Personality

The Relationship Between Personality and Sexual Orientation

Is sexual orientation associated with differences in the Big Five?

Posted Nov 23, 2020

Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay
Source: Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay

Is personality related to sexual orientation? New research, by Allen and Robson, published in the October 2020 issue of the Journal of Sex Research, provides some intriguing answers.

The five-factor model of personality

Before reviewing the study, let me briefly describe the five-factor model of personality traits, also known as the Big Five.

(You can assess your personality here.)

According to the Big Five model of personality, everyone has some degree of these five traits: Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion (or extroversion), neuroticism, and openness to experience.

The adjectives below describe people high on these personality traits:

  • Agreeable: Prosocial, cooperative, sympathetic, trusting.
  • Conscientious: Orderly, self-disciplined, dutiful.
  • Extraverted: Talkative, sociable, assertive, energetic.
  • Neurotic: Nervous, moody, anxious.
  • Open to experience: Curious, open-minded, prone to imagination and fantasy.

People high on certain traits (or pattern of traits) may be more attracted to occupations or social roles that emphasize those personality traits. To illustrate, a person high on conscientiousness might be attracted to medicine because, compared to the average person, physicians are more likely to be conscientious (dutiful, disciplined, responsible). Similarly, a highly extraverted person might have more success as a salesperson because successful salespeople are often extraverted (enthusiastic, gregarious, social).

The study, that will be reviewed in the next section, examined whether the Big Five personality traits are also associated with sexual orientation.

The investigation of personality and sexual orientation

In Study 1, researchers explored the relationship between the Big Five personality traits and sexual orientation in a nationally representative sample of Australians: 13,351 individuals (6,193 men; the average age of 45 years, range of 15–100 years).

Roughly 93 percent identified as heterosexual, 1.4 percent as gay/lesbian, 1.3 percent as bisexual, 0.7 percent as other, 0.8 percent as unsure, and 2.3 percent chose not to reveal their sexual identity.

The participants completed a personality assessment, which consisted of rating the descriptiveness of 28 adjectives related to the Big Five personality traits.

For Study 2, researchers conducted a meta-analysis and systematic review of personality and sexual orientation in 21 investigations: 377,951 individuals; 47.4 percent women; the average age of 30.4 years.

Evidence for a link between sexual orientation and personality

Analysis of data revealed personality differences (small-medium effect sizes) between different sexual orientations.

The largest difference between homosexual and heterosexual individuals was in openness to experience, with homosexuals being more open to experience than heterosexuals, on average. Bisexuals tended to score higher on openness than both homosexual and heterosexual individuals but lower than these groups on conscientiousness.

Sex moderation was also observed for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.  In other words, sex differences (male vs. female) influenced the relationship between sexual orientation and personality traits, as described below.

  • Extraversion: Higher in homosexual than heterosexual women; no differences in men.
  • Agreeableness: Lower in homosexual than heterosexual women; higher in homosexual than heterosexual men.
  • Conscientiousness: Lower in homosexual than heterosexual women; higher in homosexual than heterosexual men.
  • Neuroticism: No differences between homosexual and heterosexual women; higher in homosexual than heterosexual men.

These sex moderation effects provide some support for the so-called "gender-shift hypothesis." This hypothesis suggests lesbians have an increased likelihood of resembling the typical heterosexual man in terms of personality, while gay men's personality traits are relatively likely to resemble those of the typical heterosexual woman.  

To be clear, even though the personality traits of gay and lesbian individuals indicate shifts, according to the theory, it does not follow that gay men are just ‘‘like women’’ and lesbians are just ‘‘like men.” In reality, lesbians and gay men tend to “score intermediate between heterosexual men and women on various personality traits.”

LollipopPhotographyUK/Pixabay
Source: LollipopPhotographyUK/Pixabay

The mechanisms linking personality and sexual orientation

What are the mechanisms responsible for the relationship between sexual orientation and personality?

One possibility is that various factors, like genes, environment, or parenting may cause both personality and sexual orientation.

A second possibility is sexual orientation causes personality, at least to some extent. But how?

Consider this: Being a sexual minority may be associated with experiencing stigma and societal discrimination—even receiving negative responses from one’s own family. These factors could influence the sexual minority individual’s personality development and behavior. For instance, from an early age, the individual might feel obligated to behave according to gay stereotypes (e.g., gays are effeminate). Or may feel driven to negate the stereotypes and show gays are manly. 

A third possibility is that personality influences sexual identity. To understand how, we need to refer to the stage-based view of sexual identity formation, which suggests the development of sexual identity is a reflective process, involving self-definition, self-acceptance, and eventual disclosure or coming out.

Openness is important to this process because, as Robson and Allen note, those higher in openness are “less likely to be discouraged by emotional turmoil that might lead to identity foreclosure—making a commitment without full exploration.” And because openness to experience is influenced by life experiences, increases in openness could contribute to sexual identity development.