Describing and predicting behavior: The Big Five

Postet på 28. mars 2005.


The answer to the question “What is personality?” depends very much on why the question is asked. There are many ways to deal with this question. Here, I will focus on the trait-based approach, which is one attempt at describing individual differences and prediciting individual behavior.

The last twenty years, personality research has been centering around a model known as the “Big Five,” and sometimes referred to as the “Five-Factor Model of Personality”. This is the culmination of nearly a hundred years of research. I will sketch the history of the Big 5 here, provide a brief presentation of the factors, and mention the MBTI in passing.

The Lexical Hypothesis

The story begins with Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert, who hypothesized that

Those individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people’s lives will eventually become encoded into their language; the more important such a difference, the more likely is it to become expressed as a single word.

This has become known as the “Lexical Hypothesis.”

What Allport and Odbert did, though, was to go through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at the time, and extract 18,000 personality-describing words. From this gigantic list, they extracted 4500 personality-describing adjectives that they found describing observable and relatively permanent traits. And then, in 1936, they rested their case.

The case was picked up again in 1946 by Raymond Cattell, who used new technology, i.e. computers, to do data reduction on the Allport-Odbert list. He organized the list into 181 clusters and asked people to rate people they knew by the adjectives on the list. Using factor analysis, he ended up with twelve factors. He added four factors that he thought ought to have been there, and ended up with the hypothesis that individuals describe themselves and each other according to sixteen different, independent factors.

With these sixteen factors as a basis, he went on and constructed the 16PF Personality Questionnaire, which is still being used in universities and businesses for research, personnel selection and the like. Later research has failed to replicate the results, however, and it has been shown that Cattell retained too many factors. The current 16PF, however, take these findings into account and is in fact a very good test which is still being developed. In 1963, W.T. Norman redid Cattells work and suggested that five factors would be sufficient.

The Dark Ages

And then for seventeen years, nothing happened: It was proven that personality is not stable, but varies wildly with situations, so that prediction of behavior by personality test is impossible: Social Psychologists demonstrated that character, or personality, is something humans impose on people in order to maintain an illusion of consistency in the world. The final nail in the coffin was Walter Mischel&rsqui;s 1968 book Psychological Assessment which demonstrated that personality tests cannot predict behavior with a correlation of more than 0.3.

Around 1980, three things happened that brought the present strain of personality research out of the Dark Ages. These were Personal Computers, Statistical Aggregation, and The Big Five.

Personal Computers

Traditionally, Psychologists who needed computers had to rent access to a mainframe. Suddenly, they could do their statistical analysis on their desktops. This ment that anybody could, for instance, re-examine the Allport-Odbert list. But why would they, if personality is an illusion?

Statistical Aggregation

It was argued that personality psychologists had looked at behavior from the wrong level. Instead of trying to predict single instances of behavior, which just didn’t work, researchers should try to predict patterns of behavior. Correlations soared from .3 to .8. Hey presto, we’ve got personalities anyway! Social Psychologists still argue that we impose consistency on the world, but that there is in fact more consistency to begin with than they once thought.

The Big Five

At a symposium held in Honolulu in 1981, the four prominent researchers Lewis Goldberg, Naomi Takamoto-Chock, Andrew Comrey, and John M. Digman reviewed the personality tests available at the day, and decided that most of the tests that held any promise seemed to measure a subset of five common factors – in fact the same as Norman had discovered in 1963.

We’ve got triangulation!

Both the lexical hypothesis, then, and more theory-laden research converge on a model that states that personality can be described in terms of five aggregate-level trait descriptors. Now, any personality researcher with an ounce of self-respect has his own model with its own nice features, but when researchers talk to each other, they usually translate their model into the one proposed by Norman in 1963. These are

The Factors

Surgency or Extraversion
How energetic one is. People who score high on this factor like to work in cooperation with others, are talkative, enthusiastic and excitement seeking. People who score low on this factor prefer to work alone, and can be perceived as cold, difficult to read, even a bit eccentric.
One’s level of orientation towards other people. Those who score high on this factor are usually co-operative, can be submissive, and concerned with the well-being of others. People who score low on this factor can be challenging, competitive, sometimes even argumentative.

These are the two “social” factors. People who score more than middle on both plus more than middle on IQ tend to have high “emotional intelligence.”

How “structured” one is. People who score high on this factor are usually productive and disciplined and single tasking. People who score low on this factor are often less structured, less productive, but can be more flexible and inventive, and can be multitasking.
Neuroticism or (inversely) Emotional Stability
Tendency to worry. People who score low on this factor are usually calm, relaxed and rational and may sometimes be perceived as lazy and incapable of taking things seriously. People who score high on this factor are alert, anxious, sometimes worried.
Culture or Openness to Experience or Openness to Ideas
Tendency to be speculative and imaginative. People who score high on this factor are neophile and curious and sometimes unrealistic. People who score low on this factor are down-to-earth and practical and sometimes obstructive of change.

There is a lot of research available on the Big Five. The problem is that very little of it is published in books with pictures – most of it is relatively uncompiled in research journals. In order to make use of the Big Five, then, one needs to be up to date on the literature.

When conflicts are due to differences in personality, it is usually due to differences in Openness to Experience. The factors that predict job performance are Conscientiousness (which should be high) and Neuroticism (which should be low). Leaders should be high on all five factors except Neuroticism and Agreeableness which should be low – and salespeople should be similar but with even higher scores on Surgency. Incidentally, this is culture-dependent – in most countries outside the USA (including Canada), leaders and salespeople should be higher on Agreeableness than in the USA


What about the MBTI, then, which I assume most of you have heard of? Well, it seems that it measures four of the factors – Neuroticism is left out, but has been proposed as added in newer revisions, against much protesting. The MBTI is not based on the lexical hypothesis but on a theory which is, to Jung’s credit, fairly head-on with current research. There is one issue with the MBTI, though, and that is the notion that all the 16 types it covers are equally good but different – this, the Big Five research has shown, is not true. Most ENTJ’s are better leaders than most INTP’s, not just different types of leaders. This one issue does of course not invalidate all of the MBTI, which is a very good test.

Further research

Current research concentrates on three areas. The first is: Are the five factors the right ones? Attempts to replicate the Big Five in other countries with local dictionaries have succeeded in some countries but not in others, apparently, for instance, Hungarians don’t have Openness to Experience. Of course they do, others say, the problem is that the language does not provide enough variance of the related terms for proper statistical analysis. Some have found seven factors, some only three.

The second area is: Which factors predict what? Job outcome as leaders and salespeople has already been measures, and lots of research is currently being done in expanding the list. You need to search the literature to find just what you’re looking for, unfortunately. Barrick and Mount’s research are good places to start.

The third areas is to make a model of personality. Costa and McCreae have built what they call the Five Factor Model of Personality which is an attempt to use the Big Five to provide a model of personality that can explain issues in personality from the cradle to the grave. They don’t follow the lexical hypothesis, though, but favor a theory-driven approach.


Everybody is interested in personality, inasmuch as everybody interacts with themselves and other people. The Big Five is a convenient way to reduce personality into manageable bits. I hope this little piece has been entertaining and informative, and would like to receive lots of questions for a follow-up article.