the big five

Understanding the Big Five

If you are into Psychology, you might already have heard about the Big Five. The Big Five model attempts to classify personality traits into five dimensions; openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Psychologists have been trying to create a comprehensive classification of human personality for decades. The five-factor model, also known as Big Five is the prevailing personality model nowadays. Before I discuss the model and the five factors I’d like to explain how it came about.

the big five

Personality psychology studies the individual differences in our characteristic patterns of thinking and behaving. The notion of personality should not be confused with a set of behaviors or emotional states. Personality is a concept, a perception that results from the fact that individuals have different identities and different personality traits. Personality is a construct that is inferred from our actions and feelings.

We find the origins of most personality models in the lexical hypothesis. The lexical hypothesis or lexical approach states that the most important personality characteristics will eventually become a part of people’s language. It also states that these very important personality traits are likely to be encoded into a language as a single word.

Decades of research and psycholexical classification produced lists with thousands of terms that would later get classified into smaller categories. Making use of factor analysis [1], these terms were finally grouped into five dimensions. These five factors are the Big Five.

Conscientiousness: this dimension refers to our ability to be organized and to show self-discipline. To be able to work dutifully towards our goals.

Agreeableness: a tendency to be in a good disposition for social interaction. A natural inclination to be compassionate and empathic rather than antagonistic or combative.

Neuroticism: this dimension refers to our emotional adjustment. How often and how deeply we let unpleasant emotions overtake us.

Openness to experience: this dimension refers to the search and appreciation for new experiences. It shows a degree of curiosity and interest. A preference for novelty.

Extraversion: it refers to the amount and intensity of interpersonal interaction we enjoy. How social and outgoing a person is.

These are the big five categories of personality. It is important to note that these dimensions exist on a continuum rather than being a discrete attribute that a person does or does not have. For each trait, we are all situated somewhere along their continuum – from low to high.

I hope you enjoyed my explanation of the conception of the five factors model. I plan on writing in more in detail about each dimension soon.


[1] Factor analysis: a statistical technique that describes the variability of observed, correlated variables. It looks for joint variations that could be the result of a latent variable or factor. Grouping together these variables helps to reduce the number of observed variables in a given dataset.


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