For centuries, people have wondered about the nature of personality. What are the traits that make you distinctly you? It was not until the 1980s, however, that the statistical methods were advanced enough to answer this question in a data-driven way. During this period, several sets of researchers - most notably the two American psychologists Paul Costa and Robert McCrae - began crunching enormous amounts of data, with a method called factor analysis.
Simply put, factor analysis helps to identify underlying patterns in the data. Costa and McCrae applied the method to a type of data that had been used already the 1930s to map personality: The words we use to describe people. Interestingly, certain adjectives tended to go together. For instance, someone described as “outgoing” was often also described as “dominant”, but there was no correlation with e.g. being described as “creative”. A pattern started to appear.
The analyses consistently showed that personality could be described as five broad, independent factors. These were:
- Openness: An individual’s preference for trying out new things and seeking out new experiences and influences. Appreciation for art, emotion, and unusual ideas.
- Conscientiousness: The tendency to be disciplined, goal-oriented, and care deeply about performing well. An inclination to do what one has promised, and also to be orderly and structured.
- Extraversion: The preference for the company of others. The propensity to be social, talkative, energetic, confident, and positive.
- Agreeableness: The tendency to care about other people’s well-being, strive for consensus, and be mild and diplomatic in relation to other people.
- Emotional stability (originally called neuroticism): The tendency to be calm, easy-going, and resilient in the face of difficulty or problems, as opposed to being easily annoyed, worried, and depressed.
This set of broad traits came to be called the Five Factor Model, or the Big Five. The model has since been verified in a large number of countries, cultures, and settings. Studies have also shown that the five traits tend to be relatively stable over the lifespan. All in all, the Five Factor Model is widely considered the most valid and evidence-based model of personality.
A distinguishing feature of the Five Factor model is that it is dimensional. This means that you can have more or less of these five traits, and that the most common case is for people to be somewhere in the middle. For instance, most people tend to be moderately extraverted: They like to spend time with other people, but also like to be alone from time to time. This sets the Big Five apart from many less research-based models, where personality is often described in terms of more static “types”.
Moreover, the Big Five model has turned out to be very useful in predicting numerous life outcomes - not least, work performance. The factor that has proven to be the most important is conscientiousness. In most job roles, in most types of settings, it seems to be a significant advantage to be goal-oriented, diligent, and disciplined. For specific types of roles, other factors have also turned out to be important. For instance, extraversion and emotional stability have both been shown to predict success in leadership roles. Openness is related to e.g. training proficiency, and agreeableness correlates with performance in many service roles.