McCrae and Costa’s Five Factor Trait Theory

  1. Overview of Factor and Trait Theories

McCrae, Costa and others have used factor analysis to identify traits, that is, relatively permanent dispositions of people.  Robert McCrae and Paul Costa have insisted that the proper number of personality factors is five—no more and no fewer.



  1. The Pioneering Work of Raymond B. Cattell

In Chapter 13, we saw that Gordon Allport used common sense to identify both common and unique personality traits.  In comparison, Raymond Cattell used factor analysis to identify a large number of traits, including personality traits.  Included in personality traits were temperament traits, which are concerned with how a person behaves.  Temperament traits include both normal and abnormal traits.  Of the 23 normal traits, 16 are measured by Cattell’s famous PF scale.

III.   Basics of Factor Analysis

         Factor analysis is a mathematical procedure for reducing a large number of scores to a few more general variables or factors.  Correlations of the original, specific scores with the factors are called factor loadings.  Traits generated through factor analysis may be either unipolar (scaled from zero to some large amount) or bipolar (having two opposing poles, such as introversion and extraversion).  For factors to have psychological meaning, the analyst must rotate the axes on which the scores are plotted.  Eysenck used an orthogonal rotation whereas Cattell favored an oblique rotation.  The oblique rotation procedure ordinarily results in more traits than the orthogonal method.




  1. The Big Five: Taxonomy or Theory?

A large number of researchers, including Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, Jr., have insisted that all personality structure can be subsumed under five, and only five, major factors.

  1. Biographies of Robert McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr.

Robert Roger McCrae was born April 28, 1949 in Maryville, Missouri, the youngest of three children. After completing an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Michigan State University, he earned a PhD in psychology from Boston University. Following the lead of Raymond Cattell, he began using factor analysis as a means of measuring the structure of human traits.  After completing his academic work, McCrae began working with Paul Costa at the National Institute of Health, where he is still employed. Paul T. Costa Jr. was born September 16 in Franklin, New Hampshire.  He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Clark University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.  In 1978 he began working with Robert McCrae at the National Institute of Aging, where he continues to conduct research on human development and aging. The collaboration between Costa and McCrae has been unusually fruitful, with well over 200 co-authored research articles and chapters, and several books.


  1. In Search of the Big Five

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Costa and McCrae, like most other factor researchers, were building elaborate taxonomies of personality traits, which they were using to examine the stability and structure of personality.  As with many other factor theorists, they quickly discovered the traits of extraversion (E), neuroticism (N), and openness to experience (O).

  1. Five Factors Found

As late as 1983, McCrae and Costa were arguing for a three-factor model of personality, but by 1985 they begin to report work on the five factors of personality, having added agreeableness (A) and conscientiousness (C).  Costa and McCrae did not fully develop the A and C scales until the revised NEO-PI personality inventory appeared in 1992. Recently, the five factors have been found across a variety of cultures and using a number of languages.  In addition, the five factors show some permanence with age; that is, adults tend to maintain a consistent personality structure as they grow older.

  1. Description of the Five Factors

McCrae and Costa agreed with Eysenck that personality traits are basically bipolar, with some people scoring high on one factor and low on its counterpart.  For example, people who score high on N tend to be anxious, temperamental, self-pitying, self-conscious, emotional, and vulnerable to stress-related disorders, whereas people with low scores on N tend to have opposite characteristics.  People who score high on E tend to be affectionate, jovial, talkative, a joiner, and fun-loving, whereas low E scorers tend to have opposing traits.  High O scorers prefer variety in their life and are contrasted to low O scorers who have a need for closure and who gain comfort in their association with familiar people and things.  People who score high on A tend to be trusting, generous, yielding, acceptant, and good natured.  Low A scorers are generally suspicious, stingy, unfriendly, irritable, and critical of other people. Finally, people high on the C scale tend to be ordered, controlled, organized, ambitious, achievement-focused, and self-disciplined. Together these dimensions make up the personality traits of the five factor model, often referred to as the “Big-Five.”

VII.  Evolution of the Five-Factor Theory

Originally, the five factors were simply a taxonomy, a classification of personality traits. By the late 1980s, Costa and McCrae were confident that they had found a stable structure of personality.  In shaping a theory from the remnants of a taxonomy, McCrae and Costa were insisting that their personality structure was able to incorporate change and growth into its tenets and to stimulate empirical research as well as organize research findings.  In other words, their Five-Factor taxonomy was being transformed into a Five-Factor Theory (FFT).

