“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
– Anaïs Nin
One of the most complex concepts within the field of psychology is personality theory. Surrounding personality theory is an air of mystery and uncertainty that leads to frequent debates among academics.
Is personality predetermined from birth? Does it exclusively result from the environment a person grows up in? Is it stable or malleable?
However, when you strip away the nuances, personality is nothing more than a tendency to behave in a certain way that persists across the lifespan. Think of personality as the building blocks of who you are.
These central building blocks lay the foundation for other more contextual and specific traits. For example, traits such as “charisma”, “risk-taking”, and “gregariousness” may all be explained by a broader trait of “extraversion”.
“The Big Five” is a theory of personality that identifies five distinct factors as central to personality: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
The five-factor model can be more easily remembered through the acronym: OCEAN.
Openness to Experience
The first factor of the Big Five model, openness to experience, focuses on the appreciation of art and beauty, as well as a general reception to novelty. Each of the five factors is split into six distinct facets. The facets of openness to experience include:
- Fantasy: active mental life and strong imagination; rich and creative inner life
- Aesthetics: strong appreciation of art and beauty; moved by poetry, art, and music
- Feelings: receptive to one’s own feelings and emotions; feel emotions very intensely
- Actions: willing to explore new places, try new foods, and experiment with new activities
- Ideas: intellectual curiosity; enjoys philosophical arguments and brain-teasers
- Values: ready to explore and evaluate one’s own social, political, and religious values
Individuals who score high on openness to experience tend to be very creative and amenable to new ideas and activities. They usually possess a rich and fulfilling internal life, frequently spending their time thinking about concepts and meditating on artwork recently seen or intellectual theories recently learned about.
Those who score low on openness to experience are more inclined toward conventional thought. Their range of interests are typically more narrow and they tend to be more down to earth.
The second factor of this model, conscientiousness, revolves around the idea of organization and perseverance. The six facets of conscientiousness are:
- Competence: capability to deal with life challenges and hardship
- Order: tidiness and methodical approach to tasks; neatness in living
- Dutifulness: governed by conscience; very dogmatic in values
- Achievement-Striving: willingness to work hard; strongly driven by goals
- Self-Discipline: ability to follow through with tasks and limit distraction
- Deliberation: tendency to carefully contemplate decisions before acting
High Scorers on conscientiousness tend to be very dependable and hard working. You are likely to see a high scorer creating many to-do lists and breaking down large goals into achievable steps. They rely heavily on organization and take a methodical approach to achieve their goals. They are willing to dedicate an enormous amount of effort to succeed.
Those who score low on Conscientiousness tend to be more impulsive and laid-back. Spontaneity usually characterizes their approach to academic and vocational situations. They go with the flow and shy away from schedules and concrete plans.
The third factor of the Big Five model is extraversion, which focuses on sociability and where individuals derive their energy from. Low scores on this dimension tend to indicate a more internal source of energy, while high scores denote an external source of energy. The six facets of extraversion are:
- Warmth: easy forming of close attachments to other people; affectionate and friendly
- Gregariousness: preference for the company of others; avoidance of being alone
- Assertiveness: tendency to lead and dominate social situations
- Activity: energetic disposition; fast-paced lifestyle and propensity toward busyness
- Excitement-Seeking: craving for exhilaration and stimulation; preference for noisiness
- Positive Emotions: tendency to experience positive emotions; inclination towards optimism
Individuals who score high on extraversion tend to prefer to be in the presence of other people. They are often described as the “life of the party”. They favor being in the spotlight and frequently engage in thrill-seeking behaviors. They leave social situations feeling excited and full of energy.
Low scorers on extraversion tend to be more introverted or reserved in nature. Being surrounded by people leaves them feeling drained and exhausted. They prefer more solo pursuits, such as reading. Their lifestyles are more slow and deliberate, and they possess an inclination towards quietness.
The fourth factor of the Big Five model is agreeableness, which revolves around the idea of trust, honesty and compliance. Individuals who are agreeable tend to be more straightforward and tolerant by nature. The six facets are:
- Trust: inclined to believe that others are honest and well-intentioned
- Straightforwardness: sincere and genuine in expression of opinions and thoughts
- Altruism: strongly moved by and dedicated to the promotion of the well-being of others; extremely generous
- Compliance: inhibition of aggression, deference to others in interpersonal conflict
- Modesty: humbleness in speaking of own accomplishments
- Tender-mindedness: highly sympathetic and concerned about others
High scorers on agreeableness are typically more mild-mannered interpersonally. They tend to look for the best in everyone they meet and hold loyalty to the highest standard. They can be counted on to be generous, honest, dependable, and very concerned about the well-being of others.
Individuals who score low on agreeableness tent to be more suspicious of the motives of those they encounter. They are quite cynical and skeptical about the world around them. Additionally, they are more willing to use flattery or craftiness to gain favor with others.
The final Big Five model factor is neuroticism, which focuses on the experience of negative emotions. Individuals who fall in the neurotic category tend to be more prone to mood swings and emotional reactivity. The six facets of neuroticism are:
- Anxiety: fearfulness, tenseness, restlessness
- Angry Hostility: tendency to experience frustration and bitterness, as well as anger
- Depression: propensity to experience depressive symptoms, such as loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, and issues with sleep
- Self-Consciousness: discomfort around others; frequent experiences of shame and embarrassment
- Impulsiveness: inability to control cravings or urges
- Vulnerability: difficulty contending with stress; dependence on others for support
Those who score high on neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions very intensely and have difficulty controlling these emotions when they arise. They are more vulnerable to psychological distress than individuals who score lower on this facet and tend to pay a significant amount of attention to their own behavior in interpersonal situations.
Low scorers on neuroticism are typically more stable in their experience of emotions. They are more calm and relaxed in times of stress and tend to be quite slow to anger. They usually trust their ability to handle stressful situations and do not internalize awkward social situations.
When discussing this model, it is important to keep in mind that a high or low score on any particular factor is not necessarily good or bad. For example, there are situations where being more compliant and inclined to trust others is beneficial and there are other situations where a more skeptical approach would be the wisest choice.
The Big Five is a great way to gain more insight into your own internal experience so you can make more sense of your own thoughts and behaviors.
“He who looks outside, dreams; he who looks inside, awakes.”
– Carl Jung
Iliescu, D. (2008). NEO-PI-R Sample Report. Retrieved here.
John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (Vol. 2, pp. 102–138). New York: Guilford Press. Retrieved here.
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