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The Big Five Personality Traits

The Big Five Personality Traits

By Annabelle G.Y. Lim , published June 15, 2020


Take-home Messages
  • The Big Five personality traits are extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
  • Each trait represents a continuum. Individuals can fall anywhere on the continuum for each trait.
  • The Big Five remain relatively stable throughout most of one’s lifetime.
  • They are influenced significantly by both genes and the environment, with an estimated heritability of 50%.
  • They are also known to predict certain important life outcomes such as education and health.

The Big Five Model, also known as the Five-Factor Model, is the most widely accepted personality theory held by psychologists today. The theory states that personality can be boiled down to five core factors, known by the acronym CANOE or OCEAN:

Conscientiousness
impulsive, disorganized vs. disciplined, careful
Agreeableness
suspicious, uncooperative vs. trusting, helpful
Neuroticism
calm, confident vs. anxious, pessimistic
Openness to Experience
prefers routine, practical vs. imaginative, spontaneous
Extraversion
reserved, thoughtful vs. sociable, fun-loving

Unlike other trait theories that sort individuals into binary categories (i.e. introvert or extrovert), the Big Five Model asserts that each personality trait is a spectrum.

Therefore, individuals are ranked on a scale between the two extreme ends.

big five personality scale

For instance, when measuring Extraversion, one would not be classified as purely extroverted or introverted, but placed on a scale determining their level of extraversion.

By ranking individuals on each of these traits, it is possible to effectively measure individual differences in personality.

History and Background

The Big Five model resulted from the contributions of many independent researchers. Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert first formed a list of 4,500 terms relating to personality traits in 1936 (Vinney, 2018). Their work provided the foundation for other psychologists to begin determining the basic dimensions of personality.

In the 1940s, Raymond Cattell and his colleagues used factor analysis (a statistical method) to narrow down Allport’s list to sixteen traits. However, numerous psychologists examined Cattell’s list and found that it could be further reduced to five traits. Among these psychologists were Donald Fiske, Norman, Smith, Goldberg, and McCrae & Costa (Cherry, 2019).

In particular, Lewis Goldberg advocated heavily for five primary factors of personality (Ackerman, 2017). His work was expanded upon by McCrae & Costa, who confirmed the model’s validity and provided the model used today: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion.

The model became known as the “Big Five” and has seen received much attention. It has been researched across many populations and cultures and continues to be the most widely accepted theory of personality today.

Each of the Big Five personality traits represents extremely broad categories which cover many personality-related terms. Each trait encompasses a multitude of other facets.

For example, the trait of Extraversion is a category that contains labels such as Gregariousness (sociable), Assertiveness (forceful), Activity (energetic), Excitement-seeking (adventurous), Positive emotions (enthusiastic), and Warmth (outgoing) (John & Srivastava, 1999).

Therefore, the Big Five while not completely exhaustive, cover virtually all personality-related terms.

big five personality scale

Figure 1. The Big Five Personality Traits. Reprinted from PennState, by R. Gray, 2017, https://sites.psu.edu/leadership/2017/09/02/the-importance-of-personality-trait-screening-for-todays-organizations-application-of-the-five-factor-model-ffm/

Another important aspect of the Big Five Model is its approach to measuring personality. It focuses on conceptualizing traits as a spectrum rather than black-and-white categories (see Figure 1). It recognizes that most individuals are not on the polar ends of the spectrum but rather somewhere in between.


Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to regulate their impulse control in order to engage in goal-directed behaviors (Grohol, 2019). It measures elements such as control, inhibition, and persistency of behavior.

Facets of conscientiousness include the following (John & Srivastava, 1999):

High

  • Competence
  • Organized
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement striving
  • Self-disciplined
  • Deliberation
  • Low

  • Incompetent
  • Disorganized
  • Careless
  • Procrastinates
  • Indiscipline
  • Impulsive
  • Conscientiousness vs. Lack of Direction

    Those who score high on conscientiousness can be described as organized, disciplined, detail-oriented, thoughtful, and careful. They also have good impulse control, which allows them to complete tasks and achieve goals.

    Those who score low on conscientiousness may struggle with impulse control, leading to difficulty in completing tasks and fulfilling goals.

    They tend to be more disorganized and may dislike too much structure. They may also engage in more impulsive and careless behavior.


    Agreeableness

    Agreeableness refers to how people tend to treat relationships with others. Unlike extraversion which consists of the pursuit of relationships, agreeableness focuses on people’s orientation and interactions with others (Ackerman, 2017).

