The 5-Factor Model of Personality

Shankar Vedantam has a great NPR show/podcast, "The Hidden Brain", and occasional appearances on NPR's All Things Considered. In December he had a show on Evaluating Personality Tests. It was enjoyable, especially the Harry Potter Sorting Hat references, but I felt it was a missed opportunity because of the focus on Myers-Briggs, and the fact that he mentioned the Big-5 model only in passing.

In fact, Myers-Briggs is not taken very seriously in the psychology world, and Vedantam surprised me with spending so much time on it, given his show's focus on research in psychology. On the other hand, the Big-5 model is taken quite seriously, with many studies and papers based on it and evaluating it in various contexts (take a look, for example, at the Oxford University Press book I link to at the end of this post).

In the short form NPR segment, this was the section on Big-5 in its entirety:

VEDANTAM: Many personality researchers put greater stock in a test known as the Big Five [vs Myers-Briggs]. Grant says the Big Five has lots of peer reviewed data to back it up.

GRANT: We can predict your job performance, your effectiveness in a team with different collaborators, your likelihood of sticking around in a job versus leaving as well as your probability of your marriage surviving, depending on the personality fit between you and your spouse.

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to attend a leadership course here in the greater Seattle area known as Pathwise. Pathwise is an attempt to integrate a lot of the theory and practice of clinical psychology into the working world. You join a cohort and meet about once a month for several hours to learn about and practice or experience a particular topic. Pathwise also attempts, with varying degrees of success, to integrate a number of different theories of personality, cognitive development, etc, into a coherent whole. It's an interesting approach, and one which I have throughly enjoyed but also found very challenging.

The difficulty for me, with my engineer brain, is that I need a strong theoretical structure to hang practice off of. Pathwise has a number of different teachers and facilitators, and its possible that they have different approaches, but the leader of my cohort uses a very experiential approach. It took me a while to even start figuring out what was going on, because we spent so little time actually discussing the theory. Eventually I realized that he was trying to actually "make it happen", as it were, in the cohort itself, so people could experience the material. I think that is likely a great approach for a lot of people, even if it didn't work that well for me. I knew this was interesting and useful stuff, if I could just get my head around it. So I started digging; there were occasional references to people whose research formed the foundation of the classes, and we were given a book on psychoanalysis as it related to personality patterns. This led me on an interesting trail, and I think I have managed to teach myself much of what Pathwise was trying to teach me. I think if I did the first year of Pathwise again now I would get a lot more from it.

Pathwise focuses a lot on understanding your own and others personalities, and how they affect interactions. They have a taxonomy of these, which are fairly standard ones from psychology, and use the common characteristics of the personalities as a way to identify your own. They then use an understanding of transference and counter-transference to help identify the personality types of others. Rather than that, in this post I'm going to talk about the Big-5 model, which relates closely to this goal of understanding personality.

So what is the Big-5 model? In the literature its actually referred to more as the 5-Factor model. It has its origins in work done in the 1930s by the Harvard psychology professor Gordon Allport, who studied the words in the dictionary used to describe personality. Allport and his team identified about 4,500 different English terms used in literature to describe people. Many of these were similar, and in the 1980s, Lewis Goldberg grouped them into 5 "factors", which we can remember using the word OCEAN, for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The first two are general characteristics, while the last three are more about relationships with others. People can be ranked as low, average, or high, in each of these areas. The table below gives a rough idea of what that might mean:

Factor Low High
Openness Prefer the familiar and conventional Prefer novelty and variety
Conscientiousness Spontaneous Controlled, Goal-Oriented
Extraversion Avoids social interaction Enjoys social interaction
Agreeableness Competitive Cooperative
Neuroticism Socially at ease Socially anxious

Researchers at the NIH developed a proprietary test for 5-factor evaluation called NEO PI-R. This test breaks each factor down into 6 facets:

Openness Low High
Imagination Fact-oriented Interested in fantasy and other possible worlds
Artistic interest Lack of interest in art and aesthetics Appreciative of beauty in art and nature
Emotionality Closed to their own emotions Aware of and expressive of own feelings
Adventurousness Dislike change, prefer routine Enjoy new activities, places and things
Intellect Uninterested in intellectual pursuits Interested in exploring new ideas, puzzles, etc
Liberalism Conformist Willing to challenge convention and authority
Conscientiousness Low High
Self-Efficacy Feel inadequate Feel in control
Orderliness Disorganized Well-organized
Dutifulness Irresponsible Reliable
Striving Lazy Driven, ambitious
Self-discipline Procrastinator Strong willpower and focus
Cautiousness Impulsive Deliberate
Extraversion Low High
Friendliness Distant, reserved Bonds easily with others
Gregariousness Private Enjoys company, crowds
Assertiveness Reserved Speaks up, takes charge
Activeness Leisured, relaxed Energetic, active
Excitement-seeking Dislike excitement Risk-taking, easily bored
Cheerfulness Inexpressive Enthusiastic, joyful
Agreeableness Low High
Trust Suspicious Assumes good intent
Morality Deceptive Sincere
Altruism Selfish Caring
Cooperation Bullying Compromising
Modesty Arrogant Modest
Neuroticism Low High
Anxiety Calm and fearless Tense and jittery
Anger Don't anger easily Easily enraged or embittered
Depression Free of negative feelings Dejected, discouraged
Self-consciousness Comfortable in social situations Easily embarrassed
Immoderation Controls urges and cravings Overindulges
Vulnerability Handles stress well Panics under stress

Test questions try to gauge the levels of these facets and then combine those to get overall factor scores.

As you can see, the facets provide a much more nuanced view. You may be average in a factor but have highs and lows at at the level of facets. My factor score is low on extraversion, high on agreeableness, and average on the other factors. That doesn't sound all that interesting until you get down to the individual scores at the level of facets; for example, for openness, I am average in imagination, emotionality, and adventurousness, but high in artistic interest, intellect and liberalism. My overall score for openness is average but you can tell a lot more about me by knowing the facet scores.

If you're interested in finding your own scores, Penn State has a free test called IPIP, available here:

Another area where this gets interesting is in personality pathologies. The 5-factor model is highly predictive of adaptive and maladaptive personality patterns like narcissism, obsessive-compulsiveness, etc, which is the lens that Pathwise views personality through. That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will cover some of the things I have learned, not so much from Pathwise, but from the books that Pathwise has inspired me to read.

There are some interesting books on the topic of the 5-factor model if you want to read more (disclosure: these are affiliate links and I may earn a small commission):


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