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The Big Five Personality Model: An Empirical Tool for Understanding Yourself

The Story of Personality Theory

Some 80-plus years ago researchers embarked on one of the longest (and most boring) projects in human psychology. It started with the idea that people are born with different character traits that remain relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime. 

They called this idea personality. 

To test this hypothesis one researcher began by picking up a dictionary and highlighting any word he could find related to human behaviour.

After putting this list together, another researcher (presumably because the first one killed himself out of boredom) took that list and started to categorise these words into overarching traits.

Unfortunately he also killed himself, so another bunch of researchers took over and began the painstaking job of measuring these traits on a large number of people over a very long period of time. 

The researchers who managed not to kill themselves (God bless) started narrowing this list down by binning any trait that fluctuated too much. Eventually, the list got smaller and smaller until, by the 1960s, they were left with just five.

Those were:

  • Openness 
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness 
  • Neuroticism

At this point, researcher number 648 (I believe it was) confidently declared that these five traits can be used to explain all human behaviour. It took another 20 years or so before researchers had the data to back up this bold claim, but number 648 was right!

The Big Five, as they are now referred to, “have been found to contain and subsume most personality traits.” They are considered to represent the basic structure of what we call personality. The data has shown they are relatively stable over time and that there is a genetic component to it.

Where you land on the spectrum of each trait goes a long way to determining who you are, the choices you make, and how well you do in life.

But listen, don’t kill yourself just yet!

An Overview Of The Big Five Personality Traits

The main thing to take from this sad tale is that the Big Five represents one of the most established and empirically driven measurements in human psychology.

Of course there is some disagreement with the model. Some believe that a sixth trait should be added while others disagree with the semantics, but, in the main, psychologists agree that the Big Five captures the human experience well.

In a grossly simplified nutshell, those who are highly extroverted tend to feel more positive emotions and have lots of friends. Highly neurotic people tend to feel more negative emotions. They are more likely to get divorced, lose their job, and be depressed. 

Those high in conscientiousness like to do things to the very best of their ability. They enjoy following schedules and the predictability of routines. Whereas those high in openness are very creative. They love to travel and experience new things. 

Finally, those high in agreeableness are kind and compassionate in nature. They love helping and caring for others.

Now, it’s worth reiterating that each trait represents a range between two extremes. So low extraversion would mean you’re highly introverted. Low neuroticism would mean you’re a zen Buddhist monk. Low agreeableness would mean you’re a bit of ass… 

You get it!

Where you lie on the range of each trait makes up the basic – underlying – structure of your personality. While the distribution is evenly distributed among the general population (with most people falling somewhere in the middle) no two people are the same.

And, of course, our personalities are complicated. They do change day to day depending on our mood, environment, etc. They are malleable. Which leads us to question of simplicity.

Is the Big Five model too simplistic?

Why Should You Use The Big Five Personality Model

To give you an analogy, if I call a tree a tree it paints a very blurry picture in your mind’s eye. But no two trees are the same. Your idea of a tree is going to be very different from mine. 

So, it’s worth giving you a few more details to hang your hat on. Telling you what kind of tree it is, what environment it is best suited to, how much water you should feed it, etc. 

But If I take that too far – if I start describing the detail of every leaf, well, you might want to kill yourself. This is the equivalent of breaking it down to the level of the individual. It’s impossible to do for one thing. 

What you want is to slice up the pie to the extent that it provides a practical framework to work with, but not to the point that the details take you away from the bigger – more important – picture.

Now, where that happy medium lies has been the subject of much (painfully dull) debate over the years, with different personality models proposed ranging from over 4000 traits to just 3. 

The Big Five emerged as the leader from the pack following extensive literature. It is seen as the preferred model by many in psychology today.

What makes it a particularly great tool are the revisions it’s undergone since its inception in the 1990’s breaking it down into a series of correlated facets and sub-facets. 

A good way to visualise this is to imagine the big five as the major branches of a tree, with the facets and sub-facets representing the smaller branches and leaves. 

This gives you both a lower and higher resolution picture to work with. Here’s a pretty picture:

How To Understand Yourself Using The Big Five Personality Model

Last week I talked about why I believe understanding personality is important. I told you we must first understand the personality hand we’ve been dealt before we try to play it. So here’s some homework to do before next week’s enthralling lesson.

You can head over to and take a test that will give you a detailed breakdown of your personality make-up using the Big Five model. (You can also do this as a couple and get an additional report that points out your blind spots. Something I can highly recommend.)

The assessment takes 15-20 minutes. I believe it costs 10 USD. (There are free versions of this test available if you prefer. The reason I recommend this one is because of the comprehensive report detailing both the Big Five and two major aspects they break down into, and what that means for you.)

I should say, if you tend to be hyper self-critical it’s going to skew the results. It’s important to be honest but to take it when you feel normal. 

Anyway folks, that’s it from me this week. Over the following weeks I will write a post about each of the Big Five traits and the two correlated aspects they break down into. 

I will propose several theories for why they exist and what the personality strengths and weaknesses are (broadly speaking) depending on which side of the spectrum you tilt towards. 

