Raymond Cattell And His Theory Of Personality

By: Rachel Lustbader

Updated May 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

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Psychology and math are typically viewed as two separate entities. As a social science, much of psychological research centers on qualitative data and human experience. But, some psychologists choose to merge the two in a field known as psychometric research. One such psychologist is Raymond Cattell, renowned for his theory of personality.

Who Is Raymond Cattell?

Unless you studied psychology in school, you most likely have not heard of Raymond Cattell. Cattell is a famed 20th-century psychologist from England. He studied chemistry and physics at the University of London, a hint at the scientific and mathematical approach he would take to psychology.

Cattell first became interested in psychology in the context of the cultural impact of World War I. He decided to pursue a career in the field and ultimately graduated from theUniversity of London with a degree in psychology. In the ensuing years, he accepted various teaching positions at universities in the United States, including at Columbia University and Harvard University.

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 a 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 achievements, Raymond Cattell's biggest contribution to psychology occurred after his retirement from the University of Illinois. Post-retirement, Cattell worked with his wife Heather Birkett to develop 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 waspsychometrics, the field of study focused on measurement of qualities such as intelligence, personality traits, abilities,and attitudes. Rather than working as a therapist, Cattell spent his career in psychology as a devoted researcher.

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The focus of psychometric research is the differences between individuals. The method has two primary components: the development of instruments and tools for measurement of traits, and the refinement of approaches to measurement.

Psychometrics was originally developed with a goal to measure intelligence, but later expanded to explore personality traits. The majority of Raymond Cattell's research focused on the latter. Psychometrics attempts to quantify qualities of humans. Critics argue that you cannot quantify such things, but proponents of psychometrics claim that many critics misuse psychometric data. Still, the process of defining "measurement" for a social science such as psychology proved challenging for the pioneers of psychometrics. This is a common problem across social science disciplines.

Even if you have not heard of psychometrics, you probably have utilized one of its products at some point. For example, the popular Myers-Briggs Personality Test is a product of the psychometric movement.

Factor Analysis

One of the key theories 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 to find underlying correlations in large groups of data. It is a great tool for simplifying very large amounts of data to find common characteristics within.

Raymond Cattell is known for using factor analytic methods, rather than more subjective or qualitative methods, to explore personality traits. He was a pioneer of using factor analysis to study behaviors. 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 most renowned for his theory of personality. Cattell developed this theory later in his 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 data. He wanted to apply factor analysis to personality. To do this, he categorized data into three parts to achieve a large, comprehensive method of sampling. The three data types were:

  • Life Data (L-data): 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, social interactions, and more.
  • Experimental Data (T-data): Recorded reactions to standardized experiments in a lab setting designed to test study participants’ responses to certain situations.
  • Questionnaire Data (Q-data): 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 "common taxonomy" of personality traits. He refined previously established lists of personality traits and narrowed categories to simplify the descriptions of personality even further than his predecessors. The previously established taxonomy, created by psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert in 1936, contained thousands of personality traits divided into four categories. But, this taxonomy contained some "ambiguous category boundaries,” according to Cattell, that reduced the significance of the work. Raymond Cattell's personality theory sought to both refine the previous taxonomy and create more rigid boundaries that added to the significance of the theory.

The 16 Primary Traits Of Cattell's Personality Theory

Cattell's theory of personality described 16 personality traits that each person possesses to varying degrees. The personality traits are referred to as "primary factors," of which someone can be in the "low range," or "high range." Within those rangers are descriptors of attributes someone may possess, or ways someone may act, who falls within those ranges. The sixteen 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
  • Privateness
  • Apprehension
  • Openness to change
  • Self-reliance
  • Perfectionism
  • Tension

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In connection with Cattell's theory of personality came the 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). The 16PF is a personality test used by individuals as well as psychologists and mental health institutions to help evaluate patients. Unlike personality tests that explicitly ask the respondent about their personality traits, the 16PF asks about certain situations and their response to those situations.

The Big Five

Despite his scientific and mathematical expertise, 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 Cattell's personality theory can be called into question. Cattell claimed that this was because those who attempted to replicate his findings were not using his exact methodology.

Despite the difficulties with replication, Cattell's personality theory undeniably made a large impact on the field of personality within psychology. Cattell's sixteen primary factors were essential for the later discovery of the "big five" personality traits.

Just as Cattell sought to improve and refine the findings of his predecessors in the field of personality, others did the same thing with Cattell's sixteen factors. Psychologists were able to use Cattell's personality theory as a starting point to distill it down to five personality traits that "define human personality." Cattell recognized these factors in his research as "global factors" that encompass many of the sixteen factors into five broader traits. The big five personality traits are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

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Like Cattell's original sixteen-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 but to varying degrees. Where you fall within each of the five traits is a good indicator of how you react in different situations. Today, the big five personality test is more common than the original 16PF questionnaire.

Fluid And Crystallized Intelligence

The personality theory is not the only contribution of Cattell's which is still utilized today. In addition to his sixteen factors, Cattell is also credited with making the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence.

Today, most people recognize that there are multiple ways in which someone can be "smart." However, this was not always the case. When Raymond Cattell introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence in 1963, he was the first to officially make the distinction between two different types of intelligence.

Fluid intelligence relates to one's reasoning capabilities and on-the-spot decision making. It is extremely useful for things like problem-solving and recognizing patterns. Fluid intelligence is what many people are talking about when they refer to someone having "street smarts."

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is more in line with what people refer to as "book smarts." It is the ability to use learned knowledge and skills. For example, the application of a mathematical theory to solve an equation is 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 does 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. Today, employers often utilize big five personality tests to evaluate potential employees. The big five is seen as a great way to determine someone's aptitude for a specific position or career path.

In addition to employers, psychologists regularly administer the big five test to clients to help them discover their strengths. The test can also help give people clarity on why they react a certain way in situations and the traits behind their behavior. If this is something you are interested in, bring it up with a counselor. They can help you sort through the results and figure out how to use the results to better your life.

Cattell passed on in 1998 with roughly 8,900 scientific citations to his name. Twenty years later, psychologists continue to make use of his work in human personality. One 2018 dissertation (PDF download) found evidence that his 16PF taxonomy accurately predicted satisfaction in marriages. If you are worried about personality issues or compatibilities in a relationship, there’s a good chance your therapist will employ the 16PF or the big five personality breakdown.

In the event that you do have concerns about your personality or that of your loved one, online therapy can provide answers and treatment. Online counseling with BetterHelp is convenient, secure, and affordable. While it’s common to grow concerned about aspects of your personality, the DSM-V also recognizes numerous personality disorders. If you believe you are showing symptoms, help is just a click away. Read what others have to say about their experience with online therapy.

“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.”

Though Cattell never worked as a therapist, his findings nonetheless have impacted the lives of many. As time goes on, people will continue to learn about themselves using the tools developed by Raymond Cattell.


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