Traits are the building blocks of personality. So what is a trait? In short, it’s a relatively stable way of thinking and behaving that can be used to describe a person and compare and contrast that person with others.
Traits can be cast in very broad terms, such as how positively disposed a person generally is toward other people, or in more specific ones, such as how much that person tends to trust other people. These more specific aspects of personality are sometimes referred to as “facets.” Personality traits are usually considered distinct from mental abilities (including general intelligence) that are assessed based on how well one responds to problems or questions.
Psychologists have developed a variety of ways to define and organize the span of personality traits. They are often bundled together based on broad personality factors, as in the commonly used Big Five trait taxonomy. But personality can be sliced in many different ways, and some traits are frequently measured and studied by psychologists on their own.
Here are some of the scientifically studied groups of personality traits. Importantly, people generally do not simply have these traits or not have them—they can rate high, low, or somewhere in the middle on each one, compared to other people.
The Big Five Personality Traits
The Big Five traits—usually labeled openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or OCEAN for short—are among the most commonly studied in psychology. The five-factor model splits personality into five broad traits that an individual can rate higher or lower on compared to other people, based on the extent to which the person exhibits them. Each of the five personality factors covers a group of narrower personality facets that tend to go together in individuals.
For more on the five-factor model, see the Big Five Personality Traits.
What is openness?
Openness (also called openness-to-experience or open-mindedness) reflects, roughly, how receptive a person is to new ideas and the robustness and complexity of a person’s mental life. Facets include intellectual curiosity and creative imagination.
What is conscientiousness?
Conscientiousness is a person’s tendency to control impulses and act responsibly and productively. It may be reflected in a person’s preference for keeping things in order, dependability at work, or punctuality. Grit, a much-talked-about trait concept involving steady persistence toward a goal, is related to conscientiousness.
What is extroversion?
Extroversion can be thought of as the level of energy with which a person interacts with the outside world and other people. Aspects of extroversion are thought to include sociability and assertiveness, but also one’s general energy and enthusiasm. Introversion is the opposite of extroversion. (Shyness, not included in the Big Five, is similar, but not the same as introversion.)
What is neuroticism?
Neuroticism (sometimes called negative emotionality) is a person’s disposition to experience challenging emotional states such as anxiety and depression. Highly neurotic people tend to feel negative emotions more easily; the opposite of neuroticism is sometimes described as “emotional stability.”
HEXACO and Honesty-Humility
Some personality researchers have proposed a sixth major trait factor, in addition to the Big Five: it’s called honesty-humility and provides the “H” in the HEXACO model. Honesty-humility as a trait concept reflects the degree to which people place themselves ahead of other people, such as by seeking special treatment or manipulating others. Proposed facets include sincerity, fairness, and the avoidance of greed.
For more on honesty-humility, see HEXACO.
The Dark Triad
Three traits, often called the Dark Triad—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—are commonly assessed to investigate the darker, or more antagonistic and self-interested side of human nature. While they represent particular ways of thinking about anti-social thoughts and behavior, they are not necessarily separate from other traits—for instance, it’s easy to see how they share some common ground with the Big Five concept of agreeableness or HEXACO’s honesty-humility.
Some people who rate highly on these traits are described as being “a narcissist” or a “psychopath,” but the Dark Triad traits can be thought of in terms of a spectrum: A person can rate low, high, or anywhere in between on each one. Personality disorders, some of which involve Dark Triad-related behavior, are defined differently, using specified cut-offs for diagnosis.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is generally one’s sense of self-importance and entitlement relative to others. High narcissism may be reflected in attention-seeking or an excessive need for admiration.
What is psychopathy?
Psychopathy captures a lack of empathy, remorse, and impulse control, along with other specific facets. Someone who is highly psychopathic may tend to hurt others without feeling bad or taking responsibility.
What is Machiavellianism?
Machiavellianism refers to a person’s tendency to treat others in a calculating way, including using manipulation in order to achieve goals. It is named after Niccolò Machiavell, the 16th-century author of the book The Prince.