Raymond Cattell - Psychology of Personality - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Raymond Cattell
Psychology of Personality
The Canon


BORN 1905, Hilltop, England


DIED 1998, Honolulu, Hawaii


Educated at King’s College, London



Raymond Cattell is not to be confused with James McKeen Cattell, born 45 years earlier, one of the first psychology professors in the United States and a researcher who developed some early measures of intelligence. Raymond Cattell also made great strides in intelligence research but is best known for his work on the psychology of personality. One of his biggest contributions is the 16PF, a trait measure based on 16 personality factors that he saw as defining human beings. He used a lexical approach, starting with the language used to define traits, and built on Gordon Allport’s work.

Cattell believed that there are three major sources of data for personality traits, and that in order for a trait to be substantiated, it must be corroborated by information from all three sources. Life data (L data) is the life record—information that can be gleaned from others and from one’s interactions with society, such as court records and peer ratings. Questionnaire data (Q data) involves self-reports of individual traits. T data (experimental data) involves objective personality measures obtained in experimental settings where one might not even be aware that one’s personality is what is being assessed.

This latter idea—that it should not necessarily be obvious what a measure is assessing—is important because personality measures can be plagued by the problem of self-serving bias. We want to view ourselves as good people and probably also get the person doing the personality assessment to believe that we are good. And this can make us less than accurate in our answers. This is a common flaw of the many nonempirical personality tests that circulate on social media: How honest are you? What is your biggest emotional strength? What Big Bang Theory character are you? It is very easy to answer questions in a way that makes us look good; after all, few of us want to describe ourselves as being dishonest or devoid of emotional strength. So we might be inclined to fake it a bit, on the test or perhaps also in terms of how we view ourselves.

Tests that have a high degree of what is called face validity can be particularly susceptible to this kind of fakery. When a personality test is very clear about what it’s looking for, the temptation to make yourself look good can be particularly strong and also easy to indulge. More sophisticated personality measures, however, are less obvious about what they are measuring and thus make it more difficult to game the system.


Cattell sampled children, adolescents, and adults, and he collected data across several different cultures, from the United States to Brazil, New Zealand, India, and Japan. He used factor analysis to identify surface traits and source traits. Surface traits is the term he used for specific, more superficial descriptors of a person—characteristics that might come and go in different situations—whereas the term source traits denotes more fundamental characteristics that represent a true factor of the personality. The 16 personality traits of the 16PF are all source traits, and Cattell identified them as warmth, reasoning, emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism, and tension. Cattell was likely the first to use a computer to perform factor analysis on personality traits, which significantly increased the volume of data he could use in his calculations. The precision with which he conducted his calculations and derived his measures was well regarded, and it pushed forward the field of psychometrics—psychological measurement—quite significantly.


Cattell’s theories also have something to say about intelligence. He differentiated between two different types of intelligence: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence includes information that you have accumulated over time—all the data and knowledge derived from your education that has solidified (perhaps not totally) within your brain. Fluid intelligence includes the ability to do something with that information; it is adaptive and involves the ability to find solutions to problems in the moment.


Raymond Cattell’s trait theories and factor analysis led to further attempts to explore psychological characteristics and break them down into groups of salient features. His work was a forerunner of the later Big Five theory, which reduces the traits to extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism/ emotional stability, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.


Many online dating sites include built-in personality assessments. But, as Cattell’s 16PF shows, personality factors, even when they can be clearly identified, are a matter of degree. Even if we admire one of a potential partner’s traits, such as sensitivity or self-reliance, too much or too little of that trait might become a problem—someone who is sensitive might also be overemotional at times, and someone who is self-reliant might also sometimes have trouble being vulnerable enough to sustain an intimate relationship. And, of course, it’s always important to remember that the human urge to embellish, especially on a dating site, together with our human inability to be completely objective in assessing ourselves, means that the personality description in someone’s profile is not necessarily the whole story.