    Facets of agreeableness include the following (John & Srivastava, 1999):

    High

  • Trust (forgiving)
  • Straightforwardness
  • Altruism (enjoys helping)
  • Compliance
  • Modesty
  • Sympathetic
  • Empathy
  • Low

  • Sceptical
  • Demanding
  • Insults and belittles others
  • Stubborn
  • Show-off
  • Unsympathetic
  • Doesn't care about how other people feel
  • Agreeableness vs. Antagonism

    Those high in agreeableness can be described as soft-hearted, trusting, and well-liked. They are sensitive to the needs of others and are helpful and cooperative. People regard them as trustworthy and altruistic.

    Those low in agreeableness may be perceived as suspicious, manipulative, and uncooperative. They may be antagonistic when interacting with others, making them less likely to be well-liked and trusted.


    Extraversion

    Extraversion reflects the tendency and intensity to which someone seeks interaction with their environment, particularly socially. It encompasses the comfort and assertiveness levels of people in social situations.

    Additionally, it also reflects the sources from which someone draws energy.

    Facets of extraversion include the following (John & Srivastava, 1999):

    High

  • Sociable
  • Energized by social interaction
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Enjoys being the center of attention
  • Outgoing
  • Low

  • Prefers solitude
  • Fatigued by too much social interaction
  • Reflective
  • Dislikes being the center of attention
  • Reserved
  • Extraversion vs. Introversion

    Those high on extraversion are generally assertive, sociable, fun-loving, and outgoing. They thrive in social situations and feel comfortable voicing their opinions. They tend to gain energy and become excited from being around others.

    Those who score low in extraversion are often referred to as introverts. These people tend to be more reserved and quieter. They prefer listening to others rather than needing to be heard.

    Introverts often need periods of solitude in order to regain energy as attending social events can be very tiring for them. Of importance to note is that introverts do not necessarily dislike social events, but instead find them tiring.


    Openness to Experience

    Openness to experience refers to one’s willingness to try new things as well as engage in imaginative and intellectual activities. It includes the ability to “think outside of the box.”

    Facets of openness include the following (John & Srivastava, 1999):

    High

  • Curious
  • Imaginative
  • Creative
  • Open to trying new things
  • Unconventional
  • Low

  • Predictable
  • Not very imaginative
  • Dislikes change
  • Prefer routine
  • Traditional
  • Openness vs. Closedness to Experience

    Those who score high on openness to experience are perceived as creative and artistic. They prefer variety and value independence. They are curious about their surroundings and enjoy traveling and learning new things.

    People who score low on openness to experience prefer routine. They are uncomfortable with change and trying new things so they prefer the familiar over the unknown. As they are practical people, they often find it difficult to think creatively or abstractly.


    Neuroticism

    Neuroticism describes the overall emotional stability of an individual through how they perceive the world. It takes into account how likely a person is to interpret events as threatening or difficult.

    It also includes one’s propensity to experience negative emotions.

    Facets of neuroticism include the following (John & Srivastava, 1999):

    High

  • Anxious
  • Angry hostility (irritable)
  • Experiences a lot of stress
  • Self-consciousness (shy)
  • Vulnerability
  • Experiences dramatic shifts in mood
  • Low

  • Doesn't worry much
  • Calm
  • Emotionally stable
  • Confident
  • Resilient
  • Rarely feels sad or depressed
  • Neuroticism vs. Emotional Stability

    Those who score high on neuroticism often feel anxious, insecure and self-pitying. They are often perceived as moody and irritable. They are prone to excessive sadness and low self-esteem.

    Those who score low on neuroticism are more likely to calm, secure and self-satisfied. They are less likely to be perceived as anxious or moody. They are more likely to have high self-esteem and remain resilient.


    Stability of the Traits

    People’s scores of the Big Five remain relatively stable for most of their life with some slight changes from childhood to adulthood. A study by Soto & John (2012) attempted to track the developmental trends of the Big Five traits.

    They found that overall agreeableness and conscientiousness increased with age. There was no significant trend for extraversion overall although gregariousness decreased and assertiveness increased.

    Openness to experience and neuroticism decreased slightly from adolescence to middle adulthood. The researchers concluded that there were more significant trends in specific facets (i.e. adventurousness and depression) rather than in the Big Five traits overall.


    Factors that Influence the Big 5

    Like with all theories of personality, the Big Five is influenced by both nature and nurture. Twin studies have found that the heritability (the amount of variance that can be attributed to genes) of the Big Five traits is 40-60%.

    Jang et al. (1996) conducted a study with 123 pairs of identical twins and 127 pairs of fraternal twins. They estimated the heritability of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion to be 44%, 41%, 41%, 61%, and 53%, respectively.

