Traits vs. Types

Traits are durable characteristics of a person. Types are collections of traits that are said to occur together in some individuals. For example, we might define the macho type as a person who tries to be tough, independent, courageous, or whatever the person perceives as masculine behavior.

What is the difference between traits and types? What are problems with the type approach?

There is little doubt that traits exist. There is little doubt that traits exist, in other words, that people have distinctive characteristics that we can use to describe them. However, it is risky to assign an individual to a type because, almost by definition, this involves overlooking the individual's unique characteristics.

A type is a good example of a construct: it is a concept that exists in the head of the observer, and it may not correspond to anything stable in the real world. Also, types tend to be a product of a particular place, time, and culture. When reading descriptions of personality types and traits from the 1930s, for example, the traits (extraversion, etc.) sound familiar, but the types seem strikingly out-of-date or just unfamiliar, like something from another time and place...which is exactly what they are.

Examples of types from American culture of the mid to late 20th Century include: nerds, valley girls, hippies, greasers, GenXers, gangsta rappers, goths, and geeks. One can predict with confidence that most of these types will become strange or unknown, or just quaint and historical, just as the flapper type of the 1920s seems now. (Flappers were young ladies, decked out in the fashions of the time, typically with a hat and short hair, typically seen in early newsreels dancing the Charleston.) Types do not represent durable personality patterns; they reflect changing cultural patterns. Finally, when a type is identified, there is always the risk of stereotyping or creating a cartoon-like caricature of a group of people. When done by an insider this may be acceptable, but when done by an outsider it is almost always considered insulting.

Allport also did some work with types, notably the authoritarian personality who loves orderliness imposed by rule of law. This type was much studied in the aftermath of World War II, as psychologists tried to understand why so many people in Germany sympathized with Hitler. Like other research based on types, this concept has gone out of fashion. Authoritarian personality as such is seldom studied today, while trait-based research is thriving.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey