Making sense of people: the Big 5

People? Where do they come from? What do they want? Why are they in my house? These are some of the many question I won’t be answering in this essay.  Instead I’m following on from my brief post about affect.big5

The Big Five Personality traits can, on first impression, read like the worst kind of pop-psychology. Five handy labels with loaded names like “extraversion’ or ‘neuroticism’ with which you can categorize people like some mad horoscope. Yet what is most extraordinary about the Big Five Personality Trait model is how strongly supported by evidence led research it is. Further it is a model that different psychologists have been led to from different starting points and using different styles of personality tests as starting points. A downside of this is that the terminology used can be misleading. Terms like “introversion” do not necessarily carry all the same meanings from their uses elsewhere such as in Carl Jung’s work or the more closely related Myers-Briggs personality test.

The names can vary from test to test but the most common terms can be remembered with the acronym “OCEAN”

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion (on a scale with introversion at the other end)
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Each on of these is a dimension and theoretically each dimension is independent of the other i.e. a score on one dimension doesn’t overlap with a score on the other (although this might not be the case).

Openness to experience

This dimension is perhaps the one most connected to styles of thinking and has relationships with ethics, abstraction and creativity.

Low scores suggest a preference for familiar ideas and high scores suggest a willingness to accommodate ideas that are less familiar and more challenging. High openness suggest a greater tolerance of abstract ideas as well and is linked to creativity, imagination and abstract thinking.

Despite the intent that these dimensions are independent of each other, correlations have been found between high scores on openness and high scores on extraversion – but exceptions naturally exist.


This dimension relates to self discipline and impulse control.

It is a dimension that is very age dependent and one that is difficult to study developmentally.

Extraversion – Introversion

Naturally the extraverts got the scale named after themselves. Bloody typical.

This dimension relates a great deal to general pleasure and a mental outlook. Both introverts and extraverts my be socially adaptable (or socially awkward) but the extravert is the one who gets more pleasure from social interaction. Intoverts and extraverts (i.e. peopal scoring low on this dimension or high) will experience boredom differently and will find significant differences in what is entertaining and what they need to work at.


While being extraverted may make it easy to be sociable, agreeableness is a different perspective on a person’s view of others. People who score highly on agreeableness tend to take a more positive view of other people in general. Low agreeableness scores don’t mean a person hates everybody but do suggest a tendency to be less concerned about others interest and a greater emphasis on self interest.


This dimension has the most loaded of the names and is often referred to as emotional-stability instead. A high score means lower emotional stability i.e. a person is more likely to experience anxiety, anger or other negative emotions under the same circumstances as somebody with a lower score on this dimension

Inevitably this is a flawed model – the dimensions themselves require sub-dimensions and yet in reality are not wholly independent from one another. The scales tend to describe surface features of personality or reflect aspects of our personality which vary over time or even by mood. Even so, it is powerful model and it is remarkable that a model of personality is possible at all.

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