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Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality



Each personality model or theory requires units to describe individual differences. These can be captured with a limited set of deeply anchored core characteristics that are necessary to sufficiently describe complex personality differences. A larger set of surface characteristics may develop out of these core differences as individual expressions of either specific or diverse core characteristics in particular environments. Core characteristics can be differentiated from surface characteristics by five criteria: They are (1) observable earlier in life, (2) more stable, and (3) less environmentally malleable than surface characteristics; (4) they cause surface manifestations and (5) account for genetic variance in them. In this entry, the concepts of core and surface characteristics of personality will be introduced along with cogent examples.
Core and Surface Characteristics
of Personality
Christian Kandler
, Angelika Penner
Alexandra Zapko-Willmes
Department of Psychology, Medical School
Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Department of Psychology, Bielefeld University,
Bielefeld, Germany
Ability;Basic tendencies;Characteristic adapta-
tions;Dispositional traits;Dynamic characteris-
tics;Temperament traits
Despite its use in everyday language, there is no
general denition, model, or theory of personality.
Theoretical perspectives on personality differ in
bandwidth and depth. From a very narrow per-
spective, personality may subsume descriptive
dimensions of individual differences in typical
behavior styles and regulation of emotion, often
labeled as temperament traits which should
be largely consistent over time and across situa-
tions. From a broad perspective, personality can
be dened as relatively enduring patterns of
emotion, cognition, motivation, and behavior in
which one individual differs from others within a
certain reference population (e.g., age group or
culture)(Kandler et al. 2014, p. 231). In any
case, each personality model or theory builds
upon units to describe and study personality dif-
ferences and development.
Definitions of Core and Surface
The most common way to describe complex adult
personalities is to posit a limited set of relatively
stable and genetically anchored core characteris-
tics, from which a broader array of individual
differences in so-called surface characteristics is
ultimately derived. Core characteristics are often
assumed to be largely heritable and to display
strong continuity across situations, contexts, and
occasions. By contrast, surface characteristics are
generally viewed to be more amenable to social
and cultural shaping, more contextualized and
particularized, and less stable over time than
core characteristics(Kandler et al. 2014,
p. 231). Additional propositions regarding the
differentiation between core and surface
characteristics often labeled as characteristic
adaptations have been formulated (McAdams
and Pals 2006; McCrae et al. 2000). For example,
the three-layer perspective on personality pro-
poses that characteristic adaptations develop
after dispositional core traits, of which at least
specic facets are already observable very early
in life (McAdams 2013; McAdams and Olson
#Springer International Publishing AG 2017
V. Zeigler-Hill, T.K. Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_2287-1
2010). In the Five-Factor Theory, characteristic
adaptations are seen as developed by-products of
the interaction of core characteristics with envi-
ronmental experiences (McCrae 2009). The com-
plex personality of an adult person may then
consist of a small set of core characteristics and
a large set of surface characteristics which reect
individual expressions of either specic or diverse
core characteristics in particular environments.
Different personality models disagree about
the number of descriptive personality dimen-
sions that are essential to characterize the core
of personality (Ashton and Lee 2007; Cattell
1965; Eysenck 1970; John et al. 2008). However,
they agree in the idea that a nite number of
core characteristics exists that show a bio-
logical basis and are relatively stable across time
and situations. To determine the dimensions that
are necessary to sufciently describe individual
differences in core characteristics, the above men-
tioned ve criteria should be considered: Core
characteristics are (1) observable earlier in life
(and partly even in other species), (2) more stable,
and (3) less environmentally malleable than sur-
face expressions; (4) core characteristics impact
surface manifestations rather than vice versa and
(5) account for genetic variance in surface char-
acteristics. In the following, potential core and
surface characteristics of personality are described
within and across three different types of charac-
teristics: Temperament, dynamic characteristics,
and abilities.
Core and Surface Temperament Traits
Temperament traits cover relatively stable charac-
teristic styles of expressing and regulating emo-
tions, motivations, and behavior. They describe
how individuals act when pursuing a goal or
react to situations and their social environment.
Many potential core temperament traits have been
discussed in the literature (see Table 1), such
as extraversion (vs. introversion) as characteristic
style of gaining and holding attention in the social
group. In addition, effortful control has been dis-
cussed as early temperament substrate of ex-
pressing and regulating self-related
(conscientiousness) and social (agreeableness)
goals (e.g., work and love), emotions (e.g., guilt
and empathy), and behavior (see McAdams 2015,
for more details on these potential core tempera-
ment traits).
