Like the Type theory, the Trait Theory of personality focuses on people’s personal characteristics. However, various trait theorists differ in the ways they use those characteristics to describe people.
Traits are characteristics that lead people to behave in more or less distinctive and consistent ways across situation.
Psychologist Gordon Allport counted 18,000 trait-like terms in English language that designated “distinctive and personal forms of behaviour”. These terms, mostly adjectives, describe how people act, think, perceive, and feel. Not all these terms reflect personality traits, but several thousands of them do reflect personality traits.
Allport believed that this rich collection of trait-like terms provided a way of capturing the uniqueness of each individual. He’ believed that this uniqueness could be described well in terms of the individual’s trails, or “personal dispositions” at three levels of generality. Accordingly, he distinguished between three types of trails, viz.
(1) Cardinal Traits:
Allport defined cardinal traits as those which are so dominant that nearly all of the individual’s actions can be traced back to them. These, broad highly influential traits are often called by names drawn from key historical figures as for example, “Christ-like”, “Machiavellian”, or “Nixonian”, and so on. Each trait describes a trait so broad and so deep in its impact that it overshadows the influence of other traits in the same individual. According to Allport. most people have no true cardinal traits, but that when someone does have a cardinal trait it shows itself in virtually all of that person’s behaviour.
(2) Central Traits:
Central traits are described as characterising an individual’s behaviour to some extent but not in such a complete way as cardinal traits. According to him, central traits are those that might be mentioned in a careful letter of recommendation or checked off on a rating scale where the rate is asked to select the outstanding characteristics of the individual.
(3) Secondary Traits:
Secondary traits are the least generalised characteristics of the person. These are traits such AS “likes chocolates”, or “prefers foreign goods”. These are traits that are influential but only within a narrow range of situations.