Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford


  • Jennifer McDonaldEmail author
  • Tera Letzring
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1272-1


Personality Trait Emotional Stability High Neuroticism Trait Aggression Adolescent Relationship Quality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



A trait is the basic unit or aspect that is used to describe and measure an individual’s patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are relatively consistent and enduring across situations and time. Traits have typically been thought of as descriptions of patterns of behavior, and new research is examining the explanatory value of traits.


A trait is the basic unit or aspect that is used to describe and measure personality (John et al. 2008). Personality is an individual’s patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that are relatively consistent and enduring, both across situations and time. Therefore, traits are also relatively consistent and enduring. As a unit used to measure personality, traits have typically been thought of as descriptions of patterns of behavior rather than as explanations for behavior. Although traits are not currently used for causal explanations, they are useful for communicating about personality, and therefore are often described as the language of personality (Saucier and Goldberg 1996). As such, traits have been described as the “linguistic tools of observers” (Hogan 1996, p. 172) and as being created by groups of individuals in order to communicate about others and facilitate development and maintenance of relationships. Putting it all together, traits are a way to “distinguish, order, and name the behavioral, emotional, and experiential characteristics of individuals” (John et al. 2008, p. 147). Traits are not only useful for organizing and describing characteristics, they are also useful for examining individual differences by comparing people. There are several taxonomies of personality traits, such as Eysenck’s Hierarchical Model of Personality, Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor Scales, and the Circumplex Model of Personality. One of the most well-known taxonomies is the five-factor model (FFM).

Traits have a rich and fascinating history of how they came to be identified and labeled. Especially interesting and sometimes controversial is the development and testing of the lexical hypothesis, which is the idea that the most important aspects of personality will be found in the language of a culture. Research regarding traits has confirmed that traits are predictive of many important life outcomes. Although relatively stable, traits develop and change over the entire life span, from infancy to old age. An individual’s states – what the person is like within a narrow timeframe – are associated with their trait levels in that the average state of a person is essentially their trait level. States that are relevant to traits vary quite a bit over days and weeks, which has been referred to as the density distribution of trait-relevant state behavior. This distribution reflects the variability of an individual’s states over a specific time-period. As important as traits are for predicting and possibly even guiding behavior, behavior is also influenced by the situations that people are in and is typically the result of complex interactions between traits and situations. Future trait research is likely to focus on this variability in trait-relevant states and on uncovering the explanatory components of traits.

History of Traits

The concept of traits may have begun with Galen’s four humors in about 2000 BC, and the idea that temperaments were associated with levels of different fluids in the body. In more recent history, Jung proposed a theory of personality types in the early 1900s that included factors such as introvert/extravert (Winter et al. 1998). Sir Francis Galton (1884) acknowledged that individual differences in characteristics could be found in the language of several different cultures, which was a precursor to the lexical hypothesis. Galton was among the first researchers to examine all of the trait-relevant words that could be found in the English dictionary. Later, Gordon Allport (1961) was the first to suggest that traits are fundamental units of personality and argued that they were generally accepted by laypersons because they showed the relative consistency of the behavior of individuals. Since that time, there have been many definitions of personality traits that have ranged from frequency of behaviors to words that are used to describe others, and there have been some difficulty in finding a definition that suited all positions held by personality researchers. However, the currently accepted definition of traits seems to be relatively consistent and enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Attention to the word relatively when describing the consistency of traits is important. According to Allport, it was the consistency of the behavior that made something a trait, but behaviors of individuals are not perfectly consistent. For example, people can act in a friendly manner in some situations and an unfriendly manner in others. This could result from the interactions among multiple traits in the same individual, especially if some traits contradict one another, such as friendliness and responsibility – a typically friendly person may behave in an unfriendly way if someone is interfering with an important responsibility. Furthermore, some traits may only manifest themselves in certain situations and not in others. For example, the trait of bravery will be related to behavior in dangerous situations, but not in safe situations. Another important focus of the definition of traits is on the idea of patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Traits do not describe just one thought, feeling, or behavior, but an overall pattern of all three factors.

Many trait theorists, including Allport, believed that traits could be identified in natural language, which is known as the lexical hypothesis. All cultures have words that are used to describe individual differences in personality, and therefore personality is tied to and reflected in natural language. Socialization in each culture involves learning the words that are used to describe traits, and therefore the ways in which that culture describes how individuals differ from each other, as well as learning how these trait-relevant words are applied to both the self and others. These descriptive words are so important to interactions among humans that, according to the lexical hypothesis, all of the important traits will be found in the natural language of each culture. The lexical hypothesis was first tested in the English language by identifying 4500 words describing characteristics of individuals found in the dictionary, reducing this list of words based mostly on synonyms, having people use the words to describe someone they knew well, and examining the relations among the words with a statistical method known as factor analysis. Based on this analysis, several broad factors were identified, and these factors were considered to be the important personality traits for that language and culture. Thurstone identified five broad factors based on 60 trait terms, while Cattell and Eysenck identified 16 broad factors based on 35 trait terms. Over time, the traits that have been used to describe personality have ranged from 2 to 20. The most accepted number of broad traits is five, which is reflected in the five-factor model and assessment of the “Big Five” traits. These five traits were part of Cattell and Eysenck’s original 16 factors. The original NEO scale was the first to assess neuroticism, extraversion, and openness, but, after the development of the Big Five, conscientiousness and agreeableness were added, and the scale was renamed the NEO-Personality Inventory (NEO-PI). There are additional measures of the Big Five, including the Big Five Inventory (BFI) and the Trait Descriptive Adjectives (TDA).

Many replications of the psycholexical studies using factor analyses have found five factors, including those in non-Western cultures and languages other than English, which have led to the conclusion by some that the Big Five traits are universal and found in all cultures. Although some of the replications are not exact, they are quite close. When an English measure is translated to another language, four or five of the factors typically appear. However, when an assessment is developed within another language, there is usually less correspondence with the English versions, and sometimes additional factors beyond the Big Five have been identified.

Recently, other trait taxonomies have also been derived from the lexical method, and factor analyses have been used to examine the relations among trait terms. The HEXACO Personality Inventory assesses six factors: five dimensions somewhat similar to the Big Five, plus an additional dimension of honesty/humility (Ashton et al. 2014). A newer version of the Big Five Inventory (BFI-2) has also been developed to address some of the criticisms of the original BFI, in particular to account for socially desirable responding and to improve the properties of the facets that fall under each trait (Soto and John 2016). The BFI-2 has three narrower facets for each trait.

The Big Five and the Big Two

The five-factor model is the most widely accepted taxonomy of personality traits that includes extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism/emotional stability, and openness to experience/intellect. People with high levels of extraversion are sociable and dominant, have high energy levels, and experience high levels of positive emotions. People with high levels of agreeableness are compliant, kind, generous, and trusting. People with high levels of conscientiousness are dutiful, self-controlled, organized, and reliable. People with high levels of neuroticism are hostile, self-conscious, anxious, and emotionally unstable and experience high levels of negative emotions. Neuroticism is sometimes labeled with its opposite pole: emotional stability. The fifth trait has been labeled differently in different taxonomies. Some taxonomies use the label openness to experience or open-mindedness, which reflects an emphasis on creativity, curiosity, and artistic-ness. Other taxonomies use the label intellect, which reflects mostly intelligence and cleverness.

The Big Five traits are at a broad level, meaning that they describe broad patterns of behavior, and therefore people with similar levels of the same trait are likely to display quite different behaviors and to experience different thoughts and emotions. More narrow aspects of personality have been identified for each of these broad traits, and these aspects or facets can be used to examine more narrow aspects of personality. For example, the trait of extraversion can be broken down into the facets of warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement seeking, and positive emotions (Costa and McCrae 1992) or into sociability, assertiveness, and energy level (Soto and John 2016).

Research has also examined personality at an even higher level than the Big Five, and two factors have been identified. Recent research suggests that higher-order factors, or metatraits, may be more appropriate than the five-factor model to use when describing personality for some purposes (DeYoung 2015). The higher-order factor that is labeled “Alpha” includes the Big Five factors of neuroticism (reversed), conscientiousness, and agreeableness. The higher-order factor that is labeled “Beta” includes extraversion and openness/intellect. These higher-order traits are sometimes referred to as “The Big Two” and have also been labeled stability and plasticity (DeYoung 2015). There appear to be neurological explanations tied to both of the Big Two factors that include the serotonin and dopamine systems. The stability metatrait involves self-regulation and constraint mediated by the serotonin system, whereas the plasticity metatrait involves exploration and engagement as mediated by the dopamine system. These higher-order traits may facilitate the study of personality traits from a biological perspective.

It is important to note that even though the FFM is the most accepted taxonomy of traits, it does not encompass all of the traits that are important for describing personality and predicting behavior. Other traits, such as authoritarianism, religiosity, narcissism, and ego-control and ego-resiliency, cannot be subsumed within or fully described by combinations of the Big Five traits. It is important for researchers to think about their area of interest and choose the traits that will fit their question, prediction, or model and to not default to only measuring the Big Five.

Although the Big Five traits have many advantages and have helped to organize research on personality in general and traits in particular, there have been many critics of this model over the years, including some of the personality theorists that contributed to the development of the model. Cattel was among those who never accepted the Big Five, and Norman and Digman had serious concerns over the model. One of the most outspoken critics was Jack Block (2010). One of his criticisms is that during the development of the Big Five, when the trait terms were initially reduced, only those characteristics that had several synonyms were included in the factor analysis, therefore some important trait concepts that had few words to describe them were excluded from the taxonomy. Other criticisms from Block are that the FFM is based on empirical findings from factor analysis instead of being based on theory; the factors are said to be orthogonal to one another although this is not true in that the factors influence one another and are empirically related; the results of factor analyses provide more consistent support for some Big Five traits than for others; and although related, the moderating effects of the other four factors are rarely taken into account when looking at relations with other constructs (Block 2010). However, there are certainly studies that examine how traits interact to predict outcomes (e.g., Bowling et al. 2011) or that use multiple regression to evaluate how each trait predicts unique variance in an outcome (e.g., Zhou 2015). Another important criticism is that traits are merely descriptive of patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and therefore cannot be used to explain behavior. However, based on relations between traits and behavioral outcomes that have been empirically identified, traits can be used to predict behavior even if they cannot truly explain behavior.

Using Personality Traits and Situations to Predict Behavior

Starting in the 1960s, the controversial person-situation debate centered on whether the person or the situation was more important in determining behavior. Research that showed large amounts of variability or inconsistency in behavior was interpreted as meaning that traits did not influence behavior. The extreme version of this, identified as situationism, was the view that traits did not exist and were simply social constructions or layperson’s stereotypes that did not predict behavior (Fleeson and Noftle 2008). Those on the other side of the issue argued that people were not all the same, and individual differences exist, are meaningful, and provide a basic guide for behavior. Furthermore, although behavior is variable, it is also relatively consistent across situations, and this provides support for the existence of traits. An individual might not act the same in every situation, but when confronted with the same situation over time the individual would show relatively consistent behavior.

Today, most researchers agree that the person-situation debate has been resolved. One resolution to this debate is person-situation interactionism (Fleeson and Noftle 2009). Interactionists recognize the influence of both the person and the situation on behavior and posit that the person influences the situation, and the situation influences the person and the expression of particular traits. Traits and situations influence one another in at least three ways. First, the expression of the personality trait may depend on the situation, and the effect of the situation may depend on the personality trait. Second, certain kinds of people actively choose or find themselves in different types of situations. Third, situations can be changed by individuals by virtue of what they do in those situations. The changes that individuals make to the situations are then reacted to by the individuals.

