All of us have different personalities. However, psychologists believe that all of our personalities are actually a mixture of Big Five personality traits.
The theory suggests that everyone has these key traits. However, each individual has a different amount of each. The traits work on a sliding scale with, for example, extreme extraversion on one end of the scale and extreme introversion on the other. Most people are somewhere in between these extremes.
The Big Five personality traits categorized by psychologists are:
People on the high end of the extraversion scale are outgoing, talkative, sociable, expressive and assertive. Extroverts find social situations stimulating and energizing.
At the other end of the scale, people scoring low on the extraversion trait are more reserved and find social situations more tiring.
Those who are high in the agreeableness trait tend to be friendly, cooperative, and compassionate. Agreeable people place a high value on getting along with others and promoting social harmony. They are generally willing to consider the feelings of others and find a compromise when disagreements arise. Agreeable people usually have a positive and optimistic view of human nature.
Those who rate low on this trait may be reserved, distant, competitive and even manipulative. Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others and are less likely to compromise or put themselves out to help others. They can be suspicious of other people’s motives, which can lead them to be cold, unfriendly and uncooperative.
People who rate highly for this trait often show high levels of thoughtfulness. They are able to think through the effects of their actions, understanding the implications of their behavior and how it might affect others. People with this trait are organized, efficient, reliable and detail-orientated. These people also have good impulse control and can work consistently towards goals.
Those low on conscientiousness tend to be impulsive and disorganized. They may act rashly without thinking about the consequences of their behavior. Low conscientiousness people are often seen as sloppy, lazy and unreliable. However, they can also be more spontaneous and flexible than their conscientious friends.
Neuroticism is a trait characterized by mood swings, irritability, anxiety, sadness and other negative emotions. Those who score high in neuroticism are emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress and depression.
Those low in neuroticism tend to be calm, emotionally stable and resilient. They also tend to be free from persistent negative feelings.
Those who rate highly for openness tend to be imaginative and creative. They are also likely to have a broad range of interests, be adventurous and to enjoy new experiences.
People who rate low in this trait may be much more traditional, preferring the known to the unknown and enjoying familiar pursuits rather than new ones.
Evidence for the theory
This is a well-researched theory devised by Tupes and Raymond Christal, based on work done at the U.S. Air Force Personnel Laboratory in the late 1950s. In 1990, J.M. Digman proposed his five-factor model of personality in 1990, and Goldman extended it in 1993.
Many others have built on this research. McCrae & Costa (1987) found that the Big Five personality traits appear to be universal. One study found that the Big Five personality traits effectively described the personalities of people from more than 50 different cultures around the world.
But this kind of personality assessment can only give us broad outlines of how people typically behave. While research has demonstrated that these groupings of characteristics tend to occur together, in reality, people are unique.
You may, therefore, find that you have a mixture of the attributes in each of the Big Five personality traits. For example, you may be imaginative but not adventurous, or outgoing but not assertive. We are, after all, unique human beings that can never really be satisfactorily categorized.
How the theory can help us
Understanding your mix of personality traits can give you insights into how you are likely to react in different situations. This can be helpful in planning life events from career moves to the area you choose to live in. It can also help you plan your life on a day-to-day basis.
For example, if you know you are low on the extrovert trait, you can make sure you don’t make too many demands on that part of your personality and plan time to rest and recuperate after big events.