The Story of Personality Theory
Some 80-plus years ago researchers embarked on one of the longest (and most boring) projects in human psychology. It started with the idea that people are born with different character traits that remain relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime.
They called this idea personality.
To test this hypothesis one researcher began by picking up a dictionary and highlighting any word he could find related to human behaviour.
After putting this list together, another researcher (presumably because the first one killed himself out of boredom) took that list and started to categorise these words into overarching traits.
Unfortunately he also killed himself, so another bunch of researchers took over and began the painstaking job of measuring these traits on a large number of people over a very long period of time.
The researchers who managed not to kill themselves (God bless) started narrowing this list down by binning any trait that fluctuated too much. Eventually, the list got smaller and smaller until, by the 1960s, they were left with just five.
At this point, researcher number 648 (I believe it was) confidently declared that these five traits can be used to explain all human behaviour. It took another 20 years or so before researchers had the data to back up this bold claim, but number 648 was right!
The Big Five, as they are now referred to, “have been found to contain and subsume most personality traits.” They are considered to represent the basic structure of what we call personality. The data has shown they are relatively stable over time and that there is a genetic component to it.
Where you land on the spectrum of each trait goes a long way to determining who you are, the choices you make, and how well you do in life.
But listen, don’t kill yourself just yet!
An Overview Of The Big Five Personality Traits
The main thing to take from this sad tale is that the Big Five represents one of the most established and empirically driven measurements in human psychology.
Of course there is some disagreement with the model. Some believe that a sixth trait should be added while others disagree with the semantics, but, in the main, psychologists agree that the Big Five captures the human experience well.
In a grossly simplified nutshell, those who are highly extroverted tend to feel more positive emotions and have lots of friends. Highly neurotic people tend to feel more negative emotions. They are more likely to get divorced, lose their job, and be depressed.
Those high in conscientiousness like to do things to the very best of their ability. They enjoy following schedules and the predictability of routines. Whereas those high in openness are very creative. They love to travel and experience new things.
Finally, those high in agreeableness are kind and compassionate in nature. They love helping and caring for others.
Now, it’s worth reiterating that each trait represents a range between two extremes. So low extraversion would mean you’re highly introverted. Low neuroticism would mean you’re a zen Buddhist monk. Low agreeableness would mean you’re a bit of ass…
You get it!
Where you lie on the range of each trait makes up the basic – underlying – structure of your personality. While the distribution is evenly distributed among the general population (with most people falling somewhere in the middle) no two people are the same.
And, of course, our personalities are complicated. They do change day to day depending on our mood, environment, etc. They are malleable. Which leads us to question of simplicity.
Is the Big Five model too simplistic?
Why Should You Use The Big Five Personality Model
To give you an analogy, if I call a tree a tree it paints a very blurry picture in your mind’s eye. But no two trees are the same. Your idea of a tree is going to be very different from mine.
So, it’s worth giving you a few more details to hang your hat on. Telling you what kind of tree it is, what environment it is best suited to, how much water you should feed it, etc.
But If I take that too far – if I start describing the detail of every leaf, well, you might want to kill yourself. This is the equivalent of breaking it down to the level of the individual. It’s impossible to do for one thing.
What you want is to slice up the pie to the extent that it provides a practical framework to work with, but not to the point that the details take you away from the bigger – more important – picture.
Now, where that happy medium lies has been the subject of much (painfully dull) debate over the years, with different personality models proposed ranging from over 4000 traits to just 3.
The Big Five emerged as the leader from the pack following extensive literature. It is seen as the preferred model by many in psychology today.
What makes it a particularly great tool are the revisions it’s undergone since its inception in the 1990’s breaking it down into a series of correlated facets and sub-facets.
A good way to visualise this is to imagine the big five as the major branches of a tree, with the facets and sub-facets representing the smaller branches and leaves.
This gives you both a lower and higher resolution picture to work with. Here’s a pretty picture:
How To Understand Yourself Using The Big Five Personality Model
Last week I talked about why I believe understanding personality is important. I told you we must first understand the personality hand we’ve been dealt before we try to play it. So here’s some homework to do before next week’s enthralling lesson.
You can head over to understandmyself.com and take a test that will give you a detailed breakdown of your personality make-up using the Big Five model. (You can also do this as a couple and get an additional report that points out your blind spots. Something I can highly recommend.)
The assessment takes 15-20 minutes. I believe it costs 10 USD. (There are free versions of this test available if you prefer. The reason I recommend this one is because of the comprehensive report detailing both the Big Five and two major aspects they break down into, and what that means for you.)
I should say, if you tend to be hyper self-critical it’s going to skew the results. It’s important to be honest but to take it when you feel normal.
Anyway folks, that’s it from me this week. Over the following weeks I will write a post about each of the Big Five traits and the two correlated aspects they break down into.
I will propose several theories for why they exist and what the personality strengths and weaknesses are (broadly speaking) depending on which side of the spectrum you tilt towards.
I will offer up some practical advice for helping you work with and strengthen your particular personality hand.
Next week I will be discussing extraversion.
The main points are:
- The Big Five represents one of the most established and empirically driven models in human psychology.
- It’s considered one of the most reliable personality models in modern psychology.
- The Big Five represent the basic underlying structure of one’s personality.
- Each trait breaks down into series of correlated aspects that give you a higher resolution picture.
- You can take a test at understandmyself.com to find out where you land on the spectrum of each trait and what that means for you.
- It’s best not to kill yourself.
Stay tuned and stay alive in the mean time – I swear it gets a lot more interesting!
This is part of a series of posts on the Big Five personality traits. Please find other posts below:
- Why Understanding Personality Is Key
- Extraversion: The Price of Now
- Neuroticism: The Cost of Consciousness
- Conscientiousness: The Pursuit of Order
- Openness: The Gates of Mind
- Agreeableness: The Sacrifice of Self
- The Hand We’ve Been Dealt
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