I have been examining how psychologists and other experts judge personality, and how experts' judgments of personality might differ from the judgments made by ordinary people. My aim is to explore how expertise in the field emerges and what difference such expertise can make (background here).

My topic this week concerns "the Big Five approach to personality" -- a dominant research approach in the field today and its emergence from the study of the words people use to discuss one another.

The Big Five approach contends that personality can be described according to five big traits that include "Extraversion," "Neuroticism," and "Openness." I will discuss the five traits and what makes each one big shortly.

My central concern is the basis of the Big Five research approach and what it says about expertise in understanding people.  The idea behind the Big Five is that the most important traits of personality might be embedded in a given language such as English. Therefore, it ought to be possible, in principle, to thoroughly scour the English language and other languages for words that describe personality and use the words to uncover personality's key features. This idea -- that the most important personality traits ought to be reflected in everyday language -- was called the "lexical hypothesis" by Lewis Goldberg, one of the key developers of the Big Five approach.

Settling on five broad traits to describe personality took nearly 50 years after the first version of the lexical hypothesis was posed. In a key first step reported in 1936, Gordon Allport and H. S. Odbert were among the first to pursue this idea and scoured the English language for words pertaining to personality, obtaining about 18,000 initial possibilities, of which they suggested that about 4500 appeared worth studying further. Over time, through the elimination of synonyms and by applying other selection criteria, these 4500 were winnowed to about 1,000 words.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, advanced mathematical techniques such as factor analysis (a technique used to group similar variables) were used to sort the words into groups of traits. This led, ultimately, to an agreement that roughly five big traits described personality.  Today, some psychologists are advocating for slightly different groups of six or seven traits.

An accessible history of this work can be found in Lewis R. Goldberg's 1993 landmark review of the area -- in the American Psychologist, on-line here.

Each of the Big Five traits describes a continuum between two polar opposite qualities. The first trait, for example, was labeled Extraversion-Introversion. Along its continuum, a person could be either highly extraverted, or highly introverted, or somewhere in-between. A person's relevant psychological qualities are described along each of the remaining four dimensions as well: Neuroticism (Negative Emotionality) -- Emotional Stability, Openness-Closedness, Agreeableness-Disagreeableness, and Conscientiousness-Carelessness.

The "Big" designation comes from the idea that each such dimension can serve as an umbrella concept for a number of closely related specific dimensions. "Extraversion-Introversion" for example, can be divided into more specific traits such as Sociable-Unsociable, Lively-Energyless, Risk Taking-Risk Averse, and similar specific qualities.

These Big Five traits are relatively easy to measure and they can be assessed with a brief test in which you evaluate yourself. You can take a highly reputable measure of the Big Five online and receive feedback at no charge here.

Today, these Big Five traits are commonly used in research.  They predict important aspects about a person's life, from marital satisfaction to on-the-job success. Low-to-moderate levels of extraversion and neuroticism, for example, very slightly predict (positively) the longevity of a marriage. The general interpretation is that too much extraversion, in the form of overly-lively sociability might lead to infidelity and too much negative emotion might lead one to be overly-critical of one's spouse and oneself. Rather different predictions apply at work, where conscientiousness predicts success -- showing up on time (a part of conscientiousness) truly is an important part of being positively evaluated.

What does the Big Five approach say about expertise and everyday judgments of personality? To me, one type of expertise in the human sciences involves understanding how ordinary people relate to and perceive one another, and systematizing that knowledge.

The kind of expert knowledge that results from examining everyday judgment -- in this case, words from the language that describe personality -- provides an important description and systematization of such everyday thinking.

Expertise about everyday perception and research into what such perceptions might predict adds considerably to our understanding of how we evaluate one another. Experts learn about the strengths and limitations of the everyday perceptions we have of one another.  These experts can then describe such everyday perceptions and ultimately move beyond them to more sophisticated conceptualizations about people's personalities.


Allport, G. W., & Odbert, H. S. (1936). Trait-names: A psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47 (1, Whole No. 211).
Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48, 26-34.

Copyright (c) 2010 by John D. Mayer


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