The SOI, the Big Five Traits of Personality, and Personal Transformation

RemPsyc
13 min readFeb 27, 2023

April 9, 2015

Abstract

This paper aims to demonstrate how the student club SOI — Sagesse, Ouverture, Intégrité (Self — Wisdom, Openness, Integrity) is instrumental in bringing lasting, positive personality change. First, I will introduce the Big Five of personality and the various life outcomes associated with them. Second, I will try to elucidate the similarities and differences between the virtues promoted by the SOI and the Big Five. Lastly, I will show how personality change is possible and how the SOI creates a favorable context for personal transformation.

Keywords: Personality, big five, transformation, change, academic success, health, social engagement, SOI, student club.

The SOI, the Big Five Traits of Personality, and Personal Transformation

High neuroticism, low conscientiousness, average extraversion, agreeableness, and openness to experience: that is my “old self”. I believe my personality, a few years ago, in interaction with life events, led to existential lamentations and a profound disillusionment with life. Near the point of no return, however, I was exposed to certain thoughts of traditional wisdom that changed everything. So transformed was I that I wanted to share my experience with others. That is why I founded, in 2010, the SOI — Sagesse, Ouverture, Intégrité (Self — Wisdom, Openness, Integrity), a student club at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit in Longueuil concerned with people’s well-being and happiness (SOI, n.d.). The SOI aims precisely at transforming the individual student on multiple levels, including personality and virtues. To my surprise and pleasure, I recently discovered that the qualities that constitute the acronym I chose for this club overlap with a highly influential model of personality widely accepted as quasi-universal among scholars today (Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006). The five-factor model was developed with factor analysis from originally some 18 000 trait-descriptive words and consists of the following: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (McCrae & Costa, 2009). For the sake of simplicity, we can for now relate Openness to experience to Openness and Conscientiousness to Integrity. Wisdom does not fit any of the big five traits, but I argue later that it can represent agreeableness, extraversion, and low neuroticism.

Why Would You Want a “Good Personality”?

The Big Five of Personality are associated with a wide range of benefits. In a recent meta-analysis, Poropat (2009) report that agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience are associated with academic performance. Similarly, in a literature review, Ozer and Benet-Martínez (2006) write that conscientiousness predict both academic and work performance, while extraversion and low neuroticism predict subjective well-being. Extraversion and conscientiousness predict longevity, low agreeableness bad health and mortality, and neuroticism mental disorders. Of upmost importance for society is social engagement. Ozer and Benet-Martínez (2006) also find that agreeableness and extraversion predict community involvement, volunteerism, pro-social behavior, and a transformational leadership style. More specifically, agreeableness predicts other-oriented empathy and extraversion predicts helpfulness. In their meta-analysis, Lodi-Smith and Roberts (2007) find that agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism) predict social investment in work, family, religion and volunteerism. What about specific socio-political issues? Borden and Francis (1978) show that people with high environmental concern demonstrate higher ethical-conscientiousness. More recently, Saleh, El Kahhal, and Abou Seif (2011), who looked at students at the time of the Arab Spring, observed that political participation was positively correlated with extraversion and openness to experience, and the latter trait with activism as well. Interestingly, several qualities or virtues are associated with specific sets of traits (see Table 1).

Of relevance to the SOI and society as well is the question of morality. Dollinger and LaMartina (1998) argue that openness to experience is the best predictor of moral reasoning. More recently, Williams, Orpen, Hutchinson, Walker, and Zumbo (2006, June) report that openness and conscientiousness predict higher moral development. However, it is interesting to note that Perspective Taking (which the SOI also promotes) acts as a mediator between conscientiousness and moral development. When Perspective Taking is high, moral development is too, independently of conscientiousness, but when perspective taking is low, high conscientiousness predicts high moral development while low conscientiousness predicts low moral development (see Figure 1).

Although not to equal with immorality, Ozer and Benet-Martínez (2006) also observe that criminality is correlated with neuroticism and low conscientiousness. In sum, the ideal trait configuration, at least for outcomes most valued by society, seems to be high for all personality traits except neuroticism.

