What are the Big Five personality traits?

Big Five personality traits definition

The Big Five personality traits are five broad characteristics used in psychology to describe variations in human personality and, by extension, a theory of personality called the Five Factor Model (FFM). The five characteristics are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

It’s important to note that these characteristics are the highest possible domain and they all split down into various sub-traits that help define, for example, someone’s levels of extraversion. Sub-traits in the extraversion domain could include warmth, positive emotions and assertiveness. The five main domains are often referred to by acronyms including OCEAN and CANOE.

Testing for an individual's ranking on the Big Five personality traits may form part of a personality assessment in industrial and organisational psychology.

The Five Factor Model has gained popularity because it shows consistency both across cultural and age ranges and also in different methods of measurement, including interviews and observations. However, it has been criticised for having limited scope and ignoring certain other important personality traits such as honesty and sense of humour. There is some evidence that the Big Five personality traits can predict future workplace success although these studies have been criticised.

Professor Dan McAdams of Northwestern University refers to the FFM as ‘psychology of the stranger,’ because the five domains are easy to observe even in those we don’t know, whereas other deep-seated personality traits require greater investigation. He argues for a three-level model of personality: dispositional traits, or the FFM, characteristic adaptions, such as desires and beliefs, and life stories that give a person’s life meaning and purpose.

Alternatives to the Big Five personality traits include the HEXACO model of personality structure and the Szondi Test.