Chapter 17: Cattell: Scientific Approach to Trait Theory

Part 1: Raymond Cattell

Raymond Bernard Cattell was born on March 20, 1905, in the seaside town of Staffordshire, England.  Cattell developed a great love for the sea, and his first book was actually about sailing. His father was a mechanical engineer who worked on projects involving innovations for WWI military equipment, the steam engine, and the new internal combustion engine.  Cattell was an excellent student, and he earned a scholarship to attend London University. Majoring in chemistry, Cattell received his bachelor’s degree in 1924 with first class honors.

The years following World War I were a time of great change in Europe, and Cattell decided that studying psychology would provide him with the opportunity to address the political and economic issues facing society.  He entered University College in London where he worked on his Ph.D. with Charles Spearman, the renowned statistician and expert on intelligence testing (a student of Wilhelm Wundt, and advisor to David Wechsler as well).  During his studies, Cattell was involved in the development of factor analysis, a new statistical method that was to have a profound effect on the development of psychological tests (including the MMPI). He completed his Ph.D. in 1929, after which he both worked and continued his education.  He spent six years as the director of the City Psychological Clinic, a child guidance center in Leicester, earned a master’s degree in education, and a doctorate of science degree.

In 1937, Cattell came to America to work with E. L. Thorndike at Columbia University, where he continued his work on theories of intelligence.  In 1939, he moved to Clark University, where his research interests turned to developing objective measures of personality. In part, this work led to his theory on fluid vs. crystallized intelligence.  Then, in 1941, at the invitation of Allport, Cattell joined the faculty at Harvard University. While at Harvard, he was influenced by Allport and Henry Murray, and Cattell became even more strongly interested in the study of personality.  It was in this stimulating environment that be began to consider applying factor analysis to the study of personality.

In 1945, Cattell accepted a research professorship at the University of Illinois, where he remained for nearly 30 years.  The University of Illinois soon became the site of the first electronic computer, providing Cattell with the technology necessary to conduct large-scale factor-analytic studies on personality (factor analysis is a math intensive statistical technique, even relative to other statistical techniques).  He established the Laboratory of Personality Assessment and Group Behavior, where he and his colleagues were highly productive and produced a number of influential books advancing psychological science, including Description and Measurement of Personality (Cattell, 1946), An Introduction to Personality Study (Cattell, 1950a), Personality: A Systemic Theoretical and Factual Study (Cattell, 1950b), Factor Analysis (Cattell, 1952), and Personality and Motivation Structure and Measurement (Cattell, 1957).  In these books, Cattell gathered together extensive data from a methodologically sophisticated program of research on the development and organization of personality.  In 1960, he called for an international meeting of researchers in the scientific study of personality, which resulted in the foundation of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology, and in 1966 he co-wrote and edited the influential Handbook of Multivariate Experimental Psychology (Cattell, 1966).

After retiring in 1973, Cattell continued his research in Colorado.  In 1978, he moved to Hawaii, where he taught at the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii School of Professional Psychology (which later became the American School of Professional Psychology).  During his career, Cattell received many honors, including the Wenner-Gren Prize from the New York Academy of Sciences, and in 1972, the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology established the Cattell Award for young psychologists.  In 1997, he was chosen to receive a Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement (the same honor received by both Gordon and Floyd Allport).  However, the announcement resulted in objections that Cattell should not be honored because he had used his psychological theories to support eugenics.  Essentially, he was accused of using his research to support racism, and therefore, he was a racist. In an open letter to the American Psychological Association, Cattell claimed that his views had been misinterpreted, and that he was being held accountable for statements made as a young man in the 1930s.  However, he continued to publish these controversial ideas in the 1970s and 1980s. Regardless, Cattell asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration. Less than two months after writing the letter, Cattell died at his home in Honolulu on February 2, 1998 (Cattell & Horn, 2007; Gale Reference Team, 2004).

Placing Cattell in Context:  Statistical Analysis of Trait Dimensions

Raymond Cattell stands alongside Allport as one of the two principal founders of the trait approach to understanding personality.  As his unique contribution, Cattell brought a level of precision to the scientific and statistical analysis of personality factors that were not available beforehand.  Indeed, Cattell helped to develop the factor analysis method that revolutionized objective psychological testing. His 16-PF test was the forerunner of the research that led to today’s highly regarded conception of the Big Five personality traits.

In addition, although he is not generally known for it, Cattell was one of the few early personality theorists who considered the continuation of personality development throughout the lifespan.  His publication of these ideas coincides with Erik Erikson’s publication of his first major book, so Cattell was not simply echoing the work of someone who came before him, but rather had developed this interest on his own.

Unfortunately, Cattell also provided the basis for one of the most controversial topics in psychology today.  Specifically, he advocated directing the efforts and support of society toward those already advantaged within it.  In contrast, the discipline of psychology, as a social science, is held by the vast majority of its members to expectations of ethics and morality that emphasize improving the good of all people.  Thus, most psychologists would agree that our discipline, as well as our society, should focus most of its support on those who need it most, even if that approach does not stand up well to a cost-benefit analysis.  After all, how does one apply the concept of costs and benefits to the value of a human being?

Supplemental Materials

Raymond Cattell Personality Theory Biography

This video [2:21] provides a brief overview of Cattell’s life and his theory on personality development



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

AC4099.  (2016, November 4).  Raymond Cattell personality theory biography. [Video File].  Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.