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Personality

The All-Purpose Way to Understand Personality

New research supports the Five-Factor Model for understanding personality.

Key points

  • The question of what constitutes "personality" is a major issue both in academic and popular psychology.
  • The latest research shows that all it takes to understand personality may be included in the Five-Factor Model.
  • By using the five factors along with their 30 facets, you should be better able to figure out what makes people tick.

What is "personality"? This may be the $64,000 question in psychology. If you could not only understand but also predict people's behavior, including your own, you'd be much better able to manage all aspects of your life, from close relationships to interactions with people you've just met. Theories of personality abound in psychology, as do psychological terms in common use such as narcissism, psychopathy, optimism, hope, well-being, and self-esteem. How can you sort through all of these approaches and concepts?

One theory widely adopted by researchers and clinicians seems to have risen to the top in current personality psychology. You've probably heard of this theory, known as the Five-Factor Model (FFM), also called the Big 5. Its factors, called neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness even form acronyms that make them easy to memorize by introductory psychology students (i.e., “OCEAN,” or “CANOE”).

It's quite likely you’ve dabbled in your own theorizing about the factors that lead people to behave, think, and feel as they do. Maybe a part of you likes to think about the Freudian concepts of defense mechanisms or the Jungian notion of archetypes. When someone behaves in what you regard as a puzzling way, such as turning down a great opportunity for no particular reason, it leads you to speculate on whether this is due to some type of self-defeating tendency or lack of self-esteem. Indeed, in the Netflix series "Maid" (and the book on which it is based), the main character goes through an endless round of decisions that, at least initially, only seem to create more chaos in her life. Seeing such a character would undoubtedly get your personality theory machinery into high gear.

Where Did the Five-Factor Model Come From?

Based on the idea that the words people use to describe personality themselves capture its important aspects, the FFM sprung out of a “lexical” (word-based) approach in which researchers started with tens of thousands of personality-related terms that they eventually crunched, statistically, into five neat categories. Through subsequent refinement, the FFM began to incorporate 30 “facets,” with six per major category, allowing even greater precision in capturing the essential qualities of personality.

Given all this popularity and research support, you would think that anyone studying personality would use the FFM as a starting point for their own research. It may surprise you to learn, then, that according to a new study by University of Melbourne’s Timothy Bainbridge and colleagues (2022), “psychology continues to face an extraordinary degree of construct proliferation, as evidenced by the dizzying array of measures available for assessing (usually much narrower) trait-like individual differences (4,000 by one recent count).” A dizzying array? Why? Isn’t the FFM enough?

Putting the Five-Factor Model to the Test

To settle this seeming confusion posed by the proliferation of personality measures, the Australian team set out on the ambitious task of conducting what they regard as the “past due” comprehensive investigation of the FFM in comparison to those standalone personality tests. In part, they also wanted to address the “jangle fallacy” in personality psychology, a situation that arises when researchers define a new term that sounds as if it should be unique (the “jangle”) but in reality is just like an already existing term. You may yourself wonder about all the apparent synonyms for terms that don’t seem that different to you on the surface, such as “life satisfaction” and “well-being.”

The two-pronged strategy that Bainbridge and his collaborators adopted began with first, comparing newly collected data from sets of participants on FFM vs. other standalone measures and then, second, looking at existing data sets to see how FFM measured up on its own through the method known as meta-analysis. Each of the separate studies the University of Melbourne team ran provided its own way of determining whether scores on measures other than the FFM would collapse into the five main factors or 30 facets. To add weight to their findings, Bainbridge et al. preregistered their methods, meaning that they upheld psychology's recently adopted commitment to transparency.

Turning first to the data collection phase of the study, the authors administered different combinations of 42 standalone scales and one FFM measure across three separate samples involving slightly more than 1,000 participants including both online and undergraduate samples. To avoid overwhelming participants with too many questions to answer, the author team divided up the scales into manageable chunks within the survey and also chose measures that were as short as possible but still tested the underlying construct.

Next, the authors went to the massive job of comparing the FFM to all those separate standalone scales, a job aided by a powerful statistical package that measures "fit." The findings showed that nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of the scales overlapped with one of the five factors. Even well-being scales, used frequently in positive psychology studies, fell into the FFM framework. Indeed, the top scorer in terms of overlap was both overall well-being and its subscale known as “environmental mastery.” Other familiar concepts you might read about in popular psychology also ended up at the high end of the continuum, such as worry, impulsivity, hope, and the quality known as “grit” (a jangle-like term related to perseverance).

The meta-analysis, in which the authors reworked data from previous studies, supported the findings from the data collection phase. Some of these relationships were remarkably high with estimates at .90 or above out of a maximum of 1.00. For example, a standalone aggression scale was almost entirely related to the anger facet of neuroticism, and a self-esteem scale almost completely related (negatively) to depression.

In interpreting their findings, the authors noted that “Many scales were as well-described by the Big Five as at least a few Big Five facets, and some were correlated with facets to the point of redundancy.” Their recommendation is that researchers who wish to investigate standalone qualities report their findings in terms of how much those standalone scales add beyond the explanation that the FFM provides. Following such a recommendation could lead to a situation in which “psychological research findings would be more readily integrated and accumulated.”

What Do the Findings Mean for Your Own “Theory” of Personality?

Just as many psychologists have their own favorite theories and concepts, so do individuals trying to understand themselves and each other. The Australian findings don’t crowd out every single other psychological concept, but they do suggest that the go-to strategy for engaging in this enterprise is to start with one of the five, or perhaps 30, defining aspects of personality first. Why call something “self-esteem” when, in terms of the FFM, it boils down to some combination of neuroticism (negatively) and cheerfulness? Wouldn’t the world be a psychologically simpler (and more efficient) place if you could cut through the jangle?

Bainbridge and his collaborators recognize that some concepts in personality psychology might retain their value even after taking out the pieces that fit into the FFM. You don’t have to give up all your cherished icons, perhaps even some of those Freudian ones, in figuring out what makes other people tick. You can continue to weigh the simplicity of the five- or 30-facet approach to personality against what it might miss.

To sum up, knowing about the all-purpose utility of the FFM should help more than limit you as you play armchair psychologist, either with yourself or others. You can still remain intrigued by the people who you don’t completely understand, but this broad theoretical approach can help turn some of that intrigue into insight.

References

Bainbridge, T. F., Ludeke, S. G., & Smillie, L. D. (2022). Evaluating the Big Five as an organizing framework for commonly used psychological trait scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi-org.pspp0000395

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