21 January 2013

The Big Five Personality Traits Model

The Big Five Personality Traits Model is the framework that gained a wide consensus in personality research. Its early versions were developed in early 1960s, but it took about 30 years for it to become main-stream and the most commonly accepted model of personality traits.

The model identified five major personality traits: (1) Openness, (2) Conscientiousness, (3) Extraversion, (4) Agreeableness and (5) Neuroticism. Each and every person has all these five personality traits and scores differently on each of them. In other words, the Big Five is not a categorical (taxonomy) model saying that some people are in “this” category, while others are in “that” category.

The Big Five was developed as a result of numerous attempts to create a comprehensive framework that captures most aspects of human personality. This means that the Big Five is broad and descriptive. It has some predictive value, but usually lower level (more specific) personality traits have a better predictive power.

In my view, for many areas of practice such as Human Resources management, the Big Five is “a good enough” predictor of behavior. At the same time, for other areas such as marketing, the Big Five would give inferior results as compared with more specific traits such as “price sensitiveness”.

Apart from covering a large area of human personality and being a comprehensive model, the Big Five Personality traits are overall stable throughout life. Indeed, there are some changes, but these are of low magnitude. For example, the “levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness typically increase with time, whereas Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness tend to decrease” (source) over long periods of time.  

Not only are the Big Five personality traits relatively stable throughout live, they are also heritable to a large degree. The heritability of the five personality traits rage from 57% for Openness to 42% for Agreeableness (source)

Next, each of the five personality traits will be described:

Openness to experience

As the name says, openness to experience reflects a general tendency of curiosity and a general positive attitude towards the “new”, the “unconventional” and variety.  Openness includes the ability to “Think out of the box”, or in other words, openness incorporates creativity, lack of conformity and the dispositions to be imaginative and broad-minded.

People who score high on openness to experience usually are in need of a high level of autonomy and freedom to act by their own guidelines.

Another characteristic of openness to experience that has emerged from research is the intellectual dimension, in the sense that people who score high on this trait have an inclination towards culture, art and exhibit intellectual curiosity. In my humble opinion, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Openness is a general human personality trait and many people are not even acquainted with art and culture. My suggestion is to view openness to experience as an indicator of intellectual intrigue or curiosity, but at the same time be aware that this tendency could be expressed in various ways including ones that have nothing to do with art and culture.


Conscientiousness is comprised out of two dimensions that are to a certain degree interdependent, namely achievement and dependability.

Achievement includes aspects such as being hardworking and perseverant towards achieving a defined goal.

Dependability includes aspects such as being highly organized, making (realistic) plans and acting in order to fulfill them. In addition it includes being careful, acting in a responsible manner and working thoroughly (not leaving loose ends). Characteristic for people with a high level of conscientiousness is that they exhibit a lot of self-discipline.


Similarly to conscientiousness, Extraversion is comprised out of two dimensions that are to a certain degree related, namely ambition and sociability.

Ambition includes aspects such as showing initiative, aiming at high achievements, being impetuous and showing zeal.

Sociability includes aspects such as being expressive and talkative, being assertive and expressive. It also includes a general tendency to seek the company of others and being active in a social group.

People who score high on Extraversion generally experience positive emotions (have a general positive affect) and show a lot of energy.  


Agreeableness sums up traits that make an individual to be liked by others. It includes elements such as being polite, flexible, trustworthy, caring, cooperative and tolerant.

People who score high on agreeableness usually do not exhibit behaviors such as being suborned, suspicious and antagonistic towards other individuals. They would also be more likely to be compassionate than to hold grudges against someone.

In a nut-shell, agreeableness represents how good someone is with people or, in other words, the level of social skills.


Neuroticism is also known as “emotional stability” if the trait is reversed – seen from the opposite perspective.

Neuroticism represents the tendency to experience general negative affect and specific negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, insecurity and hostility towards others.

People who score high on Neuroticism are easily affected in the emotional area. They tend to not be very good at managing their emotions. Moreover, they tend to interpret most events as being negative, thus making them vulnerable in face of even the slightest bad events.

People who score high on Neuroticism tend to feel embarrassed and worry about virtually everything.

The Big Five as Predictors of Job Performance

Now, having described the model and each of its components, I would like to focus on one of its major applications, namely predicting job performance.

One of the most known scientific works on the validity of the Big Five on predicting job performance is the meta analysis done by Barrick and Mount published in 1991. Next I will briefly present the results of this study.

