TMA02: How well does trait theory help us understand individual differences? Discuss this question with reference to personal construct theory.

TMA02: How well does trait theory help us understand individual differences? Discuss this question with reference to personal construct theory.

Individuals tend to differ in their behavioural prospects in various ways. Several theories have been coined with an attempt of trying to help people understand individual differences. Social psychology has also taken the initiative of trying to find out why people react differently when subjected to similar scenarios (butt, 2007). Among the theories that have been put forward under social psychology in order to shed some light on individual differences include personal construct theory and trait theory. Traditionally, psychological study of individual differences has been rooted in experimental, psychometric and clinical traditions (Ashton, 2013). Personal construct theory, coined by Kelly uses phenomenological perspective while trait theory coined by Eysenck and Rathman uses experimental approach in its quest of explaining individual differences. The essay will try to show how trait theory helps in understanding of individual differences. For this reason, personal construct theory will be used to critique, and at the same time identify the weaknesses and strengths of trait theory in order to have an idea of how it contributes to understanding these differences. These aspects will be compared to those of personal construct theory in order to have a holistic understanding.

There are many types of trait theory, but the essay concentrates on Eysenck and Rachman trait theory. The theory was derived from experimental and natural science mainstream approach. It was aimed at developing principles that would explain why individuals behave differently in different circumstances. It views individual differences as fixed ways in which people contrast from each other.  Ratham and Eysenck postulated that traits were as a result of genetic and biological factors (butt, 2007). They proposed two dimensions of neuroticism-stability and extraversion-introversion for measuring personality. Data used for these measurements was derived from Eysenck’s Personality Inventory (EPI) questionnaires (butt, 2007). The questionnaires are usually used to generate psychometric inventories that measure personality traits. It is a scientific approach, which facilitates the prediction of how an individual will react in a given situation. This is based on an individual’s score. The research led them to conclude that there were two dimensions of personality, which were not related. These dimensions included neuroticism and extraversion. Eysenck and Ratham argued that these were behavioural expressions indicating temperament differences (butt, 2007). They outlined that neuroticism was rooted in autonomic arousal and extraversion was rooted in cortical arousal. This meant that behavioural patterns are like the phenotype and the innate brain structure acts like the genotype in biology (Ashton, 2013). Eysenck was of the view that if main dimensions of personality were identified, they could have a clinical application. This is because they could be related to different neurotic behaviours that explain why people acquire different psychological disorders. This means that Eysenck and Racham believed that traits are genetically inherited and biologically determined (Butt, 2007).

In contrast, personal construct theory views personality as an individual experience. It is based on phenomenology hence placing emphasis on how people view the same thing differently. This helps to develop personal constructions that help to gain understanding of personal meaning making, lived experiences  and make sense of different world views that people hold. Therefore, the theory views individual differences as taking account and recognising each person’s view of the world and the role they play in developing the individual that they are, and the personality that they possess (Butt, 2004).  Kelly came up with the repertory grid in an attempt of investigating an individual’s set of personal constructs (butt, 2007). Individuals were required to allocate personal constructs to every individual they considered to be part of their life. Analysis of these constructions showed individuals experienced each other and also revealed how different people could make different assessments of the same person. The grid allows individuals to grasp and communicate their own meanings on things that would not be available since a lot of constructing occurs subconsciously. The theory views constructs as being adjustable. Individuals can see themselves through each other eyes, and make conscious decisions to change their view of the world and personality (Butt, 2007).

Both theories have their strengths and weaknesses. Trait theory has been around for a long time compared to the personal construct theory. This means that interested parties have had sufficient time to research, test and critique the theory. It is possible that some weaknesses associated with personal construct theory have not yet been explored since it has not been put under much scrutiny compared to trait theory.

Over the years, trait theory has been viewed to be more suitable compared to personal construct theory when it comes to assessing personality since it resembles lay theories that individuals use while assessing their counterparts (butt, 2007). There is also a use of objective personality measurements. This includes the Eysenck Personality Inventory, which allows a large group of people to be compared. Subsequently this gives the theory a wider scope for application since the findings can be used to identify trends in certain populations by interested parties (Hollway, 2007). In contrast, data derived from personal construct theory, in comparison, cannot be compared or generalised across the wider population. Categorisation in the form of traits has always been criticised, but it is useful in certain circumstances. A favourable example is researching on smoking and alcohol consumption in an attempt of promoting behavioural change (butt, 2007). The theory also has some advantages like use of everyday language, consistency and predictive value. As most people have noted, it makes good sense since individuals react differently given the same situation, and it shows consistency across different situations.

However, trait theory also has its weaknesses. Skinner postulates that traits merely explain behaviour or personality. They only identify trends in a certain personality or behaviour (Skinner, 1974).  Mischel also challenges the level of consistency that deems to emanate from this theory. Mischel’s argument is that evidence of existence of consistency is less compared to the evidence that exist of how individuals change with experience (Butt, 2007). She suggests that rather than reflecting on individual’s traits entirely, the theory is influenced by personality, thoughts and experiences of the individual rating. This means that traits are not discovered psychometrically, but are created by the rater. Trait theory is also involved with power issues. This affects any theory that is rooted on the experimental approach (Salmon, 2003). The people who measure or those that put the measurements into practice have been vested with a great deal of power. A good example is how hierarchies are created in schools.

