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What Everyone Should Understand About the Big Five Personality Traits

You need to understand the traits, but also their underlying facets.

Key points

  • Each personality trait has underlying facets.
  • These facets are valuable to understand to have a more nuanced view of people's motivation.
  • A great example comes from recent work on personality change in the college years.
Mariia Korneeva/Shutterstock
Source: Mariia Korneeva/Shutterstock

Personality characteristics reflect fairly stable differences between people in their motivations. While situations exert a strong influence on people’s behavior, these default motivations affect both what people do in the absence of a powerful situation, and they also influence the kinds of situations people gravitate toward when they have an option about what to do.

The most prominent scientifically validated set of global personality traits is the Big Five, which consists of the dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. These broad traits reflect the biggest differences between people in their motivations.

From the early days of personality research, though, the field has recognized that there are several aspects of motivation underlying each of the dimensions. For example, conscientiousness labels the overall tendency for people to complete the tasks they start. But it reflects this dependability, but also a tendency to take on new goals as well as a desire to have an orderly environment. While these subcomponents hang together, they are not identical. For example, there are people who strive for achievement without desiring an orderly environment (and vice versa).

The broader personality characteristics named by the Big Five are normally called traits. These narrower elements making up the traits can be called facets.

Researchers are still working through which facets ought to be included in each of the Big Five characteristics, but there is reasonable overlap between the various systems that have been developed. To give you a feel for these facets, I’ll describe the characteristics that are part of the NEO-FFI scale developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae.

Openness to Experience: The openness to experience trait reflects people’s orientation toward new ideas and experiences. The facets of this trait are interest in aesthetic experiences (like art and poetry), interest in intellectual pursuits (curiosity), and interest in new ideas and ways of doing things.

Conscientiousness: The conscientiousness trait reflects the degree to which people complete the things they start. The core facts involve an interest in being orderly, a tendency to strive toward goals, and the desire to complete tasks (which makes people dependable).

Extraversion: The trait of extraversion reflects people’s engagement with social life. The core facets involve a person’s degree of sociability, their overall level of positive feeling, and their desire for an energetic and fast-paced existence.

Agreeableness. The trait of agreeableness reflects people’s desire to get along with others. The core facets involve both an avoidance of conflict, and a desire to do things to help others.

Neuroticism. Neuroticism reflects people’s reactions to negative events in the environment. The key facets involve anxiety (the strength of the reaction to threat), depression (the strength of the reaction to loss), and self-judgment (the strength of people’s negative feelings about themselves).

As an example of the way these traits and facets have been used in research, a paper by Theo Klimstra, Erik Noftle, Koen Luyckx Luc Goossens, and Richard Robins in the August 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at change in traits and facets over the college years. This study looked at samples of college students who rated their personality characteristics and also responded to measures of social and academic measures of adjustment to college life both early and late in their college careers.

Consistent with many studies of personality change, the personality measures for this sample were fairly stable overall. Although personality does change over the lifespan, it tends to change slowly. At the trait level, there was a consistent tendency for people’s conscientiousness to increase over the college years and for their neuroticism to decrease.

At the facet level, the pattern was a little different. Within conscientiousness, the facets of being dependable and being orderly were the ones that tended to increase. In addition, while there wasn’t a consistent increase in agreeableness overall, the facets of avoiding conflict and helping others did tend to increase. There was also a tendency for the facet of Openness to Experience, the facet reflecting interest in new ways of doing things tended to increase. Finally, the facet of neuroticism related to depression tended to decrease across the college years.

An interesting aspect of looking at change over time is the possibility of exploring how changes in one variable at one time affect changes in another variable later. This kind of analysis permits an exploration of how people’s adjustment to college life affects their later personality characteristics. For example, high levels of academic adjustment early in college predict later increases in conscientiousness (and all of its facets), increases in agreeableness and the facet of avoiding confrontation, and decreases in neuroticism and decreases in the facets of self-judgment and depression.

The main thing to take away from this discussion is that personality characteristics often label quite broad traits, but the particular level of a trait that a person exhibits might reflect different combinations of these underlying facets. As a result, it is worthwhile to understand both the traits and the facets.

Facebook image: Mariia Korneeva/Shutterstock


Klimstra, T.A., Noftle, E.E., Luycks, K., Goosens, L., & Robins, R.W. (2018). Personality development and adjustment in college: A multi-faceted and cross-national view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 338-361.

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