This article about personality traits provides an introduction to the Big Five model of personality. It includes an understanding of what area of psychology this model fits into, a brief history of the model, an explanation of the five different traits, the main critiques of the model, and a description of how they can be applied to individuals across a lifetime.
In addition, an exploration of some of the factors that may affect the Big Five personality traits (such as gender and heritability) is covered, and also how they may relate to mental health issues.
An introduction to the Big Five model of personality
The Big Five model of personality was developed to understand the relationship between personality and academic behaviors. Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal developed the initial model in 1958. However, it did not gain recognition among academic circles until the 1980s.
The Big Five model of personality falls under the category of trait theory, which is an approach to the study of human personality.
Trait theorists focus primarily on measuring traits, which can be defined as recurring patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion. From this perspective, traits are considered to be:
- Enduring aspects of personality that remain relatively stable over time
- Varying among individuals (e.g. some people are outgoing while others are not)
- Exhibiting relative consistency across different situations
- Having an impact on behavior.
Traits are distinguished from states, which are temporary.
The Big Five model of personality is one of the two most popular approaches in trait theory, the other being the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (also known as the EPQ).
How are the Big Five personality traits measured?
There are several measures of the Big Five personality traits, including:
- International Personality Item Pool (IPIP)
- The Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI)
- The Five Item Personality Inventory (FIPI)
- Self-descriptive sentence questionnaires
- Lexical questionnaires
- Self-report questionnaires
- Relative-scored Big Five measure
These methods vary in length and approach. The accuracy of the measures is a question researchers continue to investigate, given self-report measures can sometimes lead to self-report bias and falsification of responses.
What are the Big Five personality traits?
Many psychologists currently believe the following five factors are sufficient to represent the majority of personality traits:
1. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)
2. Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
3. Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
4. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
5. Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
These five factors are commonly remembered using the acronyms CANOE or OCEAN.
Although the five factors are very broad, overarching categories, the majority of known personality traits have been identified to fall within them. With decades of research into the Big Five, they are believed to portray the fundamental structure underlying all personality traits.
It’s important to note that within these five traits, there is a spectrum spanning from one extreme to the other. We are all believed to fall somewhere along that spectrum, rather than being defined as one or the other.
Let’s take a closer look at what the Big Five personality traits look like in detail.
The spectrum for neuroticism ranges from sensitive/nervous to resilient/confident. It refers to how individuals experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression. It can also be referred to as emotional instability or, conversely, emotional stability.
According to Hans Eysenck’s theory of personality, neuroticism is closely linked to a low tolerance for stress or aversive stimuli. Neuroticism is a well-established temperament trait that has been extensively studied in temperament research even before its incorporation into the Five Factors Model.
Individuals who score high in neuroticism tend to be emotionally reactive and susceptible to stress. They often perceive ordinary situations as threatening and may view minor frustrations as insurmountable challenges.
Their emotional expressions can be unpredictable and inconsistent. Negative emotional responses have a tendency to persist for longer durations, resulting in a generally negative mood.
For example, neuroticism is associated with a pessimistic outlook on work, the belief that work hinders personal relationships, and higher levels of work-related anxiety.
Such difficulties in regulating emotions can impair clear thinking, decision-making, and effective stress management for individuals high in neuroticism. Likewise, a lack of contentment with life achievements can correlate with high neuroticism scores and increase the likelihood of experiencing clinical depression.
It is worth noting that individuals scoring highly for neuroticism tend to encounter more negative life events, although neuroticism itself can change in response to both positive and negative experiences. Individuals with elevated levels of neuroticism generally report lower psychological well-being.
Conversely, individuals who score low in neuroticism are less prone to being easily upset and display greater emotional stability. They tend to remain calm, composed, and relatively free from persistent negative emotions. However, it’s important to note that low scores on neuroticism do not necessarily indicate an abundance of positive emotions.
While neuroticism shares similarities with the Freudian concept of being neurotic (i.e. neurosis), it is not identical. Some psychologists prefer to use the term ‘emotional instability’ to distinguish it from the term ‘neurotic’ in a career test, for instance.
Sample items from questionnaires that apply to neuroticism include:
- I get stressed out easily.
- I worry about things.
- I am easily disturbed.
- I get upset easily.
- I change my mood a lot.
- I have frequent mood swings.
- I get irritated easily.
- I often feel blue.
