Big Five Personality Factors

Why do we study personality?

The NEO that you have just completed looks at 5 personality traits, known as the Big Five. We will briefly look at what traits are, how these personality factors were determined, what the traits mean, what the Big Five predict about our behaviour, and how these factors might relate to motivation.

What are traits?

Traits are consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, or actions that distinguish people from one another. Traits are basis tendencies that remain stable across the life span, but characteristic behaviour can change considerably through adaptive pr ocesses. A trait is an internal characteristic that corresponds to an extreme position on a behavioural dimension.

There have been different theoretical perspectives in the field of personality psychology over the years including human motivation, the whole person, and individual differences. The Big Five falls under the perspective of individual differences.

How were these personality factors determined?

The Big Five represents a taxonomy (classification system) of traits that some personality psychologists suggest capture the essence of individual differences in personality. These traits were arrived at through factor analysis studies. Factor anal ysis is a technique generally done with the use of computers to determine meaningful relationships and patterns in behavioural data. You begin with a large number of behavioural variables. The computer finds relationships or natural connections where vari ables are maximally correlated with one another and minimally correlated with other variables, and then groups the data accordingly. After this process has been done many times a pattern appears of relationships or certain factors that capture the essence of all of the data. Such a process was used to determine the Big Five Personality factors. Many researchers tested factors other than the Big Five and found the Big Five to be the only consistently reliable factors.

Strict trait personality psychologists go so far as to say our behaviour is really determined by these internal traits, giving the situation a small role in determining behaviour. In other words, these traits lead to an individual acting a certain way in a given situation.

Allport, Norman and Cattell were influential in formulating this taxonomy which was later refined. Allport compiled a list of 4500 traits. Cattell reduced this list to 35 traits. Others continued to analyze these factors and found congruence with self- ratings, ratings by peers and ratings by psychological staff, that eventually became the Big Five factors.

The Big Five factors are: I – extraversion vs introversion

II – agreeableness vs antagonism

III – conscientiousness vs undirectedness

IV – neuroticism vs emotional stability

V – openness to experience vs not open to experience

Cross-cultural studies looking at the replicability of the Big Five have been less extensive due to the costs and difficulties involved. One reason for looking at cross cultural consistency is that it could provide an evolutionary interpretation of the way individual differences have been processed or encoded as personality categories in language. A Dutch analysis found 5 factors as well, the first 4 being similar to 4 of the Big Five, and the 5th being closer to unconventionality and rebell iousness. A German factor analysis replicated the Big Five factors. A problem with interpreting cross-cultural data is language translation. Some mistranslation may result in underestimating cross-cultural generalizability. Work has been done to reduce th is problem and higher congruence has been found with correlational analysis. Overall, the Big Five have been studied in 7 languages. The 5th factor (openness to experience) has the weakest replicability.

There was a need for an integrative framework for measuring these factors. The NEO Personality Inventory was created by Costa and McCrae and originally measured only neuroticism, extraversion and openness. The other factors were added later. There are other measures of the Big Five, such as the BFI (Big Five Inventory) and the TDA (Traits Descriptive Adjectives). The NEO has the highest validity of the Big Five measurement devices.

What do the five traits mean? (*put up overhead)

Keep in mind that the traits fall on a continuum and this overhead shows characteristics associated with each of the traits. Looking at these characteristics we can formulate what each of the traits mean.

E Extraversion – means a person is, talkative, social and assertive

A Agreeableness – means a person is good natured, co-operative and trusting

C Conscientiousness – means a person is responsible, orderly and dependable

N Neuroticism – means a person is anxious, prone to depression and worries alot

O Openness – means a person is imaginative, independent minded and has divergent

thinking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extraversion implies an energetic approach to the social and material world and includes traits such as sociability, activity, assertiveness, and positive emotionality.

Agreeableness contrasts a prosocial and communal orientation toward others with antagonism and includes traits such as altruism, tender-mindedness, trust, and modesty.

Conscientiousness describes socially prescribed impulse control that facilitates task and goal-directed behaviour, such as thinking before acting, delaying gratification, following norms and rules, and planning, organizing, and prioritizing tas ks.

Neuroticism contrasts emotional stability and even-temperedness with negative emotionality, such as feeling anxious, nervous, sad, and tense.

Openness to experience (versus closed-mindedness) describes the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individual’s mental and experiential life.

