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Individual Differences: Trait Theory and Personal Constructs

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2469 words Published: 24th Apr 2018

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  • Miss Emma Elizabeth Dorothy Meredith

How well does trait theory help us understand individual differences? Discuss this question with reference to personal construct theory.

This essay will explore trait theory and how it helps us to understand individual differences in comparison with personal construct theory. The basis of each approach is; trait theory describes a reasonably solid characteristic which differentiates one individual from another, whereas personal construct theory argues that individuals create their own way of making sense of the world through creating their own private structures. The essay will begin by outlining the main notions of the theories, to gain an insight of how individual differences are perceived by each approach. This essay will aim to identify strengths and limitations in each approach and will conclude by evaluating the extent to which each theory can account for and explain individual differences.

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Trait theory is based in the social cognitive perspective and developed from the experimental tradition to individual differences and which are seen as fixed ways in which individuals can vary from each other (Butt, 2012). The aim of trait theory is to find commonplace dimensions from a broad variety of individuals, which would then help theorists to predict the behaviour of an individual in certain situations. Individual differences are defined by using questionnaires as a measurement of personality. This fits in well with the social cognitive approach which sees individuals as information processing beings in the social world (Hollway, 2012). Eysenck and Rachman (1965, cited Butt 2012) argued genetic and biological factors were responsible for personality traits. By using psychometric tests, designed to assess traits of individuals, they sought to explore personality causality. Eysenck’s theory suggests personality can be characterised by three specific traits (extraversion/introversion, neuroticism and psychoticism) suggesting each of these traits are characterised by particular behavioural attributes. From the data gained from Eysenck’s personality inventories (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1963, cited Butt 2012) they argued these traits are behavioural expressions of biologically based differences, similar to the “four temperaments” of Hippocrates and Galen from Ancient Greece. Eysenck and Rachman’s (1965, cited Butt 2012) research claims there are two main dimensions of personality which are unrelated. These are extraversion and neuroticism and are behavioural definitions of differences in temperament. They argue these dimensions are grounded in autonomic and cortisol arousal and suggest the relationship between behavioural patterns and inherent brain structure is similar to phenotype and genotype in biology (Butt 2012). It was argued by Eysenck there could be a clinical application if main dimensions were found and linked to distinctive types of neurotic behaviour and may explain the some of the psychological disorders some individuals acquire, which would allow for future treatment and interventions. Trait theories of personality describe personality in terms of characteristics such as, reliable – unreliable, or group traits, which have been recognised through factor analysis to form clusters into personality dimensions, for example, extraversion includes traits such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘sociability’(Stevens 2007).

Personal construct theory was developed by George Kelly (1955, cited Butt 2012; Stevens 2007), he focussed his work on individual differences and viewed personality as an individual experience (Stevens, 2007). It promotes constructs which Kelly used to describe the bipolar dimensions (e.g. Friendly/cold, interesting/boring) which underlie the ways in which a person makes sense of their world (Stevens 2007). Based in the phenomenological perspective, which focuses is on how things (especially other people) appear different to each individual, personal construct theory aims to understand how an individual uses their subjective experiences to create a set of personal constructs which in turn help them to make sense of the world and to take account of the distinctiveness of each individuals personality (Butt 2012). Personal construct theory considers individual differences as taking account of and recognising each individual’s view of the world and how this helps to create their personality and who they become as an individual (Butt 2012; Stevens 2007). Kelly (1955, cited Butt 2012; Stevens 2007) argued it is peoples own experiences which build their set of constructs and these are used to evaluate situations. Two people assessing the same scenario will therefore see things differently, and this is where individual differences occur. Constructs are seen as being fluid and looking at oneself through another’s eyes, individuals can make conscious choices in order to change their view of the world and their personality (Butt 2012). However, as individuals put a lot of effort into building these constructions, Kelly (1955, cited Butt 2012) argued the individual may not wish to change them.

Personal construct theory is grounded in subjective methodology. Kelly (1955, cited Butt 2012) developed the Repertory Grid to investigate the sets of personal constructs used by individuals. This works through the process of individuals designating constructs to all persons considered to be a part of their life. This enables the bipolar dimensions to be determined. When analysed it reveals the differences found in each individual’s experiences and how they will assess the same person or situation in completely differing ways. If a person is rigid in their constructs they may believe an individual who is aloof would also be a cold person. Having this rigidity in a personality could lead to relationship problems as opposed to someone with a more fluid personality. Constructs are created subconsciously, so by using the grid, individuals are able to gain insight and relate their own particular meaning to their surrounding environment which would not usually be available (Butt, 2012).

A strength of personal construct theory is it adds a holistic understanding of individual differences. It also transcends both the individual-society dualism and agency-structure dualism, the individual is considered from their own experiences and also by being part of the social world (Hollway, 2012). Personal construct theory accepts people change and society can help in promoting this change. Personal construct theory does have limitations. The findings cannot be compared across a wider population. It is also a relatively new theory and as a result has not been researched or tested to the same extent as trait theory.

