Personality trait

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A personality trait ( English trait , also personality trait ) is a relatively stable, long-term willingness of a person to describe and predict certain aspects of their behavior in a certain class of situations. So z. B. the personality trait extraversion to describe and predict the behavioral aspect “extraverted-introverted” in social situations. The Big Five are among the most famous personality traits . Particularly characteristic properties of a personality that are classified as positive are referred to as their strengths.

The term "personality trait" must be distinguished (Engl. The term of the current state of a person's state ), that varies across situations of time. Behavioral habits (Engl. Habit ), ie the learned responses to specific stimuli are also not taken into account personality traits.

The view that a person's behavior and experience is determined by their personality traits is called personism .


Delineate the concept of relatively stable personality trait, the term of the current state is (Engl. State ) of a person that changes over time significantly. Examples are the being and the attention throughout the day. People differ in the extent and in the course of such changes of state, e.g. B. how much their basic mood can change. That is why personality traits and changes in state differ only gradually in terms of their temporal constancy. The abilities and characteristics of temperament can also change, not only in childhood and adolescence, but also in middle and old age.

Not all psychologists share the definition mentioned above, but use the term personality trait with different meanings for:

  • the relatively long-lasting properties or the characteristic changes,
  • the characteristics considered fundamental or any psychologically interesting individual differences,
  • the characteristics of the behavior that can be observed and tested psychologically or all psychological characteristics of a person, d. H. including the subjective phenomena of consciousness processes and experience reality,
  • the properties of behavior and experience or also the characteristics of biological individuality, d. H. the genetic and physical basis of those psychic traits.

Personality traits in a broad sense include all psychologically comprehensible individual differences in behavior and well-being as well as their biological basis in the psychophysical individuality ( constitution ) of the person. A personality theory gives the general frame of reference for these characteristics and the practical psychological applications to be derived; the biography provides a vivid interpretation of a specific life story.

Many personality theorists emphasize the task of making scientifically based predictions of individual behavior. Because of the numerous factors influencing human behavior and well-being, these predictions must always be given with methodological reservations and only as relative probabilities. As in medicine, professional practice relies on such conditional predictions.

The older, more of the character of customer specific property theories were geared mainly descriptive. Increasingly, however, tests , behavioral observations , questionnaires and measured values, etc. a. Results from psychophysiology and neuropsychology , used, as well as statistical methods (see differential psychology, psychological tests ). The terms character trait , character types and constitution type are not used today in scientific personality psychology.

Personality trait as a disposition (theoretical construction)

In personality research today, property does not mean directly observable behavior or a fixed trait, but a disposition in the sense of a willingness to behave. An extrovert person can behave socially, impulsively and lively in different life situations, but this disposition does not show up in other situations. Whether the disposition has an effect depends on the respective external and internal conditions. Disposition as a theoretical construct describes the greater or lesser likelihood that the person will (find) behave like this again in similar situations. How pronounced the individual disposition is can only be determined in a valid and reliable way if several interrelated (consistent) indicators such as test items and questionnaire items as well as various situations are taken into account. The psychological concept of a personality trait is thus constructed methodically and empirically by linking similar behaviors with statistical methods and then predicting similar situations.

In principle, a biological basis in the human brain is claimed for all personality traits , but there are only a few reliable neuroscientific results on this subject. It is doubtful, however, that personality traits can be completely reduced to differences in brain physiology. In contrast to the property of a thing or a substance, personality trait is a special psychological-theoretical concept (theoretical construct) and requires other categories beyond scientific concepts (see body-soul problem , reductionism ).

These constructions are commonly known as Hypothetical Constructs . The purpose of this is to be able to explain observable behavior. Personality traits are for example: intelligence, temperament and creativity. On the other hand, anger, fatigue or physical strength would only be situational states that do not last over a longer period of time and are also directly observable.

An example: The characteristic intelligence is used for illustration . An indicator at the empirical level would be, for example, the performance in problem-solving tasks or tests (for example carried out according to the criteria of the primary factors from Thurstone ). This would provide information about the hypothetical construct located on the level of theory, here intelligence. These two (hypothetical construct and indicator) are interrelated. In this way, the indicator can also be inferred from an already known characteristic of a person. In the example mentioned, this would be completing the test in a certain time.

Subject boundaries

In personality psychology, special explanatory approaches are worked out: How does a personality trait develop? How is it related to others and what are the effects? How can it best be grasped psychologically? On this basis personality theories are built and a concept of personality as a whole is designed.

This relationship to the personality system distinguishes personality psychology from differential psychology , which deals with the exact description of the numerous individual characteristics. In contrast, personality theories are mainly concerned with the structural and dynamic relationships between personality traits, i.e. with patterns of traits and general development processes. However, both areas are closely related, so that there is a subject term differential and personality psychology in the course . This area also includes the important perspective of how a personality develops over the life span, the biography .

Classification of personality traits

The textbooks of psychology differ in terms of which characteristic areas or personality traits are dealt with. As a rule, the basic traits are described, which in the past were often referred to as traits of temperament and character , e.g. B. the excitability or inhibition, the prevailing mood, forgiveness or hostility. Important property terms include a. the introversion – extraversion or the emotionality (see Hans Jürgen Eysenck ). In addition, there are attitudes , interests, value orientations and self-concepts, i.e. H. the assessment of oneself from various points of view. According to widespread understanding, religious, philosophical, political, etc. a. Beliefs, although often part of a person's enduring trait, are not viewed as personality traits. As a result, they - like the individual differences in social behavior and communication style - are treated more as a sub-area of social psychology .

Amelang et al. (2007) make a general distinction between the performance area and the personality area. Asendorpf (2007) breaks down with regard to temperament, abilities, characteristics of action, assessment dispositions, self-related dispositions (cf. differential psychology ). The textbooks usually deal with the area of intelligence with the various intelligence factors, individual differences in attention, memory, cognitive styles and also include creativity . In contrast, other abilities (talents) or personal attitudes and beliefs are hardly taken into account. Such conventional delimitations can hardly be justified from a technical point of view, because according to the introductory definition the area would have to be defined much broader. The individual characteristics of special motives, needs, moods and emotions as well as all recurring processes (course shapes) and patterns of behavior can be used to predict future behavior and well-being. Methodologically, a distinction must be made between the predictions for all people (or for a certain part of the population) and the individualizing prediction for individuals.

Accordingly, the main personality theories differ fundamentally in terms of their scope and their empirical database. Very few personality researchers, like Raymond B. Cattell , have tried to make a broad inventory of the different characteristic areas (characteristic factors, state factors , motivational and attitude factors). Attempting his Universal Index of Basic Properties was unsuccessful in view of the variety of characteristics and methods. The same applies to personality traits as to the even more numerous individual psychological characteristics: a general classification system (nomenclature) is missing and cannot be foreseen (see differential psychology ).


Personality traits can be recorded using the various methods of psychological diagnostics as well as the methods of neuropsychology and psychophysiology . If the strategic approach and the practical use for a certain decision are emphasized, it is called an assessment (see also assessment center ). Typical methods, each with many - up to hundreds - of individual procedures, are to be mentioned: psychological tests (e.g. intelligence tests), standardized questionnaires for self-description (self-assessment) and for external assessment (e.g. depression scale), free or structured interview methods, biographical analyzes, behavioral observations (e.g. children's play activity) or behavioral measurements (recording physical activity), experimental recording of objective behavioral measures (e.g. reaction times ), physiological and biochemical parameters (e.g. blood pressure, hormones) , neurophysiological measures (e.g. EEG ). Other methods such as projective tests (e.g. Rorschach test ) or graphology are rarely used today because their validity is very doubtful.

The operationalization in the development of generalized features takes place according to the so-called facet theory . The characteristic is broken down into different, more homogeneous content areas (the facets) and operationalized using items.

The scientific quality of the diagnostic methods must be assessed and controlled from a number of points of view. This test quality criteria relating to the validity ( validity ), reliability ( reliability ), the objectivity of the implementation and evaluation, the scope of standardization with respect to the total population as well as other aspects (see. Differential Psychology , aptitude testing , test methods ). The professional associations of psychology have adopted guidelines and are committed to quality assurance ( Test Kuratorium 2007).


In view of the numerous psychological methods available, it makes sense to capture a personality trait in a way that complements and safeguards one another using several methods - as is also the case with scientific thinking ("multiple operationalization"). If different types of psychological data are used, this strategy is called multi-modal (cf. Multitrait-Multimethod-Matrix ). If, with regard to a certain personality trait, (1) the self-assessments in a standardized questionnaire, (2) the assessments by trained observers, and, if possible, (3) the measurement (registration) of the behavior are compared, a broad agreement ( Convergence).

In fact, contradictions (divergences) are very often evident. Individual indicators of a personality trait are by no means as regularly and as closely related as was expected. For example, a person can be very careful in one area but extremely messy in other areas of life. For example, behavior at work and in leisure time seems to refer to completely different people. Similarly, social behavior can be fundamentally different depending on the partner and life situation.

The results of systematic investigations are very sobering and suggest that we should refrain from using overly global and therefore misleading property terms and prefer smaller, more precisely definable units (Fiske 1978; Baumann and Stieglitz 2008). A well-known example, which is important because of the practical consequences, is the psychological diagnosis of acute anxiety or persistent anxiety: depending on whether the examiner is based on the patient's reports, on behavioral observations or on physical measurements, divergent assessments could result. Fear emotion , anxiety behavioral and physiological fear arousal are significantly different from each other in many cases (Fahrenberg and Wilhelm 2008). This fact seems to be too little known, but has to be considered in a responsible diagnosis.

The psychological diagnosis of intelligence is one of the few areas where - regardless of the individual accents of the intelligence profile - a medium to very high statistical correlation of certain intelligence factors is generally assured: Those who can solve certain intelligence tasks well will probably be able to cope well with other types of tasks. It is undisputed that this disposition is also of great importance for success in everyday life, at school and at work, even if this is occasionally questioned. The research situation, however, is less clear about the role of intelligence in social tasks or creative achievements. Here, other personality traits seem to play an important role regardless of intelligence. Furthermore, it should be noted that a high level of intelligence does not completely protect against unreasonable actions and incorrect decisions (see cognitive bias ).


  • Manfred Amelang, Dieter Bartussek, Gerhard Stemmler and Dirk Hagemann: Differential Psychology and Personality Research. 6th edition. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-17-018640-X .
  • Manfred Amelang, Lothar Schmidt-Atzert: Psychological diagnostics and intervention. 4th edition. Springer, Berlin 2006, ISBN 978-3-540-28507-6 .
  • Jens B. Asendorpf : Psychology of Personality. 4th edition. Springer, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-540-71684-6 .
  • Urs Baumann, Rolf-Dieter Stieglitz : Multimodal Diagnostics - 30 years later . In: Journal of Psychiatry, Psychology and Psychotherapy , 2008, vol. 56, pp. 191–202.
  • Jürgen Bortz, Nicola Döring: Research methods and evaluation for human and social scientists. 4th edition. Springer, Heidelberg 2006, ISBN 3-540-33305-3 .
  • Raymond B. Cattell: Personality and motivation: Structure and measurement . World Book, New York 1957.
  • Jochen Fahrenberg, Frank H. Wilhelm: Psychophysiology and behavior therapy . In: Jürgen Margraf, Sylvia Schneider (ed.): Textbook of behavior therapy . 3. Edition. (Volume 1) Springer, Berlin 2008, pp. 163-179.
  • Donald W. Fiske: Strategies for Personality Research. The observation versus interpretation of behavior. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco 1978, ISBN 0-87589-373-2 .
  • Testing board: TBS-TK. Test evaluation system of the test board of the Federation of German Psychological Associations . In: Psychologische Rundschau , 2007, vol. 58, pp. 25–30.
  • Hannelore Weber and Thomas Rammsayer (eds.): Handbook of Personality Psychology and Differential Psychology . Hogrefe, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-8017-1855-7 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Personality trait  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Facet theory in DORSCH Lexicon of Psychology
  2. ^ Rost, DH (2009). Intelligence: Facts and myths. Weinheim: Beltz PVU. ISBN 978-3-621-27646-7
  3. Suess, H.-M. (2001). Predictive validity of intelligence in school and outside of school. In E. Stern & J. Guthke (Eds.), Perspektiven der Intellektivenforschung (pp. 109–135). Lengerich: Pabst. ISBN 3-935357-69-9
  4. ^ Stern, E., & Neubauer, A. (2016). Intelligence: not a myth, but reality. Psychological Rundschau, 67 (1), 15–27. doi: 10.1026 / 0033-3042 / a000290