Psychologists say personality is all about the ‘Big Five’ traits — what are they?

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If I asked you to describe your personality, what would you say?

“I’m outgoing”, “I’m shy” or “I’m creative”.

Maybe you consider yourself a thrill-seeker.

If you take the popular Myers-Briggs personality test, you’ll be categorised as either introverted or extroverted, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving.

These labels can create a sense of belonging, and perhaps help you understand yourself and others better.

The problem is, labels like these can leave you with a sense that your personality is something fixed and unchangeable: you’re one way or the other; you’re “just like that”.

Personality researchers, however, have a different way of thinking about personality. They focus on traits rather than types.

In particular, they talk about the “Big Five”: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Evidence suggests that these traits aren’t fixed at all, and some research shows you can intentionally change these personality traits.

Here’s what you need to know about these personality traits, and how they can help you better understand yourself and those around you.

What are the big five personality traits?

The easiest way to remember them is to use the acronym “OCEAN”, says Nick Haslam, Professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.

  • Openness is the tendency to be open to new ideas, imaginative, curious and creative, Professor Haslam says. People who score high in openness are often interested in creative pursuits.
  • Conscientiousness is about having attention to detail and a good work ethic, says Eliroma Gardiner, a personality researcher at Griffith University. People who score highly in conscientiousness tend to want to get things done on time, the proper way, and tend to follow rules. If you prefer to disregard rules and do things your own way, you’d likely score lower here.
  • Extraversion is the trait most associated with those who like to be the life of the party, those people who really enjoy socialising and spending time with others, Dr Gardiner says. If you’d prefer to snuggle up with a good book by yourself rather than head to the pub, you’re likely to score lower on extraversion.
  • Agreeableness, like extraversion, is about interpersonal style. People who score highly on agreeableness tend to be warm, trusting, kind and cooperative, Professor Haslam says. They tend to adjust to others, rather than forcing their own ways on them.
  • Neuroticism is simply about how likely you are to feel negative emotions, like anxiety, sadness, anger, envy and jealousness. People who score highly on neuroticism tend to experience a lot of these negative emotions, while people who score lower tend to be more emotionally stable and calm.

The reason personality researchers favour this personality model is because it’s based on decades of empirical work into personality structure, Professor Haslam says.

“Unlike some theories, like the Myers-Briggs, it wasn’t just plucked from thin air or thought to be intuitively sensible from someone’s armchair,” he says.

“It was the result of a very systematic process of looking at what characteristics people tend to group together, and putting that through some sophisticated statistical analyses.”

He points out that the five traits are independent and unrelated, and we all have different aspects of each.

When measuring someone’s traits, psychologists use a spectrum — from extremely high to extremely low — rather than a dichotomy, like “extroverted” or “introverted”.

“You need five dimensions to map the personality universe, just like you need three dimensions to measure space,” he says.

How is personality formed?

Personality researchers say neither parents nor birth order play a major role in forming our personalities.

When Peter O’Connor, an associate professor at QUT Business School, tells people he’s a personality psychologist, he finds everyone has an opinion or theory — and they’re not always on the money.

“Research shows that the influence of parents is actually relatively minor, as is sibling birth order.

“If you were to look at two siblings raised by the same parents, in terms of personality traits, they’re virtually no more similar to each other than they would be to a random person.”

Professor Haslam says we inherit about half of our personality differences, leaving only half to environmental factors like our childhood experiences and the impact of our parents and family.

A man and a woman each hold a child's arms while facing the ocean on a beach.
Image Many people overemphasise the role of nurture in forming personality, Professor Haslam says.(Unsplash: Raw Pixel)

Why your personality isn’t fixed

Many of us tend to think of personality as something that’s fixed and stable, but research suggests it can be quite fluid.

“As you age, you might be higher in conscientiousness, your neuroticism might be lower, so you might be less anxious and more stable, and your agreeableness is likely to go up as well,” Dr Gardiner says.

There’s also evidence to suggest we can change our personality traits ourselves.

One recent research paper found evidence that people could intentionally increase one or more of their Big Five traits over a 16-week training period.

The problem with viewing personality as fixed or static is that it can create an excuse for poor behaviour or a refusal to change.

If you believe your personality is fixed and you behave in a way that is thoughtless, unpleasant or immoral, then you’re likely to think “that’s my personality” and be less likely to try and change, Professor Haslam says.

It’s also saying to the other person: “This is out of my control, there’s nothing you can do about it. Suck it up,” he says.

“That’s not a great idea, and it’s empirically wrong as well.”

Why more isn’t always better when it comes to personality

While the idea you can change aspects of your personality might be reassuring, it’s important to keep in mind that having more of a trait isn’t always better.

“If you’re super outgoing, super conscientious, super friendly, you’re going to have a lot of tension there,” Dr Gardiner says.

“Even openness — if you are really open, it might be difficult for someone to get a concrete answer out of you and you might have a lot of difficulty doing routine jobs.”

Personality, after all, is not a competition, and it’s often our quirks — and our flaws — that make us who we are.



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