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Thoughts: The Neglected Aspect of Personality

Examining research personality-relevant thoughts.

Key points

  • Personality is defined as patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, but little attention has been paid to personality-relevant thoughts.
  • Big Five trait words refer mostly to behaviors and feelings. Only the fifth factor contains significant numbers of personality-related thoughts.
  • Belief in a just world or a dangerous world has a significant impact on behaviors such as prejudice and dishonesty and feelings like depression.
  • Cognitive styles and beliefs can be integrated into a general theory of personality-relevant thoughts.

Personality traits are consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that distinguish people from one another (Johnson, 1997). In my last post, I explained how the behavioral aspect of personality is ambiguous until we determine the thoughts and feelings underlying the behavioral pattern. As an example, I pointed out that a person with a pattern of saying nice things about people could be:

(a) optimistic, noticing and expecting positive events

(b) insecure and desperately wanting to be liked by others

(c) insincere and darkly manipulative

There are many more possibilities not mentioned in my previous post. For example, a person who says nice things might simply be kind and warm-hearted, someone who enjoys complimenting people. The point is that all three aspects of what textbook author David Funder (2019) called the psychological triad—thoughts, feelings, and behavior—are equally important. We usually use behavioral trait words to describe personality and then refer to thoughts and feelings to understand and explain those behaviors.

Thoughts: The Neglected Aspect of the Psychological Triad

Despite the equal importance of thoughts, feelings, and behavior in our accounts of personality, personality research has focused more on feelings and behaviors than thoughts. One possible reason for this is that there are far more personality trait words in the natural language that refer to behaviors and feelings than to thoughts.

Source: Dundanim/Shutterstock

Consider the well-known and widely used Big-Five Model of Personality, which was created by analyzing personality trait words (Goldberg, 1990).

Most of the trait words for the first four of the Big-Five factors (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness) describe things that people do (i.e., behaviors) or feel. For example, the trait words sociable, assertive, talkative, affectionate, and friendly describe the behaviors of extraverted people. Extraverts tend to have positive feelings, so merry and fun-loving are on the list for extraversion. Agreeable people are described as trusting, modest, kind, helpful, and cheerful. Conscientious people are persistent, thorough, reliable, and hard-working. Neurotic people are described largely with feeling trait words such as moody, jealous, fearful, nervous, and timid.

Only the fifth of the Big-Five factors contains a significant number of words referring to thoughts. This factor, alternatively labeled Intellect, Imagination, or Openness to Experience, describes the personality style with words such as imaginative, creative, curious, and intellectual.

Existing Research on Personality-Relevant Thoughts

While the Big-Five Model is a widely accepted way to classify different behaviors and feelings, researchers have not agreed on a way to classify consistent patterns of thoughts. In fact, personality psychologists rarely attempt to define what a personality-relevant thought is, or how thoughts differ from feelings. Sometimes psychologists refer to personality-relevant thoughts as cognitive style. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines cognitive style as, "a person's characteristic mode of perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem-solving." Fine. But what are these different modes of perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem-solving? The imaginative vs. down-to-earth cognitive style described by the fifth factor of the Big Five is one example of cognitive style. But nobody has come up with a complete list of cognitive styles.

One way to examine personality-relevant thought is to consider a person's persistent beliefs about the world. For example, some people think that we live in a just world, where everybody eventually gets what they deserve. The strength of this belief can be measured with various Just World scales. Research indicates that belief in a just world can serve an adaptive function, but can also be used to justify anti-social behavior.

Another personality-relevant belief is that the world is basically a dangerous place or a safe place. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, from a fellow PT contributor, indicates that this belief is related to prejudice, trust, depression, and loneliness. (You can follow the first link to participate in research on personality-relevant beliefs.) Beliefs, while not themselves feelings or behaviors, nonetheless have significant consequences for feelings and behavior.

Although there is no consensus on the full range of personality-relevant thoughts, or how to classify these thoughts, there have been attempts to integrate cognitive styles and beliefs into a general theory. I described one such attempt in a previous post about perceptions of abundance and scarcity. I have also engaged in research on two fundamental ways of knowing the world. (If you would like to complete an online version of the inventory that I used in this research, the Organicism-Mechanism Paradigm Inventory (OMPI), follow this link to the OMPI.)


Funder, D. C. (2019). The personality puzzle (8th edition). New York, NY: Norton.

Goldberg, L. R. (1990). An alternative "description of personality": The Big-Five factor structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(6), 1216-1229.

Johnson, J. A. (1997). Units of analysis for description and explanation in psychology. In R. Hogan, J. A. Johnson, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 73-93). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Johnson, J. A., & Miller, M. L. (1990, November). Factor analysis of worldview inventories suggests two fundamental ways of knowing. Invited paper presented to the Institut für Soziologie und Gesellschaftspolitik, Fakultät für Pädagogik der Universität der Bundeswehr München.