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Personality's 'Big One': Reality or Artifact?

The existence of a "general factor of personality" is open to debate.

Many current theories ofpersonality propose that most of the variation in personality traits can be explained by the existence of a few distinct broad factors that subsume narrower traits. For example, the well-known "Big Five" model proposes that most people's personality traits can be described in terms of the five major factors of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

However, a number of scholars argue that all of these broad factors have a common underlying basis and therefore can be combined into a superfactor, known as a general factor of personality (GFP) (Musek, 2007; van der Linden, te Nijenhuis, & Bakker, 2010). Someone with a high GFP would have a combination of low neuroticism and high levels of the other four factors.

Proponents of the Big Five model have argued that the five factors are independent of each other and represent the most basic personality factors. In contrast, proponents of a GFP have argued that this ‘Big One’ is a real substantial trait. Rushton and Irwing (2011) even argued that high scores on the GFP represent a ‘good personality’ as opposed to a ‘difficult’ one. They stated that: “Individuals high on the GFP are altruistic, agreeable, relaxed, conscientious, sociable, and open, with high levels of well-being and self-esteem…. The GFP can be viewed as a dimension of social effectiveness.” They have argued that this general factor is a product of natural selection.[1] In essence, this general factor represents a collection of particularly socially desirable traits, or at least the appearance of the same.

Mask or reality? Self-ratings of personality sometimes present an overly flattering image of oneself

On the other hand, other researchers have argued that personality factors such as the big five are actually independent of each other and that the general factor is a statistical artefact (Ashton, Lee, Goldberg, & de Vries, 2009; de Vries, 2011). Ashton et al. (2009) argued that correlations between personality factors can be explained without invoking higher order factors. They argued that these correlations are due to the existence of blended personality traits that combine features of two or more factors. For example, interpersonal circumplex models feature traits based on various combinations of extraversion and agreeableness. Notably, the combination of high extraversion and low agreeableness is associated with a socially dominant style of interpersonal behaviour. It could be argued that this particular style is favoured by natural selection in men because interpersonal dominance is attractive to females looking for high status mates. However, if the GFP has been favored by natural selection then one would expect the more ‘socially desirable’ combination of high extraversion and high agreeableness to be selected for.

Ashton et al. argued that certain combinations of personality factors are considered socially important. For example, high agreeableness and conscientiousness, combined with low neuroticism tends to describe someone who is socialised and well-behaved. Correlations between factors might represent the special importance of certain combinations of traits rather than true higher order factors. Research by de Vries using two different personality measures found that a distinctly different GFP emerged from each of these factors and that they were negatively correlated with each other. He concluded that a GFP is an artefact of the measure and analysis used. Danay and Ziegler (2011) used a multirater approach and found that the GFP was not consistent across self-reports and peer-ratings. They argued that the appearance of the GFP reflects impression management. That is, people try to convince others that they are more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable than they really are. The GFP may represent skill in impression management. However, this interpretation is based on purely correlational data, and the authors acknowledge that the GFP may have no substance. Musek (2007) acknowledged that the GFP is correlated with measures of social desirability (basically impression management) although she argued that social desirability alone cannot explain the apparent correlations between the Big Five personality traits.

Personality tests do not provide a magical window into one's soul

Muncer (2011) has also argued that there is no evidence that natural selection would favour a single general factor. The environments humans have lived in throughout their evolutionary development have been varied and subject to change. For natural selection to favour a GFP, environmental conditions would had to have nearly always favoured a homogenous suite of personality characteristics that have varied in a uniform way, which does not seem likely.

If the GFP is not a substantive personality trait, then how to explain findings that measures of the GFP are associated with subjective well-being, self-esteem and social desirability? It is possible that the Big Five personality traits are indeed independent in regards to their aetiology, e.g. their genetic basis. The hypothetical GFP might represent a particular cluster of traits that happens to be associated with particular outcomes, such as subjective well-being. As noted earlier, interpersonal circumplex models describe traits associated with combinations of two independent factors. Cloninger has also catalogued and described different combinations of the three character traits of self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence and provided names for all eight possible combinations (Josefsson et al., 2011).

