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Big 5 Personality Traits

The differences between people’s personalities can be broken down in terms of five major traits—often called the “Big Five.” Each one reflects a key part of how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The Big Five traits are:

Individual personalities are thought to feature each of these five broad traits to some degree. When the traits are measured, some people rate higher and others rate lower: Someone can be more conscientious and less agreeable than most people, for instance, while scoring about average on the other traits. These traits remain fairly stable during adulthood.

People can also differ on the more specific facets that make up each of the Big Five traits. A relatively extroverted person might be highly sociable but not especially assertive.

The five-factor model is widely used by personality researchers, but it is not the only model. A more recently introduced six-factor model known as HEXACO adds the factor of honesty-humility to the original five traits.

How the Big Five Personality Traits Are Measured

The Big Five traits are typically assessed using one of multiple questionnaires. While these tests vary in the exact terms they use for each trait, they essentially cover the same broad dimensions, providing high-to-low scores on each: openness to experience (also called open-mindedness or just openness), conscientiousness, extroversion (the reverse of which is introversion), agreeableness, and neuroticism (sometimes negative emotionality or emotional stability).

One test, the latest version of the Big Five Inventory, asks how much a person agrees or disagrees that he or she is someone who exemplifies various specific statements, such as:

  • “Is curious about many different things” (for openness, or open-mindedness)
  • “Is systematic, likes to keep things in order” (for conscientiousness)
  • “Is outgoing, sociable” (for extroversion)
  • “Is compassionate, has a soft heart” (for agreeableness)
  • “Is moody, has up and down mood swings” (for neuroticism, or negative emotionality)

Based on a person’s ratings for dozens of these statements (or fewer, for other tests), an average score can be calculated for each of the five traits.

What does your score on the Big Five tell you?

Scores on a Big Five questionnaire provide a sense of how low or high a person rates on a continuum for each trait. Comparing those scores to a large sample of test takers—as some online tests do—offers a picture of how open, conscientious, extroverted (or introverted), agreeable, and neurotic one is relative to others. 

How were the Big Five traits determined?

Analyzing English words used to describe personality traits, researchers used statistical techniques to identify clusters of related characteristics. This led to a small number of overarching trait dimensions that personality psychologists have scientifically tested in large population samples.

Why the Big Five Personality Traits Are Important

The five-factor model not only helps people better understand how they compare to others and to put names to their characteristics. It’s also used to explore relationships between personality and many other life indicators. These include consequential outcomes such as physical health and well-being as well as success in social, academic, and professional contexts. Personality psychologists have observed reliable associations between how people rate on trait scales and how they fare or feel, on average, in various aspects of their lives.

What can Big Five scores tell us about other outcomes?

Quite a lot, at least in Western samples. There is reliable evidence, for example, that extroversion is associated with subjective well-being, neuroticism with lower work commitment, and agreeableness with religiousness. Certain traits have been linked to mortality risk. However, these are overall patterns and don’t mean that a trait necessarily causes any of these outcomes.

Can Big Five personality traits change?

Yes. While personality trait measures tend to be fairly consistent over short periods of time in adulthood, they do change over the course of a lifetime. There’s also reason to believe that deliberate personality change is possible.

The Big Five and Other Personality Tests

Various ways of representing major traits have been proposed, and personality researchers continue to disagree on the number of distinct characteristics that can be measured. The five-factor model dominates the rest, as far as psychologists are concerned, although multiple types of assessments exist to measure the five traits.

Outside of academic psychology, tests that aim to sort people into personality types—including the Myers-Briggs/MBTI and Enneagram—are highly popular, though many experts take issue with such tests on scientific grounds. The five-factor model has conceptual and empirical strengths that others lack.

How do Big Five tests compare to the Myers-Briggs?

For a number of reasons, many personality psychologists consider Big Five tests superior to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. These include concerns about the reliability of the types assigned by the Myers-Briggs and the validity of the test—though there is some overlap between its dimensions (which include extroversion-introversion) and the Big Five.

Do the Big Five capture personality types?

It depends on how strictly you define a “type.” Research indicates that for any given trait, people fall at various points along a continuum rather than fitting neatly into categories. While some identify wholeheartedly as a total extrovert or introvert, for example, there are many shades in between, and most of us would score somewhere in the middle.

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