What Are The Big 5 Personality Traits?

2 March 2021
11 minute
What Are The Big 5 Personality Traits

Many modern and traditional studies in psychology point to 5 basic dimensions of personality. Evidence of this theory has grown over the years with the principle theory emerging in 1949. The five broad personality traits described by the theory are extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

The five basic personality traits is a theory developed in 1949 by D. W. Fiske (1949) and later expanded upon by other researchers including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).

Researchers had spent years before trying to pin down character traits as a way of analysing people’s behaviour. At one point, Gordon Allport found over 4000 traits. Even when this was reduced to 16 it was seen as too complicated. This is where the five big personality traits began. 

These broad categories have been researched and developed over the years and, whilst there is extensive study into each area, researchers don’t always agree on the definition of each characteristic. 

What are the big five personality traits? 

Openness

Openness is a characteristic that includes imagination and insight. The world, other people and an eagerness to learn and experience new things is particularly high for this personality trait. It leads to having a broad range of interests and being more adventurous when it comes to decision making. 

Creativity also plays a big part in the openness trait; this leads to a greater comfort zone when it comes to abstract and lateral thinking.

Think of that person who’s always ordering the most exotic thing on the menu, going to different places and having interests which you would never have thought of… that is someone who has a high openness trait.

Anyone low in this trait tends to be viewed with more traditional approaches to life and may struggle when it comes to problem solving outside their comfort zone of knowledge.

Conscientiousness 

Conscientiousness is a trait that includes high levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, and goal-directed behaviours. This organised and structured approach is often found within people who work in science and even high-retail finance where detail orientation and organisation are required as a skill set. 

A highly conscientious person will regularly plan ahead and analyse their own behaviour to see how it affects others. Project management teams and HR departments regularly have highly conscientious people working in their teams to help balance out the structural roles within the overall team development. 

A good example of a conscientious person would be someone you know who is always planning ahead for the next time you meet - and in the meantime, regularly staying in contact, checking in on your wellbeing. They like to organise around certain dates and events and are focused on you when you meet. 

People low in conscientiousness tend to dislike structure and schedules, procrastinate on important tasks and fail to complete tasks as well.

Extraversion

Extraversion (sometimes referred to as Extroversion) is a trait that many will have come across in their own lives. It’s easily identifiable and widely recognisable as “someone who gets energised in the company of others.”

This, amongst other traits which include, talkativeness, assertiveness and high amounts of emotional expressiveness, have made extraverted people widely recognisable over many years of social interaction.

We all have that one friend or family member - or several - who aren’t exactly wall flowers in a social interaction. They thrive on being the centre of attention, enjoy meeting new people and somehow tend to have the biggest friends and acquaintance group you have known. 

The opposite is, of course, someone else in our lives we may know, an introvert. They prefer solitude and have less energy in social situations. Being at the centre of attention or making small talk can be quite taxing.

Extroverts tend to have very public facing roles including areas such as sales, marketing, teaching and politics. Seen as leaders, extroverted people will be more likely to lead than stand in the crowd and be seen to not be doing anything.

Agreeableness

People who exhibit high agreeableness will show signs of trust, altruism, kindness, and affection. Highly agreeable people tend to have high prosocial behaviours which means that they’re more inclined to be helping other people. 

Sharing, comforting and cooperating are traits that lend themselves to highly agreeable personality types. Empathy towards others is commonly understood as another form of agreeableness even if the term doesn’t quite fit. 

The opposite to agreeableness is disagreeableness but it manifests in behaviour traits that are socially unpleasant. Manipulation and nastiness towards others, a lack of caring or sympathy, a lack of taking interest in others and their problems are all quite common. 

Agreeable people tend to find careers in areas where they can help the most. Charity workers, medicine, mental health and even those who volunteer in soup kitchens and dedicate time to the third sector (social studies) are high in the agreeableness chart.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is characterised by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Often mistaken for anti-social behaviour, or worse a greater psychological issue, neuroticism is a physical and emotional response to stress and perceived threats in someone’s daily life.

Individuals who exhibit high levels of neuroticism will tend to experience mood swings, anxiety and irritability. Some individuals who experience sudden changes in character from a day-to-day perspective could be highly neurotic and respond to high stress levels in their work and personal lives. 

Anxiety, which plays a large part in the makeup of neuroticism, is about an individual's ability to cope with stress and perceived or actual risk. People who suffer with neuroticism will overthink a lot of situations and find difficulty in relaxing even in their own space.

Of course, those who rank lower on the neurotic level will exhibit a more stable and emotionally resilient attitude to stress and situations. Low neurotic sufferers also rarely feel sad or depressed, taking the time to focus on the present moment and not get involved in mental arithmetic on possible stress-inducing factors.

Who developed the big 5 personality traits?

Originally developed in 1949, the big 5 personality traits is a theory established by D. W. Fiske and later expanded upon by other researchers including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).

It’s suggested that as early the late 19th century social psychologists were trying to gain a more scientific understanding of personality but it wasn’t until the first official study in the 1930s by Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert that personality had some sort of scientific acknowledgement. They took 18,000 words from Webster’s Dictionary to describe personality traits and found adjectives that described non-physical characteristics creating a 4500 word bank of observable behaviour markers. 