  1. Units of the Five-Factor Theory

McCrae and Costa predict behavior through an understanding of three central or core components and three peripheral ones.  The three core components include: (1) basic tendencies, (2) characteristic adaptations, and (3) self-concept. Basic tendencies are the universal raw material of personality. Characteristic adaptations are acquired personality structures that develop as people adapt to their environment. Self-concept refers to knowledge and attitudes about oneself.  Peripheral components include (1) biological bases, which are the sole cause of basic tendencies; (2) objective biography, which is everything a person does or thinks over a lifetime; and (3) external influence, or knowledge, views, and evaluations of the self.

  1. Basic Postulates

The two most important core postulates are basic tendencies and characteristic adaptations.  Basic tendencies have four postulates—individuality, origin, development, and structure.  The individuality postulate stipulates that every adult has a unique pattern of traits. The origin postulate assumes that all personality traits originate solely from biological factors, such as genetics, hormones, and brain structures.  The development postulate assumes that traits develop and change through childhood, adolescence, and mid-adulthood.  The structure postulate states that traits are organized hierarchically from narrow and specific to broad and general. VIII.           Related Research

The five-trait theory of McCrae and Costa has drawn a considerable amount of research, and isvery popular in the field of personality.  Costa and McCrae have developed a widely used personality inventory:  the NEO-PI (Costa & McCrae, 1985, 1992).  Traits have been linked to vital outcomes such as physical health (Martin, Friedman, & Schwartz, 2007), well-being (Costa & McCrae, 1980), and academic success (Noftle & Robins, 2007; Zyphur, Islam, & Landis, 2007).  Traits have also been linked to more everyday outcomes such as mood (McNiel & Fleeson, 2006).


  1.       Personality and Culture

If personality has a strong biological bases, then the structure of personality should not differ much from culture to culture. The major traits do appear consistent in most countries of the world (McCrae, 2002; Poortinga, Van de Vijver, & van Hemert, 2000).  Our biological makeup influences our personalities on similar dimensions such as extraversion or neuroticism; how and when traits are expressed are influenced by cultural and social context.  In short, personality is shaped by both nature and nurture.

  1. Traits and Academics

         Erik Noftle and Richard Robins (2007) studied the relationship of traits and academic performance.  They found that conscientiousness was the most important trait for predicting GPAs in high school and college, but not for SAT scores. The “Big 5” factors were not strong predictors of SAT math scores, but openness was related to SAT verbal scores. These differences are attributed to differences between aptitude and achievement measured by SATs versus GPAs.  Michael Zyphur and colleagues (2007) studied the relationship between neuroticism and retaking the SAT.  Their findings are important in that high scores on neuroticism are often viewed negatively, but the anxious tendencies of those high on neuroticism were very adaptive in this study, because these tendencies led them to retake the SAT and score higher each time they did.

  1. Traits and Emotion

Though the relation between traits and moods has been clear in terms of positivity vs. negativity to early researchers, what has not been clear is causality:  Does the trait cause the experience of a positive or negative mood, or does the experience of that mood and its emotions cause people to behave in ways concordant with the traits?  And similarly, does the mood cause the behavior, or does the behavior cause the mood?  Murray McNiel and William Fleeson (2006) studied the direction of causality for the relationships between extraversion and positive mood, and neuroticism and negative mood.  They wanted to know if behaving in an extraverted manner causes people to have positive feelings and behaving in a neurotic manner causes them to have negative feelings.  Their results showed that when people act in a certain way, their behavior does indeed influence their mood to fit the behavior.  On the other hand, Michael Robinson and Gerald Clore (2007) have found recently that individual differences in the speed of processing information can influence the relationship between neuroticism and negative mood, such that not everybody who scores high on neuroticism experiences more negative emotion.  They discovered that people who process environmental stimuli faster do not need to rely on neuroticism to interpret events and interpret their environment objectively, whereas slower processors are more subjective in their evaluations by relying on trait dispositions to interpret events.  So those high on neuroticism but fast at processing did not report any more negative emotion than those low on neuroticism.  These results show that the early research findings that extraversion is related to positive mood and neuroticism to negative mood, while not inaccurate, do not give the full picture of the complex relationship between traits and emotions.  In sum, even though your traits predispose you to certain types of behavior, your actions can override those dispositions.


  1. Critique of Trait and Factor Theories

The factor theories of Eysenck and of McCrae and Costa rate high on parsimony, on their ability to generate research, and on their usefulness in organizing data; they are about average on falsifiability, usefulness to the practitioner, and internal consistency.


  1. Concept of Humanity

Factor theories generally assume that human personality is largely the product of genetics and not the environment.  Thus, we rate these two theories very high on biological influences and very low on social factors.  In addition, we rate both about average on conscious versus unconscious influences and high on the uniqueness of individuals.  The concepts of free choice, optimism versus pessimism, and causality versus teleology are not clearly addressed by these theories.


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