In psychology research we measure both traits and states of people. Overall states are brief, specific occurrences and traits are enduring tendencies or dispositions.
“Rather than attempting to reduce the state-trait distinction to a single dimension, I propose four overlapping but distinct dimensions as underlying current professional uses of the distinction: duration, continuous versus reactive manifestation, concreteness versus abstractness, and situational causality versus personal causality.”Fridhandler, B. M. (1986). Conceptual note on state, trait, and the state–trait distinction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(1), 169–174.
A researcher from University of Massachusetts wrote a conceptual articl about the difference and nuances between state and trait qualities in psychology research. For example, some scales measure “trait” qualities which are assumed to be something that endures over time. Others measure “state” qualities like your current emotion which is assumed to change frequently. A trait isn’t always showing. Someone with trait cheerfulness doesn’t have to be cheerful all the time. Fridhandler proposes that there are more concepts to be considered when you talk about state or trait.
Short-Term vs Long-Term. Generally traits are long-lasting and states are short-lived. But how long it lasts isn’t enough to differentiate them.
Continuous vs Reactive. State is continuous. If you’re having an “episode” of cheerfulness, then you are in that state as long as the cheerfulness lasts. Trait is more of a stable proneness to react in a certain way. If you have trait cheerfulness, you’ll generally react cheerfully to most appropriate things.
Concrete vs Abstract. If you are in a state of cheerfulness or whatever, you can tell you’re in the state. You can feel or notice it. It’s concrete. Traits, however are abstract, they show up in a variety of ways and times. You can see if someone is experiencing cheerfulness, but would need observations over time to notice if someone generally has the trait of being cheerful.
Situation or Personality. Why might someone be cheerful? State would say, because I got a raise. Trait would say, because that’s the way I am or how I was raised.
Occurrence and Disposition. An occurrence is something tha happens. It’s a descrete event, or an episode, for a certain amount of time. You can point to an occurrence as an example. A disposition is a quality someoone has. It’s a statement of the kind of responses you expect in certain circumstances. Dispositions aren’t stuck in time, so you can’t point to it. It shows up only in certain situations. For example, say you have a habit of smoking. The habit is a disposition. The time you smoked today is an occurrence. You can point to the occurrence, but not the habit, even though it exists as a concept. You can study an occurrence of smoking, the habit of smoking, and the underlying brain and body causes for the habit of smoking.
States are occurrences, traits are dispositions. States are concrete, traits are abstract. States are brief, traits are enduring. Traits can endure briefly or for a long time.
So What – Application
If psychology research that measures states and traits can be confusing, it might be useful to understand the difference when you’re reading research or even news articles about recent research.
Researchers themselves certainly need to know the difference, but these applications are for ordinary people to apply to their lives, not their research.