What is the “Big Five” and How Can It Help You?

I'm fascinated by personality. Some of the questions that have fueled my curiosity on this topic include:

  • What’s the difference between personality and temperament?
  • Why is it useful to know about personality traits? 
  • How can it improve my life?
  • How does personality fit into personal development?
  • Where does personality come from?
  • Does personality have a biological component?
  • Are we stuck with one personality for life?

In this post, I’ll share the most compelling framework I’ve found for understanding personality. I’ll also try to shed some light on the above questions, at least to some degree.

A custom approach to personal development 

Our personality plays a huge role in our lives. It shapes how we view the world and frame events. Believe it or not, certain traits can even predict how happy we say we are, how we vote, and how successful we are in our chosen careers.

Understanding my personality has helped me see my own strengths and weaknesses more clearly. I've been able to use this information to develop a more customized approach to personal development.

In the same way that understanding your unique metabolism can help you choose the right foods for your body, knowing the nuances of your personality can help you decide what information is most useful for you to focus on.

Building better relationships

Learning about personality has also increased my appreciation for the psychological diversity in the world. It's made me realize that one particular personality is not inherently better than another. Different personalities simply have different niches in society. How boring would it be if everyone thought and behaved exactly the same way?

Knowing about the different traits has helped me better relate to those who think or behave in ways that are completely different from me. I've noticed that whenever I've encountered something I consider strange, off putting, or hard to deal with, it’s often because I don’t know enough about it. 

For me, personality frameworks -- like the one I’ll present here -- offer many new reference points for understanding other's behavior, attitudes, and ways of thinking. I've found this helpful for creating better relationships, building confidence and setting more targeted goals for myself.

The Big Five personality model

The framework I want to introduce here is called the Big Five. It is a framework used to describe and classify personality traits. It uses five primary traits, or dimensions, across which people vary.

It is the most well-researched personality framework and the most widely accepted among psychologists. That’s not to say there isn’t value in other frameworks, such as the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, etc, just that the Big Five has the most hard data behind it.

What’s unique about the Big Five is the level of nuance it is able to capture. It doesn’t set out to put you into a box. It measures each trait on a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. In other words, they are less like personality “types” and more like personality tendencies.

Because of this feature, there are no catchy names, numbers, or acronyms to describe your individual personality. Instead, you find out where you fall on the spectrum of each trait, as compared to other people. This unique mixture of traits describes your basic personality structure. Adding to this nuance is the fact that a given trait manifests differently depending on how you score on other traits.

This approach allows for vastly more variation than you might think. Assuming you use only a five-level scoring system (there are actually more) for each of the five dimensions (excluding sub-traits), the Big Five allows for 3,125 unique combinations of traits. For comparison, the Myers-Briggs has just 16 personality “types.”

Why are there only five traits?

How can the diversity of personalities that exist be captured in only five traits, given that there are literally thousands of words to describe personality?

The Big Five model is based on the idea that most of the words we use to describe personality are synonyms or near-synonyms of five distinct personality dimensions.

As I mentioned in my previous post about introverts, a personality dimension is a foundational aspect of personality that encompasses multiple traits. For example, when we describe someone as talkative, friendly, enthusiastic, assertive and excited, these traits are pointing to the broader personality dimension known as Extraversion.

Some versions of the Big Five use more or less of these traits than others to describe each personality dimension. For instance, an assessment called the IPIP-120 uses six different traits to describe each dimension, whereas the Big Five Aspects Scale uses just two. The combination of your scores on these sub-traits is what makes up your overall score on the primary dimension.

If you'd like to take a Big Five personality assessment for yourself, the IPIP-120 and the Big Five Aspects Scale are two I've personally taken and can recommend, although I'm sure there are plenty of other good ones out there. I'm partial to the Big Five Aspects Scale because of its simplicity and detailed results, however it does cost $7 last time I checked (I don't receive anything). Having said that, the IPIP-120 is also great.

