Raymond Cattell and his theory of personality

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Psychology and math are typically viewed as two separate entities. As a social science, psychology often centers on qualitative research and human experience. However, psychologists started to merge the two in the 20th century, developing a discipline known as psychometrics, which laid the groundwork for our ability to measure personality traits. One of the individuals who played a pivotal role in helping advance the field of psychometric research was Raymond Cattell. Raymond Cattell was a highly influential psychologist whose work helped shape our current understanding of personality and continues to inform the way we evaluate people’s skills, motivations, and predilections. Below, we’re covering the work and continuing impact of Raymond Cattell. 

Who was Raymond Cattell?

Raymond Cattell was a famed 20th-century psychologist from England. Cattell first became interested in psychology through the context of the cultural impact of World War I, which he observed as a child. He later decided to pursue a career in the field, eventually graduating from the University of London with a degree in psychology. At school, Cattell also studied chemistry and physics, which informed the scientific and mathematical approach he would take toward psychology. He later accepted various teaching positions at universities in the United States, including Columbia and Harvard.

Cattell then went on to establish the Laboratory of Personality Assessment and Group Behavior at the University of Illinois. He later helped found the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology and its corresponding journal, Multivariate Behavior Research. One of the key distinctions of Cattell's career was his use of multivariate statistics to examine human behavior, rather than following the traditional research style of measuring single variables against one another.

Despite these major achievements, Raymond Cattell's most significant contribution to psychology occurred after his retirement from the University of Illinois, when he—along with his wife, Heather Birkett—developed the 16-Factor Personality Model.

Psychometric research

Raymond Cattell took a different approach to psychological research than many of his predecessors. Key to his research techniques was psychometrics, the field of study focused on measuring qualities such as intelligence, personality traits, abilities, and attitudes.

Psychometric research focuses on how differences in certain characteristics between individuals can be assessed. Psychometrics was originally developed with the goal of evaluating intelligence, but it later expanded to encompass a variety of traits. Critics of psychometric research argued that you cannot quantify certain qualities of humans—an endeavor which, indeed, proved challenging for its pioneers. 

Despite these challenges, the field of psychometrics has had an extensive reach. It has helped us better understand various fields within psychology and contributed to the development of many useful tests and models, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Factor analysis

One of the key practices of psychometric research is factor analysis. Raymond Cattell helped to advance this statistical method in the 1920s as a way to improve current models of measurement in psychology. Factor analysis is a method of finding underlying correlations amongst large groups of variables. It can be a valuable tool for simplifying research to find common characteristics, rather than using more subjective or qualitative methods to explore personality traits and behavior. The factor analysis method is what led Cattell to identify the 16 individual traits that are central to his personality theory.

Personality theory


Raymond Cattell made many contributions to psychology, but he is perhaps best known for his theory of personality. Cattell developed his model later in life, and his work in psychometric research and factor analysis culminated in this unique perspective on personality.

As with all of his work, Cattell took a statistical, measurable approach to studying personality rather than utilizing observational and qualitative research. Applying factor analysis to personality, he categorized data into three parts to achieve a large, comprehensive method of sampling. The three types were:

  • Life data (L-data) – L-data includes information about an individual's everyday behaviors and their behavioral patterns. This includes things such as the grades they received in school, their marital status, their social interactions, and more.
  • Experimental data (T-data) – T-data includes recorded reactions to standardized experiments in a lab setting designed to test participants’ responses to certain situations.
  • Questionnaire data (Q-data) – Q-data includes responses to questions about participants’ behavior and feelings. This data provides a deeper look into a person's personality that is not always clear through behavioral data.

The goal of Cattell's personality theory was to establish a system of classification for personality traits. He refined previously established lists of traits and narrowed categories to simplify the descriptions of personality even further than his predecessors. Versions of previously established classifications, such as the taxonomy created by psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert in 1936, contained thousands of personality traits and had delineations that were less clear. Raymond Cattell's personality theory sought to both refine previous taxonomies and create more rigid boundaries.

