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What Is the Trait Theory of Personality?

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

trait theory research paper

Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

trait theory research paper

Verywell /  Brianna Gilmartin

What Is a Trait?

Allport’s trait theory.

  • 16 Personality Factors
  • Eysenck's 3 Dimensions
  • 5-Factor Theory

Frequently Asked Questions

The trait theory of personality suggests that people have certain basic traits and it is the strength and intensity of those traits that account for personality differences. The trait approach to personality is one of the major theoretical areas in the study of personality . Trait theory suggests that individual personalities are composed of broad dispositions.

There are four trait theories of personality: Allport's trait theory, Cattell's 16-factor personality model, Eysenck's three-dimensional model, and the five-factor model of personality.

This article discusses how traits are defined and the different trait theories of personality that have been proposed.

A trait is a personality characteristic that meets three criteria: it must be consistent, stable, and vary from person to person. Based on this definition, a trait can be thought of as a relatively stable characteristic that causes individuals to behave in certain ways.

The way psychologists have thought about personality, including how they define traits, has evolved over time. Unlike many other theories of personality, such as psychoanalytic or humanistic theories, the trait approach to personality is focused on differences between individuals.

The combination and interaction of various traits form a personality that is unique to each person. Trait theory is focused on identifying and measuring these individual personality characteristics.

If someone asked you to describe a close friend's personality, what kind of things would you say? A few things that might come to mind are descriptive terms such as "outgoing," "kind" and "even-tempered." All of these represent traits.

The first trait theory was proposed by a psychologist named Gordon Allport in 1936. Allport found that one English-language dictionary contained more than 4,000 words describing different personality traits . He categorized these traits into three levels:

Cardinal Traits

Allport suggested that cardinal traits are rare and dominating, usually developing later in life. They tend to define a person to such an extent that their names become synonymous with their personality. Examples of this include the following descriptive terms: Machiavellian, narcissistic, Don Juan, and Christ-like.

Central Traits

These general characteristics form basic personality foundations. While central traits are not as dominating as cardinal traits, they describe the major characteristics you might use to describe another person. Descriptions such as "intelligent," "honest," "shy," and "anxious" are considered central traits.

Secondary Traits

Secondary traits are sometimes related to attitudes or preferences. They often appear only in certain situations or under specific circumstances. Some examples include public speaking anxiety or impatience while waiting in line.

Cattell’s 16-Factor Personality Model

Trait theorist Raymond Cattell reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of over 4,000 down to 171. He did so primarily by eliminating uncommon traits and combining common characteristics.

Next, Cattell rated a large sample of individuals for these 171 different traits. Using a statistical technique known as factor analysis, he then identified closely related terms and eventually reduced his list to 16 key personality traits. Among them are dominance, perfectionism, reasoning, and self-reliance.

According to Cattell, these 16 traits are the source of all human personalities. He also developed one of the most widely used personality assessments. the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire.

Eysenck’s 3 Dimensions of Personality

British psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a model of personality based on just three universal traits.

Introversion/Extraversion

Introversion involves directing attention to inner experiences, while extraversion relates to focusing attention outward, onto other people and the environment. A person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extraversion (often spelled "extroversion") might be sociable and outgoing.

Neuroticism/Emotional Stability

This dimension of Eysenck’s trait theory is related to moodiness versus even-temperedness. Neuroticism refers to an individual’s tendency to become upset or emotional, while stability refers to the tendency to remain emotionally constant.

Psychoticism

Later, after studying individuals suffering from mental illness, Eysenck added a personality dimension he called psychoticism to his trait theory. Individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial , hostile, non-empathetic, and manipulative.

Five-Factor Model of Personality

Both Cattell’s and Eysenck’s theories have been the subject of considerable research. This has led some theorists to believe that Cattell focused on too many traits, while Eysenck focused on too few. As a result, a new trait theory often referred to as the "Big Five" theory emerged.

This five-factor model of personality represents five core traits that interact to form human personality. While researchers often disagree about the exact labels for each dimension, the following are described most commonly:

  • Agreeableness : level of cooperation and caring for others
  • Conscientiousness : level of thoughtfulness and structure
  • Extraversion : level of socialness and emotional expressiveness
  • Neuroticism : level of mood stability and emotional resilience
  • Openness : level of adventure and creativity

Criticisms of Trait Theory

Most theorists and psychologists agree that people can be described based on their personality traits. Yet, theorists continue to debate the number of basic traits that make up human personality. While trait theory has an objectivity that some personality theories lack (such as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory), it also has weaknesses.

Some of the most common criticisms of trait theory center on the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behavior. While an individual may score high on assessments of a specific trait, they may not always behave that way in every situation. Another problem is that trait theories do not address how or why individual differences in personality develop or emerge.

A Word From Verywell

The study of personality and what shapes and influences each person is fascinating. Those who study this field have varying opinions. However, they do build off one another and theorists tend to refine the work of their predecessors, which is common in scientific pursuits.

What is most important to understand is that everyone has different personality traits. We each have certain traits that dominate our personality, along with a myriad of traits that can arise in different situations. Also, our traits can change over time and be shaped by our experiences.

This theory states that leaders have certain traits that non-leaders don't possess. Some of these traits are based on heredity (emergent traits) and others are based on experience (effectiveness traits).

According to latent trait theories, these traits are present at or shortly after birth. Examples of latent traits are those related to IQ and impulsivity .

The identification of a trait can vary from one researcher to the next. This makes traits difficult to measure when applying this theory. Trait theory also doesn't explain what causes individuals with a certain trait to behave one way in some situations while behaving a different way in another.

The trait theory of personality offers people a way to conceptualize different aspects of personality. This can allow researchers to explore different traits, including how they interact and impact behavior. It can also help psychologists develop assessments that allow mental health professionals to better understand issues that people might be experiencing.

