While there have been many different theories of personality, many psychologists today believe that personality is made of if five broad dimensions, a notion often referred to as the big five theory of personality or the five-factor model. The big five personality traits the theory describes are:
The Big 5 Personality Traits
We mentioned these big five traits earlier, but let’s look at them in greater depth. One important thing to remember is that each dimension represents a continuum. Some people may be at one extreme or another on a particular dimension, with most lying somewhere in the middle.
Does this suggest that personality is made up of only five traits? Not at all. Remember, each of the five factors represents a broad spectrum of traits. Extroversion, for example, encompasses such qualities as talkativeness, outgoingness, assertiveness, and friendliness.
Key Takeaway: The big 5 traits represent broad dimensions of personality. Each dimension is a continuum that includes those who are high, low, and in between.
The body of evidence supporting the big five theory has grown in recent decades, although it has also been the subject of critique.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the dimensions described by the big five theory:
This big five personality trait is also referred to as openness to experience and describes a spectrum between being curious and cautious.
People who rate high in openness tend to be creative, inventive, and adventurous.
They tend to have a great deal of intellectual curiosity, prefer to avoid routine, and seek out novel experiences. This can sometimes take the form of thrill-seeking and participating in high-risk activities such as sky diving, bungee jumping, and gambling.
Other characteristics of openness include:
- Abstract thinker
Those who rate low in openness tend to be careful and consistent. They appreciate routines and are often wary or even resistant to change.
They may base decisions on carefully considered data, avoid taking excessive risks and can sometimes be close-minded when encountering information that challenges existing beliefs.
Other characteristics of low levels of openness include:
- Enjoying structure
- Being dogmatic
- Resisting new ideas
- Avoiding risk
The conscientiousness big five personality trait describes a continuum between being highly efficient and very careless.
People who are high in conscientiousness are efficient and thoughtful.
Some characteristics of those who are high in this trait include:
- High achieving
Those who are low in this trait tend to be easy-going but often thoughtless. While they are often seen as relaxed, they can sometimes be perceived as sloppy or even lazy.
Some more characteristics of people low in conscientiousness include:
Extroversion, also sometimes spelled extraversion, describes a continuum between being very outgoing and very reserved. Extroverts typically gain energy from social interactions – socializing with other people helps them feel recharged and inspired.
Some of the common characteristics of people high in extroversion include being:
Those who are low in extroversion are known as introverts. They have to expend energy in social settings, so spending lots of time with other people can feel draining. Because of this, they often need periods of solitude in order to recharge.
Other characteristics include:
The big five personality trait of agreeableness refers to the tendency to be cooperative and helpful rather than antagonistic and disagreeable. It encompasses qualities such as trust, prosocial behaviors, and kindness.
Agreeable people tend to be friendly, likable, and good-natured. Being very high in agreeableness is sometimes seen as being gullible, naive, or overly trusting.
Some more characteristics of those who are high in agreeableness include:
People who are low in agreeableness tend to be distrusting and detached. Other characteristics of low agreeableness include:
Neuroticism centers on emotional stability.
People who are high in this trait are more likely to experience unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anger, and anxiety.
More characteristics of being high in neuroticism include:
Those who are low in this dimension, on the other hand, tend to be calm and even-tempered. Other characteristics associated with being low on the neuroticism dimensions include:
Other Trait Theories
There are many different theories of personality and the trait theories attempt to describe personality as composed of a number of different traits which then influence how people behave.
Just how many traits are there? Theorists have proposed a variety of numbers to capture all of the traits that make up the human experience:
- An early psychologist named Gordon Allport, the man often credited with helping to popularize psychology in America, examined dictionary terms related to personality traits and concluded that there were more than 4,000.
- Later, the psychologist Raymond Cattell utilized a statistical technique known as factor analysis to whittle that list down to just 16.
- Hans Eysenck shortened that list to a mere three broad dimensions, but later researchers revised and expanded this to include five dimensions of personality.
Key Takeaway: Rather than focusing on individual terms that describe each and every aspect of a trait, the big 5 theory aims to instead focus on the broader aspects of human personality.
History of the Big 5 Personality Traits
It is important to remember that each dimension represents a spectrum. Each high and low pole represents the extremes of each trait, but people typically lie somewhere between the two sides.
The big five personality traits were derived from analyzing surveys of thousands of people to determine which traits tend to occur together. Using factor analysis, researchers were able to group related traits together under broad dimensions.
The five domains identified by the big five theory are thought to encompass all know personality traits.
As you might have already realized, exceptions are possible. A person who ranks high in introversion might be quiet, but not necessarily reticent. A person who is highly in extroversion might be sociable, but not necessarily assertive.
The big five personality traits describe only a portion of what personality psychologists study. Other aspects of personality such as motivations, attitudes, self-concepts, and emotions also play a role in making you who you are, but the big five theory does not touch upon such subjects.
Causes of the Big Five Traits
So what factors influence the development of the big five personality traits? As with many questions in psychology, both nature and nurture play a role.
In one large-scale twin study, researchers found that the heritability of the openness dimensions was the highest with 61% being attributed to genetic influences. Conscientiousness was 44% due to genetics, with extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism being at 53%, 41%, and 41% respectively.
Age is another factor that can influence the five core dimensions. As people age and mature, some of these traits tend to change.
For example, people typically become less extroverted as they grow older. It is also common to become less open and neurotic, while also becoming more agreeable and conscientious.
Cobb-Clark, DA & Schurer, S. The stability of big-five personality traits. Economics Letters. 2012; 115(2): 11–15.
Jang, K.L. et al. (1996). Heritability of the big five personality dimensions and their facets: A twin study. Journal of Personality, 64(3); 577-591.