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State and traits often intertwine and therefore it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. State vs. trait distinctions have been discussed and researched for years. It is most commonly discussed in the context of anger and anxiety and yet research in the last decade has also examined the phenomena in relationships to other psychological variables i.e. shyness, optimism, loneliness, happiness, curiosity, perfectionism, spirituality, depression, psycho-somatisation and many more. But what are states and traits?

State is a momentary emotional reaction to internal and/or external trigger(s) which also involves physical, behavioural, cognitive and psychological reactions. The duration and intensity of the emotion felt can vary due to various factors such as the level of arousal, frustration level, subjective perception, the context and etc. Once the emotional reaction passes, ‘normal’ equilibrium resumes (Spielberger & Sydeman, 1994). Say for example, that you are walking down the street alone at night and you hear a very loud noise. Your emotional reaction might be intense anxiety. The anxiety is co-triggered with  physical reactions i.e  heightened autonomic nervous system activity; cognitively you might perceive that your life  is in danger; behaviorally you might start running, become restless, overly alert and constantly looking around your shoulder and so on.. Once you subjectively perceive that you are safe, anxiety will subside and all reactions will return to normal levels. Your emotional reaction was an emotional state.  Once an emotional state is activated it can be perceived as intense, unpleasant and even painful but the reactions that result from the emotional state often have an adaptive and a survival function.

States, hence, create a temporary emotional change. An individual may become temporarily angry or anxious under certain circumstances but generally speaking one cannot say that being angry or anxious is who that individual normally and characteristically is. Emotional states presumably fluctuate over time.  A trait, on the other hand, implies a more permanent presence and a stable level of emotion. Traits refer to the stable, consistent and enduring disposition of the individual (Allport & Odbert, 1936), which includes emotional reactions and temperament, rather than situational, variable and temporary factors (Hamaker, Nesselroade,& Molen, 2007). Traits present the tendency of an individual to constantly feel, think and behave in a certain way (Spielberger & Sydeman, 1994). One can speak of a trait when the same emotional states chronically appear in a stable frequent manner and it is generalized in many different situations and contexes( Forgays, Forgays, & Spielberger, 1997).  The emotion is constantly present in the daily life of the individual, even without provocation, but it does not necessarily imply that the emotion is also constantly externally being expressed. Restraints that weaken under emotional arousing conditions and the presence of external factors eventually bring it out.

We often use traits to describe individual’s personality characteristics that are stable of time, for example, he is very anxious, shy or angry.  The traits interact with different factors to create many emotional states. This is done by the manner in which the factors such as situations, stimuli, interactions are being perceived, processed and the psychological, behavioral and emotional outcome of these processes (Kanto, Endler, Heslegrave, Kocovski, 2001). The states/traits interactions cause the attention and information processing and the interpretational level to become very limited and biased(Block, 2005). An anxious individual, for example, will tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli as more threatening (MacLeod & Cohen, 1993).  

Individual’s differences can easily be seen when certain traits tend to be more dominant in response to threatening, stressful or ambiguous situations.  Anger trait, for example, will cause an individual to be more prone to anger and even the least anger provoking situations can set anger levels off.  The same situations may not cause any anger in individual who has no high anger trait. An easy manner to sum up the state and trait differences could be that a state can be seen more as a short term and fleeting situational occurrence that happens once in a while whereas traits are more long term, frequent and stable emotional manifestations.

Allport, G. W., & Odbert, H. S. (1936). Trait names: A psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47 ,1, Whole No. 211.

Block, N. (2005). Two neural correlates of consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 46-52.

Forgays, D., Forgays, D. K., & Spielberger, C. (1997). Factor structure of the state–trait anger expression inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 69, 497–507.

Hamaker, E. L., Nesselroade, J. R.,& Molenaar, P.C. M. (2007). The integrated trait–state model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 295–315.

Kantor, L., Endler, N. S., Heslegrave, R. &J., Kocovski, N. L.,(2001). Validating Self-Report Measures of State and Trait Anxiety Against a Physiological Measure. Current Psychology: Developmental • Learning • Personality • Social, 20, 3, 207–215.

MacLe od, C., & Cohen, I. L. (1993). Anxiety and the interpretation of ambiguity: A text comprehension study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102, 238-247.

Spielberger, C. D., & Sydeman, S. J. (1994). State–trait anxiety inventory and state–trait anger expression inventory. In M. E. Maruish (Ed.), The use of psychological testing for treatment planning and outcome assessment (pp. 292–321). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates