an overview of contemporary personality psychology and offer different perspectives concerning the role that global personality traits can and should play in this important subdiscipline of psychology. Allport 1937 offers an important historical perspective on the study of personality as well as insights about traits that remain prescient for contemporary readers. Likewise, Murray 1938 is another highly influential classic text that has helped to shape modern personality psychology. McAdams and Pals 2006 outlines something of a consensus and “big tent” perspective by defining three levels of human individuality: dispositions (traits), characteristic adaptations (e.g., motives, goals, and attachment dynamics), and life stories. This approach offers an integrative and inclusive vision for the field of personality that includes a significant role for traits. Funder 2001 and Mischel 2004 provide broad overviews of the field of personality and provide somewhat different assessments of the trait concept. McCrae and Costa 2008 describes the authors’ influential Five-Factor Theory, which argues that traits play a major role in shaping adaptation across the lifespan by conceptualizing traits as basic dispositional tendencies. John, et al. 2008 provides a broad and comprehensive survey of the entire field of contemporary personality psychology. The Personality Project provides an overview of the field and links to major Internet references.

  • Allport, G. W. 1937. Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.

    This was one of the first textbooks on personality psychology, and much of contemporary personality psychology in the United States can be traced to this volume. Allport’s views on traits have proven surprisingly durable.

  • Funder, D. C. 2001. Personality. Annual Review of Psychology 52:197–221.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.197

    This work provides a contemporary overview of the major approaches to personality psychology and offers an important institutional perspective on this now-vibrant subdiscipline of psychology that nearly went extinct from the fallout of the person-situation debate.

  • John, O. P., R. W. Robins, and L. A. Pervin, eds. 2008. Handbook of personality: Theory and research. 3d ed. New York: Guilford.

    This edited volume covers all aspects of modern personality psychology featuring chapters written by leading experts.

  • McAdams, D. P., and J. L. Pals. 2006. A new Big Five: Fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist 61:204–217.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.204

    This work provides an important integration of multiple streams in personality psychology ranging from traits to cultural psychology. McAdams and Pals offer readers a compelling vision for the future by incorporating insights from several major traditions in personality psychology.

  • McCrae, R. R., and P. T. Costa Jr.. 2008. The five-factor theory of personality. In Handbook of personality: Theory and Research. 3d ed. Edited by O. P. John, R. W. Robins, and L. A. Pervin, 159–181. New York: Guilford.

    This chapter provides a clear and accessible discussion of Five-Factor Theory, which is a contemporary presentation of a modern and influential trait theory. McCrae and Costa offer a theoretical account of how traits are related to life outcomes and address criticisms and alternatives to their approach.

  • Mischel, W. 2004. Toward an integrative science of the person. Annual Review of Psychology 55:1–22.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.042902.130709

    Mischel provides an updated version of his perspective on personality consistency and provides a survey of the field with particular emphasis on social-cognitive approaches to personality.

  • Murray, H. A. 1938. Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume presents Murray’s influential theory of personality in the context of an intensive study of fifty undergraduates at Harvard and introduces the Thematic Apperception Test and other personality assessment methods.

  • Personality Project.

    This website provides an overview of the entire field of personality with reference lists and links to a number of personality-related websites. This is a very useful starting point.

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