Fajkowska M, Kreitler S. Status of the trait concept in contemporary personality psychology: Are the old questions still the burning questions? . J Pers . 2018;86(1):5-11. doi:10.1111/jopy.12335

Worthy LD, Lavigne T, Romero F. Trait theory . Culture and Psychology . Maricopa Community Colleges.

Fleeson W, Jayawickreme E. Whole trait theory . J Res Pers . 2015;56:82–92. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2014.10.009

Friedman AF, Sasek J, Wakefield JA. Subjective ratings of Cattell's 16 personality factors . J Pers Assess . 1976;40(3):302-5. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa4003_9

Hampson SE. Personality processes: mechanisms by which personality traits "get outside the skin" .  Annu Rev Psychol . 2012;63:315–339. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100419

McCrae RR, Sutin AR. A five-factor theory perspective on causal analysis .  Eur J Pers . 2018;32(3):151–166. doi:10.1002/per.2134

Fleeson W, Jayawickreme E. Whole trait theory . J Res Pers . 2015;56:82-92. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2014.10.009

Khan Z, Nawaz A, Khan I. Leadership theories and styles: A literature review . J Resourc Develop Managem . 2016;16:1-7.

Siegel L. Integrated theories: Latent trait and developmental theories (from Criminology, Seventh Edition, P 285-315, 2000, Larry J. Siegel, -- See NCJ-185178) . U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

Allport GW. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation . Holt.

Cattell RB. Personality: A Systematic Theoretical and Factual Study . McGraw-Hill. doi:10.1037/10773-000

Eysenck HJ. The Structure of Human Personality . Methuen.

McCrae RR, Costa PT. Personality trait structure as a human universal . Amer Psychol . 1997: 52 ;509-516. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.52.5.509

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Learn about Resonant Leadership, Emotional Intelligence the six leadership styles and how to practically switch between the styles  to become a more effective , flexible and impactful leader!

The Trait Theory of Leadership Explained with Examples, Pros, and Cons

The Trait Theory of Leadership focused on leadership studies in the first half of the 20 th century before behavioral and contingency theories started gaining ground. This article explains the trait theory of leadership, its origins, and several trait theory examples, guiding us toward developing exemplary leadership traits. Many of them are skills and characteristics I aim to improve to increase performance in my roles as a CEO.

What is the trait theory of leadership?

The trait theory of leadership analyzes traits such as mental, physical, and social characteristics of leaders. The trait theory of leadership argues that leaders can become more successful by developing and learning those key traits, a significant difference from the earlier Great Man Theory.

LEADERSHIP ORIGINS A 116 page E-book with articles on Great Man Theory, Trait Theory, Behavioral Theories (Lewin, Ohio, Michigan, Blake & Mouton), Contingency Theories (Fiedler, Path-Goal, Situational)

When talking about Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, etc., the first thing people think about is leadership. All these persons (and not only they) have had millions of followers that believed everything they do is right. But why were they the ones that changed the world? How did they reach such heights? What made them so famous? These are not new questions. People have been looking for answers for centuries. There have been myriads of theories trying to explain what traits leaders have or should have. One of such approaches is known as the trait theory of leadership .

Everything began in the 1800s when several research studies emerged trying to respond to the so-called Great Man theory of leadership . The latter was initially proposed by Thomas Carlyle [1], who was sure leaders are born with concrete traits, which can't be acquired over time.

However, the Great Man theory cannot answer a list of questions such as "what about people who have supposed leader traits but are not leaders?" or "what about the leaders who don't possess those traits but still succeed in leadership and management?" [3] In this regard, Ronald Reagan's words sound quite appropriate:

"The greatest leader is not one who does greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things." [2]

What is the main idea of the trait theory?

The main idea of the trait theory of leadership is that some specific traits are seen in most leaders. Trait theory research aims at analyzing mental, physical, and social characteristics in an attempt to understand what combination of characteristics is common among successful leaders.

Before you continue, consider getting our leadership theories e-book called Leadership Origins , which contains in-depth information on ten impactful and well renowned leadership theories, including Trait Theory. Great reference material for students, and an awesome learning experience for managers and aspiring leaders.

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A  116 page E-book with Leadership Theories Over The Years: From Great Man And Trait Theory To Situational Leadership Theories

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The Characteristics of Trait Theory of Leadership

Unlike the Great Man theory , the trait theory of leadership doesn't believe good leaders are born with specific traits. Instead, the theory focuses on characteristics that make persons good leaders. So if working on them, anyone can become a leader with many followers. Gordon Allport was the first investigator who thought there are traits anyone can develop to become a good leader. Shortly, many others welcomed his idea - Raymond Cattell, B.F. Skinner, and Ralph Stogdill. Allport is known for identifying up to 18,000 words in the English-language dictionary that describe a good leader. Those words were divided into three groups of cardinal, central, and secondary traits and skills. There were many questions regarding the validity of this theory, but it was a solid move to a new thesis.

According to the trait theory of leadership and its advocates, leaders are better at showing themselves off, are psychologically better adjusted to display better judgment, engage themselves in social activities, always know more, and never hesitate to take the lead. In other words, people who want to become good leaders should always learn, be informed, know how to display themselves and appear in situations where these traits could be helpful. In this sense, any of the aforementioned characteristics can be developed over time according to the trait theory of leadership.

However, if Allport divides the leader traits into three groups, Henry Fayol thought there are additional characteristics groups, such as physical, mental, moral, educational, technical, and experience. Another researcher, Charles Brid, pointed to twenty lists of traits attributed to leaders.

