So this winter I’m teaching an online course in personality psychology. I love teaching this class for various reasons. For one, it always underscores for me how important it is to appreciate the fact that each of us approaches the world in our own unique way. To a large extent, that is what personality psychology is all about.
While the field of personality psychology includes many different kinds of concepts (see Larsen & Buss, 2017), a core focus of this field is on the basic trait dimensions that underlie how we (a) are consistent in our own behavior across time and across contexts as well as (b) how we reliably differ from others in our behavioral tendencies.
Based on decades of extensive and multi-faceted research, personality psychologists have come to define the core trait dimensions that importantly define who we are. Below is, from my perspective as a scholar in this field, a brief summary of nine trait dimensions that powerfully predict human behavior across the lifespan.
One important thing to note before progressing: Each of these trait dimensions is, in fact, just that—a dimension with extreme scores on either end. Thus, the dimension of “extraversion” has scores on one end corresponding to very extraverted individuals and scores on the other end corresponding to very introverted individuals. Further, these dimensions are generally “normally distributed”—meaning (roughly) that the majority of people score as somewhere near average (and as not extreme). This is an important detail to keep in mind in considering the nature of human personality traits.
The Big Five Personality Trait Dimensions
Based on a broad array of studies across nearly a century of research, personality psychologists have come to find that nearly all personality traits map onto one of the following five dimensions. These “Big Five” trait dimensions, thus, encompass nearly the entirety of human personality structure—across time and culture, in fact (see John, 1990).
The Big Five are as follows:
The Dimensions of the Dark Triad
While the Big Five are often described as all-encompassing, a good deal of recent research (see, for example, Jonason et al., 2013) has found that another set of trait dimensions, known collectively as the “dark triad,” predicts much in the way of behavioral outcomes beyond what is explained by the Big Five alone. These three dimensions, which often are found to be predictive of one another (i.e., inter-correlated) are narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
The Life History Dimension
A final foundational trait dimension in modern personality psychology is that of life history strategy (see Figueredo et al., 2008). Rooted in an evolutionary approach to life, this dimension has two extreme ends - each of which being an optimal life strategy under certain circumstances. These extremes of life history strategy, as described below, are “slow life history strategy” and “fast life history strategy.”
One of the core ideas in personality psychology pertains to personality traits—ways that we are consistent within ourselves across lifespan and are, concurrently, reliably different from others. Variability in personality traits is one of the core ways that human uniqueness is expressed. While there are many important traits that characterize who we are, the nine described here comprise foundational trait dimensions that have been shown to powerfully predict human behavior. Want to understand who someone is? You might be wise to think about where that person resides on the basic trait dimensions described here.
Figueredo , A. J. , Brumbach , B. H. , Jones , D. N. , Sefcek , J. A. , Vasquez , G. , & Jacobs , W. J. ( 2008 ). Ecological constraints on mating tactics. In G. Geher & G. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 337–365). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
John, O. P. (1990). The "Big Five" factor taxonomy: Dimensions of personality in the natural language and in questionnaires. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 66-100). New York: Guilford.
Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.
Larsen, R., & Buss, D. M. (2017). Personality Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.