The Big 5 personality traits explained.

Jason Brien.

The Big Five Model or 5 factor model is the most commonly accepted personality theory within psychology today. The theory states that personality can be boiled down to five core factors - Openness, conscientiousness, Extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The easiest way to remember the 5 traits is through the acronyms CANOE or OCEAN.

Openness: Openness to experience refers to the openness of one’s mind. The flexibility and fluidity of one’s thoughts and ideas. People who are high on the trait of Openness are often imaginative, unconventional and creative and they have a strong interest in abstract thoughts and ideas. These people are often referred to as ‘visionary’. People low on Openness however are rigid and concrete thinkers. They are often unimaginative and their thoughts and ideas often follow very predictable paths. Low openness people will also dislike change and will prefer that which is routine and traditional.

Conscientiousness: This trait refers to one’s tendency to be reliable, hardworking, organised and diligent. People high in conscientiousness always strive to do their best no matter what the task. They will often be organised and always on time and will rarely if ever leave a task incomplete. People low in Conscientiousness may be perceived as ‘lazy’ and ‘disorganised’. People low in Conscientiousness will not be bothered by a task that’s not completed. They may borrow things and misplace them. Their house or workspace will often be disorganised and messy.

Extraversion: Extraversion can refer to one’s degree of sociability, excitability, expressiveness and ‘presence’. People high in Extraversion are social and outgoing. Social interactions make them feel refreshed, replenished and alive. People who are low in Extraversion are considered ‘Introverts’. These people are exhausted by social interactions. They are often quiet and are less likely to make their presence known. People low in Extraversion prefer solidarity but are not necessarily lonely.

Agreeableness: This trait refers to attributes such as trust, kindness, altruism and other ‘pro-social’ behaviours. People high in agreeableness often have stable relationships with others. They can easily make and keep friends. They are not often involved in conflict or drama and they have great empathy and concern for the well-being of others. People low in agreeableness will often be in constant conflict with others. They may manipulate and belittle others and will see no point in ‘getting along’ or being part of a team.

Neuroticism: Neuroticism is characterized by sadness, moodiness and emotional instability. People high in neuroticism are easily upset and stressed. They often experience dramatic shifts in mood and have very, very low resiliency. Once they are down they stay down and they find it extremely difficult to bounce back. People low in neuroticism however are resilient and emotionally stable. They respond well to stress and adversity and they rarely feel sad or depressed.

Whilst the Big 5 personality theory is the most commonly accepted theory within psychology, it is not without its valid criticisms. The biggest criticism is that the model does not transfer adequately across cultures. Neuroticism and conscientiousness for example can differ greatly between Western and Eastern cultures. Some cultural alternatives to the Big 5 model such as the ‘Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory’ or the ‘Filipino Personality Scales’ have greater predictive value than the Big 5.

It is always important therefore to view all theories and models within psychology as simply frameworks in which to view and describe human behaviour. Whilst no one framework is 100% accurate, each framework in isolation and together can help us to understand multiple aspects of human behaviour. Afterall, relying solely on one psychological theory or framework and rejecting all others would make you low in openness and the stress with not being able to understand others properly would probably also make you high in neuroticism and low in agreeableness.