The authors have hypothesized that conscientiousness and emotional stability (Neuroticism reversed) would be valid predictors of job performance overall for all types of jobs (regardless of job content). The rationale of these hypothesizes is that on one hand, conscientiousness “measures those personal characteristics that are important for accomplishing work tasks in all jobs”, while on the other hand “Emotional Stability (when viewed from the negative pole [Neuroticism]) measures those characteristics that may hinder successful performance.”

The results, however, confirmed only that conscientiousness is a valid predictor of overall job performance across all professions. Neuroticism (emotional stability) was found to not influence job performance in a negative manner. The explanation that the authors gave for this counterintuitive finding was that apart from extreme cases of high level neuroticism, the exact level of this personality trait does not really influence job performance.

With regard to Extraversion and Agreeableness, the authors hypothesized that they would be valid predictors of job performance in “those occupations that involve frequent interaction or cooperation with others”  

The results confirmed the hypothesis for extraversion being positively correlated with job performance for those occupations that involve social interaction. However, the results showed that agreeableness was not a predictor of job performance in these occupations (nor in other types of occupations).

With regard to openness to experience, the authors hypothesized that it would be a valid predictor of “training proficiency” which is a component of job performance. In other words, openness to experience will predict better learning “because Openness to Experience appears to assess individuals’ readiness to participate in learning experiences.”

This hypothesis was confirmed in the sense that openness to experience did positively correlate with training proficiency. The authors suggest that “it is possible that Openness to Experience is actually measuring ability to learn as well as motivation to learn”.

An interesting result emerged, namely that Extraversion was also a good predictor of training proficiency. The authors state that this could be due to the nature of the training programs analyzed in the study, which were mainly highly interactive “hands-on” trainings. This implies that people who score high on extraversion learn better than people who score low in interactive training sessions, while in a less interactive setting there would be no difference.

The Big Five as Predictors of Leadership

In a later study Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt (2002) have investigated the validity of the Big Five personality traits in predicting leadership effectiveness.  

As you might think, results were a bit different than the ones for job performance. Here they are in brief:

Extraversion proved to be the best predictor (out of the Big Five) of leadership effectiveness. The correlation is quite high (taking into account that the correlations between personality and effectiveness are usually small) – 0.31. This means that people who score high on Extraversion are the most likely to be good leaders.

Not surprising, Conscientiousness was also a positive predictor of good leadership. This can be seen as good performers become good leaders or that good leaders have to be both good performers and exhibit the characteristics of Conscientiousness.

Openness to Experience was also a positive predictor of leadership. This makes a lot of sense since good leaders should be intellectually curious and ready to try new experiences.

Neuroticism was found to negatively correlate with leadership. In other words people with a relatively low emotional stability tend to not be good leaders.

Agreeableness had a weak correlation with leadership suggesting that it is not a good predictor of leadership.

Putting together the results of the two studies I mentioned, an interesting conclusion emerges. Agreeableness is uncorrelated with both job performance and leadership. This is somehow counterintuitive and potentially dangerous.

First, it is counterintuitive since it seems like common sense that people who score high on agreeableness would perform better than people with low levels of agreeableness especially in jobs which demand social interactions. The data says it is not so.

Second, it is disturbing from the perspective or recruitment. People who are high on agreeableness make good impressions at (especially first) interviews. This can lead to the occurrence of the halo effect which in turn would make one think that the agreeable person has other positive characteristics.

Since not even agreeableness, is a predictor of job performance, the danger of the halo effect is even larger. My advice, ignore the agreeableness dimension altogether.

Shortcomings of the model

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Big Five personality traits model is not perfect. It has several shortcomings and the main ones are:

Firs, the model is mainly descriptive. This means that the Big Five is very good at describing human personality and it does not go far beyond that. The Big Five aggregates in a comprehensible manner most of what is known about personality, but is in many cases inferior to more specific personality traits in predicting behavior.

Second, the five personality traits are not fully independent one from another. In other words, there are some correlations between the traits. From a practical perspective this is not a serious issue, but from a theoretical one it can present some disadvantages. For example there is a negative correlation between extraversion and neuroticism.

Third, the Big Five does not cover the entire area of human personality. As I mentioned earlier, it covers most of what is known, but at the same time there are things left out. At the same time, in my view, it is unrealistic to expect a (relatively simple) model to cover absolutely everything in a vast and diverse domain such as human personality.

In conclusion, the Big Five personality traits model is the best compromise that could be achieved up to this point in personality psychology. It is not perfect, but I believe it is good enough to be at the same time relatively simple, comprehensive, sufficiently broad and have reasonable predictive power.  

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This post is documented from:
Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The Big Five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1–26.

Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.

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