How Are Wisdom and Integrity Distinct From the Big 5?

Ashton et al. (2004) add a sixth factor to the Big Five: honesty-humility. Is this tapping into the construct of integrity? Interestingly enough, the first person who told me about integrity explained that it encompasses authenticity, honesty, and humility. He also gave the example that showing up when you said you would demonstrates integrity. Although the specific differences between integrity and conscientiousness are still debated to this day, Becker (1998) argues that integrity is different from honesty and conscientiousness. While virtually absent in conscientiousness, “morality is at the heart of integrity” (p. 160). Indeed, Ashton et al. (2004) relate that conscientiousness, or in how it is operationalized too often, emphasizes organization and discipline over moral conscience. The French Wikipedia page about integrity defines it as the primordial motivation to be conform to what we really are (2014). This corresponds to my understanding of integrity as being true to yourself, to your values, and to morality; a coherence between thoughts, words, and actions. It is also about doing “what you know you should do”, as opposed to “what you are being told you should do”. In that sense, I believe integrity would better represent the first proposition while conscientiousness would better tap the latter. Accordingly, the opposite of integrity, in my perspective, could be seen as (potentially unconscious) self-sabotage, understood in a wide sense. This includes “the pursuit of failure” and “the idealization of unhappiness” as well (Schafer, 1984, p. 398). To put things simple, I sometimes describe integrity as the application of wisdom.

But what exactly is wisdom? Staudinger, Dörner, and Mickler (2005) write that Erikson saw wisdom as the “pinnacle of personality development” (p. 191), and certainly a personality trait by itself. The authors themselves distinguish between “self-related or personal” wisdom and “general” wisdom. Interestingly, Sharma (2009) divides wisdom in its affective, reflective, and cognitive components, and find that the two first correlate with extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Nevertheless, for me, wisdom is about self-knowledge, searching for truth and discernment, and the ability to determine what is the optimal behavior in a specific context, when taking into account all sources of available information (e.g., personal experience, science, feelings, reasoning, etc.). It’s also about the “right balance” and self-control, which is associated with a range of benefits relating to health, success, and presumably, morality (Baumeister, 2005) — although not self-esteem, which can lead to narcissism (Twenge & Campbell, 2010). Now at this point some readers may find that wisdom and integrity seem to overlap to a certain extent. Like I said before, in my perspective, integrity is the application of wisdom. It is expressed mostly through external actions, while wisdom is expressed mostly through internal dynamics, observation, and reflection. In a sense, we could say that these two concepts are united in highly realized individuals, but I believe they still remain mostly independent from each other.

Now, we sometimes hear that some attributes generally perceived as undesirable (e.g., neuroticism, hostility, low conscientiousness) may in fact confer some “hidden” evolutionary advantages. I argue otherwise. Although being high in neuroticism can be beneficial to see potential dangers, setbacks, and to have a more critical perspective, I argue that it is still possible to be realistic and critical despite being optimistic and good-thinking. One does not equal the other; there is some confounding going on here. What makes it possible to distinguish between the two and solve the apparent contradiction of being low in neuroticism while still having a critical and attentive or realistic mind, is what I call wisdom. Wisdom is precisely the ability to pull out subtlety out of vagueness, precision out of generalities, nuanced perspectives out of dualities or dichotomies. Wisdom is to be able to answer “yes” and “no” simultaneously and to be able to explain why.

For instance, Susan Cain (2012), in her book Quiet, without mentioning her gross confounding of the Big Five traits of personality, seems to adopt a double discourse. On the one hand she argues that our world needs both introverts and extroverts, and that one is not better than the other. On the other hand, she tends to characterize introverts as nice, intelligent, and thoughtful, and extroverts as stupid, superficial, and materialist. My argument is that this judgement is misguided, and that actions that we consider good or bad are in fact better predicted by an individual’s level of wisdom, not of extroversion/introversion, even though this trait may impact under which circumstances one’s ego (i.e., the selfish or narcissistic part of the self) will be comfortable in showing its true face (e.g., when the situation is not threatening). In this view wisdom and integrity should be negatively correlated with narcissism and positively correlated with altruism. Hence, although one can be “over-conscientious”, one cannot have “too much wisdom”!

