Big Five Factors of Personality

Big Five Factors of PersonalityPeople differ in many respects, some important, some trivial. Personality traits are among the individual-difference characteristics that are important and powerful in explaining human behavior in the world of work. Myriad psychological characteristics can be used to describe people and distinguish them from one another. For example, in the English language, in excess of 12,000 words can be used to describe psychological characteristics of individuals and their tendencies to think, feel, and behave in certain ways. Many of these words are adjectives that refer to individuals’ personality characteristics. For example, we can describe individuals as introverted versus extraverted, hardworking versus lazy, friendly versus hostile, anxious versus relaxed, or curious versus inquisitive.

Research examining how various personality characteristics relate to one another has led to the widely accepted conclusion that they can all be clustered under the umbrella of five broad personality dimensions. These five broad categories of personality attributes have become known as the Big Five personality dimensions. Adjectival descriptors of these five dimensions are referred to as the Big Five factor markers. Each dimension of the Big Five encompasses a group of traits that are more closely related to one another than to traits from the other dimensions.

The Big Five dimensions of personality are (1) Emotional Stability, (2) Extraversion, (3) Openness, (4) Agreeableness, and (5) Conscientiousness. The names of these dimensions sometimes vary by preferences of the researcher and author. For example, some authors prefer to refer to the third dimension as Intellect or Intellectance, rather than Openness. Others prefer to refer to Emotional Stability by its opposite, Neuroticism. Nonetheless, for the most part, the contents of the five dimensions overlap across the many different conceptualizations of personality.

The Big Five dimensions of personality have been useful in providing a framework for organizing personality attributes used in industrial, work, and organizational psychology research and practice. They have been investigated in relation to many areas of interest, including occupational attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes. For example, studies have linked characteristics from the Big Five framework to occupational interests, finding employment, career success, job performance, and job satisfaction. The first part of this entry presents a brief history of the Big Five dimensions of personality. Then, each Big Five dimension is described. The entry concludes with a review of the relevance and usefulness of the Big Five in work and career contexts.

A Brief History of the Big Five

Personality characteristics existed long before human beings made their entry into this world and have probably existed for as long as most animals. In fact, personality characteristics have been documented in chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, hyenas, dogs, cats, donkeys, pigs, rats, guppies, and even octopuses. Personality can be viewed as a relatively stable, enduring psychological characteristic of any moderately complex being, be it human or nonhuman.

Personality descriptions have existed in human language since the very beginning of verbal communication. However, the questions of how these characteristics relate to one another and whether there is an organizational scheme that can be used to reduce the vast number of personality attributes to a parsimonious set have been scientifically considered only in the last 100 years or so. In examinations of personality structure, it is necessary to make a distinction between the development of theoretical models representing underlying individual differences in personality and the development of taxonomies of how trait-descriptive terms of personality characteristics are encoded in language. A theoretical model describes how personality traits manifest themselves in observable behaviors and outcomes, whereas a taxonomy merely provides a framework for clustering similar traits. The origin of the Big Five can be found in the latter: a taxonomy provided by the natural language of personality description.

Sir Francis Galton was the first to propose the idea that the most important characteristics of individuals are captured in the words that people use to describe each other and thus become embedded in languages around the world. This is referred to as the lexical hypothesis. Using Roget’s Thesaurus, Galton identified and cataloged personality descriptors. The lexical hypothesis was utilized in the 1930s by psychologists Gordon W. Allport and Henry S. Odbert, who used the second edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to identify and catalog over 17,000 words that distinguished one person from another. They sorted these words into groups: personal traits, evaluative and metaphorical words, temporary states, and moods. More than 4,500 words were found to be descriptive of personality traits. In the 1940s, Raymond B. Cattell examined these trait-descriptive words and reduced them to 35 traits, each of which was described by clusters of adjectives and phrases. In the 1960s, Warren T. Norman studied the personal-trait words from Allport and Odbert’s effort and judged about 3,500 of these words to be related to stable personality characteristics. However, such lengthy lists were simply too long and cumbersome to be useful for applied and scientific purposes. Thus, the task was to discover whether these words could be organized into a scientific taxonomy of smaller, more meaningful groups.

A descriptive model or taxonomy is vital if personality psychology is to advance as a science. Over the years, personality has been conceptualized from various taxonomic viewpoints. In fact, there have been so many conceptualizations of personality and so many tests and scales used to measure them that the less enthusiastic (some say more pessimistic) researchers have compared conducting research in personality psychology to building the Tower of Babel. Approaches to integrating seemingly diverging models that aim to make sense of varying postulated factor structures should be commended, as they will enhance knowledge of the personality domain and increase our ability to hypothesize important relationships. Without a generally accepted taxonomy, personality research cannot properly communicate empirical findings, let alone systematically cumulate them.

