Big Five Personality Traits

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The big five personality traits can be summarized as follows:

  • Neuroticism - A tendency to easily experience unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, anger, or depression.
  • Extroversion - Energy, surgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others.
  • Agreeableness - A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.
  • Conscientiousness - A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement.
  • Openness to experience - Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, and unusual ideas; imaginative and curious.

These traits are usually measured as percentile scores, with the average mark at 50%; so for example, a Conscientiousness rating in the 80th percentile indicates a greater than average sense of responsibility and orderliness, while an Extroversion rating in the 5th percentile indicates an exceptional need for solitude and quiet.



In 1936, Gordon Allport and H. S. Odbert hypothesized that individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people's lives will eventually become encoded into their language; the more important such a difference, the more likely is it to become expressed as a single word.

This statement has become known as the Lexical Hypothesis.

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Allport and Odbert had worked through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at the time, and extracted 18,000 personality-describing words. From this gigantic list they extracted 4500 personality-describing adjectives which they considered to describe observable and relatively permanent traits.

In 1946, Raymond Cattell used the emerging technology of computers to analyze the Allport-Odbert list. He organized the list into 181 clusters and asked subjects to rate people whom they knew by the adjectives on the list. Using factor analysis Cattell generated twelve factors, and then included four factors which he thought ought to appear. The result was the hypothesis that individuals describe themselves and each other according to sixteen different, independent factors.

With these sixteen factors as a basis, Cattell went on to construct the 16PF Personality Questionnaire, which remains in use by universities and businesses for research, personnel selection and the like. Although subsequent research has failed to replicate his results, and it has been shown that he retained too many factors, the current 16PF takes these findings into account and is considered to be a very good test. In 1963, W.T. Norman replicated Cattell's work and suggested that five factors would be sufficient.

Hiatus in research

For the next seventeen years, the changing zeitgeist made the publication of personality research difficult. Social psychologists argued that behavior is not stable, but varies with context, so that predicting behavior by personality test was impossible. They further argued that character, or personality, is something humans impose on people in order to maintain an illusion of consistency in the world. Furthermore, Walter Mischel, in his 1968 book Psychological Assessment, asserted that personality tests could not predict behavior with a correlation of more than 0.3.

Around 1980, three developments brought personality research into the modern era: personal computers, statistical aggregation, and the Big Five.

Personal computers

Before the advent of personal computers, psychologists wishing to conduct large scale statistical analysis needed to rent access to a mainframe. However, once personal computers become widely available, they could do this work on their desktops. Therefore, anybody could easily re-examine the Allport-Odbert list. The question remained as to why they would do so, given that it had seemingly already been established that personality was an illusion.

Statistical aggregation

It was argued that personality psychologists had considered behavior from the wrong perspective. Instead of trying to predict single instances of behavior, which was unreliable, it was thought that researchers should try to predict patterns of behavior. As a result, correlations soared from .3 to .8 and it seemed that “personality” did in fact exist. Social psychologists still argue that we impose consistency on the world, but with statistical aggregation it could be shown that there was in fact more consistency than was once thought.

The Big Five

In 1981, at a symposium in Honolulu, four prominent researchers (Lewis Goldberg, Naomi Takamoto-Chock, Andrew Comrey, and John M. Digman) reviewed the available personality tests of the day and decided that most of the tests that held promise seemed to measure a subset of five common factors, just as Norman had discovered in 1963.

Emergence of the current model

Following the discovery of the convergence of the Lexical Hypothesis with the findings of theoretical research, a model was developed which states that personality can be described in terms of five aggregate-level trait descriptors.

Although many personality researchers have built their own models, when they talk to each other they usually translate their model into the one proposed by Norman in 1963.

The Factors

(The following descriptions of the five factors were adapted from the writings of Dr. John A. Johnson.)

Neuroticism or (inversely) Emotional Stability

Neuroticism is the factor that determines one’s level of emotional stability and one’s emotional reactions to stimuli. Those who score high on Neuroticism are not strangers to anxiety, anger, or depression, and are likely to experience several of these emotions regularly. In the simplest terms, those who score highly for Neuroticism tend to be more emotionally reactive, while those who score lower tend to be less emotionally reactive. Take the first step towards healing and take our online anxiety test today.

Those with high Neuroticism tend to be emotionally reactive, prone to intense responses to stimuli that other individuals who are not high in Neuroticism wouldn’t tend to react to. These outbursts can gradually erode an individual’s ability to think logically, make complex decisions with levity, and effectively cope with stress. Individuals with high levels of Neuroticism tend to come off as negative, exacerbating even the slightest of setbacks and having perpetual “bad moods.”

