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Big Five Personality Factors

Why do we study personality?

The NEO that you have just completed looks at 5 personality traits, known as the Big
Five. We will briefly look at what traits are, how these personality factors were
determined, what the traits mean, what the Big Five predict about our behaviour, and
how these factors might relate to motivation.
What are traits?
Traits are consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, or actions that distinguish people
from one another. Traits are basis tendencies that remain stable across the life span,
but characteristic behaviour can change considerably through adaptive pr ocesses. A
trait is an internal characteristic that corresponds to an extreme position on a
behavioural dimension.
There have been different theoretical perspectives in the field of personality
psychology over the years including human motivation, the whole person, and
individual differences. The Big Five falls under the perspective of individual
How were these personality factors determined?
The Big Five represents a taxonomy (classification system) of traits that some
personality psychologists suggest capture the essence of individual differences in
personality. These traits were arrived at through factor analysis studies. Factor anal
ysis is a technique generally done with the use of computers to determine meaningful
relationships and patterns in behavioural data. You begin with a large number of
behavioural variables. The computer finds relationships or natural connections where
vari ables are maximally correlated with one another and minimally correlated with
other variables, and then groups the data accordingly. After this process has been done
many times a pattern appears of relationships or certain factors that capture the
essence of all of the data. Such a process was used to determine the Big Five
Personality factors. Many researchers tested factors other than the Big Five and found
the Big Five to be the only consistently reliable factors.
Strict trait personality psychologists go so far as to say our behaviour is really
determined by these internal traits, giving the situation a small role in determining
behaviour. In other words, these traits lead to an individual acting a certain way in a
given situation.

Allport, Norman and Cattell were influential in formulating this taxonomy which was
later refined. Allport compiled a list of 4500 traits. Cattell reduced this list to 35 traits.
Others continued to analyze these factors and found congruence with self- ratings,
ratings by peers and ratings by psychological staff, that eventually became the Big
Five factors.
The Big Five factors are: I extraversion vs introversion
II agreeableness vs antagonism
III conscientiousness vs undirectedness
IV neuroticism vs emotional stability
V openness to experience vs not open to experience
Cross-cultural studies looking at the replicability of the Big Five have been less
extensive due to the costs and difficulties involved. One reason for looking at cross
cultural consistency is that it could provide an evolutionary interpretation of the way
individual differences have been processed or encoded as personality categories in
language. A Dutch analysis found 5 factors as well, the first 4 being similar to 4 of the
Big Five, and the 5th being closer to unconventionality and rebell iousness. A German
factor analysis replicated the Big Five factors. A problem with interpreting crosscultural data is language translation. Some mistranslation may result in
underestimating cross-cultural generalizability. Work has been done to reduce th is
problem and higher congruence has been found with correlational analysis. Overall,
the Big Five have been studied in 7 languages. The 5 thfactor (openness to experience)
has the weakest replicability.
There was a need for an integrative framework for measuring these factors. The NEO
Personality Inventory was created by Costa and McCrae and originally measured only
neuroticism, extraversion and openness. The other factors were added later. There are
other measures of the Big Five, such as the BFI (Big Five Inventory) and the TDA
(Traits Descriptive Adjectives). The NEO has the highest validity of the Big Five
measurement devices.
What do the five traits mean? (*put up overhead)
Keep in mind that the traits fall on a continuum and this overhead shows
characteristics associated with each of the traits. Looking at these characteristics we
can formulate what each of the traits mean.

E Extraversion means a person is, talkative, social and assertive

A Agreeableness means a person is good natured, co-operative and trusting
C Conscientiousness means a person is responsible, orderly and dependable
N Neuroticism means a person is anxious, prone to depression and worries alot
O Openness means a person is imaginative, independent minded and has divergent

Extraversion implies an energetic approach to

the social and material world and includes traits
such as sociability, activity, assertiveness, and
positive emotionality.
Agreeableness contrasts a prosocial and
communal orientation toward others with

antagonism and includes traits such as altruism,

tender-mindedness, trust, and modesty.
Conscientiousness describes socially prescribed
impulse control that facilitates task and goaldirected behaviour, such as thinking before
acting, delaying gratification, following norms
and rules, and planning, organizing, and
prioritizing tas ks.
Neuroticism contrasts emotional stability and
even-temperedness with negative emotionality,
such as feeling anxious, nervous, sad, and tense.
Openness to experience (versus closedmindedness) describes the breadth, depth,
originality, and complexity of an individuals
mental and experiential life.

