In essence, personality traits are the pieces of a puzzle, the ways of behaving that are evident to those around us. Laboratory and scientific study tries to identify traits as fitting into two major categories. One is called by the term “idiographic,” which simply means that the complete picture of an individual personality is unique. The traits, which often cannot be named but can be described, are present only in that one person.
A second umbrella under which psychologists try to group personality traits is the “nomothetic.” This category attempts to use common traits that are evident in all people, but in a unique combination. In the past, psychologists have put more emphasis on the nomothetic model, which leads to identification of a few select traits.
These recognized traits, common across the globe, are sometimes called a big five, dating back to 1933 or before. The five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Various combinations of these are recognized in an individual to make up a personality.
Traits are often first identified by observing behavior then studying the person and asking relevant questions to determine what it is in that person that causes the behavior. For example, some medical experts identify various levels of openness, extraversion and neuroticism in someone who mixes in society, is rather free-flowing in conversation but turns inward at times to compensate.
Studies of children in their early teens have tried to identify those likely to try marijuana, cocaine or other illegal drugs. If a child exhibited evidence of neuroticism, was somewhat unstable and tended to be restless in most situations, that child was considered a drug-use candidate.
Of course, the study of personality traits is not an exact science. Few sciences are exact. The range of behaviors and the many influences from society make it difficult to pin down combinations of traits that lead to a particular end.
Others have put more emphasis on the existence of a single trait that determines personality. For this purpose, such as the 2001 study by Funder, three traits are said to have primary influence. A person is, according to this theory, a conscientious person, a person who monitors his or her actions closely, or a person who is authoritarian and must be in control.
Research into personality traits dates back more than 100 years. But much of what the psychology world works with today has foundations in the 1930s. According to one study, there are nearly 18,000 words in the English language that help to describe a personality. This alone made it difficult to fit an individual into one of the big –five categories.
Some scientists and academics were able to reduce this mass of descriptions to a few dozen categories. Further work has tried to fit those 30 or 40 ideas into one of five small containers that are the main five mentioned earlier. This was helped along by a 1961 study that shows five personality factors seemed to occur in most subjects on a consistent basis.
Suffice to say that the study of personality traits is an ongoing effort, that has so far yielded some interesting results.