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Six-Factor Model of Personality

Psychologists have long believed that personality can be broadly summed up in five major dimensions—neuroticism (also called its inverse, emotional stability), extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. In the early 2000s, two psychologists in Canada posited that there is also a sixth, previously overlooked dimension of personality that does not overlap with the others—character.

They dubbed it the “H Factor,” for honesty-humility; in this case, humility reflects the degree to which a person promotes—or doesn’t—their own interests above those of others. And their shorthand for the six-factor model is HEXACO. According to psychologists Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton, the H factor underlies people’s approach to money, power, and sex; their inclination to commit crimes; and their choice of friends and spouse. All six personality factors reflect strategies for engaging with one’s surroundings.

Both the six-factor and five-factor models of personality derive from a lexical analysis. Working from the ground up, psychologists scan the dictionary for all terms that describe some aspect of personality and then test how people rate themselves and others on those characteristics. Computers then sort which factors cluster together into broad but coherent traits.

When such analyses were first conducted, computing power was limited, and the traits were found to sort themselves into five clusters. What’s more, the work was done in English. But Lee and Ashton decided to also look at personality traits as described by other languages. Starting with Korean, and then testing many other languages, and eventually reanalyzing the earlier English-language results with more refined computing power, the sixth, character-related factor consistently appeared.

What Is Character?

In the view from psychology, character is not simply about goodness for goodness’ sake. Character serves a very basic human function: It reveals a person’s deepest intentions toward others. What’s more, studies show that character is the “first” in first impressions—the first thing people notice in sizing up others. We want to know whether that stranger standing before us intends to help or harm us—including in situations where our back will be turned. We assess a person’s kindness, fairness, honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, and loyalty.

Character has an inherently moral cast; its mission is to allow us to evaluate others, to judge them. And honesty outranks all of the other elements of character: In the absence of honesty, no information from that person is reliable. Trustworthiness influences a person’s likelihood of cooperation with you and how well they are likely to follow through on their commitments to you.

Like other personality factors, character, as a stable disposition that drives behavior, is influenced in part by genetic makeup. Studies show that infants as young as nine months have a basic sense of fairness, one of the primary components of character; they recognize situations in which resources are distributed unequally, and they choose to interact with people who make fair versus unfair allotment of goods.

But genes are by no means the whole story with character. There is also evidence that in their everyday interactions with their children, parents do things—such as demonstrating the value of sharing and reciprocity and taking the perspective of others—that further the development of moral character. Infants seem to possess innate moral principles, but they are also strongly influenced by socialization practices. There is also evidence that the beliefs and values that also inform character are shaped to some degree by cultural values.

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