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Individual Trait Theory

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The Individual Trait Theory is just as the name says a theory of criminology that states that certain personality traits can predispose one to crime.  It has roots in Cesare Lombroso’s which states that criminals are throwbacks to a more priumanity, both physically and mentally.  While clintons theory is widely discredited due to its bias against minority groups, he did begin the idea that one’s personality and genetics can predispose criminality (Dechant).  Individual Trait Theory is based on a mix between biological factors and environmental factors.  Loosely, we all have parameters set by our genetics, and our experiences determine how we act. “Sociobiologists stress how biological and genetic conditions affect the perception and learning of social behaviors, which in turn are linked to existing environmental structures” (Siegel, 2010).

There are many factors that determine ones personality.  Thus, there are many different views on what makes up a person’s personality, what traits a person has, and how to categorize not only the traits, but also the person.  The most common theories about the categorization of traits are those of Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Hans Eysenek, and the “Big Five” model.  I will quickly summarize each of these models and how they pertain to criminology.  

Gordon Allport, one of the pioneers of trait theory, recognized that there are 4000 personality traits in the dictionary, so he split these up into three categories; Cardinal, Central and Secondary. Cardinal traits are defined as traits that summarize a person entirely.  For example, someone who is narcissistic. Central traits are words used to describe a person such as kind, funny, or loud.  Secondary are defined as traits that only pertain to a person in certain situations. For instance, if you become aggressive in traffic and have “road rage” (Sincero, 2012).  This can be a very important factor in the profiling of criminals.  A serial killer might have a cardinal trait of narcissism, because he is always self-centered; a trait you cannot change. He may have central traits that include a lack of empathy or the ability to manipulate because while he cannot be defined by these traits, he can be described by them.  Lastly, he will have secondary traits of charm or intimidation, because these traits can be used to his advantage in certain situations to manipulate (Kouri, 2009).    

Raymond Cattell’s theory of traits recognizes the 4,000 traits from Allport’s theory, but only utilizes about 1,700.  He states that uncommon traits should not be used.  He then puts these traits into 16 categories like liveliness, dominance, and perfectionism.  In 1949, he developed and published a questionnaire from these traits and it is still often used to assess personalities. This theory also decreases the subjectivity in determining personality by eliminating many of the extraneous traits that may overlap and by utilizing a form of survey that can be easily calculated and cataloged (Sincero, 2012).

Next, we look at  Much like the Three Dimensions model, there is the Big Five model. This is a combination of Cattell and Eysenek’s theories.  It states that there are five important personality traits: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism (Sincero, 2012).  Many theorists believe that all other traits can fit under these Big Five. The earlier models of trait theory focus specifically on individual traits as the only characteristics that determine a person’s personality. However, more modern versions of trait theory take into consideration other factors, as well. 

Not only do trait theorists focus on a person’s characteristics but also the Individual Trait Theory is often closely related with a person’s intelligence quotient.  This part of trait theory focuses on the relationship between learning, intelligence, personality and how they determine criminality (Siegel, 2010).  Theory suggests that individuals with lower IQ’s are more likely to commit crimes.  However, many scientists attribute intelligence more to environmental factors, rather than genetics.  Studies have shown that in the past 4 generations, IQ has steadily risen, suggesting a change in environment, rather than a change in the gene pool, since eighty years is not enough time for an entire population’s genetics to change that drastically.  Genetically advantaged children are also more likely to have intelligent parents who encourage success in school.  Conversely, children who have less genetic predisposition to intelligence will often be discouraged from doing well in school, thus encouraging them to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So what does this have to do with crime?

Many studies show that crime offenders may have lower IQ’s than non-offenders.   However, there are holes in this theory.  It could be that all intelligence levels commit crime equally, but that offenders with lower IQ’s are more likely to be caught.  One could also suggest that people with lower IQ’s are less likely to have educational opportunities, thus are less likely to have steady or successful jobs and are therefore more likely to feel the need to commit crime (Ellis, 2007).  We know that one’s individual traits and IQ play a large part in criminality, but to what extent?  And how does one measure something as irresolute as a trait? 

Critics of trait theory suggest that there is not enough empirical evidence to support it.  It is based on broad, relative terms used to describe personalities.  Trait theorists also focus on a person’s traits in general, not in a specific situation.  A person can act with low self-preservation or low self-control in one situation, say bungee jumping, but may not feel the same need for adrenaline in an illegal situation.  Furthermore, theorists are less interested in the development of one’s personality, instead assuming, in large part, that people do not change.  We know that to be untrue; people change often.  Trait theory has been used to determine ones leadership abilities, and this is where many of the criticisms stem from.  Among all of the studies done on traits, many traits are not seen in every study.  The large number of personality traits makes it difficult to pinpoint the characteristics that make a leader or conversely, a criminal.  The theory also neglects to what degree a trait is needed to make a person a criminal.  

In 1934, psychologist L.L. Thurston developed the first attempt to record traits as factors and came up with a 5-factor solution.  Charles Spearmen, also a psychologist, used factor analysis to develop a measure of general intelligence.  Later, his student, Raymond Cattell, developed a questionnaire to measure the 16 different personality traits that he thought were the most important, as I stated at the beginning of this essay.  However, the results of factor analysis were often inconsistent due to human error, inconsistencies of measurements, and researchers’ biases. In 1981, researchers found inconstancies in Cattell’s original work, noting many clerical errors among other mistakes in the conducting of the experiment.  Since these first attempts at measuring personality traits, there have been many other researchers that have tried to fix the problems not addressed originally.  In 1982, a researcher named Robert Hogan developed a study that addressed the situational issue of trait theory suggesting that a situation only occurs within the person’s understanding, rather than the physical world.  Because of this, his theory “is often positively cited as being the only “theory” within the five-factor model (Tyler). 

There will never be one cut and dry answer as to why people commit crimes.  Almost all researchers can agree that there are many factors that go into determining a person’s criminality, personality being one of them.  As with all theories, there are holes in the Individual Trait Theory.  While it does explain biological and social factors contributing to one’s personality that can predispose a person to crime, there are many things it does not take into account, like situational decisions and the change in a person over time.  While modern studies of trait theory are addressing these holes, there are still many controversies surrounding trait theory.  In my opinion, there will never be one single theory that explains all criminal behavior.  


By Leslie Cobb


Bartol, Anne M. and Bartol, Curt A. (2005). Criminal behavior: A psychosocial approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

Dechant, Arista B. "The Psychology of Criminal Behaviour: Theories from Past to Present." COASTLINE JOURNAL. Coastline Journal, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. < behaviour- theories-from-past-to-present/>.

Ellis, Lee. "Psychosocial Theories: Individual Traits and Criminal Behavior." Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Approach. By Anthony Walsh. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007. 169-72. Sage Publications. Sage Publications. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <>.

Kouri, Jim. "Serial Killers and Politicians Share Traits." Examiner, 12 June 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. < killers- and-politicians-share-traits>.

Siegel, Larry J. "Chapter 6: Trait Theories." Criminology in Canada: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies. 4th ed. N.p.: Nelson Education, 2010. N. pag. Canadian. Nelson Education. Nelson Education. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://>.

Sincero, Sarah. "Personality Trait Theory." Explorable, 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. < p://-trait-theory.html>.

Tyler, Graham. "Trait Theory, the Big-Five and the Five Factor Model." The University of Queensland, Australia, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://>.

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