Limitations To The Trait Approach

Personality traits are stable, cross-situational consistencies in behavior, thought, or experience. Although personality traits could in principle be based on multiple types of data, there has been an overwhelming reliance on self-report. On trait scales, participants are asked to characterize themselves "in general," that is, without regard to time frame or situational contingencies. Trait scores are reliable and valid and

Preparation of this chapter was assisted by funding from NSF (9817649) and NIMH (MH068241).

Discussed Implicit Tests and References for Further Reading

Implicit test_Targeted process_Reference for further reading

Attitude Latencies Attitude accessibility Fazio (1995)

Emotional Stroop Selective attention Williams et al. (1996)

Spatial Probe Task Selective attention Mogg & Bradley (1998)

Various Priming Tasks Negative self-schema Segal & Ingram (1994)

Categorization Construct accessibility Robinson, Solberg, et al. (2003)

Implicit Association Task Associations in memory Greenwald et al. (1998)

Thematic Apperception motivation McClelland (1987)

do predict trait-relevant behavior and experiences, although perhaps not as robustly as one might hope (Pervin, 1994). Nonetheless, a number of critics point to the limitations of the trait approach (e.g., Cervone & Shoda, 1999).

To understand what self-reported traits are, it is useful to consider how trait judgments are made. When people decide whether they are introverted or extraverted, they do so without recalling any trait-relevant behaviors or experiences. This point has been convincingly made by Stanley Klein and colleagues, who have shown that (a) making a trait judgment does not facilitate recall for trait-relevant behaviors and (b) recalling trait-relevant behaviors does not facilitate making a trait judgment (e.g., Schell, Klein, & Babey, 1996). More dramatically, Klein, Loftus, and Kihlstrom (1996) found that an amnesic could make trait judgments about herself, despite the inability to recall a single relevant behavior from the recent past.

As suggested by Robinson and colleagues (Robinson & Clore, 2002a, 2002b; Robinson, Vargas, & Crawford, 2003), such results have important implications for the validity of self-reported traits. If trait judgments are made on the basis of different information than are reports of everyday behavior and experience, then they, in some very real sense, do not capture everyday behavior and experience. Along these lines, Robinson and Clore (2002a) reviewed evidence for the idea that many reports of emotion, particularly retrospective ones, are vulnerable to reconstruction in a belief-consistent direction. For example, the retrospective reports of people high in self-esteem are systematically distorted such that those high in self-esteem remember more positive self-feelings than was actually the case in daily experience (Christensen, Wood, & Barrett, 2003).

Another major issue with trait self-reports is social desirability. Regardless of whether one considers social desirability to be a valid or invalid source of variance, there remains the serious issue that self-reports seem to be based, to a large extent, on social desirability considerations. That is, people tend to endorse trait items if they reflect beneficially on the self and reject trait items if they reflect poorly on the self, regardless of their actual standing on the trait dimension (Paulhus & John, 1998).

Social desirability can sometimes detract from the validity of self-report. For example, in an investigation by Shedler, Mayman, and Manis (1993), the authors found that clinician-based reports of distress were useful in distinguishing two categories of people. One group, who scored low in both self-reported and clinical distress, exhibited little behavioral and physiological reactivity within a laboratory stressor paradigm. The other group, who scored low in self-reported distress, but high in clinician ratings of distress, exhibited the most extreme behavioral and physiological reactivity to the laboratory stressor paradigm (for a recent review, see Norem, 1998). From this investigation, we can conclude that not all people who score mentally healthy on a self-report questionnaire are in fact mentally healthy.

Another concern is that self-reported traits provide little in the way of explaining why traits are associated with behaviors or experiences. This problem was somewhat forcefully stated by Ozer and Reise (1994): "In the absence of theory, measured traits are static variables, good for describing what someone is like . . . but poor at providing a rich and deep understanding of personality dynamics" (p. 367). Pervin (1994) similarly expressed disappointment with the status of trait-based explanations. Mechanisms linking traits to behavior or experience could be offered; however, our impression is that investigators often link traits to behavior or experience without providing empirical support for a mediating mechanism (Robinson, Vargas, et al., 2003).

There is a potentially more serious problem in linking self-reported traits to behavior and experience. Cervone and Shoda (1999) call this the "tautology" problem. If neuroticism is defined as a tendency to experience negative affect, then neuroticism cannot explain negative affect. Rather, the relation is definitional. Zelli and Dodge (1999) likened trait-based explanation to the following tautology: "The desert climate keeps it from raining" (p. 99). What is the definition of a desert climate? A lack of much rain. What does a lack of rain imply about the local climate? It is a desert. In sum, traits, if they are defined in terms of specific behaviors and experiences, have to predict those behaviors and experiences. Only an alternate universe, without logic or identity, could predict anything different. Traits, in sum, may label regularities in behavior and experience rather than explain them.

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