personality variation

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3 Personality and Human Development / Page 3.12 The Big Five Factors On this page: 1 of 1 attempted (100%) | 1 of 1 correct (100%)

The Big Five Factors

Which traits seem to provide the most useful information about personality variation?

Today’s trait researchers believe that simple trait factors, such as the Eysencks’ introversion–extraversion and stability–instability dimensions, are important, but they do not tell the whole story. A slightly expanded set of factors—dubbed the Big Five— does a better job (Costa & McCrae, 2011). If a test specifies where you are on the five dimensions (conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion; see Table 4), it has said much of what there is to say about your personality. Around the world—across 56 nations and 29 languages in one study (Schmitt et al., 2007)—people describe others in terms roughly consistent with this list. The Big Five may not be the last word. Some researchers report that basic personality dimensions can be described by only one or two or three factors (such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion) (Block, 2010; De Raad et al., 2010). But for now, at least, five is the winning number in the personality lottery (Heine & Buchtel, 2009; McCrae, 2009).

Table 4

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The “Big Five” Personality Factors (Memory tip: Picturing a CANOE will help you recall these.)


←Conscientiousness→ Organized

Careless Careful

Impulsive Disciplined


←Agreeableness→ Soft-hearted

Suspicious Trusting

Uncooperative Helpful


←Neuroticism (emotional stability vs. instability)→ Anxious

Secure Insecure

Self-satisfied Self-pitying


←Openness→ Imaginative

Prefers routine Prefers variety

Conforming Independent


←Extraversion→ Sociable

Sober Fun-loving

Reserved Affectionate

Source: Adapted from McCrae & Costa (1986, p. 1002).

Multiple-Choice Question

Which factors have provided researchers with the most useful information about personality variation?

conscientiousness, disagreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and self- actualization conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion conscientiousness, disagreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and introversion

Correct. Researchers consider these five factors to be fairly comprehensive in defining the core dimensions of our personality. People around the world generally describe others in terms consistent with this list.

Last saved 2 months ago.

The Big Five is currently our best approximation of the basic trait dimensions. This “common currency for personality psychology” (Funder, 2001) has been the most active

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personality research topic since the early 1990s, as researchers have explored these questions and more:

How stable are the Big Five traits? One research team analyzed 1.25 million participants ages 10 to 65. They learned that personality continues to develop and change through late childhood and adolescence. Up to age 40, we show signs of a maturity principle: We become more conscientious and agreeable and less neurotic (emotionally unstable) (Bleidorn, 2015; Roberts et al., 2008). Great apes show similar personality maturation (Weiss & King, 2015). After age 40, our traits stabilize. How heritable are these traits? Heritability (the extent to which individual differences are attributable to genes) generally runs about 40 percent for each dimension (Vukasović & Bratko, 2015). Many genes, each having small effects, combine to influence our traits (McCrae et al., 2010). How do these traits reflect differing brain structure? The size of different brain regions correlates with several Big Five traits (DeYoung et al., 2010; Grodin & White, 2015). For example, those who score high on conscientiousness tend to have a larger frontal lobe area that aids in planning and controlling behavior. Brain connections also influence the Big Five traits (Adelstein et al., 2011). People high in openness have brains that are wired to experience intense imagination, curiosity, and fantasy. Have levels of these traits changed over time? Cultures change over time, which can influence shifts in personality. Within the United States and the Netherlands, extraversion and conscientiousness have increased (Mroczek & Spiro, 2003; Smits et al., 2011; Twenge, 2001). How well do these traits apply to various cultures? The Big Five dimensions describe personality in various cultures reasonably well (Schmitt et al., 2007; Vazsonyi et al., 2015; Yamagata et al., 2006). “Features of personality traits are common to all human groups,” concluded Robert McCrae and 79 co- researchers (2005) from their 50-culture study. Do the Big Five traits predict our actual behaviors? Yes. If people report being outgoing, conscientious, and agreeable, “they probably are telling the truth,” reports McCrae (2011). For example, our traits appear in our language patterns. In text messaging, extraversion predicts use of personal pronouns. Agreeableness predicts positive-emotion words. Neuroticism (emotional instability) predicts negative-emotion words (Holtgraves, 2011). (In the next section, we will see that situations matter, too.)

By exploring such questions, Big Five research has sustained trait psychology and renewed appreciation for the importance of personality. Traits matter.

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