The Five Dimensions of Personality (OCEAN)

You’ll notice these dimensions can be organized by the tidy little acronym OCEAN. If you've read my previous post on effective learning strategies, you already know how useful structuring information like this is.

One of the things I love most about learning about personality is that you can apply the information immediately. You can go out into the world and observe the different personality traits in other people. Or, you can start right now with yourself.

Here are the five different dimensions that make up personality, according to the Big Five model:

1.) Openness to Experience:

Key traits:
This dimension measures traits such as creativity, intellectual curiosity, imagination, adventurousness, appreciation of the arts, abstract thinking, variety of experience, and sensitivity to emotions and beauty. The two primary aspects of this dimension are Intellect (interest in ideas) and Openness (creativity).

How it looks:
People high in this trait are more likely to go to museums, engage in philosophical discussions, create art, and explore new ideas than those who are lower in this trait. They enjoy reading, solving complex problems and creating new things. 

Career choice:
People high in this trait tend to choose careers as entrepreneurs, artists, actors, writers, and musicians. Hollywood is full of people who are extremely high in Openness to Experience.

The extremes:
People very high in Openness to Experience can be perceived as flighty or eccentric, whereas people very low in Openness to Experience can be perceived as closed-minded or dogmatic.

Famous examples:
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady Gaga, Phoebe from Friends, Madonna, Will Smith, Anthony Bourdain

Predictor of political views:
Scoring high in Openness to Experience is a good predictor of liberal political views and attitudes.

2.) Conscientiousness:

Key traits:
This dimension measures traits such as dutifulness, attention to detail, discipline, consistency, cleanliness, efficiency, and adherence to rules. The two primary aspects of this dimension are: Orderliness and Industriousness.

How it looks:
People who are high in Conscientiousness are generally efficient, hard workers. They are better at following rules, sticking to schedules and resisting temptation than those who are lower in this trait. They often prefer order and like to keep things clean and organized. They are achievement oriented and tend to be more cautious than others.

Career choice:
Those high in Conscientiousness tend to choose more demanding careers such as lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, and CEOs. Those moderately high in Conscientiousness tend to be good managers.

The extremes:
People very high in Conscientiousness can be perceived as obsessive or stubborn, whereas people very low in Conscientiousness can be perceived as unreliable, lazy, or inconsistent.

Famous examples:
The Rock, Bill Gates, all of the people on Shark Tank, Monica from Friends, Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, Ned Stark from Game of Thrones

Scoring high in Conscientiousness (particularly the aspect having to do with Orderliness) is a good predictor of conservative political views and attitudes, especially when paired with low Openness to Experience.

3.) Extraversion:

Key traits:
This dimension measures traits such as enthusiasm, gregariousness, talkativeness, assertiveness, warmth, sociability, and level of activity. The two primary aspects of this dimension are: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness.

How it looks:
People high in Extraversion like to be around others. They enjoy external stimulation and are more likely to seek out social gatherings and events than those who are lower in Extraversion. They are also more likely to speak up and experience positive emotions than others.

Career choice:
People high in Extraversion tend to choose careers where they get to interact with people, such as sales, TV and radio, public speaking, and entertainment.

The extremes:
People very high in Extraversion can be perceived as attention-seeking or domineering, whereas people very low in Extraversion can be perceived self-absorbed or aloof.

Famous examples:
Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, Will Smith, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye

P.S. For more information on this important dimension, read my post about the power of introverts.

4.) Agreeableness:

Key traits:
This dimension measures traits such as kindness, cooperation, sympathy, politeness, trust, and compliance. The two primary aspects of this dimension are: Compassion and Politeness.

How it looks:
People high in agreeableness are easy to get along with, respectful, and pleasant to be around. They do not like confrontation and do their best not to offend others. They are more likely to give to charity and help those in need than people low in Agreeableness.

Career choice:
People high in Agreeableness tend to choose careers where they help others, such as nursing, hospice care, social work, and counseling. However, people low in agreeableness tend to be better negotiators and thrive in careers like law or politics.

