Personality Traits

Personality Traits:
Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

Last updated:
27 Jul 2004

Personality Traits: Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

However the whole issue of whether a trait exists in all people to a greater or lesser degree is complicated by different views of the trait perspective.

There are two different views as to whether all traits exist in all people:

  • Idiographic: people have unique personality structures; thus some traits (cardinal traits) are more important in understanding the structure of some people than others

  • Nomothetic: people's unique personalities can be understood as them having relatively greater or lesser amounts of traits that are consistently across people (e.g., the NEO is nomothetic)

The Idiographic view emphasizes that each person has a unique psychological structure and that some traits are possessed by only one person; and that there are times when it is impossible to compare one person with others. This viewpoint also emphasizes that traits may differ in importance from person to person (cardinal, central and secondary traits). It tends to use case studies, bibliographical information, diaries etc for information gathering.

The Nomothetic view, on the other hand, emphasizes comparability among individuals but sees people as unique in their combination of traits. This viewpoint sees traits as having the same psychological meaning in everyone. The belief is that people differ only in the amount of each trait. It is this which constitutes their uniqueness. This approach tends to use self-report personality questions, factor analysis etc. People differ in their positions along a continuum in the same set of traits.

Most contemporary psychologists tend towards a nomothetic approach (and the trait approach is often viewed solely as a nomothetic approach these days), but they are aware of how a trait may be slightly different from person to person in the way that it is expressed.