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.


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.

People who are high on the openness continuum are typically:

  • Very creative
  • Open to trying new things
  • Focused on tackling new challenges
  • Happy to think about abstract concepts

Those who are low on this trait:

  • Dislike change
  • Do not enjoy new things
  • Resist new ideas
  • Not very imaginative
  • Dislikes abstract or theoretical concepts


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.

Those who are high on the conscientiousness continuum also tend to:

  • Spend time preparing
  • Finish important tasks right away
  • Pay attention to details
  • Enjoy having a set schedule

People who are low in this trait tend to:

  • Dislike structure and schedules
  • Make messes and not take care of things
  • Fail to return things or put them back where they belong
  • Procrastinate important tasks
  • Fail to complete the things they are supposed to do


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."

People who rate high on extraversion tend to:

  • Enjoy being the center of attention
  • Like to start conversations
  • Enjoy meeting new people
  • Have a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances
  • Find it easy to make new friends
  • Feel energized when they are around other people
  • Say things before they think about them

People who rate low on extraversion tend to:

  • Prefer solitude
  • Feel exhausted when they have to socialize a lot
  • Find it difficult to start conversations
  • Dislike making small talk
  • Carefully think things through before they speak
  • Dislike being the center of attention


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.

People who are high in the trait of agreeableness tend to:

  • Have a great deal of interest in other people
  • Care about others
  • Feel empathy and concern for other people
  • Enjoy helping and contributing to the happiness of other people
  • Assist others who are in need of help

Those who are low in this trait tend to:

  • Take little interest in others
  • Don't care about how other people feel
  • Have little interest in other people's problems
  • Insult and belittle others
  • Manipulate others to get what they want


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.

Individuals who are high in neuroticism tend to:

  • Experience a lot of stress
  • Worry about many different things
  • Get upset easily
  • Experience dramatic shifts in mood
  • Feel anxious
  • Struggle to bounce back after stressful events

Those who are low in this trait are typically:

  • Emotionally stable
  • Deal well with stress
  • Rarely feel sad or depressed
  • Don't worry much
  • 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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