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.
Welcome to the idea of personality.
To test its validity one researcher – let’s call him researcher number 1 – began by picking up a dictionary and highlighting any word he could find related to human behaviour.
After putting this list together, another researcher – let’s call him researcher number 2 (presumably because number 1 killed himself out of boredom) – took that list and started to categorise these words into, well, categories.
Unfortunately he also killed himself, so another bunch of researchers took over and began the painstaking job of measuring these categories, or 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 – failing to show any signs of stability over time.
Eventually, the list got smaller and smaller until, by the 1960s, they were left with just 5. (Traits, that is, not researchers.) Those were:
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 it turned out that 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 the Big Five 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 story is that the Big Five traits represent one of the most established and empirically driven measurements in human psychology.
Of course there is some disagreement with the model. Some believe there should a sixth trait while others disagree with the semantics, but, in the main, psychologists agree that the Big Five model 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.
It’s worth reiterating that each trait represents a range between two extremes. So low extraversion would mean you’re 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 your personality’s basic – underlying – structure. Of course, the variations are vast. And, of course, our personalities are complicated. They do change day to day depending on our mood, environment etc.
This leads the argument that such models are too simplistic – that they will always be prone to error because they can’t capture someone’s personality in its entirety.
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 you giving a few details to hang your hat on. Telling you what kind of tree it is, what environment it is best suited to, 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 actually 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:
Understanding Yourself Using The Big Five Personality Model
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.
But before I do, it’s worth understanding the particular personalty hand we’ve been dealt in greater detail. 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 particular personality make-up based on 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.)
I believe it costs 10 USD. (There are free versions of this test available, of course. The only reason I recommend this one is because of the detailed report it gives telling you where you lie on the spectrum of both the Big Five and their correlated aspects, also 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 try to take it when you feel normal.
Anyway folks, that’s it from me this week.
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 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 – I swear it gets a lot more interesting!
Next week I will be discussing extraversion.
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