I will offer up some practical advice for helping you work with and strengthen your particular personality hand.

Next week I will be discussing extraversion. 

The main points are:

  • The Big Five represents one of the most established and empirically driven models in human psychology. 
  • It’s considered one of the most reliable personality models in modern psychology. 
  • The Big Five represent the basic underlying structure of one’s personality.
  • Each trait breaks down into series of correlated aspects that give you a higher resolution picture.
  • You can take a test at to find out where you land on the spectrum of each trait and what that means for you.
  • It’s best not to kill yourself.

Stay tuned and stay alive in the mean time – I swear it gets a lot more interesting! 

This is part of a series of posts on the Big Five personality traits. Please find other posts below:


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25 thoughts on “The Big Five Personality Model: An Empirical Tool for Understanding Yourself

  1. I read “Conscientiousness” as “Consciousness” at first and was like, “Shouldn’t that be a pre-requisite to having a personality?” XD

    But seriously, this is an interesting method and I ended up getting pretty much the results I expected from the free test. Can’t wait to read more about your take on this.

    1. You got me worried that I’ve misspelt the word now… Good question though – do we need consciousness to have a personality? Perhaps to change it?

      Anyway, I’m glad the test matched up for you. I think you’ll enjoy the discussing that are coming up. Thank you Gail 🙏

  2. Possibly the best opening paragraphs of any essay I’ve read on personality tests. This bit – “The researchers who managed not to kill themselves (God bless)” – is gold 💖

  3. Took the test and the results page simply said: “Dear Lord.”

    JK. I found it pretty on the mark with one notable exception and one partial exception (they weren’t wrong, but exaggerated). I also noticed most of the questions of each subset were essentially paraphrases of earlier ones. I’m assuming that’s to rate how adamantly people feel about certain traits. Cool experience!

    1. Haha. I believe so yes. I had a similar experience. It was pretty on the money with one exception. I was too self critical when I took the test but I could see that. I believe others have similar experiences. It’s not a perfect tool. Still, having an objective look at ones personality on paper that way can prove very useful. Thanks for sharing your experience Jack. 🙏

  4. Wouldn’t those traits be better described as spectrums between opposing opposites? Extraversion implies introversion with some kind of intermediate state between them.

    1. It’s semantics at the end of the day – many make the same argument – but I believe you’re right, spectrum would be a better descriptor. I guess the point is they measure extroversion on a person and where you score tells you how extroverted you are relative to the rest of the population.

  5. So I took the test at DanPsych.

    Extraversion is average
    Enthusiasm is average.
    assertiveness is average

    Agreeableness is average
    Compassion is average
    Politeness is average

    Conscientiousness is well below average
    Industriousness is below average.
    orderliness is well below average

    Neuroticism is average
    Openness to experience is above average
    Volatility is below average

    All those average ratings make me a remarkably uninteresting person.

    One thing I have an issue with is Conscientiousness. Whether I am industrious or orderly depends entirely on my level of interest. When I’m working on something I want to do, my Is are dotted and my Ts are crossed. If it is something I’m assigned to do but don’t see the value in, I’ll hit the minimum requirement and not a bit more. That’s an ADD thing. Concentrating on the uninteresting is psychologically painful.

    Neuroticism does not have a universally accepted definition in the psychological community. OTOH, it has profoundly negative implications for the general public. Any definition of Neuroticism I’d use would not include “openness to experience,” which unless you take it to an extreme, is a very good thing. Just my opinion.

    1. I must admit I haven’t done the DanPsych test – only the understanding myself one. They group openness together with neuroticism? Maybe I’ll find a different test to recommend. They shouldn’t be grouped together – they should be viewed as separate traits for sure. Studies show there are certain correlations between traits – openness and neuroticism is one of them (this is because those high in openness tend to overthink) but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. Neuroticism breaks down into volatility and withdrawal. Openness breaks down into intellect and openness to experience. They are quite different.

      I’d say that your scores don’t indicate that you’re an uninteresting person by any means. It’s usually a good thing to score in the middle of most traits. Conscientiousness is a tricky one for researchers to get right with the test for the reasons you say. I guess those who are high in conscientiousness strive to do their absolute best with everything – this is rare (and not necessarily a good thing – sometimes you should pay minimal attention to certain things in order to save your energy/focus for more pressing matters). Most of us give our all to the things we really care about and, like you, pay less attention to other things.

      Now, there is a correlation between lower conscientiousness and higher openness for an important reason – this is something I will discuss at length in the weeks ahead.

      Thanks for sharing Fred. I appreciate the feedback/thoughts from the test. 🙏

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Sue! I was trying to make a dry subject more interesting with humour. Hopefully depressive types don’t take it too seriously! Thank you for reading 🙂🙏

  6. I took the DanPsych test too and the result is that I am also an uninteresting person as Fred (Au Natural) because of the so many “average” I scored. But I strongly believe I am a super interesting person, so please, find another test that would confirm that. Otherwise I won’t be able to sleep until I take another test that would please my ego. Actually I love taking test. Have you tried the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? In any case, the post is very interesting!

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