Another prominent core temperament trait
dimension describes individual differences in
emotionality and reactivity to environmental stim-
uli by inuencing the way in which persons per-
ceive, react to, or cope with them. It has varying
labels, such as neuroticism (Eysenck 1970), neg-
ative affectivity (Rothbart 2007), or emotional
reactivity (Strelau 2008) versus emotional stabil-
ity (John et al. 2008). Neuroticism has often been
discussed as a crucial heritable risk factor of men-
tal illness and profound candidate that may
explain (or rather mediate) the common genetic
vulnerability underlying both depression and anx-
iety (Caspi et al. 2014). In fact, psychological
research supports the role of neuroticism as core
trait. Individual differences in neuroticism can
account for a number of anxiety and depressive
symptoms (Zinbarg et al. 2016). Neuroticism
mediates most of the genetic diathesis in the ten-
dencies to develop anxiety and depressive disor-
ders, accounts for the comorbidity between
anxiety disorders and unipolar mood disorders,
and interacts in multiple ways with negative
(risk) and positive (protective) life experiences
increasing or decreasing the probability of disor-
der onset (Kandler and Ostendorf 2016).
Core and Surface Dynamic
Whereas temperament traits regulate our affectiv-
ity and behavior, dynamic characteristics drive us
and energize our behavior in a particular direction.
They describe what individuals want and how
they value specic situations, objects, and other
people in their environment. McAdams (2015)
described two core motives that are anchored in
the evolved human nature: Getting along (i.e.,
striving for self-transcendence, cooperation with
others, and communion) and getting ahead (i.e.,
striving for self-enhancement, individual superi-
ority, and agency). Both strivings are important to
2 Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality
enhance our reproductive chances resulting in the
fundamental problems that our own species have
continuously confronted over the course of human
evolution(McAdams 2015, p. 35) and we have
faced in our own life and development. Thus,
different conicting individual goals or prefer-
ences and value priorities (e.g., afliation and
intimacy vs. power and achievement) may result
from the individual conict between these two
core motives.
In addition to the strivings for self-
transcendence and self-enhancement, other
conicting core dynamic characteristics may be
anchored in the human nature: The strivings for
self-actualization and self-protection (Kandler
et al. 2016a; Maslow 1970). Both motives are
also important for survival, health, and ongoing
human integrity and development. Self-
actualization may express itself in different
faces, such as the need for novelty and variety,
stimulation goals, and self-direction values. Sim-
ilarly, self-protection may drive the need for own
and ingroup safety,conformity values, and
All four in part conicting human motives vary
between individuals as basic innate units of moti-
vation. They may reect the core dynamic char-
acteristics of more specic human needs, goals,
and values (see Table 1) that develop depending
on external social and cultural inuences as
important guiding elements of personality devel-
opment. For example, conservative attitudes may
reect sociopolitical expressions of the needs for
conformity, stability, and protection against pos-
sible external (e.g., strangers) and internal threats
(e.g., ingroup deviants). Several studies have
Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality, Table 1 Examples of potential core and surface characteristics
Types of features Core characteristics Surface characteristics
Temperament traits Neuroticism/emotional stability Anxiety
Extraversion/introversion Sociability
Social activity
Agreeableness/aggressiveness Friendliness
Conscientiousness/negligence Discipline
Dynamic characteristics Self-transcendence (horizontal striving/getting along) Afliation/intimacy goals
Benevolence values
Self-enhancement (vertical striving/getting ahead) Achievement goals/values
Power goals/values
Self-actualization (openness to experience) Novelty/stimulation goals
Self-direction goals/values
Self-protection (resistance to change/novelty) Security goals/values
Abilities Intelligence (cognitive speed and capacity) Verbal comprehension
Spatial imagination
Kinesthesis Athletic capacity
Hands-on/artistic skills
Memory/wisdom Biographic memory
Factual knowledge
Musicality Rhythmic coordination
Musical comprehension
Attention/concentration capacity Alertness/vigilance
Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality 3
shown that increasing social threats can enhance
and reinforce conservative stances (e.g., McCann
2008). Thus, conservatism can be seen as surface
characteristic, which varies as a result of the inter-
action between the striving for self-protection and
the individual perception or experience of threat.
Core and Surface Abilities
Beyond the temperament-related and motiva-
tional basis of personality that regulate and drive
our behavior, one can imagine core abilities as
another important part of personality that deter-
mine how successful people can deal with a par-
ticular situation and how well they reach whatever
their goal is (Cattell 1965). The probably most
prominent core ability is intelligence. Often
dened as the general cognitive ability of reason-
ing, intelligence subsumes the individual cogni-
tive speed and capacity, analogous to the
processor performance and random access mem-
ory of a computer. It is often conceptualized as
well as empirically captured as common substrate
of diverse specic cognitive abilities, such as ver-
bal,numerical, and spatial abilities.
Similarly, we can think of other potential core
abilities, such as kinesthesis (the sensing and
using of ones own body or parts of it to create
or reproduce something or solve problems), musi-
cality (the capacity to recognize, create, and repro-
duce on music and the sensitivity to rhythm),
memory (recall capacity), concentration capacity,
and so on. All these potential core abilities may be
expressed in diverse surface characteristics
depending on the efciency and promotion of
the individual social environment (see Table 1).