The 16 primary traits of Cattell's personality theory

Cattell eventually identified 16 personality traits that each person possesses to varying degrees. These personality traits are referred to as “primary factors”, which an individual can display within a range of extremes. The 16 primary factors of personality as described by Cattell's personality theory are as follows:

  • Warmth
  • Reasoning
  • Emotional stability
  • Dominance
  • Liveliness
  • Rule-consciousness
  • Social boldness
  • Sensitivity
  • Vigilance
  • Abstractedness
  • Apprehension
  • Openness to change
  • Self-reliance
  • Perfectionism
  • Tension

Cattell used his theory of personality to develop the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). The 16PF is a personality test used to help evaluate participants across a range of domains. Unlike personality tests that explicitly ask the respondent about their personality traits, the 16PF asks about certain situations and their response to those situations.

Despite its basis in extensive scientific and mathematical research, Cattell's personality theory is not without its critics. Most of the criticism is related to the fact that the theory has never been entirely replicated. Thus, the reliability of the factor analysis calculations that shaped it may be called into question. Cattell claimed that this was because those who attempted to replicate his findings were not using his exact methodology.

The Big Five

Cattell's personality theory had an outsized impact on personality psychology. His 16 primary factors were important for the development of later models, such as the Big Five personality traits. Psychologists Robert McRae and Paul Costa distilled Cattell's personality theory down to five personality traits that "define human personality." Cattell recognized these factors in his research as "global factors" that encompass many of the 16 factors in different ways. The Big Five personality traits are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism
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As with Cattell's original 16-factor personality theory, the idea behind the Big Five is not whether one has or does not have these traits. Rather, it is believed that everyone has these traits to varying degrees. Where you fall within the range for each of the five traits may be a good indicator of how you behave in certain situations. Today, the Big Five personality test is more common than the 16PF questionnaire.

Fluid and crystalized intelligence

The personality theory is not the only contribution of Cattell's that is still utilized today. Cattell is also credited with making the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence relates to one's reasoning capabilities and on-the-spot decision-making. It can be useful for solving problems and recognizing patterns. Fluid intelligence may be compared to what many people call “street smarts”.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, may be more in line with what people refer to as “book smarts”. It involves the ability to use learned knowledge and skills. For example, the application of a mathematical theory to solve an equation involves crystallized intelligence. Learning new words and incorporating those words into your general vocabulary is also an example of crystallized intelligence at work.

Though the two types of intelligence may seem independent of one another, they are related. Interestingly, while crystallized intelligence may not impact one's fluid intelligence, a high level of fluid intelligence can have a positive impact on crystallized intelligence. Today, most intelligence tests focus on both types of intelligence, though you can take individual tests for each type.

Raymond Cattell's legacy

Cattell made a lasting impact on the field of psychology, especially in regard to personality theory. His work helped lay the foundation for personality assessments that are still used today. These evaluations give people clarity on their strengths, preferences, and sources of motivation. Cattell died in 1998 with roughly 8,900 scientific citations to his name. Twenty-five years later, psychologists, therapists, and other mental health professionals continue to make use of his work in human personality. 

Navigating personality and mental health with online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can lead to changes in personality factors that are related to mental health challenges. For example, in one study, researchers found that two personality traits commonly associated with depression were significantly modified following an online therapy program. Participants in the treatment experienced significant reductions in symptoms of depression.  

If you’d like to know more about your strengths, what motivates you, and other ways your personality traits may impact your life, online therapy can help. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can be helpful if aspects of your personality make in-person treatment less desirable. Your therapist can also connect you with useful resources, such as articles and at-home exercises geared toward helping you learn more about your unique characteristics. A mental health professional can help you understand your personality and give you advice for navigating challenges based on your traits. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought similar guidance in the past. 

Therapist reviews

“Stella is very good at listening to me! She never makes me feel judged despite how some of my more anxious thoughts sound. She also understood my personality and what works for me and provided me with strategies that helped me function better in life.”


Raymond Cattell had a profound impact on the field of psychology. Cattell’s findings on personality continue to influence the way we evaluate our individual characteristics. If you have questions about personality traits and their implications, a mental health professional can provide you with helpful insights and guidance. Getting matched with a licensed therapist can be a productive step toward a more robust understanding of who you are.
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