    This finding was similar to the findings of another study, where the heritability of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience and extraversion were estimated to be 49%, 48%, 49%, 48%, and 50%, respectively (Jang et al., 1998).

    Such twin studies demonstrate that the Big Five personality traits are significantly influenced by genes and that all five traits are equally heritable. Heritability for males and females do not seem to differ significantly (Leohlin et al., 1998).

    Studies from different countries also support the idea of a strong genetic basis for the Big Five personality traits (Riemann et al., 1997; Yamagata et al., 2006).


    Differences in the Big Five personality traits between genders have been observed, but these differences are small compared to differences between individuals within the same gender.

    Costa et al. (2001) gathered data from over 23,000 men and women in 26 countries. They found that “gender differences are modest in magnitude, consistent with gender stereotypes, and replicable across cultures” (p. 328).

    Women reported themselves to be higher in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Warmth (a facet of Extraversion), and Openness to Feelings compared to men. Men reported themselves to be higher in Assertiveness (a facet of Extraversion) and Openness to Ideas.

    Another interesting finding was that bigger gender differences were reported in Western, industrialized countries. Researchers proposed that the most plausible reason for this finding was attribution processes.

    They surmised that actions of women in individualistic countries would be more likely to be attributed to her personality whereas actions of women in collectivistic countries would be more likely to be attributed to their compliance with gender role norms.


    Behavioral Outcomes

    Relationships

    In marriages where one partner scores lower than the other on agreeableness, stability, and openness, there is likely to be marital dissatisfaction (Myers, 2011).

    Health

    Neuroticism seems to be a risk factor for many health problems, including depression, schizophrenia, diabetes, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and heart disease (Lahey, 2009).

    People high in neuroticism are particularly vulnerable to mood disorders such as depression. Low agreeableness has also been linked to higher chances of health problems (John & Srivastava, 1999).

    There is evidence to suggest that conscientiousness is a protective factor against health diseases. People who score high in conscientiousness have been observed to have better health outcomes and longevity (John & Srivastava, 1999).

    Researchers believe that such is due to conscientious people having regular and well-structured lives, as well as the impulse control to follow diets, treatment plans, etc.

    Education

    A high score on conscientiousness predicts better high school and university grades (Myers, 2011). Contrarily, low agreeableness and low conscientiousness predict juvenile delinquency (John & Srivastava, 1999).

    Work

    Conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of all five traits for job performance (John & Srivastava, 1999). A high score of conscientiousness has been shown to relate to high work performance across all dimensions.

    The other traits have been shown to predict more specific aspects of job performance. For instance, agreeableness and neuroticism predict better performance in jobs where teamwork is involved.

    However, agreeableness is negatively related to individual proactivity. Openness to experience is positively related to individual proactivity but negatively related to team efficiency (Neal et al., 2012).

    Extraversion is a predictor of leadership, as well as success in sales and management positions (John & Srivastava, 1999).


    Limitations of the Big Five

    Descriptor Rather Than a Theory

    The Big Five was developed to organize personality traits rather than as a comprehensive theory of personality.

    Therefore, it is more descriptive than explanatory and does not fully account for differences between individuals (John & Srivastava, 1999). It also does not sufficiently provide a causal reason for human behavior.

    Cross-Cultural Validity

    Although the Big Five has been tested in many countries and its existence is generally supported by findings (McCrae, 2002), there have been some studies that do not support its model. Most previous studies have tested the presence of the Big Five in urbanized, literate populations.

    A study by Gurven et al. (2013) was the first to test the validity of the Big Five model in a largely illiterate, indigenous population in Bolivia. They administered a 44-item Big Five Inventory but found that the participants did not sort the items in consistency with the Big Five traits.

    More research in illiterate and non-industrialized populations is needed to clarify such discrepancies.

    Is 5 Really the Magic Number?

    A common criticism of the Big Five is that each trait is too broad. Although the Big Five is useful in terms of providing a rough overview of personality, more specific traits are required to be of use for predicting outcomes (John & Srivastava, 1999).

    There is also an argument from psychologists that more than five traits are required to encompass the entirety of personality.

    A new model, HEXACO, was developed by Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton, and expands upon the Big Five Model. HEXACO retains the original traits from the Big Five Model but contains one additional trait: Honesty-Humility, which they describe as the extent to which one places others’ interests above their own.

    About the Author

    Annabelle Lim is a second-year student majoring in psychology and minoring in educational studies at Harvard College. She is interested in the intersections between psychology and education, as well as psychology and the law.

    How to reference this article:

    Lim, A (2020, June 15). The big five personality traits. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/big-five-personality.html

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    How to reference this article:

    Lim, A (2020, June 15). The big five personality traits. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/big-five-personality.html

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