A model that is based on the idea of situation-trait interaction is the traits as situational sensitivities (TASS) model. According to this model, the impact that traits have on behavior depends on the strength of the situation (Marshall and Brown 2006). Strong situations have clear guidelines for appropriate behavior and therefore evoke similar behaviors regardless of a person’s trait level. Situations will evoke very little behavioral response when there is no provocation relevant to a given trait, again regardless of trait level. It is at a medium level of situational strength and provocation that the difference in behavior emerges as a function of personality – those high in a trait relevant to the provocation will display more behavior relevant to the trait, whereas those low in a trait relevant to the provocation will display less behavior relevant to the trait. The example given by Marshall and Brown was of aggressive behavior in response to provocation for aggression. When there was no provocation, people with both low and high levels of trait aggression both displayed little aggressive behavior. When provocation was high, people with both low and high levels of trait aggression displayed higher levels of aggressive behavior. The difference between people with high and low trait aggression was only evident at a moderate level of provocation, and at this point people with high levels of trait aggression showed more aggressive behavior than people with low levels of trait aggression. Another conceptualization of situation strength was proposed by Snyder and Ickes (1985) and focused on only two levels of strength. Again, strong situation is proposed to evoke similar behavior regardless of trait levels because there are strong guidelines and norms for appropriate behavior. On the other hand, weak situations do not have clear guidelines for behavior, and therefore behavior is more likely to be a function of traits. The overall conclusion based on the interaction perspective is that personality is maintained across situations and time, even though behavior is adapted to fit certain situations.

Another resolution to the person-situation debate was based on synthesizing the two sides to create a new perspective that acknowledges different types of consistency (Fleeson and Noftle 2009). In fact, Fleeson and Noftle (2008) found 36 different types of consistency. One example is that of consistency of contingency. This refers to the idea that individuals are different from one another in how they react to situations – in particular how they change their behavior as a function of the situation. Individuals typically respond in a consistent way to changing situations and they do so in a way that is different from other individuals. Within the synthetic model, it is posited that if traits exist and influence behavior, then high levels of consistency should be expected for aggregates of behavior, but variability should be expected for individual behaviors. These expectations are based on the conceptualization of traits as patterns of behavior and not as consisting of only a single behavior. This combination of consistency and variability has been demonstrated with the density distribution approach, which provides empirical evidence for the existence of both variability and stability within traits (Fleeson 2001). The bottom line is that trait-related behavior is both consistent and inconsistent, and density distributions empirically show this. This approach has revealed that people show various levels of all of the Big Five traits with regularity in daily behavior. All levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness are expressed, and most levels of agreeableness and neuroticism are expressed on a daily basis. People differ in their amount of variability, and this is a stable individual difference. Interestingly, studies often find that individuals vary as much over time as they vary from other people. In other words, within-person variability is as high as, and sometimes higher than, between-person variability. An important insight based on this research is that looking at only one point in the distribution of trait-relevant states for an individual is not enough to completely describe what the individual is like.

Within-person variability has also been found across different cultures. Within-individual variability was greater than between-individual variability in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Philippines, and Japan and was the lowest in China. Across cultures, the variability of behavior within the individual is a function of the situation, which was especially evidenced in Mexico and Japan where variability of behavior overall predicted variability across different roles (Church et al. 2013). The situation in which behavior occurs is often the source of the within-individual variability, and therefore the amount of variability can depend on the both the situation and the individual.

From these findings and others, it is suggested that the definition and study of traits begin to include the situation, specifically the idea that there are individual differences in how people respond to situations.

What Do Traits Predict?

Traits can be used to predict many aspects of individual’s lives. For example, traits can predict how people spend their time. In particular, conscientious students spend more time in classrooms and libraries than less conscientious students, students high in openness spend more time in coffeehouses and restaurants than less open students, and more extraverted students spend less time alone and are more involved in conversations with others than less extraverted students (Mehl et al. 2006).

Traits also predict many important life outcomes, such as physical health and mortality, job and academic performance, interpersonal relationships, psychological adjustment, spirituality, identity, and even political attitudes (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). Specifically, conscientiousness consistently predicts better physical health, and the negative pole of agreeableness (hostility) predicts poorer physical health. High or moderate levels of conscientiousness predict beneficial health habits, health outcomes, and longevity. Conversely, low levels of conscientiousness predict risky health behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse, poor diet, and poor exercise routines. Low agreeableness and neuroticism are less consistently related to health habits, but instead more often involve one’s reactions to life events and stress. Hostility predicts cardiovascular disease, and high neuroticism predicts poor reactions to and coping with illness in general.

Job performance across many kinds of jobs is often predicted by conscientiousness, while academic performance is predicted by both conscientiousness and openness (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). Traits other than conscientiousness can predict success in different types of working conditions, for example, extraversion predicts success at sales jobs, agreeableness predicts performance in jobs involving teamwork, and extraversion and emotional stability (the positive pole of neuroticism) predict job satisfaction and commitment to organizations. Neuroticism is consistently related to burnout and changing jobs.

Traits are also predictive of relationship outcomes across the life span (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). Low neuroticism, high extraversion, and high conscientiousness predict better adolescent relationship quality. High neuroticism, low extraversion, and low conscientiousness predict poorer relationships with parents. Low extraversion and low agreeableness predict more peer rejection of children, while extraversion is related to relationship status in adolescents. High neuroticism and low agreeableness predict more negative relationship outcomes in adults, such as abuse, dissatisfaction, and dissolution (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). Beyond using single traits to predict relationship outcomes, research has also examined how similarity of traits is related to outcomes. Similarity of some personality traits in couples has been shown to predict relationship satisfaction, but the type of trait that predicted satisfaction differed depending on the relationship status. For dating couples, similarity of conscientiousness and agreeableness predicted relationship satisfaction, while, for married couples, similarity of extraversion predicted satisfaction (Watson et al. 2000).

Personality disorders can also be predicted by traits and are thought to occur when personality traits go beyond the normal range and are at the extremes (Trull and Durrent 2005). Regarding psychological adjustment or psychological health, low agreeableness and low conscientiousness predict delinquency and externalizing problems in adolescents; high neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and low extraversion predict depression; low conscientiousness and high neuroticism predict antisocial behavior; low conscientiousness predicts attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and high neuroticism predicts anxiety disorders and psychopathology in general (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006).

In contrast to the prediction of disorders, traits also predict overall subjective well-being (SWB). High extraversion and low neuroticism predict high levels of SWB. The other Big Five traits – agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience – are more derived from situational influences and predict SWB to a lesser extent (John et al. 2008; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006).

Some aspects of spirituality and existentialism, such as gratitude, forgiveness, and sense of meaning, are predicted by openness, extraversion, and neuroticism (Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). The development of specific virtues is also related to traits, such that agreeableness aids the development of compassion, conscientiousness the development of perseverance, and openness the development of creativity.

It is important to remember that although these outcomes can be predicted by traits, both traits and outcomes are not static. For example, both physical and psychological health behaviors can change. In addition, traits themselves can and do change (Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006).

Where Do Traits Come From?

The answer to this question can be controversial. McCrae and Costa’s (2000) five-factor theory of personality claims there is a genetic basis to traits, whereas other theories claim that traits are influenced by both genetics and the environment, or by both nature and nurture. Support for a genetic basis for personality comes from research on behavioral genetics, the stability of personality, and the relatively new field of personality neuroscience. Personality neuroscience has uncovered connections between broad traits and neurotransmitters, brain activations, and volume of brain structures (DeYoung 2010; Yarkoni 2015). However, there is also support for the importance of the environment for shaping personality, as seen in important interactions between genetics and the environment, and in the phenomenon of epigenetics in which the environment influences how genes are expressed (Canli 2008).