Despite objectivity being viewed as a strength while assessing trait theory, it can also be considered to be a weakness. Data collected during the measurement process is ecologically invalid since it is taken out of its context. This is in contrast to data from personal construct theory, which is subjective and situated in place and time.

On the other hand, among the strengths associated with personal construct theory is that it is not plagued with power relations to the same extent as trait theory. This is because it makes use of qualitative interview methods that restrict a researcher from having more power over the findings from the research (Butt, 2007). A researcher cannot assume what an individual’s construct will be due to the use of the repertory grid. Personal construct theory also takes into account an individual’s personality richness which is not the case with trait theory (Butt, 2007). By use of phenomenology, personal construct theory tries to view each individual’s personality distinctively.

However, personal construct theory also has some weaknesses. Lack of using classification methods like trait theory means that it cannot help individuals get extra help. An example is like when individuals need to be classified in order to get help with maybe something like a split-personality. The theory also tries to make a researcher attempt to view the world through participants’ eyes for the sake of helping them express their constructs. Sometimes this might prove to be impossible on the part of the researcher, more so if they are working with individuals possessing personality problems that they do not have experience of (Ashton, 2013). The phenomenological approach used in personal construct theory also suggests that researchers ought to put themselves in their participants’ shoes in order to help in conveying their constructs, which would help in effecting change. This might not be possible in some circumstances, like for example when working with a psychopath.

Nevertheless, from the information derived above it is apparent that trait theory helps us understand individual differences. The theory has several weaknesses attached to it, but this does not mean it cannot help in the comprehension of various aspects of individual differences. It is just like many theories that have been used in the past, and continue to be used in the present despite there being weaknesses attached to them.  Personal construct theory, which has been used as a means of comparison in this essay, has its fair share of criticism too. Its weaknesses might not be as many as those possessed by trait theory, but maybe they might even be more in some decades to come after various interested parties have studied it in depth.

However, as it stands now, by comparing trait theory with personal construct theory it would be prudent to say that trait theory does not explain individual differences as well as personal construct theory does. To begin with, personal construct theory provides a holistic and much more detailed contribution to the understanding of individual differences compared to trait theory. Trait theory views personality or behaviour as biologically determined and fixed in that it cannot be changed. In contrast, personal construct theory sees behaviour as fluid, which changes as individuals interact with the environment around them. This has helped people to understand their personality since it shows them how they can change their current constructions. The recognition of how agency and social world can have an effect on personality makes personal construct theory more favourable in helping to understand individual differences. A good example of this argument is like in education where psychometric measures have been used by teachers in such a way that they are more into teaching students how to pass various tests. Salmon argued that these tests make learning generalised and students’ learning becomes fixed since they are grouped based on whether their scores are low, average or high. The system does not take into account the individual personality that each student possesses. Personal construct theory on its part does not see students as having fixed abilities. According to Salmon (2003), students do not learn as shown above since they shift their meanings within personal systems of understanding. Their personality could be that they enjoy some types of learning and hate others. Therefore, personal construct theory possesses the strength to transcend individual-society dualism.

In conclusion, Social psychology has taken the initiative of trying to find out why people react differently when subjected to similar scenarios. Trait theory and personal construct theory have been among the theories that have been analysed in detail in order to help in the understanding of the individual differences. Trait theory was derived from experimental and natural science mainstream approach. It views individuals’ differences as biologically determined and fixed ways that people contrast from each other. Personal construct theory on the other hand views personality as an individual experience. It is based on phenomenology hence more concerned on how people view the same thing differently. Both theories have their strengths and weaknesses. Among the strengths of trait theory is that the data collected can be generalised across wider populations, it is consistent and has predictive value. Personal construct theory on its part is not plagued by relations hence a researcher cannot manipulate results. Among its weaknesses is that it fails to use classification methods hence cannot assist individuals into getting extra help. Under trait theory, the evidence of consistency is less compared to the evidence of how individuals change with experience. This is just to mention a few of these strengths and weaknesses. From the information it is clear that trait theory does not explain individual differences as well as personal construct theory does. This is because personal construct theory provides a more detailed and holistic contribution compared to trait theory.




Ashton, M. (2013). Individual Differences and Personality. Massachusetts: Academic Press.

Butt, T. (2004). Personality Theories 1: Trait, Biological and Cognitive Social Approaches in Understanding People, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrove Macmillian.

Butt, T. (2007).Individual Differences in Langdridge, D. and Taylor, S. (2007) (eds) Critical readings in Social Psychology. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: past and present’, in Hollway, W, Lucey, H. and Phoenix, A. (2007) (eds) Social Psychology Matters. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Salmon, P. (2003). A Psychology for Teachers in Fransella, F. (ed.)International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology, Chichester, Wiley.

Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviourism, New York, Random House.



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