3 Secrets of the “Big 5” Personality Traits

What do we know about human personality?

We know that general theories aren’t as useful as data-driven methods.

We know that methods dividing people into personality “types” usually can’t produce reliable or valid results.


There have been many attempts to oversimplify people…and we shouldn’t be too surprised that none of them work. After all, people are complicated.


Nevertheless, it is possible to summarize a person in relatively simple terms, and even be somewhat accurate.

Research has established that we need to consider at least 5 basic dimensions. These are the “big 5” personality traits.



Want an easy way to remember the “big 5” traits?

Use this handy mnemonic: The first letters of these 5 traits correspond to the word ocean.

  • Openness: Appreciation for stimulation, new ideas and experiences
  • Conscientiousness: Tendency to aim for achievement and self-discipline
  • Extraversion: Engagement with the external world, especially other people
  • Agreeableness: Concern for social harmony and getting along with others
  • Neuroticism: Tendency to experience negative emotions



2. Thinking vs. feeling vs. doing

What do the “big 5” personality traits tell us about a person?

They are tendencies toward thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.


But what does that actually mean? Research suggests that each trait is different.

  • Openness is mostly about what people think.
  • Conscientiousness is mostly about what people do.
  • Extraversion is mostly about what people do, and to a lesser extent how they feel about it.
  • Agreeableness reflects a fairly even mix of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Neuroticism is mostly about what people feel.


3. The “big 5” only scratches the surface

What makes these 5 traits big?

Each one is made up of several underlying components.

There are a wide range of ways that a person might be high or low on each trait.


Openness can reflect enjoyment of aesthetics, valuing new ideas, or even just a tendency to fantasize about new and different situations.

Conscientiousness can involve many different forms of organization, planning, practice, or persistence.

Extraversion can reflect assertiveness, strong emotions toward people, or a tendency to seek out social situations.

Agreeableness can be based on trust, modesty, honesty, politeness, or a tendency to help people.

Neuroticism can reflect anger, hostility, anxiety, depression, or even just self-consciousness.


Each of these possible tendencies are similar in some ways, and very different in others.


That’s the “big 5” in a nutshell

You really can judge a book by its cover…

…but actually reading the book will give you a lot more information.


If you want to know more—especially if you want to understand or predict how a person is likely to think, feel, or behave—it only makes sense to dig deeper.

Simplifying can be useful sometimes, but it only takes us so far.



Image credits: Nicolas Beaurain, Joseph Grunig

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