Personal Dispositions

Throughout most of his career, Allport was careful to distinguish between common traits and individual traits. Common traits are general characteristics held in common by many people. They can be inferred from factor analytic studies such as those conducted by Eysenck and the authors of the five factor theory (see Chapter 14), or they can be revealed by various personality inventories. Common traits provide the means by which people within a given culture can be compared to one another.

Whereas common traits are important for studies that make comparisons among people, personal dispositions are of even greater importance because they permit researchers to study a single individual. Allport (1961) defined a personal disposition as "a generalized neuropsychic structure (peculiar to the individual), with the capacity to render many sthnuli functionally equivalent, and to hiitiate and guide consistent (equivalent) forms of adaptive and stylistic behavior" (p. 373). The most important distinction between a personal disposition and a common trait is indicated by the parenthetical phrase "peculiar to the individual." Personal dispositions are individual; common traits are shared by several people.

To identify personal dispositions, Allport and Henry Odbert (1936) counted nearly 18,000 (17,953, to be exact) personally descriptive words in the 1925 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, about a fourth of which described personality characteristics. Some of these terms, usually referred to as traits, describe relatively stable characteristics such as "sociable" or "introverted"; others, usually referred to as states, describe temporary characteristics such as "happy" or "angry"; others described evaluative characteristics such as "unpleasant" or "wonderful"; and still others referred to physical characteristics such as "tall" or "obese."

How many personal dispositions does one individual have? This question cannot be answered without reference to the degree of dominance that each personal disposition has in the individual's life. If we count those personal dispositions that are central to a person, then each person probably has 10 or fewer. However, if all tendencies are included then each person may have hundreds of personal dispositions.

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