Later studies were able to identify many overlaps and specific traits per person which has allowed a more condensed and comprehensive review of personality traits. The big 5 are still widely used today as the basis of global study.

What factors influence the big 5 traits? 

From nature and nurture to age and maturation, the big 5 traits have been widely studied where we can see what influences their impact on a person’s behaviour and character. 

Personality has often been hypothesised as a question of nurture or nature. One particular study 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 percent for openness.”

It has also been widely recognised that the older we get, the more our behaviour traits will change. We become less extraverted, less neurotic, and less open to new experiences whilst our agreeableness and conscientiousness will grow as we get older.

Do men and women differ with the big 5 traits? 

The general consensus is that men and women are actually more alike than what normative social science would have us believe. But as the title would suggest, there are some exceptions. 

Weinsberg and DeYoung in 2011 studied the big 5 traits and in particular Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five. They concluded that women tend to score higher on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism than men. 

Other studies have concluded that whilst the differences may be present, some traits are not extensively separate. Getting older will tend to align behaviour traits such as agreeableness and extraversion where both genders tend to score lower as time moves on.

Big 5 personality traits tests

We can successfully measure personality traits with different tools and techniques. All in all, these tests are trying to discover how much your behaviour varies from high to low in the five traits which include; Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

How are the traits measured?

Traditionally, a big 5 personality test is taken with a questionnaire and a multiple choice response. 

For example, these questions will ask how much a person agrees or disagrees that he or she is someone who exemplifies various specific statements, such as:

  • “Is open to trying new experiences” (for openness, or open-mindedness)
  • “Is always thinking about others” (for conscientiousness)
  • “Is the centre of attention at a party” (for extroversion)
  • “Is trusting of others” (for agreeableness)
  • “Is anxious about the future all the time” (for neuroticism, or negative emotionality)

The responses, Strongly agree to Strongly Disagree (with alternatives in between) will determine to what scale the person may be grouped into different personality traits. 

Are big five personality tests reliable?

Assessments based on the big 5 personality tests are very reliable, provided that sufficient research has been carried out and substantiated. 

It is, to date, the most scientifically validated and reliable psychological model to measure personality. It is used to help predict behaviour as well as personality.

It remains a dependable model that businesses and scientific studies have been able to use consistently over a long period of time in helping to create new models, which predict someone’s behaviour at work, response to stressful situations and even understanding aspects of recorded social studies.

How do the big five personality traits predict behaviour at work?

When hiring employees (or testing current ones), the big 5 personality traits help us understand behaviour in the workplace and accurately predict, in many cases, future performance. Each personality type will have an impact within the working environment and amongst other staff. Being able to identify where there could be a positive or negative impact can help influence decisions around hiring or retaining staff.

A candidate with a high openness score would be willing to learn new skills and tools. Presented with more abstract problems, they are more likely to think of abstract solutions and would be focused on tackling new problems that were perhaps previously overlooked. 

Candidates with a high conscientiousness score wouldn’t necessarily be sat at their desk until midnight every evening! They would however be keen to get their work done, meet deadlines and be a self-starter; requiring little hand-holding to get the task done. Someone scoring low on the other hand, would need a lot more focus, time and attention to the task at hand. 

The ideal extraversion scores would depend on the role you’re hiring for. Seen by many to be leaders in a team, a high extraversion score would do well in environments where they thrive off interaction with others:; sales, marketing & PR all require a level of people- facing skills. More technical job setups where specific focus or a degree of isolation is needed would, however, not be a good fit. 

A candidate who shows high agreeableness would suit a role where personal skills and an ability to be at the service of others are needed. Of course, the opposite would be bad in a strong team environment and cause significant issues in order to work towards a common goal or task.

Finally, a candidate who exhibits high neuroticism will not be suited to a role where there are consistent changes, tasks that require strong self-starter tendencies or high stress levels. Those with low neuroticism scores will, however, thrive in these kinds of workplace scenarios.

These traits help us to understand how we may behave in the future, in our workplace and under certain circumstances as. For businesses, they can identify future talent, derailers and even potential for success.

How can Thomas help you find the right person for your role?

The Thomas Workplace Personality Test covers areas of personality testing based on Big 5 theory. The High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), specifically helps to identify leadership potential as part of the testing programme. 

Developed by Ian MacRae and Adrian Furnham in 2006, the HPTI has been designed based on an ‘optimality’ model, which assumes that personality traits can be considered ‘optimal’ based on the requirements of a particular job role or position, such as senior executive leadership.

Based on a self-report questionnaire, the answers have 7 levels of agreement on a 1-7 Likert scale (1 ‘disagree completely’ to 7 ‘agree completely) with 78 unique items, and the test takes as little as 8 minutes to complete. 

The Thomas HPTI test is designed to help businesses discover more about a candidate’s personality based on the big 5 traits, and identify where there could be leadership potential as part of the assessment.

If you are interested in finding out more about how our Workplace Personality assessment can help you and your business, please speak to one of our team.

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