The Big Five Personality Traits
We frequently say that every person is unique. While many of us share certain similarities, no two people are the same. Even when it comes to identical twins.
You can have two people with the same physical characteristics and genetic makeup, but what makes people truly unique, is what lies beneath the physical appearance.
The things that make people truly different are a person’s experiences, knowledge, and their personality.
Many of the studies I talk about refer to the Big Five. You’ll also see it mentioned in articles and the media when it comes to personality. So I thought it would be helpful to have a quick review about what they are, where they come from, and why they’re important.
A link at the end of the article will let you take a test if you’re curious about where you rate on the Big Five.
The Big Five Personality Model
There are a lot of different models that dissect personality, not to mention different ways to measure it. The topic can be approached using a variety of different methods and techniques.
Although there are several different theories of human personality, one of the most validated and reliable theories of personality is called the Five Factor Model. Also commonly referred to as the Big Five.
The traits in the Big Five personality model are: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
To remember the Big Five, people commonly use the acronym OCEAN for each area of personality. Another common acronym is CANOE, although most people seem to prefer to use OCEAN instead.
Not only is it considered a robust theory, it is also the most widely used method of measuring personality in scientific research as measured by number of article citations.
Most psychologists also consider it scientifically superior when compared to another popularly administered personality test you may have heard of – the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator.
Big Five Trait Descriptions
The Big Five refers to five broad areas that are believed to make up a individual’s personality – also known as traits.
What are traits? Traits describe a person’s habitual patterns. This includes your behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Let’s take a look at each categories description and the characteristics of people in them.
Openness To Experience
People who are high in openness to Experience are described as curious, seek new and unusual experiences and ideas, are original, and have a broad range of interests. They can also be seen as imaginative and willing to try new things, and are more aware of their emotions. They are also generally more adventurous, and can be big into art and science. They also might get bored more easily, can tolerate ambiguity and are cognitively flexible. Other words that describe them are original, wise, funny, and unconventional.
People are are low in Openness to experience are generally more conservative in thought and behavior, prefer stable ideas and environments, are more prefer clear ideas over complex and ambiguous ones. They are more conventional and are practical in their approach. They prefer familiarity over something new. They prefer their world presented in more black and white, and less gray. As you can imagine, they aren’t big into new changes.
People High in Conscientiousness are organized and hard working. They generally have better control over impulses so would rate pretty high in the willpower and discipline categories. They plan things out very well, aim for high achievement, responsible, reliable and persevere through difficult tasks. They also control their behavior and emotions well. They will be punctual and successful in their professional lives. Research has also shown that they live longer lives and are more likely to engage in healthier lifestyle habits such as exercise and diet.
Those who score low in this area are seen as more impulsive, unorganized, and less able to control their behavior. However, they are also more flexible when circumstances change. They seek more immediate rewards and are easy going, but are also harder to motivate.
Extroversion is one personality area that most people are probably familiar with – as well as it’s opposite, introversion. Extroverts love social interaction and seem to draw energy from being around others. They prefer to dominate social situations and lead, and are generally happy and more optimistic. They may enjoy crass humor, be more sexually promiscuous, and more impulsive. They are also more assertive, leaders, and talkers. They also respond more to rewards than punishments.
Those lower in Extroversion are classified as introverts. Someone who gets more energy from thinking about ideas and thoughts than conversing with a stranger. It doesn’t mean that you’re socially awkward or shy, it’s just that one prefers low key situations and smaller groups of people. They focus well on tasks, hate distractions, and are more reserved and have been found to be more sensitive to pain. They are also more of a morning person than extroverts.
Those high in the Agreeableness trait are described as considerate, cooperative friendly, and helpful. They are generally more trusting of other human beings, and can in trun be more trusted affectionate, altruistic, and like-able. They want to get along with others and are generally more like-able. They have been found to do well in interviews and more likely to be promoted at work. They are also more tolerant of others behaviors and are kind hearted souls.
People low in Agreeableness are more likely to distance themselves from others, can be seen as hostile, and have a self centered point of view. They would rather be right than worry about someone’s feelings, and can be antagonistic in certain situations. They are less likely to help others, and care less about getting along with you.
Neuroticism measures how emotionally stable you are. Individuals who score high here tend to experience negative emotional states such as anxiousness, anger, worry, and can be more insecure and have lower self-esteem. They are more prone to anxiety and stress as well as depression. They have a strong need to be loved, which can make them a bit clingy and dependent on their relationship.
People who are low in this trait are more emotionally stable and are seen as calm and collected. They are seen are resilient to stress and unfortunate events that life throws at them. They are skilled at using humor and other healthy coping techniques.
Distribution of the Big Five
So where do people usually fall under these categories?
It’s helpful not to think of someone having a personality of being either introverted or extroverted. Each personality trait is a continuum that a person falls into.
The Big Five generally follows a normal distribution, so when visualizing this, think of a bell curve graph. This means that a majority of the people take the personality test, will fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum for each personality trait. The more we fall to either side of that curve, the stronger our behavioral preferences for that particular area.
Let’s use Extroversion as an example. Instead of thinking that people are either an “introvert” or an “extrovert”, studies show that a large majority of us actually fall in the middle. The term for people who fall in the middle is called “ambivert”.
Most ambiverts aren’t extremely outgoing, or have a need to have tons of time to themselves. As such, most ambiverts are comfortable in big gatherings and spending a certain amount of time by ourselves. A much smaller part of the population who do fall on the edges will have a strong need for constant socialization or time alone – depending on which end of the spectrum they’re on.
Big Five History
The theory largely comes from two researchers from the National Institute of Health, Paul Costa, Jr. and Robert McCrae. In 1985 they published the first manual that included the five traits. This manual actually built upon their previous research, which contained only three traits.
This original model has been updated and revised over the years to make the test more accurate, as well as easier to administer, understand, and complete. They have also made it more appropriate for adolescents.
Importance of Personality
Personalities are affected by both our genes and our environment. They are more than just interesting, they are important to our lives. They play a large role in the choices we make, our thoughts, behavior, and emotions. How we interact with others and the world around us, how we solve problems, and how we handle adversity.
Richard Wiseman, a researcher and professor of psychology in the UK, comments about the importance of personality in his book, 59 Seconds:
“Additional work has shown that the dimensions are determined by a combination of genes and childhood experiences and they tend to remain unchanged throughout a person’s life, and thus influence almost every aspect of behavior including relationships, performance in the workplace, leisure activities, consumer choice, religious and political beliefs, creativity, sense of humor, and health.”
Psychologists have studied human nature, motivation, and personality for centuries. What makes us tick and why. It is part of a larger curiosity of understanding ourselves, and how it’s associated with our behavior and different life outcomes.
While it’s currently the most popular scientific theory, it does have its criticisms. It’s good to remember that the Big Five is simply a model of personality. It can be changed, updated, or replaced with a more accurate theory as more research is completed, evidence gathered, or even how human behavior evolves.
This is really only a quick overview of the theory. The Big Five can actually be broken down further into other aspects and areas called “facets”. Additional topics include personality across different cultures, the effect of age on personality, and how traits are associated with life outcomes like happiness or success.
Needless to say, it’s a huge area of psychology. Feel free to explore further if it piques your interest!
Take a version of the Big Five personality test here.
Nicolas Le Gruiec