Cardinal Traits of Personality

A personality trait is defined as something in regards to an individual that influences how they tend to think, feel and behave on a constant basis.

Personality traits are characteristic of lasting behavioral and emotional patterns rather than sequestered occurrences. Anyone can have an unenjoyable day once in a while, which can lead them to get aggravated, and make a snappy remark.

When this happens in isolation, it does not reflect a personality trait. However, when someone has a specific behavior of snapping at people rather than communicating politely, then snappiness is likely a personality trait this person has.

What Are Cardinal Traits?

A discussion of Gordon W. Allport’s Trait Theory is essential to examine the meaning of Cardinal Traits. Allport was a psychologist curious in studying and categorizing traits to comprehend personality.

Cardinal Traits can conquer a person’s life, sometimes leading to world-changing personalities and effects. Allport was one of the first pioneers to research in the study of traits.

For Allport, cardinal traits dominate and shape a person’s behavior. Central traits are characteristics found to some degree in every person. Secondary traits are only seen in particular circumstances (such as the snappy remark mentioned earlier).

These traits merge to provide a comprehensive picture of human personality.

Cardinal traits dominate a person’s personality to the point that they become known for them. Cardinal traits are the most predominant personality traits but also the rarest. Only so few people are so dominated by a singular theme that shapes the course of their entire life.

Such traits are so inherently tied to an individual’s personality that the person becomes almost synonymous with those qualities.

Cardinal traits often develop later in life. They shape almost all characteristics of an individual’s purpose, behavior, and attitudes.

The majority of people do not have a cardinal trait but rather a variety of several central traits. However, famous or notorious documented figures are often thought of in terms of their cardinal traits.

Some examples include:

  • Abraham Lincoln: Honest

  • Albert Einstein: Brilliant

  • Mahatma Gandhi: Peaceful

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Just, heroic

  • Mother Teresa: Good, charitable

  • Niccolo Machiavelli: Ruthless

  • Oprah Winfrey: Sociability, openness

  • Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalytical

There are also examples of cardinal traits in literature and myth. Don Juan was so renowned for his romantic exploits that his name became a synonym for heartbreaker and profligate.

Ebenezer Scrooge represented the cardinal trait of greediness. Narcissus, of Greek mythology, was so enamored with his reflection that his name became the root of the term narcissism or extreme self-obsession.

What are the differences between cardinal central and secondary traits?

Central traits affect, but do not determine, a person’s behavior. Secondary traits are also present in all individuals and can influence behavior, but secondary traits are strongly dependent upon immediate context, so they are not apparent in all situations.

Secondary traits tend to show themselves in particular situations. Again, for example, you might generally be pretty easy-going, but you might become short-tempered when under much pressure. Alternatively, an ordinarily calm person might become very anxious when faced with speaking in public.

What are the differences between cardinal central and primary traits?

Allport believed central traits are much more common than primary cardinal traits and serve as the basic building blocks of most people’s personalities.

Essentially, primary cardinal traits are rare but are strongly deterministic of behavior. In comparison, central traits are present to varying degrees in everyone. If you think of the essential terms you might use to determine and describe your overall character, such as anxious, honest, friendly, or generous, those would probably be identified as your central traits.

Allport suggested that most individuals have about 5 to 10 central traits. He also theorized that the majority of people have many of these traits to a certain degree.


Is extraversion a cardinal trait?

No, extraversion is one of the “big five” broad categories of personality traits. Extraversion relates to focusing attention outward, onto other people and the environment.

An individual high in extraversion (often spelt “extroversion”) might be sociable and outgoing.

It is necessary to note that each of the “big five” personality categories represents a range between two extremes of personality characteristics.

For example, extraversion represents a spectrum between extreme introversion and extreme extraversion. Most people lie between the two opposite ends of each dimension in the real world.

Is kindness a cardinal trait?

Kindness can be a cardinal trait. The thing to make clear here is that a cardinal trait is a pervasive characteristic that becomes the person’s identity.

If you dedicate your whole life to helping others, volunteering your time, making donations, and treating people with endless compassion, you can earn the cardinal trait of kindness.

Behavior involves an interaction between a person’s fundamental personality and situational components. The situation that an individual finds themselves in plays a significant role in how the person reacts.

However, in most cases, people offer responses consistent with their underlying personality traits.

Does everyone have a cardinal trait?

Like mentioned in this article, a cardinal trait is one that dominates your entire personality and, therefore, your life. Hence, we say that cardinal traits are not very common.

Only a few select people have personalities dominated by a single trait. Instead, our personalities typically consist of multiple traits.


Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.

Cattell, R. B. (1965). The scientific analysis of personality. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Fleeson, W., & Jayawickreme, E. (2015). Whole trait theory. Journal of research in personality, 56, 82-92.

Goldberg, L. R. (1990). An alternative” description of personality”: the big-five factor structure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 59(6), 1216.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Mia Belle Frothingham

Harvard Graduate

B.A., Sciences and Psychology

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Sciences with minors in biology and psychology