- I am relaxed most of the time. (Reversed – this means the questionnaire would score highly for neuroticism in those who did not identify with this statement)
- I seldom feel blue. (Reversed)
The spectrum for extraversion ranges from outgoing/energetic to solitary/reserved.
Scoring highly on the extraversion spectrum is characterized by a preference for a wide range of activities rather than focusing deeply on specific areas, a tendency to draw energy from external sources and situations, and an active engagement with the external world.
Extraverts enjoy social interactions and are often perceived as energetic individuals. They are enthusiastic, action-oriented, and tend to be assertive. In social settings, they may appear more dominant compared to introverted individuals.
Introverts, or those who score towards the other end of the extraversion spectrum, have lower levels of social engagement and energy compared to extraverts. They are often described as quiet, reserved, deliberate, and less involved in the social world.
However, it’s important to note their lower social involvement does not necessarily indicate shyness or depression. Introverts are more independent from their social surroundings and require less external stimulation. They also value and require more time alone. Their reserved nature should not be mistaken for being unfriendly or antisocial.
In reality, most individuals exhibit a combination of extraversion and Introversion, as suggested by personality psychologist Hans Eysenck, who proposed a model explaining how individual neurological differences give rise to these traits.
Sample items from questionnaires that apply to extraversion include:
- I am the life of the party.
- I feel comfortable around people.
- I start conversations.
- I talk to a lot of different people at parties.
- I do not mind being the center of attention.
- I do not talk a lot. (Reversed – this means the questionnaire would score highly for extraversion in those who did not identify with this statement)
- I keep in the background. (Reversed)
- I have little to say. (Reversed)
- I do not like to draw attention to myself. (Reversed)
- I am quiet around strangers. (Reversed)
3. Openness to experience
The spectrum for openness to experience ranges from inventive/curious to consistent/cautious. It encompasses a broad appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unconventional ideas, imagination, curiosity, and diverse experiences.
Individuals who possess openness to experience exhibit intellectual curiosity, emotional receptiveness, an appreciation for beauty, and a willingness to explore new things.
In comparison to individuals who are more closed-minded, those who are open to experience tend to be more creative, attuned to their emotions, and inclined to embrace unconventional beliefs.
However, high levels of openness can sometimes be perceived as unpredictability or a lack of focus, and individuals with this trait may be more prone to engaging in risky behavior or drug use. Those with high openness are often driven to pursue self-actualization by seeking out intense and euphoric experiences.
Individuals with low openness strive for fulfillment through perseverance and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven, sometimes even being seen as dogmatic and closed-minded.
There is some ongoing debate regarding the interpretation and contextualization of the openness factor, as there is limited biological evidence supporting this particular trait. Unlike the other four traits, openness has not demonstrated a significant association with specific brain regions when using brain imaging to detect volumetric changes associated with each trait.
Sample items from questionnaires that apply to openness to experience include:
- I have a rich vocabulary.
- I have a vivid imagination.
- I have excellent ideas.
- I am quick to understand things.
- I use difficult words.
- I spend time reflecting on things.
- I am full of ideas.
- I have difficulty understanding abstract ideas. (Reversed – this means the questionnaire would score highly for openness to experience in those who did not identify with this statement)
- I am not interested in abstract ideas. (Reversed)
- I do not have a good imagination. (Reversed)
The spectrum for agreeableness ranges from friendly/compassionate to critical/rational. It encompasses individual differences in the general concern for social harmony.
Agreeable individuals value maintaining positive relationships with others. They are typically considerate, kind, generous, trusting, and reliable. They are helpful and willing to compromise their own interests for the sake of others. Agreeable people tend to hold an optimistic view of human nature.
Individuals who score towards the other end for agreeableness prioritize their self-interest over getting along with others. They are generally less concerned about the well-being of others and are less likely to go out of their way to help them.
Individuals with low agreeableness often exhibit competitive or confrontational behaviors, which may be perceived as argumentative or untrustworthy. Their skepticism regarding others’ motives can make them suspicious, unfriendly, and uncooperative.
As agreeableness is a social trait, research has shown that individuals with higher levels of agreeableness tend to have better quality relationships with their team members. Agreeableness also positively predicts skills associated with transformational leadership.
Sample items from questionnaires that apply to agreeableness include:
- I am interested in people.
- I sympathize with others’ feelings.
- I have a soft heart.
- I take time out for others.
- I feel others’ emotions.
- I make people feel at ease.
- I am not really interested in others. (Reversed – this means the questionnaire would score highly for agreeableness in those who did not identify with this statement)
- I insult people. (Reversed)
- I am not interested in other people’s problems. (Reversed)
- I feel little concern for others. (Reversed)
The spectrum for conscientiousness ranges from efficient/organized to extravagant/careless. It refers to a disposition characterized by self-discipline, a sense of duty, and a drive to achieve according to personal standards or external expectations.
Conscientiousness is associated with the ability to control, regulate, and direct one’s impulses. Individuals with high conscientiousness are often perceived as determined and focused in their endeavors.
On the other hand, low conscientiousness is linked to flexibility, spontaneity, but can also manifest as carelessness and unreliability.
High scores on conscientiousness indicate a preference for planned and structured behavior over impulsive actions. It is noteworthy that conscientiousness tends to increase during young adulthood and then decline as individuals enter older adulthood.
Sample items from questionnaires that apply to conscientiousness include:
- I am always prepared.
- I pay attention to details.
- I get chores done right away.
- I follow a schedule.
- I am exacting in my work.
- I do not like order. (Reversed – this means the questionnaire would score highly for conscientiousness in those who did not identify with this statement)
- I leave my belongings around. (Reversed)
- I make a mess of things. (Reversed)
- I often forget to put things back in their proper place. (Reversed)
- I shirk my duties. (Reversed)
Are personality traits hereditary?
In one 1996 study into the behavioral genetics of twins, it was suggested that both hereditary factors and environmental factors contribute equally to all five personality factors.
In a subsequent analysis of four twin studies conducted in 2003, the average percentage of heritability was calculated for each personality factor, revealing a broad influence of hereditary factors on the five personality traits.
The report concluded genetics influenced the five personality traits to the following degrees:
- Openness to experience: 57%
- Extraversion: 54%
- Conscientiousness: 49%
- Neuroticism: 48%
- Agreeableness: 42%
Do gender and birth order influence personality traits?
Cross-cultural research indicates that women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism, agreeableness, warmth (a facet of extraversion), and openness to feeling. Men often report higher levels of assertiveness (a facet of extraversion) and openness to ideas.
Another study conducted in 55 nations found that women generally scored higher than men in neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The difference in neuroticism was particularly pronounced, with significant variations found in 49 out of the 55 surveyed nations.
A study using data from Project Talent, a survey of American high school students with 272,003 participants, found statistically significant but minimal effects of birth order on personality. Firstborns were slightly more conscientious, dominant, and agreeable, while also displaying lower levels of neuroticism and sociability. However, correlations between parental socioeconomic status and participant gender with personality traits were much stronger.
What is the relationship between the Big Five personality traits and mental health?
The relationship between the Big Five personality traits and mental health is complex and multifaceted. While there is no direct causal relationship, certain personality traits can influence an individual’s mental well-being. Here are some general patterns observed in the literature:
High levels of neuroticism are associated with a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, and mood swings. Individuals high in neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions more intensely and are more prone to stress, worry, and rumination.
Extraversion is generally linked to better mental health outcomes. Extroverted individuals tend to be more socially connected, experience higher levels of positive emotions, and have greater resilience to stress. They may also exhibit lower levels of depressive symptoms and higher life satisfaction.
3. Openness to experience
Openness to experience is positively associated with psychological well-being. People who are open to new ideas, have a broader range of interests, and are imaginative tend to experience greater life satisfaction and subjective happiness. They may also exhibit greater creativity and adaptive coping strategies.
Conscientiousness is linked to better mental health outcomes, including lower rates of substance abuse and addictive behaviors. Conscientious individuals tend to be organized, self-disciplined, and goal-oriented, which can contribute to better stress management and overall psychological functioning.
Agreeableness is associated with positive social interactions and better mental health outcomes. Agreeable individuals tend to have harmonious relationships, show empathy, and engage in prosocial behaviors. This can lead to increased social support, lower levels of stress, and improved psychological well-being.
It’s important to note that these associations are general trends and individual experiences may vary. Additionally, mental health is influenced by various factors, including genetics, life experiences, and environmental factors. The Big Five personality traits provide a framework for understanding certain predispositions and tendencies but do not determine mental health outcomes on their own.
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