For example, someone high on all three has the ‘creative’ type, whereas someone low on all three has the ‘depressed’ type. Someone high on self-transcendence and low on the other two traits has the ‘disorganised’ or ‘schizotypal’ type. Cloninger has not proposed a general factor of character traits, yet he clearly considers the ‘creative’ type as the most ‘mature’. Similarly, it might be more appropriate to consider the so-called general factor of personality, not as a higher-order continuous factor, but as a particular combination of traits that happens to be socially desirable and associated with high subjective well-being and self-esteem. The GFP might be an especially prominent blend of traits due to these associations. Other combinations of traits might usefully be described and their correlates studied.

This approach could help us better understand personality in the context of natural selection. Women tend to be slightly higher than men on some of the ‘desirable’ traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness yet they also tend to be higher on average in the ‘undesirable’ trait of neuroticism (Schmitt, Realo, Voracek, & Allik, 2008). If the GFP were the most basic factor of personality this would be difficult to understand. However, from the viewpoint of natural selection it makes sense that females would be both highly nurturing (agreeable) and anxious about avoiding risks (associated with neuroticism). Conversely, natural selection seems to have favoured boldness and dominance in men (low neuroticism and low agreeableness), which again does not fit in with selection for a GFP, but instead suggests that particular combinations of traits would be adaptive for particular social roles.

Some researchers have proposed that different combinations of masculine traits might be favoured by sexual selection depending on changing social circumstances. For example, highly aggressive males would be favoured in societies characterised by ongoing violent conflict, but disdained in more stable peaceful societies. Therefore, rather than proposing that there is general factor atop the hierarchy of personality, it seems more likely there are a variety of possible combinations of several basic personality traits that could be favoured by natural selection in different circumstances. Additionally, within a given society different combinations of traits may be adaptive within particular social niches. Some researchers (Coyne & Thomas, 2008) have suggested that psychopaths have developed a predatory ‘cheater-hawk’ strategy (combining cheating and aggression) that may be ‘adaptive’ in some sense for people who are unlikely to prosper using more socially acceptable strategies. Psychopathy combines elements of low agreeableness, high boldness, and low fear, a suite of characteristics that do not fit into a homogenous GFP wherein all socially desirable traits vary together. Therefore, even though particular combinations of traits may be regarded by some as representing a "good personality", what is most adaptive from an individual's perspective probably depends on their social context.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.



[1] Rushton is notorious for his racial theories in which all the socially desirable, altruistic traits are concentrated in some races, and all the undesirable, antisocial ones concentrated in others. I have critiqued his theory here and here. It should be noted that not all proponents of a general factor of personality advocate such racial theories.

Further reading

The General Factor of Personality? A General Critique

The General Factor of Personality: A reply to Muncer by J. Philippe Rushton


Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., Goldberg, L. R., & de Vries, R. E. (2009). Higher Order Factors of Personality: Do They Exist? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(2), 79-91. doi: 10.1177/1088868309338467

Coyne, S. M., & Thomas, T. J. (2008). Psychopathy, aggression, and cheating behavior: A test of the Cheater–Hawk hypothesis. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1105–1115. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.002

Danay, E., & Ziegler, M. (2011). Is there really a single factor of personality? A multirater approach to the apex of personality. Journal of Research in Personality. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.07.003

de Vries, R. E. (2011). No evidence for a General Factor of Personality in the HEXACO Personality Inventory. Journal of Research in Personality, 45(2), 229-232. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.12.002

Josefsson, K., Cloninger, C. R., Hintsanen, M., Jokela, M., Pulkki-Råback, L., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2011). Associations of personality profiles with various aspects of well-being: A population-based study. Journal of affective disorders, 133(1), 265-273.

Muncer, S. J. (2011). The general factor of personality: Evaluating the evidence from meta-analysis, confirmatory factor analysis and evolutionary theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(6), 775-778. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.029

Musek, J. (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(6), 1213-1233.

Rushton, J. P., & Irwing, P. (2011). The General Factor of Personality: Normal and Abnormal. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. v. Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences ( First ed.): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can't a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168-182.

van der Linden, D., te Nijenhuis, J., & Bakker, A. B. (2010). The General Factor of Personality: A meta-analysis of Big Five intercorrelations and a criterion-related validity study. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 315-327. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.03.003