Conversely, those who have low levels of Neuroticism tend to be more emotionally stable, less prone to outburst, and are generally considered calmer than those who score highly in Neuroticism. While it’s not guaranteed that low-Neuroticism individuals will be positive (Extroversion correlates more directly with positivity), they may find it easy to break free of emotional setbacks that could cast a high-Neuroticism individual into a prolonged bad mood.


You’re probably aware of the Introvert-Extravert binary, and where you fall on the scale. Extraversion is the factor that determines how an individual interacts with the physical, external world.

Extraverts, or those who rank highly on the Extraversion scale, tend to possess a positive, “can-do” spirit. Often brimming with energy, they thrive off social interactions and physical experiences with the world.

Introverts, or those who rank low on the Extraversion scale, tend towards a more laid-back attitude, with little need to be constantly engaged in social interactions. While less positive-minded than Extraverts, it should be noted that Introverts are not universally shy or depressed. Rather, they find social and physical stimulation to be more overwhelming, and prefer solitude, time to process emotions, and fewer but more intimate social connections.


Agreeableness measures an individual’s willingness and ability to engage in social cooperation. While it may sound like Agreeableness is a universally beneficial quality from the outset, it is not always so. While Agreeable individuals tend to be viewed positively by their peers, they also tend to be racked by indecision when attempting to complete complex or high-stress tasks.

Agreeable individuals understand the value of getting along with others. They tend to hold consideration towards the goals and emotions of others as paramount, oftentimes even above their own interests. Friendly, helpful, and relentlessly optimistic, Agreeable people will appear trustworthy and unflinchingly honest to onlookers.

On the other end of the spectrum, Disagreeable people are those who elevate their own interests above all else. Disagreeable individuals won’t usually concern themselves with the wellbeing of others, instead focusing on how to advance their own goals and agendas. They are perceived as unfriendly and uncooperative, looking out for themselves and nobody else. It’s not all bad, however, as Disagreeable people’s focus on their own ideas and goals makes them ideal in certain fields, such as science, criticism, business, and military life.


Conscientiousness measures how and to what extent we are able to control our impulses. Essentially, one’s Conscientiousness determines how much success they are likely to experience, and how best to obtain it.

People who rank highly for conscientiousness are more likely to have better control over their impulses. While they may come off as rigid and possibly a bit boring, they excel at pursuing and achieving goals through proper planning and internal motivation. They’ll stay away from erratic decisions and will avoid trouble at all costs. Problems for highly Conscientious individuals occur when plans go awry, or when they fail to meet exceedingly high (and usually self-imposed) standards.

Individuals with low Conscientiousness rankings are less able to delay gratification, and hence will be more prone to following their impulses. While this makes for a lot of fun at parties and can be just what is needed in situations when action takes precedent to thought, it also means people with low Conscientiousness will prove difficult to manage and can often find themselves in trouble with authority figures.

Openness to Experience

One’s Openness to Experience determines how receptive one is to new ideas and experiences. Those who are considered “open to experience,” can generally be described as intellectually and artistically curious with a keen sense of beauty. Those who are Open to Experience excel in creative roles, and can be found in the upper echelons of academia and design teams. However, they tend to avoid positions that mandate adherence to a set of rules and guidelines.

While it’s unlikely that one can be entirely closed-minded, those who do not score highly on measures of Openness to Experience may be described as such. “Closed” individuals trend towards having a few, common interests. They’ll likely be fierce opponents to ambiguity and subtlety, especially in conversation, and do not cope well with change. While they may not be the ones lighting the world on fire with new inventions, “Closed” individuals have superior job performance in areas such as sales or police work, where procedure takes precedent over everything else.


One of the most significant advances of the five factor model was the establishment of a taxonomy that demonstrates order in a previously scattered and disorganized field. For example, as an extremely heterogeneous collection of traits, research had found that "personality" (i.e., any of a large number of hypothesized personality traits) was not predictive of important criteria.

However, using the five-factor model as a taxonomy to group the vast numbers of unlike personality traits, psychologists Barrick and Mount used meta-analysis of previous research to show that in fact there were many significant correlations between the personality traits of the five-factor model and job performance in many jobs. Their strongest finding was that psychometric Conscientiousness was predictive of performance in all the job families studied. This makes perfect sense, insofar as it is very difficult to imagine any job where, all other things equal, being high in Conscientiousness is not an advantage.

Scientific findings

Ever since the 1990s, when the consensus of psychologists gradually came to support the Big Five, there has been a growing body of research surrounding these personality traits. The existence of each one has been verified by cross-cultural research in individuals outside of Western nations, and all show an influence from both heredity and environmental factors (in roughly equal proportion).

A person's ratings on the five factors has been found to change with time. As one ages, an increase in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness has been observed. Conversely, Extroversion, Neuroticism, and Openness generally decrease as a person ages.

