Our personality traits often tell a lot about who we are.
For instance, specific personality characteristics can give insightful cues about the type of environment we grew up in, our biological makeup, family history, and many other features.
Personality psychologists have extensively studied the human personality for decades. However, there are various theories on personality development, and for those who don’t usually occupy the psychology microcosm, it can get confusing at times.
Understanding personality development
The various theories around personality development may (or may not) add to the confusion – for example, contemporary psychologists believe there are five basic dimensions of human personality.
However, other psychologists may disagree with this theory.
There is immense value in getting insight into our personalities, what makes us think and behave the way we do, why our choices and perceptions differ from family and friends, and why some of us are more prone to mental illness and addiction than others.
The Big Five personality traits
Some personality psychologists believe that humans possess five primary dimensions of personality (referred to as the “Big Five”); they include:
- Extraversion (sometimes spelled extroversion)
High or low scores
Understanding each of the Big Five personality traits and where you score on the spectrum can give you valuable insight into your personality and those around you.
Origins of the Big Five personality model
As mentioned, there are several trait theories of personality, some of which often contradict each other.
For instance, German-born psychologist Hans Eysenck developed the three-factor personality model, which focused on three broad personality factors; psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism (PEN).
Raymond Cattell introduced the 16 personality factors, and Gordon Allport’s model contained 4,000 personality traits.
There has been much criticism over the trait theories of personality in the past.
For instance, many researchers thought Hans Eysenck’s theory was too limited, whereas Raymond Cattell’s theory was criticized for being too complex.
However, the five-factor personality model has developed traction with researchers in the psychology field, with many believing that the Big Five traits lay the foundations for personality development.
Many professionals within the mental health field support the efficacy of the five-factor model, with evidence of the five core traits increasing over the years.
What are the Big Five personality traits?
Researcher D.W. Fiske (1949) initially developed the Big Five traits; this approach was later expanded upon by Smith (1967), Norman (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae and Costa (1987).
Collectively, the researchers identified five core traits of human personality.
Additionally, the Big Five traits are based on a scoring system and represent a range of characteristics between two extremes.
For instance, openness describes a series of characteristics at the extreme; a person who scores high in this personality trait may be highly imaginative and adventurous.
On the other hand, a person may be considered highly closed off to adventures and new experiences if they score low for such a trait. It would help to remember that most people exist between the two extremes.
Broadly, the Big Five personality traits include:
People who score high for openness tend to be imaginative and creative types.
These people are usually open to new experiences and ideas and have many hobbies and interests. In addition, such individuals have a profound curiosity about the world and are enthusiastic about meeting new people and learning new things.
You may find that people who score high for openness are usually imaginative, adventurous and highly creative. In contrast, those who score low in this personality trait usually struggle with abstract thinking and are more conventional and risk-averse.
Someone who scores high for openness may exhibit the following traits:
- Enthusiasm when thinking about abstract ideas or concepts
- Excitement about tackling new challenges
- A willingness to try new experiences and adventures
- Highly creative
In contrast, a person scoring low for openness may:
- Resist new concepts or ideas
- Dislike abstract concepts or different perspectives
- Lack imagination
- Dislike change
- Resist trying new things
People with high conscientiousness scores tend to be organized, structured, and forward-thinking.
Such individuals are mindful of how their actions and behaviors affect others and are usually goal-oriented and thoughtful.
Highly conscientious people are fantastic to have around when executing work projects or organizing an event – these individuals exercise positive impulse control and are aware of deadlines.
People who score low in conscientiousness operate in reverse; they may procrastinate over tasks, lack impulse control, and are highly disorganized.
You may find that people who score high in conscientiousness usually:
- Finish crucial tasks on time
- Enjoy having a schedule or timetable
- Pay attention to detail
- Spend a lot of time preparing for a job or project
On the other hand, those who score low for conscientiousness usually exhibit the following behaviors:
- Messy and disorganized
- Dislikes routine and structure
- Fails to finish or complete tasks or projects on time
- Procrastinates often, especially over crucial tasks
- Doesn’t return items or objects or fails to put things back where they belong
Like all the Big Five traits, extraversion (or extroversion) is a tale of two extremes.