Traits as Descriptions vs. Explanations of Behavior

Although traits have traditionally been conceptualized as a means of describing how people differ from each other or for predicting behavior, as seen in the previous section, new theories of traits have emerged that show traits to be both descriptive and explanatory. The Big Five theory has shown good utility at providing descriptions of patterns of behavior, telling us the “what,” but it is unable to show the “why” or “how” of patterns of behavior.

Whole Trait Theory identifies both the explanatory and descriptive components of traits while also combining the person and situation aspects of behavior (Fleeson and Jayawickreme 2015). To show the explanatory side of traits, a social-cognitive approach is suggested in which perceptions or interpretations of situations are especially important. The five main points of Whole Trait Theory proposed by Fleeson and Jayawickreme are as follows:
  1. 1.

    The descriptive aspect of traits should be thought of as density distributions of states that are relevant to traits.

  2. 2.

    It is important to be able to explain the Big Five traits.

  3. 3.

    An explanatory piece is added to the theory of traits, which together with the descriptive aspect provides an explanation of whole traits.

  4. 4.

    The explanatory side of traits is made of social-cognitive mechanisms.

  5. 5.

    The next step in research is to identify social-cognitive mechanisms of states that are related to the Big Five traits.


Social-cognitive mechanisms would theoretically be used to explain variability and stability of means found within the density distribution of states. Thus social-cognitive mechanisms would be able to explain the within-person variability and the between-person variability of density distributions.

Trait Stability and Development

High levels of stability are found for traits, both across situations and time, and in fact relative stability is part of the definition of traits. A well-supported principle of personality is that traits become more stable as people get older, which is known as the cumulative continuity principle (Caspi et al. 2005; Soto and Tackett 2015). This stability is influenced by four factors: genetics that influence people to remain close to a set point for traits; niche-building processes in which people create, find, or select environments or situations that are consistent with their traits; the development of an identity that allows people to make decisions and interpret experiences in ways that are consistent with that identity; and the development of typical levels of traits that allow people to behave effectively and therefore maintain consistency. However, there is also evidence that stability decreases in older adults (Lucas and Donnellan 2011). Additionally, the corresponsive principle summarizes the idea that people choose experiences based on their personality, and therefore those experiences serve to maintain the consistency of personality. Results from a meta-analysis of 24 longitudinal studies suggest that the primary mechanisms of increasing stability come from the environment (Briley and Tucker-Drob 2014).

But within this stability, traits also change across the entire life span from infancy to old age. It was once thought that traits, and personality in general, changed very little after age 30. However, there is convincing research evidence that traits continue to change long after that, although not everyone changes in the same manner (Bleidorn 2015; Roberts et al. 2006). A few theories and principles outline possible reasons for trait changes, including genetic maturation, gene-environment interactions, and maturation and social-investment theory. According to genetic maturation, genetics are the primary influence on trait development. The gene-environment interactions theory proposes that genetics interacts with the environment to influence trait development, meaning that environments can affect people differently depending on their genetic make-up, and how genes are expressed can differ depending on the environment (Caspi et al. 2005). Results from longitudinal research are more supportive of gene-environment interactions than of simple genetic maturation (Kandler et al. 2010). Social investment theory and the maturation principle posit that traits change as people respond to changing social roles, such as living on one’s own, getting a first job, marrying, and having children (Roberts et al. 2005). Investing in new social roles that demand higher levels of responsibility and maturity is proposed as a mechanism of trait development. These changes allow people to contribute to society, and high levels of these traits are associated with several beneficial outcomes such as health and longevity, and success in relationships and at work (Roberts et al. 2007). Several studies have found that trait maturation in multiple cultures consists of increases in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability, although another research has found that change in social roles is not the driving force behind trait development (Bleidorn 2015).

