Our personalities are complicated systems of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that describe how we interact with others and the world around us. Throughout the past century, psychologists and personality researchers have worked to try and simplify personality’s complexity by suggesting most people can fit into a certain category that generally captures their preferences.
Personality psychology seeks to understand the differences between personality traits and devise systems to scientifically evaluate them (John & Srivastava, 1999). One of the more popular and recognized systems is called The Big Five (or the “Big 5”) that covers these five “core” personality traits:
- Extraversion — the level of sociability and enthusiasm
- Agreeableness — the level of friendliness and kindness
- Conscientiousness — the level of organization and work ethic
- Emotional Stability (also called Neuroticism) — the level of calmness and tranquility
- Intellect/imagination (also called Openness) — the level of creativity and curiosity
Other personality systems ranging in complexity have also been proposed and researched, including Hans Eysenck’s three-factor theory (psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism), Raymond Cattell’s 16 personality factors, and Gordon Allport’s comprehensive and overwhelming list of 4,000 personality traits. The Big 5, however, has captured most researchers’ attention because it is a reasonable number that most people can quickly understand.
The Big Five traits appear to be nearly universally held, no matter the culture (McCrae et al., 2005). While genetics plays a role in determining personality, research has not conclusively determined exactly how much of your personality is genetically pre-determined, and how much is the result of environmental and parenting factors. Many researchers believe it’s about half and half, based upon the available scientific evidence.
While it was once believed that once established, your personality generally remain stable throughout your lifetime, newer research suggests that is not always the case. “[O]ur findings suggest that personality is not “set like plaster” at age 30; instead it continues to change, with the exact pattern of change depending on the trait” (Srivastava et al., 2003). These researchers found that, “Conscientiousness and Agreeableness increased throughout early and middle adulthood at varying rates; Neuroticism declined among women but did not change among men.”
In-Depth: The Big 5 Personality Traits
Every one of the Big Five is scored on a scale that is composed of two opposite extremes. Most people score somewhere between the two poles in each trait, described in detail below.
Extraversion (also sometimes referred to as extroversion) is a trait that describes a person’s assertiveness, emotional expression, and comfort levels in social situations.
Someone who scores high on this trait are generally seen as being more assertive, outgoing, and generally talkative. Others see a person who scores high on this trait as being sociable — who actually thrives in social situations (such as meetings or parties). They tend to feel comfortable in expressing emotions appropriately and making their opinion heard.
Those who score low in extraversion may be called introverted. Such people tend to avoid social situations because they take a lot of energy to attend to. They are less comfortable with small talk, and feel more comfortable listening to others than needing to talk or be heard.
- Thrives on socializing with others
- Prefers being with others and meeting new people
- Likes to start conversations and talking to others
- Has a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances
- Finds it easy to make new friends
- Sometimes says things before thinking about them
- Enjoys being the center of attention
- Feels exhausted after socializing
- Prefers being alone or by themselves
- Dislikes making small talk or starting conversations
- Generally thinks things through before speaking
- Dislikes being the center of attention
Agreeableness is a trait that describes a person’s overall kindness, affection levels, trust, and sense of altruism.
A person who scores high on this trait is someone who is comfortable with being kind and friendly to others. Others see such people as being helpful and cooperative, and someone who is trustworthy and altruistic.
Someone who scores low on this trait is seen as being more manipulative and generally less friendly to others. They may also be seen as someone who is more competitive and less cooperative.
- Kind and compassionate toward others
- Has a great deal of interest in and wants to help others
- Feels empathy and concern for other people
- Prefers to cooperate and be helpful
- Doesn’t care about other people’s feelings or problems
- Takes little interest in others
- Can be seen as insulting or dismissive of others
- Can be manipulative
- Prefers to be competitive and stubborn
Conscientiousness is a trait that describes a person’s ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors, exert control over their impulses, and their overall thoughtfulness.
Someone who scores high on this trait prefers to be organized with behaviors that are goal-oriented. They are seen by others as being thoughtful, detail-oriented, and with good impulse control — they generally don’t act on the spur of the moment. Someone who scores high on conscientiousness practice mindfulness — they live in the moment and understand that their behavior and choices can affect others.
People who score low on conscientiousness have more difficulty with staying organized and focused on a goal. They tend to be messier and dislike structure and schedules. They don’t always appreciate or care how their behavior affects others.
- Goal- and detail-oriented and are well organized
- Don’t give in to impulses
- Finishes important tasks on time
- Enjoys adhering to a schedule
- Is on time when meeting others
- Dislikes structure and schedules
- Messy and less detail-oriented
- Fails to return things or put them back where they belong
- Procrastinates about important tasks and rarely finishes them on time
- Fails to stick to a schedule
- Is always late when meeting others
Emotional Stability (Neuroticism)
Emotional Stability (Neuroticism) is a trait that describes the overall emotional stability of an individual.
A person who scores high on this trait may be seen by others as being moody, irritable, anxious, and with a black cloud over their head. They may be seen as suffering from depression, or experience mood swings.
A person who scores low on this trait are seen as being more emotionally stable and resilient. They appear to others as less anxious or moody.
- Gets upset more easily
- Appears anxious, irritable, or moody
- Appears to always be stressed
- Worries constantly
- Experiences visible mood swings
- Struggles to bounce back after troubles in life
- Emotionally stable and resilient
- Deals well with stress
- Rarely feels sad, moody, or depressed
- Relaxed and doesn’t worry much
Intellect/Imagination (Openness) is a trait that describes a person’s preference for imagination, artistic, and intellectual activities.
People who score high on this trait are seen by others as being intellectual, creative, or artistic. They tend to be forever curious about the world around them and are interested in learning new things. A person who scores high on this trait typically has a broad rand of interests and may enjoy traveling, learning about other cultures, and trying out new experiences.
People who score low on this trait prefer to stick with what they know and don’t enjoy learning or being creative. They are uncomfortable with change and like to stick close to home. They generally struggle with creative activities or abstract thinking.
- More creative or intellectual in focus
- Embraces trying new things or visiting new places
- Enjoys taking on new challenges
- Abstract ideas come more easily
- More traditional in thinking and less creative
- Avoids change or new ideas
- Does not enjoy new things or visiting new places
- Has trouble with abstract or theoretical concepts
Remember, personality traits are just general categories — they don’t really define a complete person, nor capture the complexity of most people’s personality. Instead, think of them as a handy shorthand to better understand yourself and others.
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