Learning Objectives

After completing this module the student should be able to do the following:

  1. Describe the current state of personality research.
  2. Outline the major trait theories of personality.
  3. Describe behaviourist approaches to personality
  4. Outline the cognitive and social cognitive theories of personality.


Class content

Personality is sometimes described as the psychological ‘style’ of the individual and because of the assumption amongst humans that we are all unique there is a widespread belief that we all differ with regard to our personalities. The degree to which we differ is an ongoing source of debate and one which led William James to comment that the differences between people are few but that those differences that do exist are important! Personality falls under the category of individual differences but in saying that it should be stressed that personality theorists are not just interested in how people differ from one another, they are also interested in what people have in common.

Costa (2003) claims that “personality doesn’t just influence your success in life, it determines it” (1) and in 1991 he and Robert McCrae of the United States National Institutes of Health devised a personality inventory which divides personality into five dimensions measuring five independent personality traits which seemed to consistently emerge from studies of personality. This model which is known as the 5-factor model or the big five is generally agreed upon in contemporary personality research and is considered by advocates of it to be a reliable means of representing the hub of personality. The five traits are;

  • Neuroticism, which measures emotional instability.
  • Extroversion, which measures happiness, energy levels and interpersonal skills.
  • Openness to experience, which measures propensity for novelty or variety.
  • Agreeableness, which refers to styles of relating to other people.
  • Conscientiousness, which measures self-discipline and organisation (1).

The logic behind the ‘big five’ system is that these five dimensions can fully describe human personalities, just as physical size can be fully described in three dimensions (height, depth, and width). The ‘big five’ model therefore allows for the countless variety of personality types that exist (2). The evidence to date indicates that these tests do actually measure something that is authentic and fundamentally human but even if these five traits do describe aspects of personality that are remarkably consistent we are still left with the question; what is personality?

In spite of the multitude of research that has been conducted into personality there is still no agreed upon single theory as to what personality is. A number of approaches to personality exist, some quite different from the others and in the next two classes we will look at some of those approaches and the major theorists behind them.

  1. Trait approaches

Personality traits generally refer to the consistent patterns in the way individuals behave, feel, and think (3). The 5-factor model that we just looked at falls into this category but the notion that people could be divided into different categories goes back at least to the time of Hippocrates (circa 400 BC) (4). In those times people were thought to comprise four groups: choleric (irritable and often aggressive), melancholic (depressed and pessimistic), sanguine (optimistic and cheerful), and phlegmatic (sluggish and unmotivated). Putting people into different groups or categories is still an ever-present aspect of daily life e.g. we are frequently categorised according to our gender, our nationality, our race, our occupation etc. In personality research the trait approach attempts to categorise people by defining the key personality traits of human beings which constitute the overall personality. The major ‘trait’ theorists are Gordon Allport (1897-1967), Hans Eysenck (1916-1997), and Raymond Cattell (1905-1998).


Gordon Allport believed that traits are the basic behaviour patterns of personality. They express what a person generally does over many situations. Allport claimed that there were between 4000 and 5000 different personality traits examples of which include friendliness, shyness, cleanliness, enthusiasm and so on (5). He accepted that different cultures had traits that were common to those cultures and by which people in those cultures could be compared. He believed that traits never occur in any two people in exactly the same way which of course means that each individual is unique and he made a distinction among three different kinds of traits: cardinal traits, central traits and secondary dispositions.

Cardinal traits are personal dispositions that dominate an individual’s behaviour. Examples include Scrooge’s miserliness, Don Juan’s seductiveness, Joan of Ark’s heroic self sacrifice and Machiavelli’s political cleverness. In general it is claimed that most people have few, if any, cardinal traits. Central traits on the other hand are more common and can be described as the building blocks of personality. They are more stable across time and situations than cardinal traits and include characteristics such as grumpiness, honesty, charm, shyness, foolishness and so on. He claimed that people have between five and ten central traits. Finally there are secondary dispositions which are not as noticeable as the above two. Secondary dispositions refer to attitudes and personal preferences and in general are narrower and more specific than cardinal or central traits. Examples include observations about people such as; “her political views are very much to the left” or “he prefers to work by night rather than by day etc.


Hans Eysenck was born in Germany but spent most of his working life in England. He was particularly interested in the biological nature of personality i.e. he was interested in the aspects of personality that are genetically based and considered personality differences as a result of our genetic makeup. He was a behaviourist and a mathematician and as a consequence believed that science and mathematical methods were essential in giving us an accurate understanding of human beings. His theory of personality is generally known as the three factor theory and assumes that the core of personality consists of three fundamental traits which account for the many different types of people in the world: introversion-extraversion (which together are considered as one trait), neuroticism, and psychoticism.

