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Chapter: Psychology: Personality

The Trait Approach: Defining Our Differences

The Big Five • The Consistency Controversy • Traits and Biology • Traits and the Environment • Contributions of the Trait Approach



The trait approach to the study of personality assumes that the differences among people can be captured by talking about what traits a person has—whether he is friendly or not, helpful or not, formal or not. Unlike states, which are temporary (e.g., being angry at this moment), traits are relatively enduring (e.g., being generally hot-headed), and, as a result, trait labels allow us to summarize what someone is like, often in a single word, and serve as a basis for making predictions about what she is likely to do in the future. The trick, however, is to figure out which traits to use in forming a description of a person that succinctly captures who he is but also is precise enough to predict his actions.


Think about one of your close friends. How would you describe this person to others? Shy? Confident?Bashful?Fun-loving?Upbeat? Notice how many words come to mind. Indeed, if we want to describe how people differ from one another, we seem to have a nearly endless supply of terms to work with. But do we really need all of these terms? Or can we reduce the list, perhaps by eliminating redundant or rarely used terms, to reveal a (much smaller) set of basic personality traits?


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