Trait theory is an older theory and has been thoroughly researched and tested extensively. The methodology is objective and the ontology views humans as information processing entities and by using personality measurements such as Eysenck’s personality inventory, larger groups of individuals can be compared. The aim is the objective measurement of individual differences. A biological reductionist attitude to individual differences was adopted by Eysenck suggesting traits are biologically determined, making them consistent and giving predictive value. This reductionist approach means problems with dualism are avoided as the behaviour is reduced to physiological levels. This enables behaviour to be better understood. The objectivity and consistency allows trait theory a broader range for application and its findings can be used to pinpoint trends within organisations. Being grounded in the experimental tradition the knowledge production is limited to the data with no reference to the influence of social environments and individual experiences (Hollway 2012).

Trait theory does have other limitations, it only describes personality and identifies trends it does not explain it; neither does it explain behaviour (Skinner 1974, cited Butt 2012). It is designed to measure reactions and consistency in the reactions of individuals in certain situations. Mischel (1968, cited Butt 2012) argued that trait theory methods reduced the complexity of human behaviour to become more general. He also argued that there is very little evidence supporting the consistency in behaviour that is claimed by trait theorists assuming that behaviour is fixed over time, compared to the considerable amount of substantial evidence to support behaviours changing in time and in different situations.

Compared with personal construct theory, trait theory is seen to be an apt way of considering personality resembling lay theories used by individuals when gauging others. Individuals are able to predict future behaviour assuming that these traits are consistent (Butt 2012). Personality traits are seen as biological and rigid within trait theory and unlikely to change. As a result has it has a less practical use, compared with personal construct theory, in assisting changes in personality. Unlike personal constructs, how the individual’s social life influences the individuals personality is not taken in to account within trait theory. As personal construct theory is subjective, in comparison to the objectivity of trait theory, it is situated in time and place whereas the situated knowledge displayed in the trait theory data from the questionnaires are specific to the current situation and are not necessarily generalised therefore could be ecologically invalid when taken out of context. Individual personalities are considered to be rich with differences and largely taken in to account within personal constructs, which is not seen in trait theory (Butt 2012).

As personal construct theory uses a qualitative interview method, any power that the therapist has would be in drafting the questions needed to gain details of the personal experiences of the client. The client can then interpret these and place onto the repertory grid. The power relations found in personal construct theory are by no means to the same degree as those found within trait theory. The repertory grid method stops the researcher having much influence over the research findings and is a large strength of personal construct theory (Salmon 2003 cited Butt 2012). Trait theorists have more power over the individual, coming from the experimental tradition, it is argued that rather than totally showing an individual’s personality traits accurately, the outcomes are heavily influenced by the personality and experience of the researcher as they have influence over the design of the questions and can manipulate this design. Therefore, trait theory findings have the potential to be inaccurate as individuals are judged against what is treated as normal by people who they believe are the authority on the subject (Mischel 1968, cited Butt 2012).

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Psychometric measures are used in education in such a way the result is pupils are only taught how to pass tests by their teachers. It was argued by Salmon (2003, cited Butt 2012) by teaching and testing students in this way, the ability level becomes rigid and the learning becomes generalised. Students are then grouped according to how they have performed in the test and their individual personalities are ignored. Personal construct theory in contrast to trait theory, do not see students abilities as fixed but are somewhat fluid. Salmon (2003, cited Butt 2012) applied essential parts of personal construct theory to education and argued the way that trait theorists suggests children learn is false and children do not leave their own personal worlds at the door when they enter the classroom. Instead meanings are derived from a personal system of understandings. In the way each student’s individuality brings with it their own world and their own personality within world. This means they will have different views on learning styles to others, a type one pupil loves another may hate and Salmon argued to promote personal development and growth, schools need to take account of the current personal constructs held by each student. The Salmon Line was later developed as a qualitative tool, where personal meanings are plotted on a line. These represent the student’s current abilities and their desired goals. This allows students to see how they are progressing and what they need to do to change and grow using their own meanings and sense of progression, and giving them an active part in their learning (Salmon 2003, cited Butt 2012).

Trait theorists see traits as fixed, determined by biological factors and unchanging through the environment which would suggest individuals have no part in changing their personality traits and social structures to not have any bearing on personality traits at all. However, the methodology used in trait theory means that it has a wide scope to be used across larger populations. In contrast, personal construct theory accepts people change and society facilitates that change, allowing for a better understanding as to why change happens in different situations, when this happens and how this happens. Variations of personal construct theory allows insight to change in the future, for example the ‘Salmon Line’ helps to promote learning by allowing students to set their own objectives to their learning and be aware of what they need to change in their personality to achieve it. This doesn’t make either of the theories right when it comes to explaining individuals difference, as demonstrated they both contribute to our understanding of individual differences in very contrasting ways, and both have their fair share of strengths and weaknesses.

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Butt. T, (2012) ‘Individual Differences’ in D. Langdridge, K. Mahnedran, & S. Taylor (2nd ed) Critical Readings in Social Psychology, Maidenhead, Open University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Hollway, W. (2012), ‘Social psychology: past and present’ in W. Hollway, H. Lucey, and A. Phoenix, (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Maidenhead, Open University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Hollway, W. (2012), ‘Methods and knowledge in social psychology’ in W. Hollway, H. Lucey, and A. Phoenix, (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Maidenhead, Open University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Stevens, R. (2007), ‘Person Psychology: psychoanalytic and humanistic perspectives’. In D. Miell, A. Phoenix, & K. Thomas (Eds), Mapping Psychology (2nd ed). Maidenhead, Open University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.


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