How to (Accurately) Measure Your Personality
A look at the Big Five personality traits.
Posted Oct 15, 2019
In the first post of this series on personality tests, I discussed why two highly popular personality type systems, the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) and the Enneagram, may not give you accurate information about your personality. In the second and third, I discussed several reasons why these test results can seem very accurate even if they are not, and why people are reluctant to acknowledge that their personality type might be wrong.
After learning that many tests aren’t actually reliable and valid, you might be wondering if there is an accurate way to measure personality. Reader, the answer is yes! In the final two posts of the series, I will discuss a scientifically validated model of personality, explain why it does a better job than the MBTI and Enneagram, and direct you to places where you can discover your personality trait profile.
What are the Big Five?
Most personality psychologists use tests that measure the “Big Five” personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. These five traits represent five categories of individual characteristics that tend to cluster together in people.
You’re probably familiar with the term “extraversion,” its reverse, “introversion,” or another term that has recently entered popular parlance—“ambivert.” When many people think of extraversion, they tend to think of it solely as one’s level of sociability. Sociability is only one part of extraversion, but it actually encompasses much more: assertiveness, activity level, cheerfulness, and excitement-seeking, all characteristics that tend to be strongly correlated with each other.
Agreeableness refers to a person’s tendency to be trusting, kind, cooperative, sympathetic, humble, and generous. Conscientious people are persistent, hard-working, self-controlled, responsible, and organized. Emotionally stable individuals have low levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility, worry little, and are not moody or self-conscious.
Finally, people who are high in openness to experience enjoy trying new things, have a variety of interests, are curious, adventurous, intellectual, and imaginative. Five-Factor Theory and Social Investment Theory explain the complex processes by which our genes, experiences with others, investment in relationships and institutions, environments, culture, life events, and self-reflections interact to shape our unique mixture of these five traits.
These traits describe your consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, in general. You may have noticed that you sometimes seem a little different in different situations or with different people. This is because some situations require us to behave in ways that are contrary to our natural tendencies. For example, when I tell my students that I consider myself somewhat introverted, they tend to be shocked; in class, I am sociable, lively, animated, and excited.
I tell them, “I’m not an extravert, but I play one on TV.” I am genuinely very excited to talk about psychology with my students, but if I had my druthers, I might do it in a less energy-expending manner, as I have to muster a lot of resources to be as sociable as they need me to be to connect with them. Even if my behavior varies somewhat from situation to situation, I will still be less extraverted on average than someone who is truly more extraverted than I am.
How do the Big Five work?
These five traits are measured separately, on a continuum from low to high, and your score on each trait could be at the very bottom, the very top, or anywhere in between. In fact, statistically speaking, you’re probably somewhere in the middle. The Big Five are fairly normally distributed in the population, so most people tend to fall somewhere between the two extremes. Some people use the term “ambivert” to describe someone who is neither totally introverted or extremely extraverted. A so-called ambivert is just someone who, like many people, has a moderate level of extraversion!
In addition to the main traits, many Big Five questionnaires also measure each trait’s facets, or the sub-components of the Big Five traits. For example, a scale that measures extraversion at the facet level might give you a score on sociability, assertiveness, activity, cheerfulness, and excitement-seeking. This allows for a more personalized, nuanced measurement.
It also may help you understand why you scored as having moderate levels of a trait. If you are moderately extraverted, it might be because you are somewhere in the middle on each of its facets. However, it might mean that you are high on some facets and low on others, but the average across them is in the middle. For example, I am on the lower side of moderate on extraversion. This is because I tend to be somewhat reserved and have low energy and activity levels, but I’m pretty assertive and cheerful. Similarly, when it comes to conscientiousness, I score on the higher end of moderate because I am quite self-controlled, responsible, and productive, but I beg you not to come to my house or office, lest my lack of orderliness shatter any illusion you might have held of my high conscientiousness.
But just because I’m relatively high on conscientiousness, it doesn’t mean that I will necessarily score highly on any of the other traits. The Big Five are independent of one another, which means that your score on one trait does not influence your level of another trait. Being reserved (low extraversion) does not mean that someone must also be self-conscious (low emotional stability), although you probably know people who are. Similarly, being achievement-oriented and self-disciplined (high conscientiousness) does not mean by default that you are intellectually curious (high openness to experience), although you may be.
Your score on each trait is meant simply to describe that aspect of your personality; it’s not necessarily the case that high = good and low = bad. Individually, it is possible that you could get some unflattering results: some people are aloof, lazy, neurotic, closed-minded jerks. However, you might find that different cultures or even subcultures tend to value or reward certain levels of these traits over others. Research has shown that we tend to like people who are high in openness to experience much more than people who are low, and the same is true to a lesser extent for conscientiousness and agreeableness. Although there are not huge differences in how much we like people at opposite ends of the extraversion spectrum, a popular book recently reviewed the ways American culture seems to cater more to people with high extraversion.
That's great and all, but what makes the Big Five so much better than the MBTI and Enneagram?
When I answer this question in the final post of this series, I will refer back to my criticisms of these two tests; after all, it’s only fair that I hold the Big Five to the same standards! In addition, I’ll present specific ways the Big Five perform better than the MBTI and Enneagram and discuss some caveats of the Big Five. Meanwhile, you can test yourself and have some fun! This test, the Big Five Inventory-2, will give you a score out of 100 on each of the Big Five, plus scores for three facet traits for each of the main categories. Have fun, and I hope you’ll join me one last time for the conclusion of our discussion.
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