Big 5 Personality Traits
The differences between people’s personalities can be broken down in terms of five major traits—often called the “Big Five.” Each one reflects a key part of how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The Big Five traits are:
- Openness to experience (includes aspects such as intellectual curiosity and creative imagination)
- Conscientiousness (organization, productiveness, responsibility)
- Extroversion (sociability, assertiveness; its opposite is Introversion)
- Agreeableness (compassion, respectfulness, trust in others)
- Neuroticism (tendencies toward anxiety and depression)
Individual personalities are thought to feature each of these five broad traits to some degree. When the traits are measured, some people rate higher and others rate lower: Someone can be more conscientious and less agreeable than most people, for instance, while scoring about average on the other traits. These traits remain fairly stable during adulthood.
The five-factor model is widely used by personality researchers, but it is not the only model. A more recently introduced six-factor model known as HEXACO adds the factor of honesty-humility to the original five traits.
The Big Five traits are typically assessed using one of multiple questionnaires. While these tests vary in the exact terms they use for each trait, they essentially cover the same broad dimensions, providing high-to-low scores on each: openness to experience (also called open-mindedness or just openness), conscientiousness, extroversion (the reverse of which is introversion), agreeableness, and neuroticism (sometimes negative emotionality or emotional stability).
One test, the latest version of the Big Five Inventory, asks how much a person agrees or disagrees that he or she is someone who exemplifies various specific statements, such as:
- “Is curious about many different things” (for openness, or open-mindedness)
- “Is systematic, likes to keep things in order” (for conscientiousness)
- “Is outgoing, sociable” (for extroversion)
- “Is compassionate, has a soft heart” (for agreeableness)
- “Is moody, has up and down mood swings” (for neuroticism, or negative emotionality)
Based on a person’s ratings for dozens of these statements (or fewer, for other tests), an average score can be calculated for each of the five traits.
Scores on a Big Five questionnaire provide a sense of how low or high a person rates on a continuum for each trait. Comparing those scores to a large sample of test takers—as some online tests do—offers a picture of how open, conscientious, extroverted (or introverted), agreeable, and neurotic one is relative to others.
Analyzing English words used to describe personality traits, researchers used statistical techniques to identify clusters of related characteristics. This led to a small number of overarching trait dimensions that personality psychologists have scientifically tested in large population samples.
The Big Five were not determined by any one person—they have roots in the work of various researchers going back to the 1930s. In 1961, Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal identified five personality factors that others would reanalyze and rename. Lewis Goldberg used the term Big Five in 1981 to describe these broad factors.
Some Big Five questionnaires break the five main traits down into smaller sub-components or “facets,” which are correlated with each other but can be independently measured. In the Big Five Inventory, for instance, “sociability” and “assertiveness” are distinct facets of extroversion, while “organization” and “responsibility” are facets of conscientiousness.
The five-factor model not only helps people better understand how they compare to others and to put names to their characteristics. It’s also used to explore relationships between personality and many other life indicators. These include consequential outcomes such as physical health and well-being as well as success in social, academic, and professional contexts. Personality psychologists have observed reliable associations between how people rate on trait scales and how they fare or feel, on average, in various aspects of their lives.
Quite a lot, at least in Western samples. There is reliable evidence, for example, that extroversion is associated with subjective well-being, neuroticism with lower work commitment, and agreeableness with religiousness. Certain traits have been linked to mortality risk. However, these are overall patterns and don’t mean that a trait necessarily causes any of these outcomes.
Various ways of representing major traits have been proposed, and personality researchers continue to disagree on the number of distinct characteristics that can be measured. The five-factor model dominates the rest, as far as psychologists are concerned, although multiple types of assessments exist to measure the five traits.
Outside of academic psychology, tests that aim to sort people into personality types—including the Myers-Briggs/MBTI and Enneagram—are highly popular, though many experts take issue with such tests on scientific grounds. The five-factor model has conceptual and empirical strengths that others lack.
For a number of reasons, many personality psychologists consider Big Five tests superior to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. These include concerns about the reliability of the types assigned by the Myers-Briggs and the validity of the test—though there is some overlap between its dimensions (which include extroversion-introversion) and the Big Five.
It depends on how strictly you define a “type.” Research indicates that for any given trait, people fall at various points along a continuum rather than fitting neatly into categories. While some identify wholeheartedly as a total extrovert or introvert, for example, there are many shades in between, and most of us would score somewhere in the middle.
Yes. Some have criticized the five-factor model for its origins in data rather than in theory and argued that it does not encompass all fundamental traits (see HEXACO). There is also evidence that current tests provide less reliable results outside of Western, industrialized countries.