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Trait Thoery Essay

2324 words - 10 pages

How well does trait theory help us understand individual differences?

In order to assess how well trait theory helps us to understand individual differences with reference to personal construct theory, it is necessary to define both theories and consider their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Trait theory is concerned with the measurement of traits, which are habitual patterns of behavior, feeling and thought, in order to promote our understanding of why people behave differently in different situations. Trait theorists argue that traits are relatively stable over time and influence behavior. (Butt, 2004, p.1) Eysenck argued that personality can be described using the three ...view middle of the document...

In the organisational context, for example, personality questionnaires can be invaluable in helping us to understand individual behavioural preferences and can guide individual and enterprise-wide personal development planning. 

However, trait theory is not without its weaknesses. Even the very fact that it reflects the way in which everyday people assess and describe each other has been the subject of criticism. Mischel (1968, cited in Butt, 2004, p.8) cited a study in which people rated others based on minimal contact, which suggested that people are willing to assign traits to other people without any real evidence. Perhaps its key weakness is the fact that, as Skinner commented (1974, cited in Butt, 2007, p.46), traits do not explain behaviour, but merely identify and describe trends in behaviour. He pointed out that while we might accurately describe a person as aggressive, this does nothing to explain their behaviour. Whilst this can be useful in helping us to appreciate and articulate individual differences, it is descriptive and does little to explain differences in individual behaviour. The argument that traits are consistent and biologically determined has also been challenged, with Mischel (1968,cited in Butt, 2004, p.7) arguing that there is much evidence showing that people are in fact capable of change and do change with experience. Mischel (1968, Butt, 2004, p.7) also pointed out that the ‘only standardised and objective aspect of a personality inventory is its administration and scoring’. He criticised that fact that the questionnaires required subjects to make ‘subjective judgments’ and ‘vast generalisations’ without ‘room for clarification’. Thus, trait theory can be said to encompass some level of superficiality and lack of depth as well as an element of subjectivity. In terms of practical application, trait theory is also open to misuse of power as Salmon (cited in Butt, 2007) pointed out with regard to the creation of hierarchies in schools based on the interpretation of trait measurement and comparison against norms. However, it should be acknowledged that the ‘question of who has the power to interpret people’s experience applies to all social psychological research’ (Hollway, 2012, p.47) can be applied to PCT as well as trait theory. Given its biological basis, trait theory also suffers from the fact that it does not acknowledge the influence which society, the experimenter or the assessor can have on the individual and their trait measurements. (Butt, 2007) In fact, Mischel (cited in Butt, 2007, p.54) went so far as to suggest that rather than waiting to be discovered psychometrically, traits are constructed by the rater and their world-view and reflect little of the personality of the person being assessed.

Trait theory can also be criticised on the basis of the measurement systems which underpin it. Richards (2002, p.252) raised questions about the ‘perennial problem’ of...

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