Understanding the personality traits of the “big five”

Contrary to Myers-Briggs type indicator or the Enneagram, you may never have heard of the ‘big five’ personality traits. While the first two have become common self-assessment tools, the Big Five model is primarily used by psychology researchers and human resource professionals. It can, in part, come down to design. Most personality tests are designed by psychologists to be user-friendly and provide positive insight, but the traits of the Big Five were derived by applying factor analysis to human observations.


Read more: The problem with the Myers-Briggs personality test


“It all arose from the following idea: can you find a taxonomy to describe human personality? Says Stefanie Schurer, human development economist and professor at the University of Sydney. “It was very empirical.” As a result, the model is not always magnanimous towards curious candidates. For example, one of the traits, “neuroticism,” is designed to indicate a person’s predispositions to anxiety and depression.

But the same design features that can steer the masses away from the Big Five also make them particularly useful to researchers. Psychologists have shown that the scores of people on the five traits remain relatively stable in adulthood. And, unlike the Myers-Briggs, scores on the Big Five were correlated with academic performance and professional performance. Despite the model’s relative obscurity in the public eye, researchers are fascinated by its implications six decades after its first iteration.

The big five

  • Openness to experience – This trait describes a person’s tendency to seek new experiences, be open to new ideas, and enjoy aesthetic activities (such as music or art). According to Schurer, this is one of the more uncertain traits when it comes to correlating high or low scores with life outcomes. “We see openness as crystallized intelligence; the kind of intelligence you can learn in a formal education, ”she says. “But this is not always positive. You don’t have a higher salary, for example, and you may be riskier in your sexual behavior.

  • Consciousness – This trait describes a person’s ability to set, work, and achieve goals. Unlike open-mindedness, awareness has been the focus of much research studying the outcomes of life, as it is the trait most correlated with things like academic and professional performance.

  • Extraversion – This trait is probably the most widely recognized measure of personality. Those who score high in extroversion are sociable, energetic, and tend to seek out human interaction. But, like many of the traits of the Big Five, extroversion has many “facets” that fall under its broad umbrella. Schurer explains that a high or low score on this measure can mean very different things depending on those underlying factors. “It has two main components,” she says. “One is dominance and the other is sociability. Some think they should be separated.

  • Pleasantness – This trait is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? It measures a person’s tendency to trust and be compassionate with others. Therefore, those who score high on this trait tend to be selfless and concerned about their community.

  • Neuroticism – It’s a trait nobody likes to score points on, although comedians do just that. Neuroticism is defined as a tendency towards negative emotions, including anger, anxiety, and depression. High scores on this measure were correlated with a litany of health problems and even a shortened life expectancy.

Big Five scores tend to stay relatively stable, especially in adulthood, but some traits change over time. And, oftentimes, they change in predictable ways. “A lot of these changes can be explained by your roles and responsibilities throughout life,” says Schurer. “For example, if you have a child, it will change your perspective.”

A historical study outside Australia showed that as subjects got older, gained more responsibility, and relied more on their relational networks, measures of awareness and friendliness also increased. Conversely, the study found that neurosis, extraversion, and openness decreased with age.

The search for an empirical system

In 1879, the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychological research laboratory, an event that represented the emergence of experimental psychology as a discipline distinct from philosophy. Suddenly aristocrats and academics concerned with the workings of the human mind began to wonder how they could quantify a theory.

As a result of this change, the thoughts and writings of Sir Francis Galton – an eclectic scholar and half-cousin of Charles Darwin – were gripped by a fundamental question: Could an empirical system be devised to classify human dispositions? “The powers of man are finite, and if they are finite, they are not too great to be measured,” Galton wrote in an 1884 essay. “Can we discover character markers to serve as a basis for a survey?” … The character that shapes our conduct is a definite and enduring “something”. “

Galton decided to conduct an experiment within the confines of his library to find out. He dusted off a copy of Roget’s thesaurus and retrieves a long list of English words describing “remarkable aspects of the character” by consulting the index. The thousand words he identified, by his own admission, were of little use; their meanings overlapped in a disorganized and unpredictable way. Before Galton’s view of a system measuring human character empirically can be realized, the list of terms would have to be reduced.

Modern iterations

Although Galton’s writings were dreamy and speculative, his ideas spawned a line of research on which scientists have drawn inspiration throughout the 20th century and to the present day. Over a period of three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, a cohort of personality researchers again created a list of words that could be used to describe the human disposition. But this time, they had more tools to identify underlying trends. By analyzing large datasets of people describing their own personalities and that of others, they grouped the tangled web of adjectives into distinct clusters.

“The Big Five was different,” says Schurer. “It was, ‘let’s create a kitchen sink of words, then take the redundancy out until all we have is the gasoline.'”

In 1949, an American psychologist Donald Fiske identified five main personality traits. Researchers replicated and refined Fiske’s work over the following decades, until the traits of the Big Five, as we know them today, emerged from the research of psychologists. Robert McCrae and Paul Costa in the ’80s and’ 90s. They called it the five-factor model, or FFM.

Today, the model is still evolving. Over the past two decades, studies using the Big Five have sometimes included a sixth factor, place of control, which measures the meaning of an individual’s action, or whether they believe their actions can make a difference in life.

Although the model is still evolving, the Big Five validity as a useful framework is well accepted in the scientific community. Schurer says that articles that criticize certain aspects of it aim to polish the model, not to dismantle it. For example, a 2019 study highlighted the biases that often accompany the use of the Big Five across cultures, especially in low-educated developing countries. “At this point, these are just variations,” she says. “It’s fine tuning now.”


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