Although his final theory described personality in terms of three traits Eysenck originally described it in terms of two traits: introversion-extraversion and neuroticism. Introversion refers to shyness, an avoidance of crowds and noise and a preference for solitary activities. Extraversion refers to sociability, impulsiveness, spontaneity, and a general outgoing nature with a high level of activity. Neuroticism in this case can be stable or unstable and refers to emotions such as anxiety, worry and guilt. Eysenck considered that personality consists of a relationship between these two traits. He believed that two continuums existed, one with extraversion and introversion at either end, and the other with neuroticism at one end and emotional stability at the other.




Neuroticism…………………………………………Emotional stability


Personality is measured in terms of where along these scales a person is situated. Eysenck later added a third dimension which was called psychoticism which refers to a lack of concern for the rights and feelings of others and a general antisocial nature. A number of studies have supported the existence of these three dimensions and have found evidence that they may be inherited and also that they may exist across different cultures (6).


Raymond Cattell is another proponent of the trait theory of personality. According to his research human personality traits could be summarised by 16 personality factors or main traits. Cattell therefore believed that there are 16 factors of personality each on a continuum with every person possessing some degree of every trait.


Cattell’s 16PF (Personality Factors)


Concrete thinking………………Abstract thinking

Affected by feelings……………Emotionally stable















Allport, Eysenck and Cattell are the three major trait theorists but in general trait theorists use traits to account for consistencies in an individual’s behaviour and to explain why people respond differently to the same situation. One of the practical applications of trait theory is that these traits are then measurable and therefore we can scientifically demonstrate the degree to which people’s personalities correspond or differ.


  1. Behaviourist Approaches

Behaviourist approaches are sometimes called learning approaches. The central assumption that underlies the learning approach to personality is that the experiences of life change us and that they do so in ways that are predictable (4). In most cases learning/behaviourist approaches study how parents, peers, and specific situations influence the development of personality. In other words personality is developed through the influence of one’s environment. The theories of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and Burrhus Skinner (1904-1990) are among the most celebrated in the behaviourist literature and these are the theories that we will examine here.

Behaviourists are interested in external behaviour which is observable and quantifiable as opposed to internal thought which according to them is not. The Russian behaviourist Ivan Pavlov gained particular recognition for a process known as classical conditioning which is a type of learning which was ‘discovered’ following a well-reported experiment using animals. Pavlov noted that dogs showed a salivation response when they were offered food (food was termed an unconditional stimulus). He therefore set up an experiment whereby the food was offered to the dogs a number of times accompanied by the sound of a bell (the bell was known as a conditioned stimulus). After this he found that the bell alone (conditioned stimulus) could produce a salivation response because the dogs had associated it with food (unconditional stimulus). In this way Pavlov conditioned (trained) the dogs to salivate whenever the sound was made (7).

The implication of this theory is that human personality can be conditioned similarly. Pavlov’s initial experiment may have been pretty simple and straightforward but its findings have been extended to explain many complex social phenomena. For example classical conditioning has been used to explain how anxiety (phobias) develops in response to intrinsically nonthreatening events such as the presence of a harmless spider, or speaking in public etc. Classical conditioning can also be used to explain sexual deviation or fetishism.

The second behaviourist that we will look at is Burrhus Skinner whose theory concentrates entirely on observable behaviour, to such an extent that personality is viewed as behaviour. Consequently his theory of personality is not strictly a theory of personality, it is a theory of behaviour but as we just said behaviour according to Skinner is equated with personality. Skinner rejected Freud’s concept of unconscious urges and believed that they did not explain human behaviour. Skinner’s theory revolves around the concept of ‘operant conditioning’ which proposes that behaviour is shaped and sustained by its consequences. Conditioning concerns itself with producing particular responses under particular conditions and these responses which result from a degree of training would be different from the natural or normal response.

The word ‘operant’ refers to behaviours that ‘operate’ on the environment to produce effects that strengthen the behaviours and increase the likelihood that those behaviours will be repeated in the future. For example if a parent and child are in a sweet shop and the child discovers that the best way to get its parent to buy sweets is to start crying, this behaviour pattern will be reinforced or strengthened and it will be seen to work. Consequently it is more than likely to be repeated in similar situations in the future. On the other hand if the parent refuses to give into the child’s crying and does not buy sweets the behaviour pattern will not be seen to work and there will be a decreased probability of that behaviour occurring in similar situations in the future. Skinner referred to these behaviours as operants and to the process by which they are learned as operant conditioning (5). In the example we just looked at, the operant/behaviour (crying) is followed by a consequence (receiving or not receiving sweets) and the nature of the consequence (did the parent buy sweets or not) modifies the child’s tendency to repeat the operant/behaviour (crying) in future.

Skinner attempted to explain internal thoughts and emotions as well as overt behaviours in terms of operant conditioning. Other applications of Skinner’s theory include the areas of work and education. In both instances he was critical of the way that positive and negative reinforcement were used at work and in the classroom claiming that many workers are not induced to work hard or carefully or to enjoy what they do, and that many students have lost their love of learning.

  1. Cognitive Theories

The most prominent cognitive theorist is George Kelly (1905-1967). Cognitive theorists define personality primarily, or even entirely, in terms of cognition (5). Kelly’s theory is called the personal construct theory of personality and suggests that individuals construct their own personal interpretations of life’s experiences. Kelly believed that a construct is a way of perceiving or interpreting an event (3). For example if a number of different people view the same film or read the same book each person is likely to have a different interpretation than the others based on their own personal expectation and interpretation.

Kelly argued that the best way to understand personality is to think of people as scientists (4). The scientist’s ultimate aim is to predict and control (8) and according to Kelly each individual construes, categorises, labels, interprets and judges themselves and their world just as a scientist does with their particular subject matter. He claims that we all make up theories about the environment in which we live, we test these hypotheses and we retain or revise them depending on their accuracy (5) just as scientists adjust their theories to fit the facts. In cognitive terms the individual constructs their world by attributing meaning to past or current events and by attempting to predict future events. Kelly therefore stresses the necessity of understanding the individuals own constructs rather than viewing the person from the perspective of somebody else’s constructs (9). The implications of this approach are that we are essentially oriented towards the future; as opposed to being continuously haunted by the past as in some theories of personality, and also that we have the capacity to represent the environment rather than merely respond to it.

  1. Social Cognitive Theories

We saw in the behaviourist theories of personality that reinforcement or reward seems to play a significant part in an individual’s learning. In more recent times this concept has been extended to social learning as opposed to individual learning and the possibility of social learning without a direct reinforcement has been put forward. Social learning refers to learning that occurs as a result of observing the behaviour of others and it’s consequences for them and originally social cognitive theory was known as social learning theory. The attitude towards social learning theory changed over time and more emphasis began to be put on the thought processes (cognition) that are involved in human behaviour. Today what was originally known as social learning theory is now known as social cognitive theory. Social cognitive theory emphasises both the social origins of behaviour and also the importance of cognitive thought processes (3). In other words it views behaviour as the result of an interaction between people and their environment and claims that humans are capable of learning patterns of behaviour without the existence of rewards. The focus on cognition is what differentiates social cognitive theory from the Behaviourist theories.

Albert Bandura (1925- ) is the person primarily responsible for the social cognitive theory. Bandura believes that people acquire behaviours through observing others and then imitating what they have observed. Learning, according to Bandura, can occur by observing the behaviour of others, usually referred to as models. On the basis of a series of well-known experiments he concluded that there are a number of steps involved in the modelling process:

  • Attention. A person must pay attention to the behaviour of the model if learning is to take place.
  • Retention. In order to be influenced by the behaviour of others the person must be able to retain – remember – the behaviour that they paid attention to.
  • Reproduction. This involves converting mental imagery into actual behaviour and improves with practice.
  • Motivation. There needs to be an incentive for the person to act in a particular manner. This could be based on past experiences, future expectations or seeing or recalling the model being vindicated. On the other hand negative reinforcers such as past punishment, future threats of punishment, or observing the punishment of another can discourage the continuation of the modelled activity.

Bandura claims that humans are able to control their behaviour through a process known as self-regulation. Self regulation involves observing one’s behaviour, judging it against a set of rules or the standards set by the individual, and complimenting or criticising oneself as is appropriate. This can lead to high or low self esteem and the ideas behind self-regulation have been incorporated into a particular form of therapy called self-control therapy which is sometimes used for problems such as smoking and overeating. Another clinical application of Bandura’s theory is what’s known as modelling therapy where people with psychological disorders are given the opportunity to observe other people dealing with the same troublesome issues in a more positive manner, in the hope that the first person will learn by modelling the second.