The Big Five are broad dimensions or categories in a hierarchical sense, such that they
encompass a lot without detail. Inevitably you lose information, and while the Big
Five factors provide useful personality descriptors they are somewhat less useful at
predicting specific berhaviours. So a researcher chooses a hierarchical level of
analysis suited to the research being conducted. Some researchers such as Norman,
Goldberg and Costa and McCrae, have developed middle level categories that provide
more description or are less abstract but I wont go into that here.

What do the Big Five predict about our behaviour?

(Handbook of Personality Psychology by Hogan, Johnson, and Briggs, 1997)
First, having a trait means reacting consistently to the same situation overtime, for
example, being agreeable or cooperative means consistently going along with
reasonable requests, but does not mean always complying with others wishes.
Second, to respond consistently in the same situation people must have a capacity to
respond to situational cues, that is to have the trait to be responsive to situations. For
example, if someone purchases a house in the woods, they might want that hou se
because of its secluded location.
Third, behaving differently in a given situation does not mean there is inner
inconsistency. For example, someone who likes to attend parties might not often do so
because of a stronger desire to work.
Here are some examples of what the Big Five predict in regards to life outcomes and
behaviour. *While I am giving you these examples, notice how different combinations
of traits can lead to very different outcomes and behaviours, and think about why t his
might be the case. Also, think about whether you see any of these combinations in
your own personality.
Generally speaking, low agreeablesness and low conscientiousness can predict
juvenile delinquency.
Neuroticism and low conscientiousness can predict internalizing disorders (such as
mental disorders).
Conscientiousness and openness can predict school performance.
Conscientiousness is also a general predictor of job performance, while other Big Five
traits predict job performance in specific types of jobs. For instance extraversion
predicts success in sales and management positions.
High conscientiousness is related to better health and longevity, whereas low
agreeableness and high neuroticism seem to be health risk factors.
Extraversion is associated with leadership behaviour.
Agreeableness is associated with behaviours such as helping others and donating to

Neuroticism is related to vulnerability and depression.

Openness is related to behaviours associated with creative performance.
Overall, traits are relatively poor predictors of single behavioural acts, but are better
predictors of general trends of a persons behaviour. Looking at past behaviour of an
individual may be the best predictor of future behaviour.
How might these factors relate to motivation?
Lets look quickly at each trait. I will only present one end of the continuum, for
example extraversion as opposed to introversion. Since these traits are on a continuum
someone at the opposite extreme would show very different types of motivation tha n
those at the extreme I will be talking about.
Extraversion has an interpersonal component and is strongly related to positive affect
such as being enthusiastic, energetic, interested and friendly. Fremont and Means
(1970) found that extraverts show less anxiety over negative feedback. If yo u
remember I said earlier that extraversion is associated with leadership. So extraverts
are highly motivated to seek social situations and to be dominant in those situations.
Extraverts are motivated by change, variety in their lives, challenge, and are easily
bored. Extraverts have more recently been seen as adaptive, ambitious and
Agreeableness also has an interpersonal component. Agreeable individuals tend
toward conformity in groups, toward modesty, toward not being demanding, and
toward being sympathetic. These individuals might be motivated toward helping
others and t oward prosocial behaviour in general. There may be a link between the
motivational processes operating within individuals in regards to this trait, such that
agreeable individuals strive for intimacy and solidarity in groups they belong to,
which provides emotional rewards.
Conscientiousness is related to such things as achievement, perseverance, organization
and responsibility. Conscientious individuals are motivated toward achievement
through social conformity. *Add my own experience - internally driven.
Neuroticism tends to be viewed negatively and is associated with negative affect,
being tense and nervous. Keep in mind that neuroticism is only one trait that an
individual has. A person could be neurotic and conscientious which may have negati
ve health effects but may motivate an individual toward success in school and work

Openness is associated with tolerance of ambiguity (which means when something is

not clear), a capacity to absorb information, being very focused and the ability to be
aware of more feelings, thoughts and impulses simultaneously. The result is deeper
more intense experiences. Open individuals are motivated to seek out the unfamiliar
and to look for complexity.
The bottom line is that the Big Five are an integral part of the study of personality
psychology, and it is fascinating to learn about what makes people tick.
1. Pervin, L. & John, O. (Eds.) (1999). Handbook of personality: