Why are they called Big 5 and not Fabulous 4?

The Big Five model of personality has long been known to almost everyone and is used successfully in many areas. But have you ever wondered how we arrived at five factors? The answer took, like everything else in science, a few tries.

It is a late afternoon in a meeting room full of flipcharts. For the past four hours, a workshop has been underway in which six team leaders of a large corporation are tasked with developing new job profiles with the help of two psychologists. So far, ideal behaviors and the necessary skills and personality traits have been collected, all according to the proven critical incident technique. As a final step, the psychologists match the casually formulated personality traits to the five factors of the Big Five model. Being organized goes to conscientiousnessbeing creative goes to openness for new experiences. Everyone is familiar with the Big 5 model.

Suddenly, one team leader leans back in his chair and crosses his arms: “You can match that however you want, can you? Why isn’t being creative part of extraversion?”

Of course, in this example the answer is obvious. A person’s creativity is typically not systematically connected to their enjoyment of meeting up with other people, but rather to their eagerness for new impressions. The question itself is perfectly valid, though. Why can we objectively group all our personality facets into exactly these five factors, and why are there exactly five in the first place?

Good to know:
The Big Five model is also called five factorOCEAN or CANOE model.

Personality models have been around much longer than modern psychology

As early as ancient times, attempts were made to classify people based on their personalities and to find out the reason for different personality types. Probably the most famous example from that time is Galenos’ humoral theory, which classifies all people into sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic types based on their dominant humors.

It was not until the early 1900s that personality research slowly began to evolve into what we know today. At that time, psychology had only just established itself as an independent scientific discipline and eagerly began to address the question of where personality really comes from.

Models on this subject quickly sprang up, especially in the first half of the 20th century. From psychodynamic models, which focused on inner processes, to behaviorist models, which assumed personality to be something completely learned, there was a multitude of explanatory approaches. None of them stood up to scientific scrutiny – except for one.

The trait model is the cradle of the Big Five

At the same time but completely independent of the other approaches, the trait model was developed. It states that every person consists of the same universal basic building blocks, i.e. personality traits, but differs from their fellow human beings in how strong these basic building blocks are pronounced. These individual differences manifest in the way a person behaves in a situation, for example before an important exam or at a party.

From there, it was not long before the first attempts were made to identify these universal personality traits. The starting point was the so-called lexical approach. This is based on the relatively simple idea that significant personality traits are already reflected in our language. Significant are those personality traits that distinguish individuals from one another and are therefore most often used to describe a person.

Considering this it seems reasonable that all universal personality traits are reflected in the adjectives of our language. With this, researchers shifted towards the questions of how many universal personality traits our entire dictionary is based on.

Turning 18,000 adjectives into five factors

One of the first attempts was made in the 1940s by Raymond Cattell, who used a list of adjectives from the English-language Webster dictionary to reduce the 18,000 entries to a more manageable set of independent personality traits. In the end, he produced 16 factors consisting of pairs of opposites such as trusting vs. distrusting. At about the same time, Hans Eysenck first derived the two personality traits neuroticism and extraversion from the same list of adjectives and expanded the model in the 1970s with his wife to include psychoticism.

It is obvious that the number of derived factors differed quite substantially. But even though early research results tended towards supporting Eysenck’s theory, further empirical studies were needed to provide clarity.

Starting in the 1980s the abundance of adjectives was once again summarized in about 200 synonym clusters and, similar to Cattell, organized into pairs of opposites. Test persons were then asked to rate themselves or their acquaintances based on these pairs of opposites. The results were subjected to a factor analysis.

This procedure was used at about the same time by several independent research teams and yielded similar results across the studies: All ratings on the basis of these adjectives can be traced back to five basic personality traits that are independent of one another.

Good to know:
Factor analysis is a statistical method for reducing complexity in data. Let’s say, 500 test persons rate themselves based on 100 pairs of opposites. This yields a total of 2000 individual answers, whereby quite a few of these answers share some tendencies. For example, many people who classified themselves as responsible also describe themselves as disciplined, while there were no such tendencies in the case of sociable. We can therefore assume, that some fundamental trait influences the rating on responsible and disciplined, but not on sociable.

The aim of a factor analysis is to reduce the obtained data to such an extent that only these fundamental characteristics, so-called factors, remain.

Big Five: A model with a promising future

With the trait model, the race for the best personality model was over in the mid-20th century, and with the discovery of the Big Five, the dust had also settled. A lot has happened since then.

The Big Five model has been confirmed in virtually all cultures of our world and has easily established itself as the model of personality on which the vast majority of scientific personality questionnaires are based, for example the Big Five Structure Inventory (BFSI) or the Big Five Inventory of Personality in Professional Situations (B5PS). The model is also used in many practical areas, for example in personnel psychology, where a persons individual Big Five characteristics provide important clues about their strengths and areas of development.

Meanwhile, personality research is investigating, among other things, how stable the individual Big Five characteristics are over the life span, and to what extent personality can be predicted via our behavior on social media. The foundation of the Big Five model itself is also subject to further research. Recently, some non-English language studies have found a sixth factor, Honesty-Humility, that has since been replicated in some English language studies.

So, science is far from done with the Big Five model. But one thing is certain: there is much more to the matching of adjectives to the Big Five factors than mere randomness.



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