Is Change Possible?

Now, one may wonder: is change possible? Yes, answer Roberts and Takahashi (2011). Without mentioning normal life-long personality changes (which some call maturation), a wide variety of specific contexts can bring about personality changes, such as clinical interventions, training programs, and meditation (which the SOI promotes). For instance, mindfulness meditation has been showed to bring about changes in personality on several traits: increases in extraversion and openness to experience, and decreases in neuroticism (van den Hurk et al., 2011). Indeed, preliminary results from the Shamatha project — the most comprehensive meditation study to this day — suggest that meditators who spent three months in intensive training improved on a wide array of personality measures, including agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness and neuroticism (“Shamatha project: Exploring human transformation,” 2009), and the latter trait change was recently confirmed (Jacobs et al., 2011). On top of that, Krasner et al. (2009) led a mindfulness-based intervention which resulted in improved conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and emotional stability.

As of now, I only spoke about meditation, but my main argument is that, if change is indeed possible, we should actively focus on collecting the best of each behavior and personality trait. There is a parallel to make here with what Daniel Coyle (2009) describes in his book The Talent Code about how some teachers in the US collected all the best ideas from different schools to make their own school highly successful. How can one distinguish the good from the bad among this quest for optimal development? Wisdom is what allows us to make this disentanglement. Wisdom allows us to say, “Let me keep this virtue, although I agree to drop this vice, since this is sabotaging my own life and the lives of others”.

Now, how does the SOI bring about development of these qualities and traits? First, it organizes weekly activities, often a guided meditation, but sometimes yoga, taiji, qigong, visualisation, self-hypnosis, insightful movies, coaching, or more simply, discussions. It holds conferences to either help students familiarize with techniques that can benefit them or help them gain insights in their own lives or society. It offers a room filled with couches and cushions for students to eat, study, meditate — or even sleep — where they can also access a substantial collection of popular self-help and psychological books. Although some self-help authors may publish rubbish, I hold the belief that evidence-based self-help and other demonstrated psychological strategies can significantly contribute to society and individuals, and I suggest this approach be adopted by the SOI. Finally, students learn from each other because the SOI offers a public space facilitating social interaction and networking. People share similar values and are there with an open mind (or end with one) and are motivated to improve their lives and those of others. Students are exposed to behavioral models, ideas and values, while the main discourse revolves around self-transformation and its personal and collective benefits.

Of course, personality does not limit itself to the Big Five. Similarly, the extent of change the SOI brings about extends much further than personality, but it is one important part of it. The SOI also privileges change in many other aspects. Briefly, this may include the role of beliefs on life outcomes (e.g., growth versus fixed mindsets; Dweck, 2008), locus of control (internal vs external) and learned helplessness (Dweck & Reppucci, 1973), and the six stages of change (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, termination; Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 2002), among others. Most importantly, the SOI curriculum itself adapts and changes, according to those who carry the torch; it is a collective and interactive space for students to learn how to change and embody change. It is a place where students learn and live life skills, and where they can share these with others, even after leaving. It is open both to what people feel that work for them, and what traditions of wisdom and science have to offer.

Conclusion

In this paper, I demonstrated the numerous benefits of a specific set of traits from the Big Five of personality, namely high extraversion, low neuroticism, high openness to experience, high agreeability, and high conscientiousness. I also described how the SOI creates a favorable context for positive changes in these traits, although most likely it also bring many other positive changes on dimensions imperfectly or not tapped by the Big Five, such as integrity and wisdom. Although the claim that the SOI is bringing change to this extent has not been investigated empirically, anecdotal evidence is widely compatible with what I have suggested in this paper. Space is unfortunately too limited here to go into the details and the extensive repertoire of how the SOI accomplishes its mission, but be assured, however, that this work will come.

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Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power. (Laozi)