Your Best Traits Can Serve The Public Well

Trait theory centers on an individual’s personality, psychological and biological traits, and their impact on criminal activity. This lesson will explore how the impact of trait theory on public policy can be seen in preventative, intervention, and rehabilitative programs.

What is Trait Theory?

Do you ever consider the type of person you are? Would you consider yourself outgoing, risk-taking, honest, intelligent, or disciplined? This is the basis of trait theory. ‘Trait theory’, as applied to criminal justice considers an individual’s personality, psychological and biological traits, and how they are associated with deviant, anti-social, or delinquent behavior. Modern trait theory considers how individuals’ traits interact with their environment, meaning how a person’s physical and social environment (family, peers, school, community) may trigger or influence an individual’s traits which lead to deviant or criminal behaviors. Trait theory has influenced the development of preventative, intervention, and rehabilitative policies and programs.

Aspects of Trait Theory

In order to understand trait theory and the implications for public policy, you need a little background on what it means and the individual parts that make up the theory. To do this, you’ll want to look at the three individual parts of trait theory.


This is simply those individual traits or attitudes that influence how a person will act in certain environments or circumstances.

Which of the five personality categories might you fall into?

  1. Extraversion – sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness
  2. Agreeableness– trust, kindness, affection
  3. Conscientiousness – good impulse control, organized, thoughtful
  4. Neuroticism – sadness, anxiety, moodiness
  5. Openness – adventurous, creative, imaginative.


This focuses on factors like intelligence, learned behavior, and mental development or disorders which contribute to criminal or deviant behaviors.

Think about which of the three main categories you can relate to:

  • Psychodynamic – this is when childhood experiences and development leaves individuals frustrated or angry; this outlook limits a person’s ability to follow socially acceptable practices. Lack of affection from your parents leaves you angry and prompts you to break normal rules and vandalize property.
  • Behavioral – consider that an individuals’ learned experiences shape behavioral responses to events or circumstances. You may model your own behaviors after observed behaviors from family, friends, or media in aggressive and deviant ways like reacting violently to events and situations.
  • Cognitive – this focuses on how individuals perceive the world around them and how they process events from moral and informational perspectives. You may process the event of stealing as morally justified based on the information process that it is okay to disregard rules and doing what is ‘right’ to get what you want.


This centers around a person’s biological make-up and how it interacts with their social environment. Try to conceive how major biological traits influences your own behavior:

  • Genetic – inherited traits
  • Hormones – testosterone or progesterone
  • Brain/cognitive development – IQ, reasoning, logic
  • Physiological – functioning of parts of the brain and chemicals in the brain

Realize that you may contain some biological features which interact with your social environment to shape your behaviors, both positive and negative.

Implications of Trait Theory on Public Policy

Trait theory can aid the understanding and prevention of deviant behaviors. This has led to the development of preventative and rehabilitative policies within communities and the criminal justice system. These policies have influenced the development of programs, associations, clinics, and centers devoted to addressing the mental health, behavioral, decision making, and personality issues that lead to or sustain deviant criminal acts. These resources can be grouped into one of the three main areas; ‘primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation’.

  1. ‘Primary preventative measures’ – these are policies that focus on preventing an individual, primarily a child, from ever exhibiting deviant behaviors that may lead to crime or offending.
  2. ‘Secondary preventative/intervention measures’ – these are policies that focus on reducing the risk of an individual entering the criminal offending pattern or who are in situations or circumstances that tend to lead to such offending. These are individuals, mostly children, that are already displaying attitudes and behaviors that are deviant.
  3. ‘Tertiary preventative/rehabilitation measures’ – these are policies that focus on preventing re-offending and rehabilitating those individuals that are already in the criminal justice system.

Programs Developed from Trait Theory

‘Primary Personality Programs’

  • Child services programs to monitor a child’s development
  • Parenting programs to educate and improve child care
  • Parenting skills programs to improve bonds
  • Educational programs to help improve child development and skills.

‘Secondary Personality Programs’

  • Cognitive problem-solving skills training
  • Anger control training
  • Social interaction training to improve relationships and emotional responses
  • Multi-dimensional family-based, school-based, and community-based therapy to improve the dynamics of relationships and reactions.

‘Tertiary Personality Programs’

  • Family therapy
  • Foster care therapy
  • Cognitive based treatment programs designed to reduce recidivism and offending through decision-making and behavior adaptations.

‘Primary Psychological Programs’

  • Life skills training
  • Decision-making skills training
  • Parental skills training
  • Behavior management programs
  • School and community-based education and relationship activities

‘Secondary Psychological Programs’

  • Family and parent training
  • In-home visits
  • Multi-dimensional programs including community, school, government, and family resources.
  • Moral reasoning treatment/therapy
  • Problem-solving treatment/therapy
  • Thinking skills treatment/therapy.

‘Tertiary Psychological Programs’

  • Behavioral skills training and treatment
  • Family therapy
  • Martial therapy
  • Functional family therapy
  • Community and school-based therapy
  • Criminal justice monitoring and supervision in the community like halfway houses
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

‘Primary Biological Programs’

  • Home based health and nutrition programs
  • Environmental enrichment programs focusing on health, activity, and education
  • Family and parenting skills training to promote healthy brain and mental health development.
  • School-based programs to boost intelligence, personality functioning, behavior, and decision-making skills.

‘Secondary Biological Programs’

  • Child-centered programs focusing on health-related factors
  • Parent or teacher related counseling to help improve behaviors.

‘Tertiary Biological Programs’

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Drug treatment programs
  • Physical health and well-being counseling and training programs.

Lesson Summary

Trait theory consists of the psychological, biological, and personality traits that interact with an individual’s social environment which can lead to criminal offending behaviors. Many of the initial preventative measures have influenced policies and programs involving children. Whether focused on skills, education, parental, or school-based programs, the intent is to never see an individual exhibit deviant behaviors. If an individual is at risk then the secondary level of prevention and intervention is in place to reduce the deviant behaviors already seen or improve the situation an individual finds themselves in which can lead to criminal offending.

These policies and programs center more on education, counseling, and treatment with families, school, and communities. Once individuals reach the criminal offending stage whether a juvenile, adolescent, or adult, then the policies shift towards more intervention and rehabilitation to desist the criminal offending. A major aspect of this is cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as the anger management, drug treatment, and skills training which are all currently utilized programs.