Bandura had a huge influence on therapy but also raised a number of important questions about society in general. One in particular is the issue of media violence and society’s tolerance of aggression. In other words does media violence cause both children and adults to become aggressive? There are arguments either way but as Ewen (1998) claims “it is hardly unreasonable to conclude that the substantial amount of violence in our society is due in no small measure to the great frequency of violence in the media” (5).



(1) Costa, P. (2003). New Scientist 13th September pp 30-35.

(2) Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A. J., & Reisberg D. (2004). Psychology. Sixth Ed. Norton: New York.

(3) Pervin, L. A., & John, O. P. (2001). Personality: Theory and Research (8th Ed.). New York: Wiley.

(4) Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Perspectives on Personality (4th Ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

(5) Ewen, R. B. (1998). The Development of Personality: A Topical Approach. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

(6) Eysenck, S. B. G. & Long, F. Y. (1986). A cross cultural comparison of personality in adults and children: Singapore and England. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 124-130.

(7) Benson, N. C. (2002). Introducing Psychology. Cambridge: Icon.

(8) Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs (Vols 1 & 2). New York: Norton.

(9) Mischel, W. (1971). Introduction to Personality (3rd Ed). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Multiple Choice Questions
(Answers at bottom of page)

Q1. The 5-factor model of personality __.

  1. Is considered to be a dependable means of quantifying the essence of personality.
  2. Claims to measure five independent personality traits.
  3. Allows for numerous different personality types to exist.
  4. All of these.


Q2. Personality traits generally refer to the __ in the way individuals behave, feel, and think.

  1. General patterns.
  2. Inconsistent manner.
  3. Consistent patterns.
  4. Conflicting manner.


Q3. __ believed that __ traits are the core personality traits.

  1. Eysenck, cardinal.
  2. Cattell, central.
  3. Allport, secondary.
  4. Allport, central.


Q4. One of the main differences between the personality theories of Allport and Eysenck is that __.

  1. Eysenck did not believe in traits.
  2. Allport narrowed the core of personality down to three traits.
  3. Eysenck was a behaviourist who believed in the inheritance of personality traits.
  4. 2 and 3.


Q5. Eysenck believed that __.

  1. Four different traits account for the many different types of personalities.
  2. Three different traits account for the many different types of personalities.
  3. A person is either an introvert or an extrovert.
  4. Personality can be summarised by 16 factors (traits).


Q6. The theories of Eysenck and Cattell are similar in that __.

  1. They both agree that personality traits exist on a continuum.
  2. They both agree that personality traits can be measured.
  3. They both agree that people possess cardinal traits, central traits and secondary dispositions.
  4. 1 and 2.


Q7. Behaviourist approaches to personality __.

  1. Believe that people behave in the same manner at all times.
  2. Assume that life experiences shape us.
  3. Place a lot of emphasis on internal thought.
  4. Believe that human behaviour is not quantifiable.


Q8.  Classical conditioning is a type of __ which is associated with __.

  1. A type of personality, Ivan Pavlov.
  2. A type of learning, Burrus Skinner.
  3. A type of personality, Burrus Skinner.
  4. A type of learning, Ivan Pavlov.


Q9. According to Burrhus Skinner __.

  1. Personality is viewed as a behaviour.
  2. Freud’s theory of personality is inaccurate.
  3. Behaviour is shaped on the basis of its consequences.
  4. All of these.


Q10. George Kelly’s __ theory of personality believed that __.

  1. Psychoanalytic, personality is influenced by unconscious processes.
  2. Behaviourist, personality is affected by conditioning.
  3. Cognitive, people interpret their own experiences in their own way.
  4. Trait, traits explain why people respond differently to each situation.


Q11. Social cognitive theory emphasises both the social __ of behaviour and also the importance of cognitive __.

  1. Thought processes, activity.
  2. Elements, neuroscience.
  3. Origins, thought processes.
  4. Implications, neuroscience.


Q12. Albert Bandura believes that people acquire behaviours through __ others and then __ what they have observed.

  1. Imitating, discussing.
  2. Observing, imitating.
  3. Imitating, remembering.
  4. Observing, discussing.


Questions to Think About

  1. Do you agree with William James that the differences between people’s personalities are few but that the differences that do exist are important?
  2. Is it practical to put people into different categories with regard to their personality? Do these categories really exist?
  3. Do you agree with the logic behind the ‘big 5’ theory of personalities? Why?
  4. Which of the theories of personality that we have examined in this class do you agree with? What is ‘wrong’ with the theories that you disagree with?
  5. Is it possible that all of these theories could be correct?


 MCQ Answers