Personality psychology aims to explain the causes and the consequences of variation in behavioural traits. Because of the observational nature of the pertinent data, this endeavour has provoked many controversies. In recent years, the computer scientist Judea Pearl has used a graphical approach to extend the innovations in causal inference developed by Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright. Besides shedding much light on the philosophical notion of causality itself, this graphical framework now contains many powerful concepts of relevance to the controversies just mentioned. In this article, some of these concepts are applied to areas of personality research where questions of causation arise, including the analysis of observational data and the genetic sources of individual differences. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.