People who score high in extraversion are usually outgoing, friendly, and talkative types who gain energy from being around others.
Typical traits associated with extraversion include excitability, emotional expressiveness, high social skills and assertiveness.
However, those who score low in extraversion are usually introverted, quiet, and reserved.
Such individuals require long periods of solitude to recharge their batteries as social events often feel draining – in contrast to their extroverted counterparts, introverted people often find being around others exhausting.
If you score high in extraversion, you may:
- Have a vast social circle of friends and colleagues
- Enjoy meeting new people
- Feel energized and revitalized around others
- Enjoy being the center of attention and love starting the conversation
- Speak before thinking
However, if you score low in extraversion, you may:
- Prefer to be alone
- Find social events draining or exhausting
- Be cautious before you speak to others
- Dislike being the center of attention
- Choose solitude over being social
Personality traits associated with agreeableness include kindness, affection, being charitable and trustworthiness.
Individuals with high agreeableness are usually more cooperative than those with lower scores. Those with high scores on agreeableness often demonstrate the following behaviors:
- Increased empathy and care for others
- A willingness to hear other people’s ideas, experiences and perceptions
- A desire to help those in need
- A willingness to contribute to other people’s happiness
At the other end of the scale, those with low scores on agreeableness may:
- Belittle or insult others
- Manipulate other people to get what they want
- Not care about other people’s feelings
- Show little interest in other people’s problems
Perhaps the most talked about trait out of the Big Five model is neuroticism – people who score high in this trait demonstrate sadness, emotional instability and mood changes.
On the other hand, those with lower neuroticism scores are usually emotionally resilient and stable.
Typically, a person that scores high in neuroticism usually exhibits the following behaviors and emotions:
- Significant worry and concern that is constant
- Agitation or frustration
- Being unable to accept or bounce back from challenging events
In contrast, those who score low in neuroticism usually:
- Feel happy and relaxed
- Don’t have many worries or concerns
- Do not feel depressed or sad
- Find it easy to regulate emotions
Biological origins of the Big Five personality traits
Studies show how universal the Big Five traits are to different cultures.
For instance, one study examined individuals from 50 different cultures and found that the five-factor model was an accurate tool for describing personality.
Some psychologists believe that the Big Five traits have universal components and biological origins, with many suggesting that such traits represent crucial qualities that influence and shape society’s landscape.
Additionally, some psychologists have introduced evolutionary explanations to the five-factor model that help explain personality development and the five core personality traits.
Nature vs. Nurture
The nature-nurture debate has existed as long as psychology, with many experts proposing various theories on the subject – after many decades, the crucial questions remain; is human behavior influenced by genetics or the environment?
On the other hand, are we born with specific personality traits, or do we learn them?
Plenty of research suggests that biological and environmental factors play a role in shaping our personalities.
Studies have shown that the five core personality traits remain consistent over a lifespan -for example, a study spanning over four years found that people’s personalities didn’t change much, despite adverse life experiences.
Scores change as people mature.
Interestingly, one study showed a decline in some Big Five traits and an increase in others throughout maturation.
For instance, the researchers found that as people mature, they demonstrate less neurotic and extraverted behaviors; such individuals are also less open to trying new things.
In contrast, other traits appear to increase with age.
For instance, studies found that people exhibit more agreeableness and conscientiousness as they age.
Striking a balance
Although the five-factor model has enormously influenced how personality development is described and measured, you must remember that a continuum represents the Big Five traits.
The core five personality traits represent two extremes – rarely, if ever, does anyone neatly fit the descriptions of these opposite ends; people usually sit in the middle.
Moreover, as the research posits, the five-factor model is not static since people can shift on the continuum as they mature – a person may have been disagreeable in their younger years but are much more agreeable as they age.
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