From people who want to learn more about their personality, to organizations conducting HR research, and psychologists working in clinical settings, there is one theoretical model known as the big five personality traits that is of immense value and immediate relevance. This article discusses the definition, reviews the theoretical concept from a pragmatic lifestyle perspective, and goes over some of the possible implications of this five-factor model of personality.
Psychology as a science often proposes theoretical constructs which underpin some of the ways in which we operate. Such constructs may govern our behavior, how we experience positive and negative emotions, and even the way in which we view the world. However, every once in a while, these theories grow into something more tangible through various research methods and measuring instruments, giving us an accurate insight into the human psyche.
The big five personality traits model, often referred to as the Big 5, is perhaps one of the most studied theoretical constructs, providing dimensions along which our personality traits unfold, occupying a rather fixed range throughout periods of our life.
What are the big five personality traits?
According to the model, the big five personality traits are described as:
The Big 5 model was developed via careful analysis of 4500 words used in the English language, through which people describe themselves, their feelings, thoughts, and patterns of behavior. Using a statistical model called factor analysis, psychologists have discovered five major clusters where these words and phrases converge.
Further research in measurement instruments have accessed their internal consistency, known in research methodology as Cronbach’s alpha, concluding that there is enough evidence to rely on the theoretical model and proposed tests, in evaluating individual personality traits.
The dimensions listed above represent a spectrum, therefore including their antonyms in opposition. In fact, openness to experience stands in contrast to closedness to experience, agreeableness stands in contrast to antagonism, extraversion vs. introversion, conscientiousness vs. lack of direction, and neuroticism versus emotional stability.
However, it is widely adopted in the field of psychology to refer to these traits by their single-word dimensional description. Remember, however, that these are not categories.
For illustration, it is important to note that all of us have a relative standing for each dimension, i.e. we possess all of these traits to a certain degree. The typical phrasing in accessing our personality traits is whether we are higher or lower for a given dimension. For example, you can be high or low in neuroticism, and high or low in agreeableness.
Each dimension parents a subset of related constructs, which we can view as its facets. All of them can be individually accessed, in addition to a singular score on the main dimension. Let us briefly cover them as well.
The personality trait of conscientiousness includes competence, orderliness, dutifulness, striving for achievement, self-discipline, and deliberation as opposed to tendency for impulsive behavior.
The personality trait of extraversion parents the sub-traits of gregariousness – which refers to being sociable, assertiveness, activity seeking and energetic, adventurousness – described as excitement seeking, enthusiastic – with positive emotions, and warmth – described as outgoing.
The personality trait of agreeableness stands for trust and propensity for forgiveness, straightforwardness instead of demanding, altruism, compliance instead of stubbornness, modesty instead of desire to show off, and sympathy.
The personality trait of openness covers curiousness for ideas, imaginativeness i.e. fantasy, aesthetics and tendency for artistic expression, wide interest expressed through actions, and propensity for excitement.
Neuroticism as a personality trait includes anxiety and tension, irritability, lack of content i.e. depression, shyness and self-consciousness, moodiness, and vulnerability as lack of self-confidence.
The importance of the five factor model of personality
The important feature of the big five model is that traits, in the way they are being conceptualized and measured, do not overlap. Thus, the model is very accurate in accessing individual personality through the big 5 inventory.
It is reliable across gender, IQ, geographical and race differences, and according to professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, it can predict success in the workplace, while also guiding individual behavior in choosing the type of professional endeavors, job positions and careers.
The big five personality traits test
Known as the Big Five Inventory (or BFI in short), this test was developed in 1999, by John & Srivastava, and it includes 44 statements with which the participants can agree or disagree on a scale of 5. You can find the original 4-page Big Five Inventory test pdf available online for free.
John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (Vol. 2, pp. 102–138). New York: Guilford Press.
Why the big five personality traits theory over other models?
Many instruments have been developed to access personality, categorizing it differently in order to create an accurate psychological profile for every individual. However, the big 5 model offers broad dimensions along which personality traits are measured. The relative placement on each can predict individual behavior, making the Big 5 model especially valuable both as a theory as well as basis for a reliable measuring instrument.
The big five personality traits model was developed using the scientific method, unlike other personality assessment instruments and frameworks like the MBTI and the Enneagram.
The nuance of a continuum is much better and more accurate than lumping descriptive categories together, evaluating whether people fall into one or another. This gives the Big five personality traits model advantage over other frameworks.
Furthermore, the Big 5 model allows for personality change over time, which is more accurately measured as opposed to the measurements of instruments derived by alternative theories.
According to Goldberg, one of the pioneers to whom this model owes its solid theoretical background, the present popularity of the Big 5 has to be attributed to its many critics, each of whom tried to replace it, but failed.
The big 5 model can be used for prediction
Whereas other personality frameworks can only be descriptive in their assessment, the Big five model can provide a solid basis for predicting behavior. If we know that someone is high in agreeableness, the chances of this person being successful as a salesman are very low. Quite the contrary, a person who is high in agreeableness, is much more likely being sold to.
Many studies find links between personality traits and important outcomes in life, including relationship satisfaction, satisfaction with life or subjective wellbeing, job performance and career choice and so forth. Additionally, psychological disorders show links with traits such as neuroticism, as per one study published in Clinical psychological science.
Neuroticism correlated strongly with the general distress/negative affectivity symptoms (depressed mood, anxious mood, worry) that are central to emotional disorders.Watson, D., & Naragon-Gainey, K. (2014). Personality, Emotions, and the Emotional Disorders. Clinical psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 2(4), 422–442.
Another study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, concludes that there is a link between psychotic experiences and some of the big five personality traits. It also discusses how emotional regulation can mediate this link. This means that irrespective of one’s personality traits, there is sufficient opportunity to work on strategies and behavioral patterns that inhibit the development of some undesirable conditions which might arise as a result of personality dispositions.
The Big 5 model is used not only for accessing individual differences in terms of personality, but also as a diagnostics tool for improving mental health, understanding preferences for learning styles, and other considerations with significant psychological implications. It has empirical validation and clinical utility.
Lifestyle implications of the Big 5 personality traits model
Considering how different personality traits correspond with different levels of propensity for certain behaviors, worldviews, and emotional regulation, it is very important to align your life choices along your trait disposition.
Working a job with less opportunity for creative expression may be very difficult for someone who scores high in openness, and such person must certainly consider a hobby as a creative outlet.
People who score high in neuroticism are prone to anxiety and depression, and it is very helpful for them to adhere to a strict routine, minimize uncertainty, and practice emotional reappraisal. Having a satisfying breakfast helps a lot, as does physical exercise, meditation, and keeping a journal.
For those who are high in conscientiousness, unemployment or underemployment may prove to be very difficult to cope with, as it is contrary to their nature and trait disposition.
Agreeableness, although flexible to work on, is still difficult to disregard. For example, placing someone who scores high in agreeableness in a situation where occasional conflicts are known to arise (such as working with people), is ill-advised.
Possible flaws of the Big 5 model
A critical review published in the Gadjah Mada International journal of business has pointed out that the inventory of dictionary traits to identify adjectival clusters of these traits can reveal new traits that the model could not contain. In other words, different cultures and languages recognize a different, if not broader or less broad palate of terms used to describe some of the traits and sub-traits.
The big five personality traits model is one of the most important theoretical frameworks for accessing and understanding individual personality. It serves as the basis for accurate, reliable and internally consistent measurement instruments, which pinpoint your relative standing along each of the 5 dimensions that underpin the five factor model of personality. If you want to learn more about your personality traits, it is worth giving this model a try, by completing the BFI questionnaire that we shared above.