 

 

The Big Five are broad dimensions or categories in a hierarchical sense, such that they encompass a lot without detail. Inevitably you lose information, and while the Big Five factors provide useful personality descriptors they are somewhat less useful at predicting specific berhaviours. So a researcher chooses a hierarchical level of analysis suited to the research being conducted. Some researchers such as Norman, Goldberg and Costa and McCrae, have developed middle level categories that provide more description or are less abstract but I won’t go into that here.

What do the Big Five predict about our behaviour?

(Handbook of Personality Psychology by Hogan, Johnson, and Briggs, 1997)

First, having a trait means reacting consistently to the same situation overtime, for example, being agreeable or cooperative means consistently going along with reasonable requests, but does not mean always complying with others’ wishes.

Second, to respond consistently in the same situation people must have a capacity to respond to situational cues, that is to have the trait to be responsive to situations. For example, if someone purchases a house in the woods, they might want that hou se because of its secluded location.

Third, behaving differently in a given situation does not mean there is inner inconsistency. For example, someone who likes to attend parties might not often do so because of a stronger desire to work.

Here are some examples of what the Big Five predict in regards to life outcomes and behaviour. *While I am giving you these examples, notice how different combinations of traits can lead to very different outcomes and behaviours, and think about why t his might be the case. Also, think about whether you see any of these combinations in your own personality.

Generally speaking, low agreeablesness and low conscientiousness can predict juvenile delinquency.

Neuroticism and low conscientiousness can predict internalizing disorders (such as mental disorders).

Conscientiousness and openness can predict school performance.

Conscientiousness is also a general predictor of job performance, while other Big Five traits predict job performance in specific types of jobs. For instance extraversion predicts success in sales and management positions.

High conscientiousness is related to better health and longevity, whereas low agreeableness and high neuroticism seem to be health risk factors.

Extraversion is associated with leadership behaviour.

Agreeableness is associated with behaviours such as helping others and donating to charity.

Neuroticism is related to vulnerability and depression.

Openness is related to behaviours associated with creative performance.

Overall, traits are relatively poor predictors of single behavioural acts, but are better predictors of general trends of a person’s behaviour. Looking at past behaviour of an individual may be the best predictor of future behaviour.

How might these factors relate to motivation?

Let’s look quickly at each trait. I will only present one end of the continuum, for example extraversion as opposed to introversion. Since these traits are on a continuum someone at the opposite extreme would show very different types of motivation tha n those at the extreme I will be talking about.

Extraversion has an interpersonal component and is strongly related to positive affect such as being enthusiastic, energetic, interested and friendly. Fremont and Means (1970) found that extraverts show less anxiety over negative feedback. If yo u remember I said earlier that extraversion is associated with leadership. So extraverts are highly motivated to seek social situations and to be dominant in those situations. Extraverts are motivated by change, variety in their lives, challenge, and are easily bored. Extraverts have more recently been seen as adaptive, ambitious and hardworking.

Agreeableness also has an interpersonal component. Agreeable individuals tend toward conformity in groups, toward modesty, toward not being demanding, and toward being sympathetic. These individuals might be motivated toward helping others and t oward prosocial behaviour in general. There may be a link between the motivational processes operating within individuals in regards to this trait, such that agreeable individuals strive for intimacy and solidarity in groups they belong to, which provides emotional rewards.

Conscientiousness is related to such things as achievement, perseverance, organization and responsibility. Conscientious individuals are motivated toward achievement through social conformity. *Add my own experience - internally driven.

Neuroticism tends to be viewed negatively and is associated with negative affect, being tense and nervous. Keep in mind that neuroticism is only one trait that an individual has. A person could be neurotic and conscientious which may have negati ve health effects but may motivate an individual toward success in school and work situations.

Openness is associated with tolerance of ambiguity (which means when something is not clear), a capacity to absorb information, being very focused and the ability to be aware of more feelings, thoughts and impulses simultaneously. The result is deeper more intense experiences. Open individuals are motivated to seek out the unfamiliar and to look for complexity.

The bottom line is that the Big Five are an integral part of the study of personality psychology, and it is fascinating to learn about what makes people tick.

References:

  1. Pervin, L. & John, O. (Eds.) (1999). Handbook of personality: theory and research. New York: Gilford.
  2. Hogan, R., Johnson, J. & Briggs, S. (Eds.) (1997). Handbook of personality psychology. California: Academic Press.
  3. Potkay, C. & Allen, B. (1986). Personality: theory, research, and applications. California: Brooks/Cole.


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