The Big Five Personality Traits

5 Major Factors of Personality

big five personality traits
  Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018.

Many contemporary personality psychologists believe that there are five basic dimensions of personality, often referred to as the "Big 5" personality traits. The five broad personality traits described by the theory are extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

Trait theories of personality have long attempted to pin down exactly how many personality traits exist. Earlier theories have suggested a various number of possible traits, including Gordon Allport's list of 4,000 personality traits, Raymond Cattell's 16 personality factors, and Hans Eysenck's three-factor theory.

However, many researchers felt that Cattell's theory was too complicated and Eysenck's was too limited in scope. As a result, the five-factor theory emerged to describe the essential traits that serve as the building blocks of personality.

What Are the Big Five Dimensions of Personality?

Today, many researchers believe that they are five core personality traits. Evidence of this theory has been growing for many years, beginning with the research of D. W. Fiske (1949) and later expanded upon by other researchers including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).

The "big five" are broad categories of personality traits. While there is a significant body of literature supporting this five-factor model of personality, researchers don't always agree on the exact labels for each dimension.

You might find it helpful to use the acronym OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) when trying to remember the big five traits. CANOE (for concienciousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion) is another commonly used acronym.

It is important to note that each of the five personality factors represents a range between two extremes. For example, extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion. In the real world, most people lie somewhere in between the two polar ends of each dimension.

These five categories are usually described as follows.

Openness

This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight. People who are high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests. They are curious about the world and other people and eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences.

People who are high in this trait tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.

High

  • Very creative

  • Open to trying new things

  • Focused on tackling new challenges


  • Happy to think about abstract concepts


Low

  • Dislikes change

  • Does not enjoy new things

  • Resists new ideas

  • Not very imaginative

  • Dislikes abstract or theoretical concepts

Conscientiousness

Standard features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, and goal-directed behaviors. Highly conscientious people tend to be organized and mindful of details. They plan ahead, think about how their behavior affects others, and are mindful of deadlines.

High

  • Spends time preparing

  • Finishes important tasks right away

  • Pays attention to detail

  • Enjoys having a set schedule

Low

  • Dislikes structure and schedules

  • Makes messes and doesn't take care of things

  • Fails to return things or put them back where they belong

  • Procrastinates important tasks

  • Fails to complete necessary or assigned tasks

Extraversion

Extraversion (or extroversion) is characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness. People who are high in extraversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. Being around other people helps them feel energized and excited.

People who are low in extraversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have to expend energy in social settings. Social events can feel draining and introverts often require a period of solitude and quiet in order to "recharge."

High

  • Enjoys being the center of attention

  • Likes to start conversations

  • Enjoys meeting new people

  • Has a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances

  • Finds it easy to make new friends

  • Feels energized when around other people

  • Say things before thinking about them

Low

  • Prefers solitude

  • Feels exhausted when having to socialize a lot

  • Finds it difficult to start conversations

  • Dislikes making small talk

  • Carefully thinks things through before speaking

  • Dislikes being the center of attention

Agreeableness

This personality dimension includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors. People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.

High

  • Has a great deal of interest in other people

  • Cares about others

  • Feels empathy and concern for other people

  • Enjoys helping and contributing to the happiness of other people

  • Assists others who are in need of help

Low

  • Takes little interest in others

  • Doesn't care about how other people feel

  • Has little interest in other people's problems

  • Insults and belittles others

  • Manipulates others to get what they want

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is a trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals who are high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and sadness. Those low in this trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient.

High

  • Experiences a lot of stress

  • Worries about many different things

  • Gets upset easily

  • Experiences dramatic shifts in mood

  • Feels anxious

  • Struggles to bounce back after stressful events

Low

  • Emotionally stable

  • Deals well with stress

  • Rarely feels sad or depressed

  • Doesn't worry much

  • Is very relaxed

Are the Big Five Traits Universal?

McCrae and his colleagues have also found that the big five traits are also remarkably universal. One study that looked at people from more than 50 different cultures found that the five dimensions could be accurately used to describe personality.

Based on this research, many psychologists now believe that the five personality dimensions are not only universal; they also have biological origins. Psychologist David Buss has proposed that an evolutionary explanation for these five core personality traits, suggesting that these personality traits represent the most important qualities that shape our social landscape.

What Factors Influence the Big Five Traits?

Research suggests that both biological and environmental influences play a role in shaping our personalities. Twin studies suggest that both nature and nurture play a role in the development of each of the five personality factors.

One study of the genetic and environmental underpinnings of the five traits looked at 123 pairs of identical twins and 127 pairs of fraternal twins. The findings suggested that the heritability of each trait was 53 percent for extraversion, 41 percent for agreeableness, 44 percent for conscientiousness, 41 percent for neuroticism, and 61 for openness. 

Longitudinal studies also suggest that these big five personality traits tend to be relatively stable over the course of adulthood. One study of working-age adults found that personality tended to be stable over a four-year period and displayed little change as a result of adverse life events.

Studies have shown that maturation may have an impact on the five traits. As people age, they tend to become less extraverted, less neurotic, and less open to experience. Agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tend to increase as people grow older.

A Word From Verywell

Always remember that behavior involves an interaction between a person's underlying personality and situational variables. The situation that a person finds himself or herself in plays a major role in how the person reacts. However, in most cases, people offer responses that are consistent with their underlying personality traits.

These dimensions represent broad areas of personality. Research has demonstrated that these groupings of characteristics tend to occur together in many people. For example, individuals who are sociable tend to be talkative. However, these traits do not always occur together. Personality is a complex and varied and each person may display behaviors across several of these dimensions.

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