Discover the Big Five Personality traits and how they influence behavior.
There are few things more complicated than human personality, but that hasn’t stopped psychologists from trying to describe and categorize it. In the field of personality psychology, one of the most enduring theories defines personality according to how much (or how little) we demonstrate each of five traits – known as the Big Five personality traits.
The five-factor model of personality, known as the Big Five Personality Traits, consists of extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience (sometimes just called openness), agreeableness, and conscientiousness (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Keep in mind that all of us fall somewhere on a spectrum from having very little to quite a lot of each trait. For example, we often call people high in extraversion extroverts, while somebody low in extraversion might identify themselves as an introvert. But many of us may fall somewhere in between.
Here’s a more detailed overview of each trait:
Neuroticism is how much negative emotion a person experiences and how much those emotions impact them. People who experience lots of depression, anxiety, or self-consciousness, for example, would be described as high in neuroticism.
Extraversion is the trait of being warm and enthusiastic in social interactions, and assertive and sensation-seeking in general. You can probably easily think of people you know who are high in extraversion – they tend to be the life of the party, talk more than others, and drive the activity in a group.
People high in openness to experience show curiosity and interest regarding a variety of ideas, values, ways of thinking, and behaviors. A person low in openness might hesitate to try a new restaurant, travel to a different country, or listen to a speech expressing a political perspective with which they don’t agree.
People high in agreeableness want to get along with others; they are trustworthy, modest, and generous with their time and resources. They may also hesitate to express opinions that would cause conflict or put their needs above those of others.
Finally, conscientiousness is the trait of being disciplined, orderly, and striving to do what is right. Think of your fellow student or work colleague whom you are certain would never cheat, intentionally manipulate others, or forget to complete a task.
Why are these five traits considered the Big Five? While psychologists disagree to an extent about the Big Five, there is a general consensus, driven by research, that the Big Five traits are a useful and effective way to think about personality (McCrae & Costa, 1990; McCrae & John, 1992).
This consensus is based on several scientific findings. First, research tells us that these traits are consistent. They are fairly stable over long periods of time (Cobb-Clark & Schurer, 2012); for example, your personal level of extraversion has likely not changed much over the course of your life. There also seems to be a genetic basis for these traits (Digman, 1990; McCrae et al., 2000), and they appear to be consistent across cultures (McCrae & Costa, 1997).
Second, when psychologists measure these traits, there is very consistent agreement. Research into how to best classify our characteristics suggests that it is best to organize our traits into these five dimensions (e.g., Soldz et al., 1993). Also, if you and the people close to you rated you on each of these traits, there would be a high level of agreement between you and your friends, family, or partner (Funder & West, 1993; McCrae & Costa, 1987).
Perhaps you are starting to get a sense of how much each trait applies to you. For example, you’ve probably thought before about whether you are more of an introvert or an extrovert. Let’s dive a bit deeper.
Where does your conscientiousness show most clearly? Where have you noticed that your conscience differs from that of others? Most of us are not Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela – what are the limits of your commitment to your morals?
To get a sense of your levels of neuroticism, you might ask yourself how often you find yourself experiencing negative emotions, compared to the people around you. Do things in your environment frequently make you irritated or anxious? Or maybe you often wonder what everybody else is so stressed about – in that case, you might be low in neuroticism.
Since you’re reading this article, you are probably higher in openness, but how open to experience do you think you are? Do you notice yourself sticking to your routines again and again, or are you the kind of person who gravitates to the newest food on the menu, the quirky-looking TV show, or the thrift store shirt that truly sticks out?
If you have a hard time answering these questions, consider asking someone who knows you well how much they think each trait applies to you. Remember, research has shown that our friends and family are pretty consistent reporters of our personalities (McCrae & Costa, 1987).
Try to hold back from judging yourself or others for whether you are high or low in each trait. Our personality traits are pretty stable and fundamental to who we are – you wouldn’t be your unique self if any of them changed!
Cobb-Clark, D. A., & Schurer, S. (2012). The stability of big-five personality traits. Economics Letters, 115(1), 11-15.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) professional manual. Psychological Assessment Resources.
Funder, D. C., & West, S. G. (1993). Consensus, self-other agreement, and accuracy in personality judgment: an introduction. Journal of Personality, 61, 457-467.
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1987). Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1990). Personality in adulthood. Guilford Press.
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1997). Personality trait structure as a human universal. The American Psychologist 52, 509–516.
McCrae, R. R., Costa, P. T., Jr., Ostendorf, F., Angleitner, A., Hrebıckova, M., Avia, M. D., . . . Smith, P. B. (2000). Nature over nurture: Temperament, personality, and life span development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 173–186.
McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60, 175-215.
Soldz, S., Budman, S., Demby, A., & Merry, J. (1993). Representation of personality disorders in circumplex and five-factor space: explorations with a clinical sample. Psychological Assessment, 5(1), 41-52.