Five Traits to Rule Them All?

The Big Five Personality test, also known as the Five Factor Model, is a personality test based on the assumption that personality can be sufficiently described by five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

The Five Factor Model was originally created through lexical and factor analysis. Personality psychology seeks to create a model of personality that can conceptualize all that human personality encompasses. Trait theories explain personality through the vocabulary people employ to describe people’s traits. Creation of the “Big 5” started by compiling every English adjective for personality together, eliminating the traits that were unstable over time, and then eliminating the synonyms and antonyms. Finally, the researchers applied a factor analysis that could distinguish which factors tended to cluster together, thereby allowing them to eliminate the redundancies, creating what we know today as the “Big 5”. They represent the five most basic traits that still remained independent of each other.

The Five Factor Model is a dimensional system, every person falls somewhere along a dimension for each individual trait. When the test is applied to a large group, the results create a normal distribution allowing each person to be given a percentile rank for the five individual traits. The Five Factor Model is a bipolar distribution, this means the the model is, in reality, made up of each of the five main traits, as well as their opposites. Each trait has a perfect opposite, for people who score extremely low on one of the dimensions, it simply means they are very high on the opposite trait.

When dealing with trait theory, although someone may score very high in extraversion or conscientiousness, and that they will typically act in a manner that is in accordance with these traits, this does not mean that their actions are concrete or predetermined in every setting or situation. That being said, studies have found that the Big Five Personality Test results do seem to be largely stable across time and situations.

Despite strong empirical research to support the “Big 5” personality traits across time and cultures, there also exists controversy and discussion surrounding the limitations of the Five Factor Model. Dan McAdams has presented what is considered one of the biggest limitations of the “Big 5”. McAdams argues that the Five Factor Model can only determine what he calls the “psychology of a stranger”. The “psychology of a stranger” only explains the most superficial aspects of personality, what one would discern from a stranger during their first conversation. McAdams proposes that when you really know another person it is far deeper and richer than simply understanding their traits. It also encompasses their feelings, desires, hopes, goals, past and many other facets of personality. McAdams believes that the “Big 5” is a succinct explanation for only the foggiest first level of personality.

The Five Factor Model attempts to argue that an incredibly simplistic measure is capable of explaining all that encompasses human personality. Despite the the strong empirical research that helps to strengthen the existence of the “Big 5” personality traits and their validity as a measure of a very basic measure of personality I believe that the test fails to achieve the full scope of their goal: to explain human personality through traits. I agree with McAdams’ argument the “Big 5” personality test attempts to describe the entirety of the ocean without ever having plunged into the depths of it. It is, nonetheless, a fine measure of some of the simpler aspects of personality.