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Theories of Personality

Dispositional Theories: Types and Traits


Each person has stable, long-lasting dispositions to display certain behaviors, attitudes, and emotions

These dispositions appear in diverse situations which explains why people act in predictable ways in many different settings

Each person has a different set of dispositions, or at least a set of dispositions of varying strengths, which implies a unique pattern

There are two types of dispositional theories, Type theories and Trait theories

Type Theories

These theories assign people to different categories depending on their temperament

For instance, Hippocrates and Galen, a physician, suggested that temperament was associated with body fluids

Blood is associated with a sanguine personality
Someone like this is warmhearted, volatile, optimistic, and easygoing

Phlegm is associated with those who are phlegmatic people
Someone like this is slow to action, lethargic, and calm

Black bile is associated with those who have a melancholic personality
These people are sad, depressed, and anxious

Yellow bile is associated with those who have a choleric personality
These people are quick to action, angry, and assertive

According to Hippocrates and Galen, the personality a person has is determined by the balance of his or her body fluids; the predominant fluid determined his or her personality

Another example: William Sheldon's (1942) theory that body type or physique correlated with personality

Ectomorphs are tall, thin and fragile; they are anxious, brainy, artistic, and introverted

Mesomorphs are medium height, stocky and muscular; they are energetic, courageous, and assertive

Endomorphs are medium to short in height, chubby to fat, and roundish in shape; they are relaxed, sociable, happy, and fond of eating


People can't always be assigned to a specific category; we see people who are sometimes choleric, sometimes melancholic, energetic and sociable, or artistic and fond of eating

It seems to make more sense to talk about the degree of a trait that someone possesses

Trait Theories

In contrast to Type theories, Trait theories assume that people have various traits, which are continuing qualities that individuals possess in different amounts

Gordon Allport's theory of personality is one example of a trait theory

Allport is one of the few personality theorists who was a Christian, although his theory was designed to account for both Christians' and non-Christians' personalities

Allport hypothesized that there are three different kinds of traits, central, secondary, and cardinal traits

Central traits are characteristics that organize and control behavior in many different situations

Secondary traits are characteristics that are more specific to certain situations and that control far less behavior; they are more like preferences

A few people possess Cardinal traits, which are dispositions that are so general and pervasive that they govern virtually everything a person does

We have names for cardinal traits that characterized certain well-known people


faustian--for Faust who sold his soul to the devil

homeric--for Homer who was a hero

machiavellian--for Machiavelli who believed that the ends justify the means

shylock--for Shylock, a character in one of Shakespeare's plays who demanded his pound of flesh regardless of the cost to the person's life

sadistic--for the Marquis de Sade who enjoyed tortured others

Allport approached personality from a nomothetic perspective, meaning that he was interested in identifying traits that were found in most people

He believed, though, that once we had identified these traits, then we could move on to understand what makes each person unique (an idiographic approach)

Evaluation of Dispositional Theories


Dispositional theories are responsible for the development of objective personality tests which have become a mainstay of personality assessment


These theories are better at describing people than at understanding them

Dispositional theories of personality rely heavily on self-report personality tests to measure and validate traits and other characteristics

Problems with these tests (social desirability and acquiescence) also raise questions about dispositional theories