In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the five-factor model of personality. These factors are often referred to as the Big Five.
Personality traits are characteristics that are stable across time and across contexts. The five-factor model includes five personality trait dimensions. These are:
- Openness to experience
These are dimensions rather than being personality types. That means it’s not a matter of whether you’re an introvert or an extravert, but rather a matter where you fall on the spectrum of very high levels of extraversion to very low levels of extraversion (aka introversion).
Each domain in the five-factor model has multiple aspects that are more specific than the broader domain. Within each aspect, there are various facets that are even more specific. The diagram below shows these, and it also groups the five factors into the metatraits stability and plasticity.
How it was developed
The model is based on factor analysis, which is a statistical process to determine how many distinct constructs account for an observed pattern of correlations. Researchers looked at a wide variety of verbal descriptors related to personality traits, and factor analysis yielded these five underlying factors. It’s considered an empirical model because the five factors emerged from data rather than originating from an idea someone thought up. I don’t have anywhere near enough statistics knowledge to know how factor analysis is done, but it’s a commonly-used method in research.
Factor loading refers to the influence a particular factor has on particular observations. While the five factors of this model account for a lot of personality traits, a number of traits don’t load onto these factors, such as religiosity, honesty, and humorousness.
The five-factor model doesn’t get into causation, although various researchers have developed different theories to explain the why. Twin studies have shown a significant heritable component to the Big Five traits.
The Big Five
Agreeableness relates to how compatible people are with others, with antagonism being the opposite. Compassion and politeness are aspects of agreeableness. In a study that looked at the relationship between different aspects of the Big Five and various well-being measures, the compassion aspect was more strongly associated with well-being than politeness was.
People with high levels of agreeableness may be high in trust, altruism, sympathy, and empathy, while those with low agreeableness may be stubborn, suspicious, demanding, unsympathetic, or uncooperative.
While agreeableness sounds like a good thing, extremes of agreeableness, like submissiveness and gullibility, aren’t necessarily good.
Conscientiousness refers to the control and inhibition of behaviour in relation to goals. The two aspects of conscientiousness are industriousness and orderliness. Higher industriousness contributes to greater well-being through a greater sense of purpose, meaning, and accomplishment.
People with high levels of conscientiousness may be disciplined, dutiful, deliberate, hardworking, and organized. Those with low levels of conscientiousness may be carefree, irresponsible, impulsive, disorganized, and spontaneous, and more likely to procrastinate.
Conscientiousness appears to increase with age. Higher conscientiousness has been associated with better health outcomes and longevity, which may relate to people being more diligent with health-related behaviours. High conscientiousness also predicts better school and work performance.
Neuroticism is the tendency to experience distress. It includes the aspects of withdrawal and volatility. Withdrawal involves internalizing responses to stressors, such as worry, depressed/anxious emotions, behavioural inhibition, and physical withdrawal from situations perceived as threatening. Volatility involves externalizing responses to stressors, such as a tendency to be irritable or to anger easily. People with low neuroticism experience greater emotional stability, tending to be calmer and more even-tempered. They also tend to be more confident and resilient.
High neuroticism increases the risk for a number of mental and physical illnesses. The degree of withdrawal is a significant predictor of overall well-being, while volatility has a weaker association with well-being. High withdrawal is also associated with lower self-acceptance and a lower sense of environmental mastery, and it may contribute to sleep difficulties and higher levels of problematic internet use.
Openness to experience
Openness to experience refers to the way people engage with new experiences and explore new information. The two aspects are intellect (which relates to abstract and intellectual information) and openness (which relates to sensory and aesthetic information). Someone may be high in openness but low in intellect, or vice versa.
People with high levels of openness tend to be curious, creative, and open to trying new things, and they’re more likely to be unconventional in their thinking. Those with low levels of openness tend to be more practical, conventional, and rigid, and prefer routine over trying new things. Greater openness and intellect support personal growth, with intellect having a strong effect. Higher levels of intellect are associated with greater autonomy.
Apophenia (the tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist) and magical thinking (believing that you can influence events by thinking/doing things that are totally unconnected) are associated with high levels of the openness aspect of this factor. High openness is also associated with exploring the world through fantasy, perception, and art. People with high intellect are likely to be curious about exploring the world through reason.
Dopamine and the brain’s default mode network (the circuits in your brain that hum along when you’re not focused on something in the outside world) may play a role in openness/intellect.
Extraversion includes the aspects enthusiasm (with facets like sociability, friendliness, self-disclosure, and positive emotionality) and assertiveness (related to social status, with facets like leadership, dominance, provocativeness, talkativeness, and persuasiveness). Introverts tend to be quieter and more reserved, dislike being the centre of attention, and prefer more alone time.
While general enthusiasm is an aspect of extraversion, people who are quite introverted may still experience enthusiasm in more specific areas that are of interest to them. Higher levels of enthusiasm are predictive of greater well-being.