Logically, all researchers take a set of traits that they think are common for leaders. Ralph M. Stogdill tried to collect them into one place. [4]

Trait Theory of Leadership Examples

Stogdill's study shows that traits of successful leaders include:

  • Physical and constitutional factors : Among them, we can mention height, weight, physique, health, and appearance. Scientists think they have a certain impact on a person's success, and activity, in general. (But if Alexander the Great is said to be extremely handsome with "a certain melting look in his eye", the same can't be said about Napoleon Bonaparte, who had the appearance of being shorter than he really was. [6])
  • Intelligence: This is the most important trait, as leaders generally have a higher level of intelligence than the average of their followers. It is described as an ability to think scientifically, analyze accurately and interpret problems. It's a natural quality related to the human brain and its activity. But psychologists think it can be improved with the help of proper training programs. Due to such an ability, good leaders make decisions that move the group forward.
  • Self-confidence : As great leaders are self-assured, their followers act in the same way. At least, they are sure of what they are doing or believing.
  • Decisiveness: Great leaders know that they are the ones expected to make the tough decisions, and they are confident in making those choices.
  • Emotional Stability: Successful leaders are consistent in their actions; know how to control their emotions, especially anger. Avoiding overreactions is what every leader needs. (Learn more in my book about your inner dialogue and how to harness it. Available at Amazon: Intrapersonal Communication . (Ad))
  • Adaptability and flexibility : You cannot find a leader that does not think outside of the box. Such an ability helps them adapt quickly to changing situations.
  • Courage and responsibility : Good leaders never hide from challenges. In addition, they take on responsibility (and take ownership of their mistakes).
  • Art of Communication : Great leaders know various techniques of interacting with both other leaders and team members.
  • Role model : Leaders are skilled. Therefore, team members always know whom they will look at when unaware of how things should be done. In this sense, leaders should have some technical skills of planning, delegation, analysis, making decisions, controlling, etc.
  • Trustworthiness : Team members always trust them. For this, leaders should have the ability to work with team members by winning their confidence and loyalty. As a result, people will cooperate with them willingly and not under pressure.
  • Vision and Foresight : Successful leaders can foresee the future, visualize trends and act according to them.
  • Empathy : Leaders ought to be able to observe things or situations from the point of view of others. This ability helps leaders predict and understand the behavior of people.
  • Motivation : Leaders should be great motivators. They know how to inspire team members to do their best.

However, all these traits are only suggestive and the list is not exhaustive. This means that a person may not have most of them but still be a successful leader. Vice versa, a person might have all the aforementioned qualities but fail when it comes to leadership. Anyway, according to the trait theory of leadership, these qualities appear in most leaders. So when thinking of traits that leaders should have, this list is what describes most of them.

Many different lists of leadership traits have emerged over the years[8}. In the earlier years, six to eight traits were seen as the common leadership traits, only to be reduced to three or four traits in the 1980s. Later studies, in 2004, resulted in a long list of fourteen different leadership traits. Here are a few examples in chronological order.

In 1948, Stogdill concluded the following list of leadership traits:

  • Intelligence
  • Self-confidence
  • Responsibility
  • Persistence
  • Sociability

Retaining some similarities with Stogdill's list, here is Mann's list of leadership traits from 1959:

  • Masculinity
  • Extraversion
  • Conservatism

Here is an example of a shorter list. McCall and Lombardo concluded the following list of leadership traits in 1983:

  • Emotional Stability and Composure
  • Admitting error
  • Good Interpersonal Skills
  • Intellectual breadth

Let us end with a more modern take on the topic. Zaccaro, Kemp, and Bader concluded the following list of leadership traits in 2004:

  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Neuroticism
  • Honesty and Integrity
  • Achievement motivation
  • Need for Power
  • Oral and Written Communication
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • General Problem-Solving

Traits concerning interpersonal skills, communication, integrity, and extraversion seem to become more common in the later lists, especially during and after the 80s. I think this is also a sign of leadership changing over the years and adapting more to leading knowledge workers, rather than the old school Taylorism approach to humans as cogs in the machinery. We offer guides, books, courses, and coaching to help you develop your leadership and traits further. Please have a look at our products and services page.

Trait theory of leadership through the years. (Feel free to use the image as long as you link back to this page.)

Trait Theory of Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages

The biggest advantage of the trait theory of leadership is that it moved away from the old Great Man theory that had no serious scientific background. All researchers were trying to find a correlation between successful leaders and a limited number of factors describing them. But Carlyle showed that leaders have traits not included in the factors list. Therefore, the Great Man theory can't be treated as a reliable approach.

Nevertheless, the trait theory of leadership is one of the major theoretical areas in studying human personality. It tries to find differences between individuals. In addition, it was one of the first systematic attempts to study leadership and understand its nature. At the core, this approach believes that various traits form a personality and tries to measure it somehow. So knowing those traits and dispositions, anyone who wants to become a successful leader can improve them.

"Leadership consists not in degrees of technique but traits of character; it requires moral rather than athletic or intellectual effort, and it imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint." - Lewis H. Lapham [7]

On the other hand, the trait theory of leadership received a massive dose of criticism as well. Honestly, the accusations were quite reasonable. The theory is straightforward, but it still fails to produce clear-cut results. In this regard, Jenning's words fully describe the theory: "Fifty years of study have failed to produce a one Personality trail or set qualities that can be used to discriminate leaders and non-leaders". [5]

The Advantages of the Trait Theory of Leadership

  • Trait Theory helped to move the focus from the Great Man Theory of Leadership, opening up new possibilities in the leadership studies field.
  • It brought significant advances in studying human personalities and characteristics.
  • The theory brings well-needed complexity to leadership, rather than reducing it two just a few behavioral leadership styles as in the Lewin leadership studies .
  • It guides leaders on which types of characteristics to improve further

The Disadvantages of the Trait Theory of Leadership

Here are some of the weaknesses, disadvantages, and limitations of the trait theory of leadership:

  • The trait theory of leadership fails to cover all situations and circumstances.
  • Various authors suggest different lists of traits, making the theory less specific
  • Trait theory does not consider other leadership factors.
  • Trait theory doesn't provide any comparative results.
  • No surveys show how different degrees of the same trait affect the leader's behavior and performance.
  • In the end, there are no definite tests for the measurement of these traits.

Further Reading

Before you continue, consider getting our leadership theories e-book called Leadership Origins , which contains in-depth information on ten impactful and well-renowned leadership theories, including Trait Theory. Great reference material for students, and an awesome learning experience for managers and aspiring leaders.

I recommend you read our articles on the Ohio State and Michigan University studies on leadership , which involve behavioral leadership approaches during the 1940s and 50s. Once the contingency theories of leadership emerged in the 1960s, such as Fiedler's Contingency Theory of Management , most approaches to leadership include situational elements. You can read about these theories and more modern leadership approaches such as the Situational Leadership Model, transformational, servant, and adaptive leadership in our leadership styles portal , which might be the biggest leadership styles database available online. If you are sincere about improving your leadership capabilities, I also suggest you read our article on how to create a leadership development plan for yourself . For a general article, consider 12 common leadership styles and how to choose yours .

[1] Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Divinity" in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840). [2] https://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2011/02/ronald_reagan_on_leadership.html [3] http://www.jiwaji.edu/pdf/ecourse/political_science/MA_POL.SC._IV_401_LEADERSHIP_THEORY.pdf [4] Stogdill, Ralph M. Personal Factors Associated With Leadership: A Survey Of The Literature. The Journal of Psychology 25.1 (1948) [5] https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/leadership/trait-approach-to-leadership-its-criticism-explained/64004 [6] https://www.britannica.com/story/was-napoleon-short [7] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/lewis_h_lapham_166526# [8] https://www.technofunc.com/index.php/leadership-skills-2/leadership-theories/item/trait-theory-of-leadership-2

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The Link between Individual Personality Traits and Criminality: A Systematic Review

N. k. tharshini.

1 Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Kota Samarahan 94300, Sarawak, Malaysia

Fauziah Ibrahim

2 Centre for Research in Psychology and Human Well-Being, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi 43600, Selangor, Malaysia; ym.ude.mku@haizuafi (F.I.); ym.ude.mku@kmihar (M.R.K.)

Mohammad Rahim Kamaluddin

Balan rathakrishnan.

3 Faculty of Psychology and Education, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Kota Kinabalu 88400, Sabah, Malaysia; ym.ude.smu@nalahbr

Norruzeyati Che Mohd Nasir

4 School of Applied Psychology, Social Work and Policy, Universiti Utara Malaysia, Sintok 06010, Kedah, Malaysia; ym.ude.muu@itayez

In addition to social and environmental factors, individual personality traits have intricately linked with maladaptive behaviour. Thus, the purpose of this article was to review the link between individual personality traits and criminality. A systematic review was conducted to obtain information regarding the link between individual personality traits with criminal behaviour in the Sage, Web of Science, APA PsycNet, Wiley Online Library, and PubMed databases. The results indicate that individual personality traits that contribute towards criminality are (i) psychopathy; (ii) low self-control; and (iii) difficult temperament. As an overall impact, the review is expected to provide in-depth understanding of the link between individual personality traits and criminality; hence, greater consideration will be given to the dimension of personality as a notable risk factor of criminal behaviour.

1. Introduction

Criminology has become an interdisciplinary field where the focal point of each study has diversely evolved from individual-level to environmental-level risk factors associated with criminal behaviour. As such, individual personality traits constitute one dimension of the bigger picture which has received significant empirical attention in recent decades, especially research linking personality traits to various measures of crime. According to Beaver (2017) [ 1 ], personality refers to the stability of individuals in regard to patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. In general, personality traits can be categorised into four general combinations, namely (i) high control–high affiliation; (ii) low control–low affiliation; (iii) high control–low affiliation; and (iv) low control–high affiliation [ 1 ]. Some empirical research has suggested that high interpersonal control and low interpersonal affiliation are strongly interrelated with antisocial behaviour [ 1 ].

The Big Five Model of Personality suggested that five domains largely account for individual differences in personality including (i) extraversion; (ii) openness; (iii) neuroticism; (iv) agreeableness; and (v) conscientiousness [ 2 ]. Sleep (2021) [ 2 ] stated that low conscientiousness, low agreeableness, and high neuroticism increase aggression, mental distress, and antisocial behaviour among individuals. Similarly, the personality theory constructed by Eysenck (1966) (trait-psychologist) proposes a significant relationship between criminal behaviour and personality variables [ 3 ]. Based on the Eysenck personality theory, there are three fundamental factors of personality including psychoticism (P), extraversion (E), and neuroticism (N) [ 3 ]. Empirical investigations discover that delinquents score high on the P scale compared to the E and N scales [ 3 ]. More specifically, the P scale predicts those involved in violence and sexual crimes, whereas the N scale predicts serious crime and recidivism [ 3 ]. Furthermore, a great deal of research has also found that psychoticism is always connected to crime, whereas extraversion is related to younger samples (young offenders/delinquent), and neuroticism is related to older samples (adult offenders) [ 3 ].

A meta-analysis related to personality and antisocial behaviour has concluded that individuals who commit crime tend to be self-centred, hostile, adhere to unconventional values/beliefs, and have difficulty controlling their impulses [ 4 ]. In addition, compared to non-offenders, individuals who commit crimes are less sociable, more aggressive, sensation seekers, and tend to score higher for the neuroticism and psychoticism dimensions [ 5 ]. Additionally, Jones et al., (2016) [ 5 ], and Cunha et al., (2018) [ 6 ], found that individual personality traits represent a predictor of criminal behaviour regardless of gender, race, age, or geographical location. Acknowledging the role of individual personality traits in relation to criminal behaviour, the current study seeks to develop an improved understanding of personality traits to impart significant information to the existing literature in the field of crime studies.

