Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Dynamic Trait

  • John GillisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1067-1



In his Structure-Based Systems Theory of personality, Raymond Cattell (1979, 1980, 1987) distinguished between three main modalities of psychological traits: (1) ability traits that reflect how well an individual accomplishes tasks, (2) temperament/stylistic traits that indicate various ways in which a person tends to behave, and (3) dynamic traits that explain why people engage in certain types of behavior, regardless of how well or in what specific way they typically do things.


Cattell maintained that dynamic traits are measured best by variables that change most in response to changes of incentives in the environment. He proposed that ability traits are estimated most validly by variables that correspond with differences in environmental complexity. He then defined temperament/stylistic traits by exclusion, as individual differences that are not primarily ability or dynamic traits. Cattell stressed that any actual behavior was never purely of one modality and that the theoretical distinction he was suggesting was one of the conditional modalities for the convenience of prediction.

According to Cattell, dynamic traits provide the underlying motivational forces that drive human behavior. He proposed that there are two main forms of dynamic traits: (1) the innate biological propensities that had been known for a long time as instincts, which he referred to as ergs, and (2) the acquired structures which he called sentiments.

Main Text

In order to measure dynamic traits, Cattell and colleagues first carried out a series of studies examining a wide variety of methods for detecting the strength of dynamic traits. They utilized more than 100 separate devices to assess individuals’ interests. Examples of the devices used and the rationale behind their construction were:
  • Verbal fluency, which would be higher for topics of greater interest

  • Heart rate change, which would be larger for stronger interests

  • Reaction time, which would be faster for more motivating stimuli

  • Cognitive misperception, which would be increased for more intensely motivating activities

During this phase of his research on dynamic traits, Cattell employed an ipsative approach in order to partial out the effects of ability and temperament traits. With an ipsative procedure, participants are either forced to make choices between alternatives estimating different dynamic traits, or their scores are standardized using their own means and standard deviations.

Upon multivariate analysis of all of the measurement devices, it was found that seven or eight primary components, and two higher-order factors, accounted for most of the variance in methods for assessing motivational components. The higher-order components, which Cattell referred to as integrated and unintegrated, are similar to what other theorists have called conscious and unconscious.

Cattell and his coworkers employed instruments for measuring both integrated and unintegrated forms of motivation, to ascertain how many different dynamic traits may exist. Using the observations of other psychologists, especially Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William McDougall, and Henry Murray, they constructed tests for dozens of proposed dynamic traits and then carried out factor analyses to determine how many ergs and sentiments could be replicated.

Using an instrument he developed for measuring ten dynamic traits, called the Motivation Analysis Test, Cattell and his team reported that the prediction of academic achievement could be increased by 25% beyond what was possible using ability and temperament traits (Cattell and Butcher 1968).


Dynamic traits are central components of the comprehensive theory of personality published by Raymond Cattell called Structure-Based Systems Theory. Cattell and his colleagues carried out an extensive program of empirical studies that resulted in the development of a theory with a high degree of explanatory power (Madsen 1977).



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  3. Cattell, R. B. (1980). Personality and learning theory II. A systems theory of motivation and structured learning. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St. Thomas UniversityFrederictonCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Beth A. Visser
    • 1
  1. 1.Lakehead UniversityOrilliaCanada