Understanding the Big Five Personality Traits

Five Piece Puzzle
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Today's psychologists agree that personality can be described by five broad traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Together, these traits make up the five-factor model of personality known as the Big Five.

Key Takeaways: Big Five Personality Traits

  • The Big Five personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
  • Each trait represents a continuum. Individuals can fall anywhere on the continuum for each trait.
  • Evidence suggests that personality is highly stable during adulthood, although small changes may be possible.

Origin of the Big Five Model

The Big Five, as well as other models that specify human personality traits, arises from the lexical hypothesis, which was first proposed by Francis Galton in the 1800s. The lexical hypothesis states that every natural language contains all the personality descriptions that are relevant and important to the speakers of that language.

In 1936, pioneering psychologist Gordon Allport and his colleague Henry Odbert explored this hypothesis by going through an unabridged English dictionary and creating a list of 18,000 words related to individual differences. Approximately 4,500 of those terms reflected personality traits. This sprawling set of terms gave psychologists interested in the lexical hypothesis a place to start, but it wasn't useful for research, so other scholars attempted to narrow the set of words down.

Eventually, in the 1940s, Raymond Cattell and his colleagues used statistical methods to reduce the list to a set of only 16 traits. Several additional scholars analyzed Cattell’s work, including Donald Fiske in 1949, and they all came to a similar conclusion: the data contained a strong, stable set of five traits.

However, it wasn't until the 1980s that the Big Five began to receive wider scholarly attention. Today, the Big Five is a ubiquitous part of psychology research, and psychologists largely agree that personality can be grouped into the five basic traits specified by the Big Five.

The Big Five Traits

Each Big Five trait represents a continuum. For example, the trait of extraversion’s opposite is introversion. Together, extraversion and introversion make up opposing ends of a spectrum for that Big Five trait. People can be very extraverted or very introverted, but most people will fall somewhere in between the extremes of the spectrum. 

It's also important to remember that each trait of the Big Five is very broad, representing a cluster of many personality characteristics. These characteristics are more specific and granular than each of the five traits as a whole. Thus, each trait can be defined in general and also broken down into several facets.

Openness to Experience

If you possess high openness to experience, you are open to all the original and complex things life has to offer, both experientially and mentally. The opposite of openness to experience is close-mindedness.

Individuals with this trait are usually:

  • Curious
  • Imaginative
  • Artistic
  • Interested in many things
  • Excitable
  • Unconventional

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness means having good impulse control, which enables individuals to fulfill tasks and meet goals. Conscientious behavior includes planning and organization, delaying gratification, avoiding compulsive action, and following cultural norms. The opposite of conscientiousness is lack of direction.

Key facets of conscientiousness include:

  • Competence
  • Order, or organizational skills
  • Dutifulness, or a lack of carelessness
  • Achievement through hard work
  • Self-discipline
  • Being deliberate and controlled

Extraversion

Extraverted individuals who draws their energy from their interactions with the social world. Extraverts are sociable, talkative, and outgoing. The opposite of extraversion is introversion.

Extraverts are typically:

  • Gregarious
  • Assertive
  • Active
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Emotionally positive and enthusiastic
  • Warm and outgoing

Agreeableness

The trait of agreeableness refers to a positive and altruistic orientation. This trait enables individuals to see the best in others, trust others, and behave prosocially. The opposite of agreeableness is antagonism.

Agreeable people are often:

  • Trusting and forgiving
  • Straightforward and undemanding
  • Altruistic
  • Affable and amenable
  • Modest
  • Sympathetic to others

Neuroticism

Neuroticism refers to a tendency towards negative emotions and includes experiences like feeling anxious and depressed. The opposite of neuroticism is emotional stability.

Key facets of neuroticism include:

  • Anxiety and tension
  • Angry hostility and irritability,
  • Depression,
  • Self-consciousness and shyness,
  • Being impulsive and moody
  • Lack of self-confidence

The acronym OCEAN is a handy device for the traits specified by the Big Five.

Can Personality Be Changed?

Personality traits tend to be highly stable during adulthood. While some gradual shifts in personality traits may be possible, these shifts are generally not drastic. In other words, if an individual is low on the trait of extraversion (meaning they are more introverted than extraverted), they are likely to stay that way, though they may become slightly more or less extraverted over time.

This consistency is partially explained by genetics, which plays a significant role in the traits one develops. For example, one twin study showed that when the Big Five personality traits of identical and fraternal twins were assessed, the influence of genetics was 61% for openness to experience, 44% for conscientiousness, 53% for extraversion, and 41% for both agreeableness and neuroticism.

Environment may indirectly reinforce inherited traits as well. For instance, in creating an environment that works with their own traits, parents also create an environment that works with their children’s traits. Similarly, as adults, people choose environments that reinforce and support their traits.

The Big Five In Childhood

Research on the Big Five has been criticized in the past for focusing primarily on adult personality development and ignoring the development of these traits in children. Yet, recent research has shown that children as young as five have the ability to describe their personality and that by six, children begin to show consistency and stability in the traits of conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness.

Two other studies showed that while the Big Five seems to manifest in children, children's personalities may also include additional traits. One study of American adolescent boys found that in addition to the Big Five traits, participants also displayed two additional traits. The researchers labeled these as irritability (negative affect that led to developmentally inappropriate behaviors like whining and tantrums) and activity (energy and physical activity). Another study of Dutch children of both sexes between the ages of 3 and 16 also found two additional personality traits. While one was similar to the activity trait found in the previously discussed study, the other, dependency (relying on others), was different.

Age Differences In Personality Traits

Research has suggested the Big Five traits evolve with age over the life span. In an analysis of 92 longitudinal studies that examined changes in personality traits from youth to old age, scholars found that people became more conscientious, less neurotic, and increase in social dominance, a facet of extraversion, as they get older. People also became more agreeable in old age. And while adolescents were more open to experience and demonstrated greater social vitality, another facet of extraversion, especially during the college years, people decreased in these traits during old age.

Sources

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