2. Materials and Methods

This review followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. Keywords such as “personality”; “personality traits”; “individual personality”, “maladaptive behaviour”; “crime”, and “antisocial behaviour” were typed into the Sage, Web of Science, APA PsycNet, Wiley Online Library, and PubMed databases to find the relevant information.

2.1. Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Studies that were included in this review are (i) full-text articles; (ii) articles published in Sage, Web of Science, APA PsycNet, Wiley Online Library, and PubMed; (iii) research with at least 20 respondents (to reduce the bias associated with a small sample size; (iv) studies that examine the link between personality traits and criminal behaviour; and (v) articles that were published from January 2016 to June 2021. Conversely, the exclusion criteria in this review were (i) duplicate publication; (ii) articles published before January 2016, (iii) studies with less than 20 respondents (due to small sample size); (iv) non-full-text articles; and (v) articles that do not reflect the link between personality traits and criminality.

2.2. Screening and Selection Process

For this review, a total of 22,608 sources were found in five well-established databases. A total number of 8007 articles were identified after duplicates were removed. After including other exclusion criteria such as non-full-text articles, year of publication and sample of studies, 127 articles were assessed for eligibility. Furthering this, 94 articles were removed at the eligibility stage since the content of the article did not clearly reflect the link between personality traits and criminality. In the end, 33 full-text articles were reviewed in this study. Figure 1 depicts the flowchart of the systematic review process, whereas Table 1 delineates the summary of articles that were reviewed in this study.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is ijerph-18-08663-g001.jpg

Flowchart of the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA).

Summary of articles.

3. Results and Discussion

Based on the systematic review, the finding of the study stipulates that there are three major personality traits which contribute towards criminal behaviour, namely (i) psychopathy; (ii) low self-control; and (iii) difficult temperament.

3.1. Psychopathy

The term “psychopathy” is commonly used in the global literature on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Psychopathy is a clinical construct associated with emotional and behavioural disturbance, which are considered important risk factors for criminal and antisocial behaviour, criminal recidivism, sexual recidivism, and instrumental violence [ 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 ]. Most of the research concerning the measurement of psychopathy has employed Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (now the Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist—Revised) as the main psychological assessment tool to identify the presence of psychopathic traits in an individual [ 8 ]. An individual who scores high for the psychopathy measure (usually > 30 on the PCL-R) is more likely to be short-tempered, irresponsible, egocentric, callous, display superficial charm, frequently violates social norms/values, and be unable to empathise [ 4 , 6 , 7 , 11 ]. Similarly, Boccio and Beaver (2016) [ 11 ] identified that an individual with psychopathic personality traits have a lower level of self-regulation, are manipulative, impulsive, and unable to feel remorse/guilt.

Based on the Big Five Model of Personality, scholars have stated that the psychopathy dimension is a mixture of high extraversion, low conscientiousness and agreeableness, and a combination of low and high neuroticism (depression, low anxiety, self-consciousness, vulnerability to stress, high impulsiveness, and hostility). For example, psychopathic criminals tend to commit a wider variety of crimes and are likely to recidivate faster compared to non-psychopathic criminals. In addition, the dominant conceptualization suggests that psychopathy is an inborn condition with a strong genetic component that is further escalated by environmental factors such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), traumatic childhood experiences, child maltreatment or parental inadequacy [ 12 , 13 ]. According to Cunha et al., (2018) [ 6 ], psychopathy is conventionally conceptualised as a syndrome that remains throughout life and influences different aspects of individual functioning, including their interpersonal, emotional, and behavioural traits. In addition, studies have revealed that psychopathy is more often diagnosed among men (31%) compared to women [ 4 ]. Similarly, an incarcerated individual with higher PCL-R scores is more prone to commit violent criminal offenses upon being released from prison [ 3 ]. Cunha et al. (2018) [ 6 ] also stated that individuals with psychopathic personality traits are unable to form strong emotional bonds with others and struggle to control their temper.

A burgeoning line of research has consistently revealed that the prevalence of psychopathic traits is higher among prisoners compared to general populations [ 6 , 7 ]. Theorist and researchers have more recently contended that approximately 1% of the general population exhibit psychopathic tendency, whereas approximately 15–25% of the prison population display these characteristics [ 14 ]. As such, individuals with psychopathic traits begin their criminal activities at a young age and continue to engage in antisocial behaviour throughout their lives [ 15 ]. In addition, myriad research outputs from the psychiatry, criminology, neuroscience, and psychology fields of study have shown that psychopathic personality traits are associated with serious juvenile offenders and adult criminals since these individuals are unable to process cues of punishment and rewards [ 5 , 6 , 8 , 16 , 17 ]. Moreover, recent neurocognitive findings unveiled that abnormalities in the amygdala (connected regions of the orbitofrontal cortex) may result in impaired decision making and social functioning, resulting in higher possibilities of engagement in antisocial behaviour [ 16 ].

Accumulating evidence stipulates that there are significant differences between types of crime which are commonly committed by a psychopathic female and male [ 18 ]. Generally, psychopathic females tend to be less aggressive and rarely repeat their criminal acts compared to males [ 18 ]. In addition, in some cases, psychopathic females have a significant level of impulsivity, a trait often associated with borderline personality disorder [ 18 , 19 ]. Furthermore, research related to psychopathic and sexual coercion shows that compared to non-psychopathic individuals, psychopaths are more likely to become sexual offenders (subgroup of rapists) [ 14 ]. Similarly, DeLisi et al. (2018) [ 16 ] notes that a psychopathic individual also displays severe alcohol and drug use (includes trying a greater variety of drugs and starting to use drugs at earlier age) compared to non-psychopathic populations.

