Trait and Factorial Perspectives

The theoretical models presented here and in Chapter 1 are all perspectives on personality. By definition, they represent partial views of an intrinsic totality. Historically, each has attempted to outcompete the others to establish itself as a single truth, and each has had its period of dominance and enthusiasm. The cognitive view, for example, is now highly fashionable among theorists and therapists. Although the inductive perspective has yet to come into its own, it shows some promise and is included here only as an example of an approach that is currently in vogue.

Although the history of psychopathology has been guided by a succession of theories, from the trait and factorial perspectives, theory is exactly the problem. Theory must be built on principles, and these principles are assumed to organize the contents of all of personality. Other perspectives are thus cast as peripheral or derivative. Interpersonal theorists, for example, see interpersonal conduct as fundamental. In contrast, cognitive theorists argue that, because internal cognitive structures always mediate perception, interpretation, and communication, cognitive theory is the best candidate for an integrative model. And herein lies the problem with theory: its tendency to endorse certain parts of personality while rejecting others. Although some are content to tolerate an eclecticism of multiple views, those of the inductive mind-set seek to begin again by making copious observations and applying sound scientific methodology. Theory construes the world from the top down; in contrast, the trait approach seeks a solid foundation from which to build again from the bottom up. The theory emerges later, only after a long process of systematically examining the relevant phenomena and processing them through the methodological mill.

In personality, the factorial perspective is intimately tied up with the history of trait psychology. As defined in Chapter 1, traits are single dimensions of individual differences expressed consistently across time and pervasively across situations. Behavior should be consistent no matter when or where you look, though the expression of the same trait is sometimes manifest in different ways. Males, for example, are usually regarded as being aggressive; females are not. For males, aggression usually involves threats of territorial encroachment and the possibility of physical violence. Females, however, are usually socialized against such displays and, therefore, tend to express aggression relationally (Crick & Bigbee, 1998), threatening to withdraw from relationships, manipulate access to empathy or intimacy, or spread vicious rumors. Aggressiveness thus often has a different expression, depending on gender.

The return to fundamentals, however, faces two related problems as an approach to personality. First, scientific models are required to be as comprehensive as possible. In general, a model that seems to explain more with a small number of principles is preferred over a model that seems to explain less. To ensure comprehensiveness, researchers eventually turned to the dictionary in an effort to document all the traits that might be used to describe personality. Allport and Odbert (1936) were apparently the first to apply the approach in the United States, culling almost 18,000 terms that "distinguish the behavior of one human being from that of another" (p. 24) from the 400,000 words listed in the unabridged 1925 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary. After deleting positively and negatively evaluative terms such as good, excellent, and poor, just over 4,500 terms reflecting "generalized and personalized determining tendencies" (p. 26) remained. The idea of turning to the dictionary as a repository of traits has since become known as the lexical approach, which holds that all terms relevant to personality description have already become encoded in the language, a controversial assumption. The dictionary guaranteed comprehensiveness, but it led to a second problem: 1,000 traits are not exactly a small number of principles. How, then, can literally thousands of traits be organized or reduced to a manageable number without losing something essential to human nature in the process?

To help solve these problems, scientists turned to a statistical technique called factor analysis. Although the mathematics is complex, only the purpose is important here. In brief, factor analysis is a way of looking at the relationships among a large number of personality traits to determine which are most fundamental. For example, every language contains terms that mean almost the same thing, differing only in some subtle way. The words obstinate and stubborn, for example, are near synonyms; if one term is excluded, little is lost. Factor analysis provides a mathematical way of examining the overlap among such characteristics and even suggests a much smaller number of dimensions in which the original traits are best summarized. By retaining only what is most central to personality, more narrow or redundant traits can be excluded with minimal loss of descriptive power. Many hundreds of traits can thus be telescoped into a much smaller framework. A variety of factor models have been developed within both normal and abnormal personality domains, derived not just from analyses using words taken from the dictionary, but also through studies of the DSM personality criteria and the underlying structure of personality tests (see Table 2.2).

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