Individual Differences


Major Themes & Underlying Assumptions of the Dispositional Approach to Personality

Last updated:
19 Sep 2005

Introduction to the Dispositional Perspective on Personality

The dispositional perspective is the traditional, classic approach to the psychological study of personality. 

Since at least the early Greek civilization, and probably far longer, it has been recognized that people are different not just physically, but also in profound psychological ways.

The dispositional approach creates systems for classification and describing psychological characteristics for which people differ consistently between situations and over time.

The “trait” approach most clearly emphasizes the dispositional perspective but another way to
approach the concept of dispositions is to consider people as “types” or alternatively to view
people’s dispositions in terms of their enduring motivational characteristics that vary in
strength from person to person (i.e. their needs and motives).

Clarification of the difference between dispositions, traits, & types

Sometimes you see the terms “dispositions”, “traits" and "types" used interchangeably. However, personality traits and types are really part of the broader dispositional perspective on personality, albeit the largest part.

A dispositional approach to personality emphasizes

  • “qualities that people carry around with them, that are somehow part of them” (Carver & Scheier, 2000, p.54)
  • “a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character”

Personality traits are:

  • consistently found (across people and over time) dimensions of thinking, behavior and feeling
  • allow people individuals to be placed in a continuum with respect to different traits (e.g, introversion-extraversion, neuroticism-emotional stability)

Personality types refers to:

  • categoric descriptions of characteristic patterns of thinking, behavior and feeling e.g., (Type A personality vs. Type B personality)

Two major, underlying assumptions

There are two major assumptions underlying a dispositional approach:

1. STABILITY of personality

People display consistency in their actions, thoughts, and feelings BETWEEN situations and OVER time. In other words, unpredictability is the exception rather than the rule (i.e. unpredictability doesn’t define the essence of personality).  Note that some psychologists, such as social psychologists, would argue that too much emphasis is placed on the stability of personality. The idea behind this assumption is that YOU ARE THE SAME PERSON YOU USED TO BE AND WILL BE IN THE FUTURE.

2. DIFFERENCES between people.

The composition of dispositions varies from person to person. Each person’s personality consists of a pattern of dispositional qualities which form a unique combination in each person.

Major issues & related topics

Major issues and topics related to the dispositional perspective include:

  • How many personality types are there and what are they?
  • How many personality traits are there and what are they?
  • To what extent are the various personality types and traits are heritable?
  • What is the relative influence of situational influences vs. personality dispositions in determining thinking, behavior and feeling in specific, real situations?
  • To what extent do personality dispositions change over time?
  • Are there personality differences between
    • people of different ages?
    • men and women?
    • people who work in different types of jobs?
    • across cultures, ethnic groups, nations?


Eastman, R. (n.d.) The Dispositional Strategy. Stephen Austin State University.

Sandberg, D. Dispositional Approach: Assessment, Personality Change, & Research. California State University - Hayward.