Sexes show differences in Big Five scores across cultures, with women scoring higher in both the Agreeableness and Neuroticism domains. (The mere fact that sex differences have been found does not by itself demonstrate that the sexes are innately different in personality, although that is a possibility.)

Individuals also differ when viewed by the order of their births; Frank J. Sulloway has mounted evidence that birth order is correlated with personality traits: firstborns are statistically more conscientious, more socially dominant, less agreeable, and less open to new ideas compared to those born later.

Recent work has also found relationships between Geert Hofstede's cultural factors, Individualism, Power Distance, Masculinity, and Uncertainty Avoidance, with the average Big Five scores in a country. For instance, the degree to which a country values individualism correlates with its average Extroversion, while people living in cultures which are accepting of large inequalities in their power structures tend to score somewhat higher on Conscientiousness. The reasons for these differences are unknown, yet the area remains active in terms of research.


While a great deal of research has been conducted regarding the Big Five, relatively little of the research has been published in a collated form. Most research appears relatively uncompiled in research journals. For the best understanding of the Big Five, one must be up to date on the literature, which may tend to limit a complete understanding for casual readers.

There are several other weaknesses to the Big Five. The first of these is that the five factors are not fully "orthogonal" to one another; that is, the five factors are not independent. Negative correlations often appear between Neuroticism and Extroversion, for instance, indicating that those who are more prone to experiencing negative emotions tend to be less talkative and outgoing.

Another weakness is that the Big Five do not explain all of human personality. Some psychologists have dissented from the model precisely because they feel it neglects other personality traits, such as:

  • Religiosity
  • Manipulativeness
  • Honesty
  • Sexiness
  • Thriftiness
  • Conservativeness
  • Masculinity/Femininity
  • Snobbishness
  • Sense of humor

Correlations have been found between these factors and the Big Five, such as the well-known inverse relationship between political conservatism and Openness, although variation in these traits is not entirely explained by the Five Factors themselves.

Moreover, the methodology used to investigate these phenomena (factor analysis) does not have a well-supported, universally-recognized scientific or statistical basis for choosing among solutions with different numbers of factors. That is, a five factor solution is a choice of the analyst, at least to some degree. A larger number of factors may, in fact, underlie these five factors and a dataset of these variables may be factored into simpler models. This has led to disputes about the "true" number of factors. Many researchers and practitioners have criticized these five factors as being far too broad for applied work. In unpublished research, Goldberg (the researcher who coined the term "Big Five") found that Cattell's 16 factor solution has greater predictive power than five factors, even when the number of predictors is controlled by using a cross-validation sample to assess the prediction of competing regression models (16 versus 5 variables).

Another weakness of the Big Five is that they rely on self report questionnaires to be measured; self report bias and falsification of responses is impossible to deal with completely. This becomes especially important when considering why scores may differ between individuals or groups of people - differences in scores may represent genuine underlying personality differences, or they may simply be an artifact of the way the subjects answered the questions.

The last weakness of the Big Five, and a criticism which has frequently been levelled at it, is that it is not based on any underlying theory; it is merely an empirical finding that certain descriptors cluster together under factor analysis. While this does not mean that these five factors don't exist, the underlying causes behind them are unknown. There is no theoretical justification for why sensation seeking and gregariousness are predictive of general Extroversion, for instance; this is an area for future research to investigate.

Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Personality Inventory

The NEO PI-R (same, revised) is a psychological personality inventory; a 240-questionnaire measure of the Five Factor Model: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to experience.

Additionally, the test measures six subordinate dimensions of each of the "Big Five" personality factors.

The test was developed by Paul T. Costa, Jr. and Robert R. McCrae for use with adult (18+) men and women without overt psychopathology.

Further research

Current research concentrates on three areas.

  • Are the five factors the right ones? Attempts to replicate the Big Five in other countries with local dictionaries have succeeded in some countries but not in others. For instance, Hungarians apparently don't have Openness to Experience. Of course they do, others say, the problem is that the language does not provide enough variance of the related terms for proper statistical analysis. Some have found seven factors, some only three.
  • Which factors predict what? Job outcomes for leaders and salespeople have already been measured, and research is currently being done in expanding the list of careers. There are also a variety of life outcomes which preliminary research indicates are affected by personality, such as smoking (predicted by high scores in Neuroticism and low scores in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness) and interest in different kinds of music (largely mediated by Openness).
  • Is there a way to make a model of personality? The Big Five personality traits are empirical observations, not a theory; the observations of personality research remain to be explained. Costa and McCreae have built what they call the Five Factor Model of Personality which is an attempt to provide a model of personality that can explain personality from the cradle to the grave. They don't follow the lexical hypothesis, though, but favor a theory-driven approach but inspired by the same sources as the sources of the Big Five.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Big Five Personality Traits" and the Wikipedia article "Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Personality Inventory"

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