3.2. Low Self-Control

Research examining the underpinnings of crime suggests that low self-control has been consistently linked with involvement in criminal activities [ 20 ]. Empirical evidence indicates that low self-control is associated with involvement in delinquency, violence, and antisocial behaviour [ 21 ]. According to Boccio et al. (2016) [ 11 ] individuals with low self-control are more impulsive, self-centred, prone to risky behaviour, irresponsible, and display volatile temperament. In addition, Brown (2016) [ 2 ] stated that individuals with low self-control exhibit six common characteristics. Firstly, those with low self-control tend to be less meticulous, prefer simple tasks that would require little commitment, are short-sighted, and exhibit a lack of self-determination. Secondly, these individuals are easily drawn to the more daring and exciting behaviour/activities. Thirdly, those with lower self-control are impulsive and tend to seek instant gratification, inclined to seize opportunities without considering the dangers/consequences of such behaviours. Fourthly, individuals with low self-control prefer simple activities over concentration-oriented activities such as a long conversation. Fifthly, those with low self-control tend to be less concerned about other individuals’ feelings and have a low tolerance for frustration and conflicts.

Findings from a broad array of studies have revealed that low self-control is a quintessential predictor of various maladaptive behaviours such as involvement in substance abuse, theft, property offending, and robbery among diverse samples of participants including parolees, jail inmates, and institutionalised delinquents [ 2 , 21 ]. According to Forrest et al., (2019) [ 21 ], low self-control increases the probability of an individual engaging in criminal activities when presented with suitable opportunities (mainly because they are unable to ignore or anticipate the potential long-term consequences of their actions). Furthermore, a plethora of studies has agreed that individuals with poor self-control are more likely to engage in a wider range of criminal behaviour such as computer-related crimes, associating with gangs, and participating in antisocial behaviour [ 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 ].

Based on the social control theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that females exhibit lower offending frequencies since they are more subjected to stricter enforcement and parental supervision compared to males [ 21 ]. The “parented more” variation that exists as a product of parental influence causes females to have a greater ability to self-regulate their behaviour whereas the less effective parenting of male children results in lower levels of self-control, consequently leading to involvement in criminal activities among males [ 21 ]. Similarly, Forrest et al. (2019) [ 21 ] and Mata et al. (2018) [ 22 ] found that gender and type of household (more patriarchal vs. less patriarchal) also influence an individual’s level of self-control. For instance, Mata et al. (2018) [ 22 ] note that females growing up in a patriarchal household along with a high level of parental control are less likely to have criminal aspirations.

A handful of studies have clarified that individuals with low self-control are less concerned with the long-term consequences of their behaviour and are more likely to engage in activities that provide them with immediate gratification, such as shoplifting and fraud-related behaviours [ 17 , 20 , 24 , 25 ]. In addition to the negative implications, many studies have indicated that low self-control and a high level of impulsivity is strongly related to socially undesirable behaviour such as smoking and risky drinking [ 25 ]. Furthermore, DeLisi et al. (2018) [ 16 ] found that low self-control and low moral values escalate intentions to steal and/or fight among individuals who regularly smoke marijuana, occasionally crack cocaine, and drink nearly every day.

3.3. Difficult Temperament

Human development is a complex phenomenon involving the joint influence of socioecological conditions and individual dispositional characteristics. As such, one’s temperament is defined as an individual characteristic which comprises a habitual mode of emotional response to stimulus [ 17 , 26 ]. Foulds et al. (2017) [ 26 ] stated that the temperament has been traditionally viewed as an emotional and behavioural characteristic of feelings and presumed to be more biologically rooted by maturation and heredity. Prior research has found that children who throw tantrums will usually react negatively towards people around them, have a low level of bonding with their parents (poor parent–children interaction), and develop various forms of psychopathological problems including antisocial behaviour [ 29 ]. According to DeLisi et al., (2018) [ 16 ], one’s temperament reflects the baseline differences in the central nervous systems that particularly involve components such as (i) emotionality and mood; (ii) variance in activity level; (iii) withdrawal behaviours; and (iv) self-regulation. In addition, empirical evidence shows that individuals with difficult temperaments experience mood disorders, anxiety disorders, major depression disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders, and drug abuse [ 17 ]. Furthermore, Foulds et al. (2017) [ 26 ] stated that temperamental deficits also contribute to crime/violence occurrence among adolescents.

Based on the theoretical framework, temperament was divided into nine major dimensions, namely adaptability to the environment; physical activity; approach/withdrawal in response to novelty; regularity of the child’s behaviour (rhythmicity); task persistence; quality of mood in terms of positive/negative feelings; threshold of responsiveness to stimulation; distractibility; and intensity of the reaction [ 30 ]. According to Dos Santos et al. (2020) [ 29 ], individuals with a low regularity of behaviour (rhythmicity) are more aggressive and delinquent compared to individuals with highly regular behaviour. Furthermore, the result of a study conducted by Nigg (2017) [ 28 ] disclosed that girls who scored higher for “adaptability to the environment”; “quality of mood in terms of positive/negative feelings (negative emotional reactivity and low positive affectivity)”; and “approach/withdrawal in response to novelty” (based on the temperament framework) are highly at-risk of engaging in antisocial behaviour.

Substantial evidence has emerged of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (including various forms of neglect and abuse) and temperament factors being significantly associated with conduct problems (relating to poor emotional self-regulation) [ 17 , 27 , 29 , 32 ]. The neurobiological model suggests that an early childhood adverse environment and stress regulating systems (autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) increase susceptibility to severe antisocial behaviour, such as being associated with gang membership, gang delinquency, and gang activities [ 27 , 29 , 31 ]. Moreover, existing evidence has disclosed that difficult temperament, peer rejection, disciplinary problems, and antisocial peer selection upon school entry also contribute to gang membership among youths [ 32 ].

