Trait explanations in personality psychology


  • Robert R. McCrae,

    Corresponding author
    1. Gerontology Research Center, Personality, Stress and Coping Section National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore, MD, USA
    • Personality, Stress and Coping Section, Gerontology Research Center, 4940 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA
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  • Paul T. Costa Jr

    1. Gerontology Research Center, Laboratory of Personality and Cognition National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore, MD, USA
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  • Portions of this article were presented as part of the symposium ‘Structure and Causality in Personality and Behavior’, F. Silva (Chair), Seventh European Conference on Personality, Madrid, July 12–16, 1994. Thanks are due to D. Funder, S. E. Hampson, A. R. Harkness, R. Hogan, L. A. Pervin, W. W. Rozeboom and A. Tellegen for helpful comments on an earlier version


Recent debates on the status of contemporary trait psychology (Pervin, 1994) have revived old questions about the role of traits in the explanation of behavior: are traits mere descriptions of behavior, or do they offer one legitimate and useful form of explanation? We review the logic of trait explanation and present a general model of the person in which personality traits are hypothetical constructs regarded as basic dispositions. In interaction with external influences—notably shared meaning systems—traits contribute causally to the development of habits, attitudes, skills, and other characteristic adaptations. In this model, action and experience can be explained directly or proximally in terms of the interaction of the immediate situation with the individual's characteristic adaptations, and indirectly or distally in terms of underlying personality traits.