Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor Theory


Raymond Cattell

was a British-American psychologist, known for his psychometric research. It was based on intrapersonal psychological structure. Consequently he put forth ‘Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor Theory’. In addition, his work explored the basic dimensions of personality and temperament, the range of cognitive abilities, the dynamic dimensions of  motivation and emotion.

Raymond Cattell believed that there is a common structure on which people differ from each other. This structure could be built by means of  observation and experience. Also, he tried to identify the primary traits from a huge collection of adjectives found in the English language. Therefore, he applied a statistical technique, called factor analysis to discover the common structures. And, he found 16 primary or source traits.

The source traits are stable. Moreover, they are considered as the building blocks of personality. Besides, there are also a number of surface traits that result out of the interaction of source traits. Cattell described the source traits in terms of opposing tendencies. As a result, He developed a test, called Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). This test was for for the assessment of personality. This test is widely used by psychologists.

Formula for Personality by Cattell

According to Cattell [1965], personality is that which permits us to predict what a person will do in a given situation. With the help of mathematical analysis of personality.

R = f (S ,P ) 

  • R- the nature of a person’s specific response,
  •  f  – the unspecified function,
  •  S – the stimulus situation at a given moment in time and
  •  P – the Personality structure.

This equation shows that the person’s specific response to any given situation is a function of all the combined traits relevant to that situation. Hence, each trait here is interacting with situational factors that may affect it.

Raymond Cattell (1990) defined two types of traits as surface traits and source traits.

1. Surface Traits

These are found by Allport, representing the personality characteristics easily seen by other people. Surface traits do not have a unitary basis and are not consistent overtime. Hence, they are not given much value for behavioral accountability.

For instance, the observed characteristics of inability to concentrate, indecisiveness, restlessness etc., may cluster together to form the surface trait of neuroticism.

2. Source Traits

These are more basic traits that underlie the surface traits.

For example, shyness, being quiet, and disliking crowds might all be surface traits related to the more basic source trait of introversion, a tendency to withdraw from excessive stimulation.

Using a statistical technique that looks for groupings and commonalities in numerical data called factor analysis, Cattell identified 16 source traits (Cattell, 1950, 1966). And, although he later determined that there might be another 7 source traits to make a total of 23 (Cattell & Kline, 1977), he developed his assessment questionnaire.

Ability, Temperament & Dynamic Traits of Source Traits

Source traits can further be classified in terms of the modality through which they are expressed.

  1. Ability traits determine the person’s skill and effectiveness in pursuing a desired goal. For example, intelligence, musical aptitude.
  2. Temperament traits relate to other emotional and stylistic qualities of behavior. For example, people may either work quickly or slowly on a task. Cattell considers temperament traits as traits that determine a person’s emotionalism.
  3. Dynamic traits reflect the motivational elements of human behavior. In fact, these are the traits that activate and direct the person toward particular goals.

Thus, a person may be characterized as ambitious, power-oriented, or interested in acquiring material possessions.

The Sixteen Personality Factor (16PF) Questionnaire (Cattell, 1995)

It is based on just 16 source traits from Cattell’s 16 personality factor theory. These 16 source traits are seen as trait dimensions or continuum. Wherein there are two opposite traits at each end with a range of possible degrees for each trait measurable along the dimension.

For example, someone scoring near the “reserved” end of the “reserved/outgoing” dimension would be more introverted than someone scoring in the middle or at the opposite end.

BLess intelligentMore intelligent
CStable, ego strengthEmotionalism/ Neuroticism

Cattell did an extensive factor analytic research[1979].  As a result, he concluded that there are approximately 16 source traits that constitute the underlying structure of personality. These were put forward by him as

(1) warmth (2) Reasoning (3) Emotional stability (4) Dominance (5) Liveliness (6) Rule Consciousness (7) social boldness (8) Sensitivity (9) vigilance (10) Abstractness (11) Privacy (12) Apprehension (13) Openness to change (14) Self reliance (15) Perfectionism (16) Tension.

To check your understanding of the topic take this short test –
MCQ test for Theories of Personality

Criticism on Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor Theory

This approach was good at recognizing and describing different types of traits. Though, it is inconvenient. Most of these traits have highly similar meaning. Thus, it is difficult to differentiate some traits from others. Such vagueness causes confusion and also makes it difficult to study these personality traits.


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