Extraverts in the Big Five sense tend to experience more pleasant emotions, more often, than introverts do. That doesn’t necessarily mean introverts are high in negative emotions, as the neuroticism factor relates to negative emotions; it may be a matter of introverts experiencing a lack of negative emotions as being a more pleasant experience than it is for extraverts.
Traits related to extraversion in the Big Five sense include being talkative, gregarious, assertive, persuasive, and excitement-seeking. Sensitivity to rewards in the environment seems to be a big piece of this. People with low levels of extraversion are less engaged, motivated, and energized by rewards in the external environment than people with high levels. The degree of stimulation that’s rewarding for people who are highly extraverted can be annoying or tiring for people who are introverted.
For people with high levels of extraversion, high reward sensitivity is likely to motivate them to seek out social interactions where there is a potential reward. Getting positive social attention makes it easier to access social rewards. Dopamine activity in a particular region of the prefrontal cortex is involved in assessing the value of rewards, and this area of the brain tends to have a higher volume in people with high levels of extraversion. People who are introverted may feel like they need alone time to recharge after social interactions because they’re not getting the same dopamine hit to offset the effort put into those interactions.
Five-factor extraversion vs. Jung’s extraversion
Big Five extraversion and introversion aren’t the same as Carl Jung’s idea of extraversion and introversion. He talked about introversion and extraversion in terms of where psychic energy is directed, and he characterized introverts as being introspective and reflective. In the five-factor model, introspection and reflection load onto the openness to experience factor rather than the extraversion factor, so someone can be quite introverted without necessarily being introspective.
As a side note on spelling, Jung used the extrAversion spelling, but in a 1918 paper, Phyllis Blanchard wrote about Jung’s type using the extrOvert spelling, and that caught on. Researchers now mostly use the extrAversion spelling, but people talking about Jung’s type often use the extrOversion. You learn something new every day!
Personality disorders and the five factor model
One way of looking at personality disorders is as maladaptive variations of the domains and facets of the five-factor model.
For example, antisocial personality disorder involves:
- low agreeableness (antagonism): traits like deception, exploitation, manipulation, and aggression
- low conscientiousness: traits like irresponsibility, negligence, and rashness
- facets of extraversion: excitement-seeking and assertiveness
Dependent personality disorder has extreme levels of agreeableness, obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) has extremes of conscientiousness, and perceptual abnormalities in schizotypal personality disorder are extremes of openness.
One study found that the genetic susceptibility to borderline personality disorder relates to genetic factors that influence neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion.
The diagram below shows some of the traits at high and low extremes of each of the five factors that can show up in various personality disorders.
The Open Source Psychometrics Project has a Big Five personality test based on the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP), which is in the public domain. Other measurement tools include the Big Five Inventory and the NEO-Five Factor Inventory.
I did the IPIP-based test, and I had a hard time deciding how to answer questions. Me when depressed is not the same as me when well, but I’ve been unwell long enough that it has kind of taken over. I ended up trying to sort of halve the difference, which makes the reliability of the results pretty questionable (in particular, I think it skews my scores down on agreeableness and up on neuroticism compared to how I am when well). Anyway, my most extreme scores were low extraversion and high conscientiousness. I’m relatively high in what they termed intellect/imagination; they didn’t break it down into facets, but I think I lean much more toward the intellect aspect than the openness aspect.
Thoughts on the five-factor model
This model is pretty well-established academically, although there is some disagreement on whether five is the right number of factors. In terms of spread to pop culture, it seems to fly more under the radar compared to the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, based on Jung’s personality types) and the enneagram, neither of which are scientifically validated. Perhaps it’s partially because the dimensional aspect isn’t quite as neat and tidy as referring to oneself as an enneagram type 4 or an INFJ or what have you.
Was this model something that you’d come across before?
- Herlache, A. D., Lang, K. M., & Krizan, Z. (2018). Withdrawn and wired: Problematic internet use accounts for the link of neurotic withdrawal to sleep disturbances. Sleep Science, 11(2), 69.
- Kaufman, S.B. (2014). Will the real introverts please stand up? Scientific American.
- Kaufman, S.B. (2015). The difference between extrAversion and extrOversion. Scientific American.
- Lim, A.G.Y. (2020). The Big Five personality traits. Simply Psychology.
- McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 175-215.
- Oleynick, V. C., DeYoung, C. G., Hyde, E., Kaufman, S. B., Beaty, R. E., & Silvia, P. J. (2017). Openness/intellect: The core of the creative personality. In G. J. Feist, R. Reiter-Palmon, & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of creativity and personality research (pp. 9–27). Cambridge University Press.
- Srivastava, S. (University of Oregon): Measuring the big five personality domains
- Sun, J., Kaufman, S. B., & Smillie, L. D. (2018). Unique associations between big five personality aspects and multiple dimensions of well-being. Journal of Personality, 86(2), 158-172.
- Trull, T. J., & Widiger, T. A. (2013). Dimensional models of personality: the five-factor model and the DSM-5. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15(2), 135.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.