Researchers have argued that the home environment, socioeconomic status, and parenting style have a profound impact on child temperament [ 17 , 28 , 29 , 32 ]. For instance, Nigg (2017) [ 28 ] found that negative parenting practices (inconsistent discipline practice, harsh behaviour, and permissive parenting practice) contribute to behavioural disorders among children. Moreover, some researchers have also begun to acknowledge that parenting roles significantly influence children’s temperament [ 30 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 ]. Dos Santos et al. (2020) [ 31 ] stated that inconsistent discipline practice by parents and harsh behaviour may accelerate nonaggressive antisocial behaviour (e.g., stealing or frequent truancy) among school-aged adolescents [ 31 ]. Furthermore, Dos Santos et al. (2020) [ 29 ] also found that a child who constantly receives negative parental feedback for bold behaviour may experience low self-esteem and start to display uncooperative behaviour and incohesive functioning while growing up. In the same line of thought, a great deal of research has revealed that youth with difficult temperaments who grow up in socioeconomically disadvantaged households (marked by poverty, unemployment) and have been exposed to a toxic neighbourhood environment (easy access to criminal gangs, easy access to drugs or firearms) are greatly at-risk of engaging in delinquent behaviour and future criminality across urban and rural contexts [ 17 , 33 , 35 ].

4. Limitations and Direction for Future Research

This systematic review has several limitations. Firstly, information gathered regarding the link between individual personality traits and criminal behaviour was only obtained from the Sage, Web of Science, APA PsycNet, Wiley Online Library, and PubMed databases, and published from January 2016 to June 2021. Thus, there is a possibility that some research published by well-known leading scholars might have been excluded from this review process. Secondly, studies included in this review were limited to articles published in peer-reviewed journals alone without including other resources such as newspapers, letters to editors, or prison reports, thereby limiting the generalizability of the findings.

Despite the outlined limitations, future research should concentrate on other singular features of individual personality traits such as narcissism, impulsivity, attitude favouring aggression, and Machiavellianism which contribute to criminal behaviour in order to develop diversified treatment protocols based on personality traits. Additionally, future studies should also include mediator factors to allow the in-depth understanding of the process underlying the link between individual personality traits and criminal behaviour.

5. Conclusions

In sum, this review adds to the growing literature in the field of crime-related studies and improves our understanding regarding how personality traits escalate the risk of engaging in criminal activities. Substantial empirical research performed by Gatner et al., (2016) [ 7 ] and Nigel et al. (2018) [ 8 ] suggested that psychopathy is a robust predictor of criminal behaviour, mainly focusing on instrumental violence. Furthermore, many scholars agree that instrumental violence among psychopathic offenders is significantly determined by the affective traits of psychopathy. Additionally, the inputs obtained through systematic review show that the domain of low self-control predicts a varied range of criminal behaviour. Based on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s social control theory, low self-control contributes to the adoption of deviant values and leads to an individual engaging in various types of antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, a difficult temperament has also been suggested to be one of the key predictors of criminal behaviour, mainly due to the influence of socioecological conditions and individual dispositional characteristics such as sensation seeking, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociosexual orientation.

Although the aim of this study was rather academic, the conclusion reached from this finding clearly identifies some significant risk factors for engaging in criminal behaviour. Admittedly, not all individuals with at-risk personality traits are at high risk of becoming delinquents/adult offenders. Therefore, it is essential that the stakeholders and practitioners who work within the criminal justice system to diversify their methods of assessment to identify individuals who fall under the “early onset group”. Furthermore, a proper treatment regimen that matches the result of the rigorous assessment is equally important to promote preventative measures to reduce crime rates in the future.

Through this review, it is transparent that major personality traits such as psychopathy, low self-control, and a difficult temperament can be measured using various scales/inventory or secondary data. Thus, it is suggested that the interventions that aim to reduce the risk of criminality should begin during the early childhood stage since some of the existing evidence agrees that youths usually start engaging in criminal activities after reaching the age of 15 years old [ 34 , 35 , 36 ]. Moreover, the identification of personality traits regardless of gender is also crucial to initiate appropriate preventative strategies for vulnerable groups such as children, at-risk youths, and adolescents.

Author Contributions

Introduction, N.K.T. and F.I.; material and methods, M.R.K. and B.R.; psychopathic, N.K.T., F.I. and N.C.M.N.; low self-esteem, N.K.T., F.I.; difficult temperament, M.R.K. and B.R.; limitation, N.C.M.N.; conclusion, N.C.M.N.; writing—original draft preparation, N.K.T.; review and editing, F.I. and B.R., N.C.M.N.; funding acquisition, F.I. and M.R.K. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

The publication fee of this article was funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Research Paper

Trait theory research paper.

trait theory research paper

This sample Trait Theory Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper , see the lists of research paper topics , and browse research paper examples .

Personality traits describe individual differences in human beings’ typical ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving that are generally consistent over time and across situations. Three major research areas are central to trait psychology. First, trait psychologists have attempted to identify sets of basic traits that adequately describe between-person variation in human personality. Second, social scientists across disciplines use personality traits to predict behavior and life outcomes. Third, trait psychologists attempt to understand the nature of behavioral consistency and the coherence of the person in relation to situational influences.

Describing Individual Differences: Trait Structure And Heritability

There are two prominent approaches to identifying the basic personality traits and their organizational structure (McCrae and John 1992). The lexical approach emphasizes the evaluation of personality trait adjectives in the natural language lexicon and assumes that those personality descriptors encoded in everyday language reflect important individual differences, particularly if they are found across languages. The questionnaire approach attempts to assess important traits derived from psychologically based and biologically based personality theories. Self- and peer-ratings on sets of lexically derived or theoretically derived traits have typically been subjected to factor analysis to develop hierarchical organizations of traits reflecting a small number of broad superordinate dimensions overarching a large number of narrow-band traits. At the superordinate level, contemporary trait structural models vary in the number of dimensions necessary to organize lower-order traits, ranging from two to sixteen. Each of these models can be assessed via self- and peer-report using reliable and well-validated questionnaires and rating forms.