There is also evidence that traits develop in different ways at different points in the life span. During childhood and adolescence, rather than maturation, some evidence suggests that this can be a time of disruption marked by decreases in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, sociability, and physical activity (Luan et al. 2016; Soto and Tackett 2015; Van den Akker et al. 2014). Rather than a constant decline in conscientiousness, between the ages of 9 and 20, there is evidence of a pattern of increase, temporary decrease, and a return to increase (Van den Akker et al. 2014). However, there is also evidence of maturation of conscientiousness and emotional stability, and this change is stronger when based on reports from parents as compared to reports from the children themselves (Luan et al. 2016). Interestingly, in childhood and adolescence, the direction and rate of trait development differs somewhat depending on whether traits are rated by the children or their parents (Luan et al. 2016). The period of greatest trait development is young adulthood (Caspi et al. 2005), and this is when trait maturation tends to be seen. Self-esteem also tends to increase during this time (Orth et al. 2012). In older adulthood, there is evidence that extraversion decreases and emotional stability increases to about age 80 and then decreases (Mroczek and Spiro 2003), and that self-esteem decreases (Orth et al. 2012). More recent findings revealed that very late in life, neuroticism increases and extraversion and openness decrease, and the rate of these changes are moderated by factors such as closeness to death, number of disabilities and diagnoses of chronic illness, and cognitive performance (Wagner et al. 2016).

Future of Trait Research

Four areas seem likely to be the focus of future trait research: explanation of traits, the continued development of a systems approach to traits, variability of trait-relevant states and behaviors, and personality neuroscience. Future research regarding traits should focus on mechanisms responsible for traits to better understand where traits come from and why they develop in certain ways over time. As Fleeson and Jayawickreme (2015) proposed with Whole Trait theory, a fruitful place to look for these mechanisms is likely to be in the social-cognitive realm. The explanations for traits should include information on how affect, goals, cognitions, and biological mechanisms play a role in the process of how traits come to be. Explanations of trait processes could also explain consistency of behavior and how people respond to their environments differently. More research involving situations could enhance the understanding of traits, especially more research regarding the interactions between traits and situations.

A relatively new systems approach to traits can be found in the Cybernetic Big Five Theory proposed by DeYoung (2015). This theory of personality traits addresses both description and explanation and takes into account multiple levels of traits by using cybernetics, which is the study of goal-directed, self-regulating systems (DeYoung 2015). Cybernetic systems operate in a cycle that includes (1) goal activation, (2) action selection, (3) action, (4) outcome interpretation, and (5) goal comparison. Functional mechanisms and contents of memory are required to engage in the elements of the cycle, and they represent traits and characteristic adaptations, respectively. The theory also incorporates explanation of within-person and between-person variability, which are related to another likely area of future focus: variability of trait-relevant states and behaviors. Strong evidence exists for both the consistency and variability of states and behaviors that are related to traits and now that there is less focus on the person-situation debate and which side is right about the importance of personality and situations for predicting behavior, the field can deepen its investigation of how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors vary in predictable ways over the course of days and weeks, and across different situations with different demands and expectations.

Finally, the emerging field of personality neuroscience is likely to continue to provide insights into how traits are related to mechanisms and functions of the brain and other biological systems. A neuroscience perspective has the potential to help clarify the structure of traits and identify especially important traits for basic functioning, as well as to provide insights about the mechanisms related to how traits develop over time.


The study of traits has a long and dramatic history and has developed over time. The field regarding traits started out very broad and rather unorganized and has sharpened to a focus on the Big Five. The narrow focus, though potentially limiting, has enabled research on traits to progress, especially by showing that traits do exist. Research on traits is now at a place to move forward to reveal explanatory mechanisms for personality through various means.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyIdaho State UniversityPocatelloUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ashton Southard
    • 1
  1. 1.Oakland UniversityRochesterUSA