Surface Characteristics as Synthesis of
Diverse Core Characteristics and
Surface characteristics may not only manifest as a
result of the interaction between one core charac-
teristic and the individual environment but also as
individual characteristic expressions of diverse
core characteristics in particular individually
effective environment. For example, self-esteem
(i.e., peoples evaluation of their own worth and
associated emotions) and subjective well-being
(i.e., peoples judgments and feelings about the
quality of their life) has been discussed as surface
characteristic of neuroticism,extraversion, and
conscientiousness (as well as agreeableness in
the case of subjective well-being). Individual dif-
ferences in these potential core temperament traits
can account for about 4060% of the reliable
variance in self-esteem (Robins et al. 2001) and
subjective well-being (Steel et al. 2008). In line
with the qualication as surface characteristics,
self-esteem and subjective well-being are less sta-
ble over longer periods of time and tend to be
more amenable to situational and environmental
inuences than the associated potential core traits
(see Kandler et al. 2014, for a review).
Furthermore, we can imagine surface charac-
teristics which may result from the synthesis of
the individual environment and diverse core char-
acteristics from different types of personality attri-
butes. Creativity as a more or less stable and more
or less contextualized characteristic to develop
novel and useful ideas and products is a promising
candidate in this regard. Several researchers
argued that creativity requires the conuence of
a supportive environment and numerous heritable
characteristics, such as intelligence and openness
to experience (Simonton 2014; Sternberg and
Lubart 1992). In fact, several studies have found
that heritability estimates for some creativity mea-
sures (e.g., gural creativity) were smaller com-
pared with other (potential core) characteristics
and could be completely accounted for by genetic
variance in openness to experience,intelligence,
and extraversion, whereas these criteria of the
differentiation between core and surface charac-
teristics were not met for other measures of crea-
tivity, such as perceived everyday creativity
(Kandler et al. 2016b).
Conclusion and Future Directions
The above introduced ve criteria are essential
to differentiate between core and surface charac-
teristics of personality to derive a comprehensive
4 Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality
framework of personality, including essential core
characteristics that are necessary to sufciently
describe complex individual personality differ-
ences as well as specic surface manifestations of
these core characteristics to describe an individual
with more detail. Even though some proposals for
an integrative framework of personality have been
written down (e.g., McAdams 2015), current
research provides not enough replicable and
methodically sound evidence to qualify one fea-
ture as core characteristic and another as surface
For example, self-esteem and subjective well-
being may qualify as surface characteristics of
core temperament traits neuroticism,extraver-
sion, and conscientiousness. They appear to be
less stable and heritable than their associated
potential core elements. Moreover, some studies
have demonstrated that core traits are associated
with subsequent changes in self-esteem (Wagner
et al. 2013) and subjective well-being (Kandler
et al. 2015). However, other studies found recip-
rocal causation (Soto 2015). Although genetic
variance in neuroticism,extraversion, and consci-
entiousness can account for the entire genetic
variance in subjective well-being (Weiss et al.
2008), no study so far has investigated if these
potential core traits also mediate the heritability of
More genetically informative and longitudinal
studies recruiting people of all ages are needed to
shed more light on the developmental sequences,
long-term stability, genetic basis, and environ-
mental sensitivity of different characteristics of
personality as well as the direction of causation
between them. Those studies will provide the
basis for a comprehensive and integrative model
of personality.
Acknowledgments The authors received support from
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6 Core and Surface Characteristics of Personality
... Core characteristics, also called basic tendencies, are to a great extent endogenous, biologically rooted variables that include potentials and dispositions (McAdams & Pals, 2006;McCrae et al., 2000). They are visible early in life and present in other species (Kandler et al., 2017;McAdams & Olson, 2010). Surface characteristics, sometimes called characteristic adaptations, are socio-culturally conditioned and include acquired beliefs, skills, and habits (McAdams & Pals 2006;McCrae et al. 2000). ...
... Thus, they are seen as by-products of the interaction between core traits and environmental experiences (McCrae, 2009). Surface characteristics are more malleable than core traits (Kandler et al., 2017;Marsh et al., 2006;McCrae et al., 2000) and appear later in development (McAdams & Olson, 2010). A plausible direction of the links between core and surface characteristics is that dispositional core characteristics impact surface ones rather than vice versa (Asendorpf & Van Aken, 2003;Kandler et al., 2014Kandler et al., , 2017; but see Marsh et al., 2006, for argumentation about reciprocal relations). ...
... Surface characteristics are more malleable than core traits (Kandler et al., 2017;Marsh et al., 2006;McCrae et al., 2000) and appear later in development (McAdams & Olson, 2010). A plausible direction of the links between core and surface characteristics is that dispositional core characteristics impact surface ones rather than vice versa (Asendorpf & Van Aken, 2003;Kandler et al., 2014Kandler et al., , 2017; but see Marsh et al., 2006, for argumentation about reciprocal relations). ...
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