In the most influential and widely used structural model, thirty traits are hierarchically organized into five broad bipolar dimensions, reflecting a convergence of the Big Five lexical traits (Goldberg 1990) and the questionnaire-based five-factor model (FFM; Costa and McCrae 1992). The Big Five/FFM dimensions are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Adherents of the Big Five/FFM model assert that these dimensions can be found across languages and personality measures, providing a comprehensive and parsimonious account of individual differences in personality.

Contemporary research on the heritability of traits has focused on the Big Five/FFM dimensions. Behavioral genetic studies have found substantial heritability ranging from 41 percent to 61 percent for the broad dimensions,with little evidence of shared environmental effects (Jang, Livesley, and Vernon 1996). Heritability of the narrowband traits of the FFM is more modest, ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent. It is widely believed that traits are influenced by multiple genes; molecular genetic studies, however, have not replicated results linking specific genes to personality traits. In addition to the genetic correlates of traits, promising new efforts by neuropsychologists using functional brain imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings have begun to reveal the neural basis for traits.

Predicting Behavior And Life Outcomes

Personality trait theory has been used in almost every branch of social science and practice. Researchers in clinical psychology have effectively used trait theory to predict both symptom-based psychopathology and personality disorders. Trait theories have also been used in treatment planning, as well as for understanding psychotherapy processes and outcomes.

trait theory research paper

Beyond clinical psychology, trait theory has been applied to industrial/organization psychology where it has been used to predict employee satisfaction and job performance. Personality traits have also been of interest to forensic psychologists in predicting psychopathic and deviant behavior. Other areas in which traits have been successfully employed include: predicting mate selection as well as marital satisfaction, social psychology, counseling, studies of human development across the lifespan, cross-cultural studies, learning and educational outcomes, and health-related behaviors and outcomes.

The Personality Triad: Behavioral Consistency, Individual Coherence, And Situational Influence

Trait theory implies that personality and behavior exhibit levels of temporal stability and cross-situational consistency. There is strong empirical support demonstrating that the rank order of individuals on various trait dimensions is stable (Roberts and DelVecchio 2000), as well as support that individuals’ behavior is relatively consistent across situations (Funder and Colvin 1991). It is also quite evident, however, that situational influences also impact stability and variability of behavior. For many years, the “person—situation debate” generated significant advances in the study of behavioral consistency and variability (Kenrick and Funder 1988), leading to contemporary interactionist models.

Since the early 1990s, evidence has accumulated supporting conceptions of within-person behavioral variability as classes of stable individual differences at the level of both psychological states and behaviors. While evidence of variability was first interpreted as support of situational influences, contemporary views propose a comfortable coexistence of large within-person variability and large between-person stability in the study of personality (Fleeson 2001; Fleeson and Leicht 2006; Funder 2006). This has recast the person—situation debate into an effort to integrate personality variability and stability.

These contemporary integrative models involve con-textualization of within-person behavioral variability and between-person consistency within the situation and include the cognitive-affective personality system (Mischel and Shoda 1995), knowledge-and-appraisal personality architecture (Cervone 2004), the density distribution of states approach (Fleeson and Leicht 2006), and the latent state-trait theory (Steyer, Schmitt, and Eid 1999). At varying levels of specificity, these models all employ intraper-sonal perceptual and meaning-making processes (e.g., explicit cognitive and affective subsystems are often proposed). As suggested by David C. Funder (2006), the future success of such approaches also requires identification of the psychologically salient aspects of situations.

Bibliography:

  • Cervone, Daniel. 2004. The Architecture of Personality. Psychological Review 111 (1): 183–204.
  • Costa, Paul T., Jr., and Robert R. McCrae. 1992. Normal Personality Assessment in Clinical Practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychological Assessment 4 (1): 5–13.
  • Fleeson, William. 2001. Toward a Structure- and Process-Integrated View of Personality: Traits as Density
  • Distributions of States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (6): 1011–1027.
  • Fleeson, William, and Christine Leicht. 2006. On Delineating and Integrating the Study of Variability and Stability in Personality Psychology: Interpersonal Trust as Illustration. Journal of Research in Personality 40 (1): 5–20.
  • Funder, David C. 2006. Towards a Resolution of the Personality Triad: Persons, Situations, and Behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality 40 (1): 21–34.
  • Funder, David C., and Randall C. Colvin. 1991. Explorations in Behavioral Consistency: Properties of Persons, Situations, and Behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60 (5): 773–794.
  • Goldberg, Lewis R. 1990. An Alternative “Description of Personality”: The Big-Five Factor Structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59 (6): 1216–1229.
  • Jang, Kerry L., John W. Livesley, and Philip A. Vernon. 1996. Heritability of the Big Five Personality Dimensions and Their Facets: A Twin Study. Journal of Personality 64 (3): 577–591.
  • Kenrick, Douglas T., and David C. Funder. 1988. Profiting from Controversy: Lessons from the Person-Situation Debate. American Psychologist 43 (1): 23–34.
  • McCrae, Robert R., and Oliver P. John. 1992. An Introduction to the Five-Factor Model and Its Applications. In The Five-Factor Model: Issues and Applications. Spec. issue, Journal of Personality 60 (2): 175–215.
  • Mischel, Walter, and Yuichi Shoda. 1995. A Cognitive-Affective System Theory of Personality: Reconceptualizing Situations, Dispositions, Dynamics, and Invariance in Personality Structure. Psychological Review 102 (2): 246–268.
  • Roberts, Brent W., and Wendy F. DelVecchio. 2000. The Rank-Order Consistency of Personality Traits from Childhood to Old Age: A Quantitative Review of Longitudinal Studies. Psychological Bulletin 126 (1): 3–25.
  • Steyer, Rolf, Manfred Schmitt, and Michael Eid. 1999. Latent State-Trait Theory and Research in Personality and Individual Differences. In Personality and Situations. Special issue, European Journal of Personality 13 (5): 389–408.
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