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The Big Five Traits That Constitute Personality

Updated on January 1, 2016

There is nothing as mysterious as the human mind. It is the only instrument which seeks to know about itself. When I say self, the term ‘personality’ pops up in the mind. The number of people one knows in his life are all distinct, no two are identical, even the identical twins. It may seem that it is futile to study personality, that each personality is composed of infinite number of unique and distinctive traits, but the fact is patterns are everywhere in the universe and personalities are but part of this world.

Attempts to scientifically study personality have been made by various psychologists in the past. The results have been interesting; not only certain identifiable personality traits have emerged, their number is quite small. Number of traits (dimensions) vary in different personality theories but they don’t vary by much. Modern day psychologists agree on the number five: A personality is five different knobs tweaked at certain values by nature. Each personality is a unique complex of five different traits. The number five is not a product of agreement among some eccentric psychologists; it is a result of surveys, studies, and mathematics. The mathematics used is Factor Analysis which is a very reliable statistical method.

Personality is not totally rigid and it changes over time. However personality in adulthood changes only insofar as the essence of personality remains same throughout life in most cases. So, the tweaked knobs do keep on wavering a little throughout life but they keep hold on to the same ‘channels’; the ‘signal’ just fluctuates a little. It is also important to note that behavioral changes such as an angry outburst does not imply that an amicable personality has changed into a hostile one – it just exhibits a drastic change in behavior. However if some person’s threshold of anger is lowered causing increase in frequency of his outbursts and this pattern persists for a significant amount of time, then it might be an indication towards change in personality.

Sometimes a brain injury can cause a drastic change in personality. It was first noticed in 1848 after an accident. Phineas Gage, a railroad worker aged 25, was using a 1 meter long tamping rod to pack gunpowder in a hole drilled in a rock. A spark ignited the gunpowder which propelled the tamping rod like a rocket; it entered through his left cheek and came out of his skull. He miraculously survived and his mental faculties remained intact, but his personality had completely changed because of damage in his frontal lobe.

Mental ailments like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and depression may also change personality. Those who have seen the movie American Sniper must have noticed the change in Chris Kyle’s (the character played by Bradley Copper) personality after a mild form of PTSD hems in his mind as a consequence of his participation as a sniper in gruesome battles in Iraq. It is difficult to say what happens with his personality when a person is afflicted with a severe mental disorder like Schizophrenia which drives him insane.

So personality is not as stable as it is usually perceived to be. But in normal circumstances a personality does not change much and the traits that constitute it remain more or less the same. It is also worth mentioning that a person usually possesses a single personality; ‘usually’ is important here because there have been reported cases of MPD/DPD (Multiple Personality Disorder/ Dissociative Personality Disorder) in which the afflicted person was said to have been exhibiting multiple personalities at different times. Whether MPD is real or not is hard to tell but in fiction it is quite a hit. Sydney Sheldon’s famous novel Tell me your dreams tells the story of a woman with multiple personalities (Oops! I just spoilt the plot).

One’s personality manifests in ways that person reacts to his surroundings and interacts with others. The reaction is not only physical, nonverbal or verbal, it also includes the mental state of the person: some people worry too much while others remain calm under the same circumstances.

The Big Five Personality Model

Someone has said that if something can’t be measured, it does not exist. Personality is abstract and complicated but psychologists have developed personality theories and models to understand what constitutes it. Raymond Cattell(1905-1988) used a rigorous scientific approach to develop a theory of personality. He collected data through numerous self-questionnaires, tests, surveys, and studies, and applied the Factor Analysis method to derive sixteen dominant factors. Later Hans Eysenck (1916-1997) improved Cattell’s method and came up with a personality model that contained only three factors (dimensions): Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Psychoticism. The methods were refined further by Robert McCrae (1949- ) and Paul Costa (1942- ) who proposed that only five traits were sufficient to describe personality. Modern day psychologists agree on the five factor model (FFM) and it has been named the Big Five Model.

According to the Big Five Model, the fabric of personality is made of five dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Concatenating the first letter of each of these adjectives form the word OCEAN, so it is also referred to as the OCEAN model.


The terms extravert and introvert were coined by Carl Jung. An extravert person’s mind is oriented outward whereas an introvert is oriented inward. A person with high extraversion likes to spend time in company of others. Such a person likes to make friends and attend parties. High extraversion also corresponds to relatively higher promiscuity. Extraverts are impulsive, sociable, ambitious, and adventurous. No wonder extraverts sometimes find themselves overwhelmed with wanderlust; they are explorers and wanderers. They enjoy sports, desire more from life and are ambitious. In their professional life they are assertive and dominant. People with high extraversion have lower threshold of cortical arousal. This makes them actively seek enjoyment and excitement because they derive great pleasure from such activities. Extraversion is the trait that is rewarded and appreciated most in modern societies.


High neuroticism makes one depressed, anxious, and worrying. Such people therefore are vulnerable to neurosis; they are relatively at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. Neurotics get irritated and angry easily; they also get stressed out easily. That is why such people face problems in initiating or maintain relationships and they are disliked by their colleagues. The lower the neuroticism trait in a person the better it is for him or her.


Higher score in conscientiousness makes a person more likely to be successful in whatever discipline he pursues. A conscientious person has this ingrained ability to control his impulses. Such people are disciplined, well-organized, and follow routines. They are farsighted; they can quell their instant gratification impulses and work according to the future plan they have set. Conscientious kids are loved by their parents and teachers, and the elder ones are the prized possession of their bosses.


If all the people were high in agreeableness what a beautiful place this world would be. Agreeableness is an angelic trait. People high in agreeableness are trusting and cooperative. They can understand the problems and pains of others. A person high both in conscientiousness and agreeableness not only succeeds but makes this world a better place. High agreeableness is necessary for developing leadership quality.


People who score high on the openness trait are intelligent, creative, curious, and broad-minded. They are open to new experiences and knowledge. They are great observers and highly imaginative. Like conscientious people they also like to take risks, but they do it not because they find it more exciting, they do it out of their curiosity and creativity. Artist, scientist, and writers are more likely to have high openness. People who are ‘closed’ are likely to live an insipid life. They stick to the old beliefs and way of life.

Knowing the traits that constitute personality can help one understand his strengths and weaknesses. A person can then exploit his better qualities and work on his shortcomings to improve them

Which personality trait of the "big five model" will you like to fine tune in yourself if you are asked to choose one

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    • Parimalpolymath profile image

      Prabhat Parimal 2 years ago from India

      Thank You very much!

    • profile image

      Khushboo 2 years ago

      Good hub! Very informative

    • Parimalpolymath profile image

      Prabhat Parimal 2 years ago from India

      I completely agree with you Dr Billy. Yes, if we take a scale of 1-5 with an interval of 1, for 5 traits we get 3125 different personalities. practically we can consider each of these 3125 'value' as a group and a person can be put in one of these groups.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 2 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Good post.

      This isn't an either or situation:

      These five personality traits can be measured on a scale--which a person has the most of or least of.

      For example, I might have a client with a five on a scale of 1-5 on conscientiousness and a 3 on agreeableness, and a 3 on neuroticism, a two on openness and a five on extraversion.

      This is why psychologist have tests to figure these things out.