The extremes:
People very high in Agreeableness can be perceived as naive, submissive, or ingratiating, whereas those very low in Agreeableness can be perceived as combative, argumentative, or rude.

Famous examples:
Ellen DeGeneres, Ann from Parks and Recreation, Kenneth from 30 Rock,

5.) Neuroticism:

Key traits:
This dimension measures tendency toward negative emotion, including traits such as anger, depression, fear, worry, anxiety, suspicion, and self-consciousness. Conversely, lower scores on this dimension indicate higher levels of emotional stability. The two primary aspects of Neuroticism are: Withdrawal and Volatility.

How it looks:
People high in Neuroticism are easily irritated and tend to lash out at others. They can experience long periods of feeling isolated and unsettled. They are more likely to overthink and question their success as compared with those lower in Neuroticism. They also report lower levels of happiness and psychological well-being.

Career choice:
Being high in Neuroticism is not necessarily all bad, particular when balanced with certain other traits. For example, when paired with Conscientiousness, it can drive people who are bothered or angry at something to change it. An example of someone like this might be Steve Jobs, a short-tempered man who leveraged his critical eye to design products he (and many others) considered superior to the competition.

When paired with high Openness to Experience, it is a recipe for wild creativity. This is the archetype of the tortured artist.

The extremes:
People very high in Neuroticism can be perceived as unstable, insecure, or depressed. People very low in Neuroticism can be perceived as unconcerned, oblivious, or uninspiring.

Famous examples:
Kanye West, Woody Allen, Steve Jobs, Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones,

“I don’t want to define myself!”

I realize many people have an aversion to labels (usually those higher in Openness to Experience and lower in Conscientiousness). I’ve been that person and still am to some degree. But it’s important to realize that definitions are not inherently a bad thing. In fact, they are often necessary.

We need to be able to draw distinctions between things in order to talk about them meaningfully. If everything is a construct and nothing means anything, life can become confusing and meaningless.

Of course, as with anything, you can take this idea too far. One example of this would be using a particular personality trait as an excuse for poor behavior: “That’s just how I am! I’m low in Agreeableness, so of course I was rude to you!”

This is the wrong attitude. Understanding your personality doesn’t give you a free pass to be a jerk or ignore social norms. If anything, you might consider tempering those aspects of your personality in which you score particularly high.

Applying it to your life

Extremes in any trait can be problematic. It’s useful to notice where you tend to get out of balance and take measures to counteract any traits that negatively affect you or others.

For example, being too high in Openness to Experience can paralyze you, particularly when paired with high Neuroticism and low Conscientiousness. When you can be or do anything and everything is a construct but you also hate structure and feel anxious all the time, life is hard. To balance excessive Openness, you need structure. Plan your days ahead of time, prepare your meals in advance, and try extra hard to see the value in certain traditions and constructs.

Or, if you’r higher than average in Neuroticism, you might consider doing some self-work to temper your anxiety, anger, or depressive nature. This might involve seeing a therapist, finding a philosophy that works well for your temperament (Buddhism and Stoicism are good choices), or practicing meditation.

Some personal examples

I am pretty low in Extraversion, particularly when it comes to the Assertiveness aspect of my personality. I sometimes don't speak up, even if I have a good idea. I can be reserved to the point of being aloof (although I compensate for this somewhat by being extremely high in politeness). This is probably a reason why the first personal development books I read were ones like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

My wife, Vanessa, scores off-the-charts when it comes to Compassion (one aspect of Agreeableness). She is extremely sensitive to other people's emotions. This makes her excellent at anticipating other people's needs and empathizing with them but sometimes it can be draining. I, on the other hand, am considerably lower in Compassion (don't judge me) and so I'm able to detach a bit more from other people's problems and see them as separate from my own. This comes in handy when Vanessa gets overwhelmed because I am able to put things into perspective for her a bit more.

Recommended Resources

If you liked this post, you'll also like my podcast episode with best-selling author Gretchen Rubin, where we talk about her book, The Four Tendencies, which outlines a personality framework she discovered.