In science, taxonomies provide the foundation that helps characterize how different categories of studied phenomena (e.g., species or chemicals) relate to one another. How can thousands of words describing individuals be clustered into meaningful groups? Statistical data reduction techniques broadly referred to as factor analysis can be used for this purpose. Factor-analytic procedures are used to reduce and organize many personality descriptors into a few dimensions or factors. Variables that more closely relate to one another are grouped together. When adjectives describing people are used to characterize individuals, the resulting data can be factor-analyzed to decipher the structure of the underlying traits. In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of psychologists (among them Louis L. Thurstone, Raymond B. Cattell, and Donald W. Fiske) applied factor-analytic techniques to personality trait descriptors. Thurstone and Fiske found that five broad personality factors could explain their respective data. However, they did not follow up on their findings and moved on to other research endeavors. Cattell claimed to have found over 12 factors, but reanalyses of his data replicated only five. In fact, the “fathers” of the Big Five were probably Ernest C. Tupes and Raymond E. Christal, who, in a series of studies between 1954 and 1961, found five replicable personality dimensions in ratings of human personality. Unfortunately, their findings were buried in a U.S. Air Force technical report and were not generally available to the scientific community (their landmark technical report was reprinted in a scientific journal only in 1992). In the 1960s, Norman confirmed the five-factor structure of personality descriptors; however, he continued to believe that there were likely to be many more personality factors than those he had found.

In the past 30 years, psychologists John M. Digman and Lewis R. Goldberg, who started out as critics of the Big Five, along with their colleagues have produced many studies using a variety of approaches showing that five dimensions are reasonably sufficient to explain observed personality differences among people. Incidentally, Goldberg can be credited with-coining the term “Big Five” for what had previously been referred to as “Norman’s Five.”

In addition to studies researching the lexical hypothesis, personality measures were developed asking individuals to rate themselves (or others) on statement-based (rather than adjective-based) stimuli. Some current examples of these include the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R), Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), International Personality Item Pool (IPIP), Personal Characteristics Survey, and the higher-order factors from the Sixteen Personality Inventory (16PF). It should be noted that even the factors of the 16PF are easily reduced to the Big Five personality dimensions. The developers of the NEO PI-R, Paul T. Costa and Robert R. McCrae, have been successful in demonstrating that the same Big Five personality dimensions are assessed in a multitude of different personality measures (e.g., the California Psychological Inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) that were developed outside the five-factor framework.

To date, hundreds of studies have provided evidence indicating that the Big Five are generalizable. A large body of literature and factor-analytic evidence has accumulated in the last decade providing compelling evidence for the robustness of the Big Five dimensions of personality across different theoretical frameworks (both abstract personality models and concrete natural language trait descriptors), using different tests and measures and in a variety of samples (including those defined by different ages, sexes, cultures, and ethnic origins). The five factors have also been shown to hold across different types of assessments and rating sources (self and peer). Cross-culturally, evidence supporting the Big Five or its variants has been found in many languages, including English, German, Polish, Turkish, Italian, and Tagalog-Filipino. Such cross-cultural and cross-linguistic generalizability is crucial if personality psychology and its applications in organizations are to transcend parochial sociocultural settings. Because of its broad generalizability and replicability, Big Five has become the term that stands for the most widely accepted framework of personality attributes.

Dissent and Disagreement over the Big Five Factors

Despite the volume of research supporting Big Five factor models of personality, there is still some dissent on the structure and organization of personality traits among personality psychologists. However, it is now clear that one cannot take seriously taxonomies of personality that postulate an inordinate number of factors, given that consistent replicable empirical support for these is lacking. The empirical evidence marshaled in support of the Big Five is impossible to overlook. Most important, the Big Five is an organizational scheme that helps one locate a given personality characteristic in relation to other personality traits. Perhaps the five dimensions of personality can be conceptualized as analogous to longitude and latitude in cartography. They help establish coordinates on maps of personality traits. From a utilitarian perspective, the Big Five personality dimensions have been pivotal in organizing and summarizing research findings. However, the Big Five have met with several criticisms. These criticisms center on comprehensiveness, breadth, theoretical basis, and social importance, as well as the predictive and explanatory value of postulated traits. Some of these criticisms are considered below.

First, it should be noted that although critics have argued that the Big Five is at best a taxonomy of adjectival descriptors and that there is no theory associated with it, recent publications have articulated comprehensive personality theories based on the Big Five model. These theories suggest that the five factors of personality are enduring traits that manifest themselves in behavioral patterns that are deeply rooted in the biology of human behavior. In five-factor theory, little room is given for learning and experience to influence personality.

Second, there are substantive disagreements about the precise subdimensions that make up each Big Five factor and its meaning. There are also questions about whether broader traits may encompass the Big Five. For example, proponents of fewer than five dimensions, such as Hans J. Eysenck, have argued that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness should be combined into a broader dimension referred to as Psychoticism (i.e., a lack of these two traits). There are also more than a dozen studies providing evidence that the Big Five can be further clustered into two even broader factors: one dealing with ascendancy and dynamic qualities, hallmarks of “getting ahead” (a combination of Extraversion and Openness), the other dealing with socialization, or “getting along” (a combination of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability).

Third, the Big Five have been criticized as being too broad to be useful in the explanation and prediction of valued behaviors and outcomes, including those at work. The argument is that differences exist within each of the Big Five and that these differences cause inconsistencies when trying to predict and understand work behavior and effectiveness using information at the factor level. Proponents counter that the breadth of predictor variables should be matched to the criteria and outcomes being predicted. That is, when the goal is to predict complex real-world behaviors, broad factors such as the Big Five may be useful.

Descriptions of the Big Five Personality Dimensions

Personality characteristics can be organized hierarchically. The lowest level at which we can examine personality is at the single, individual behavior level (e.g., telling a joke). Similar behaviors form habits that constitute the next level of the hierarchy (e.g., tendency to make others laugh). Clusters of interrelated habitual behaviors constitute levels further up the hierarchy (e.g., sociability, gregariousness). At an even higher level, one finds broad factors of personality (e.g., Extraversion). It is important to think of each Big Five factor not as a single entity, but as a collection of clusters consisting of interrelated habitual behaviors that have a common core and carry little specific meaning. Many proponents of the Big Five place the five factors of personality at the highest level of the hierarchy. The clusters of interrelated habitual behaviors that are aspects of each of the Big Five are typically referred to as facets or subdimensions.

Emotional Stability

The first factor, which refers to an individual’s tendency to become emotionally upset, is most frequently called Emotional Stability, or by the name of its negative pole, Neuroticism. This dimension characterizes individuals in terms of their proneness to experience emotional distress and maladaptive coping strategies. Common traits associated with the neurotic end of this dimension include anxiety, depression, anger, embarrassment, emotion, worry, fearfulness, instability, and insecurity. Emotionally stable individuals are well-adjusted, relaxed, self-assured, hardy, even-tempered, and calm. Individuals scoring low on Emotional Stability are described as moody, anxious, worrying, insecure, hypochondriacal, and tense. Some hypothesized facets of neuroticism include anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, vulnerability, low self-esteem, negative affect, and lability.


Extraversion encompasses traits relating to sociability, dominance, energy, and positive affect. It has also been referred to as “surgency.” It includes a person’s tendency to seek interpersonal stimulation and capacity for joy. Individuals scoring high on this dimension are described as energetic, active, vigorous, talkative, assertive, fun-loving, gregarious, persuasive, and positive. They seek social situations in which they can interact with others and be socially dominant. Individuals scoring low on this dimension are described as introverted, silent, submissive, passive, unen-ergetic, retiring, reserved, or “loners.” Main facets of Extraversion are dominance/assertiveness, sociability/ gregariousness, energy level/activity, and positive emotions. Excitement seeking and warmth have also been suggested as facets.


This factor has been interpreted frequently as openness to experience, intellect, or culture. Traits commonly associated with this dimension include imagination, curiosity, originality, broad-mindedness, and intelligence. Openness results in tolerance for ambiguity, and artistic sensitivity. This dimension describes individual differences in tolerance for and attraction to the unfamiliar. It has been described as a trait influencing an individual’s breadth and complexity of mental experiences. High scorers are described as having wide interests, being imaginative, curious, creative, and insightful. They prefer complexity and change over familiar and stable situations. Low scorers are described as shallow, conventional, unanalytical, down-to-earth, and lacking in imagination. Openness is the most controversial of the Big Five, as there are many issues relating to its definition and measurement about which personality experts disagree. For example, measures of Openness are moderately associated with cognitive ability (i.e., intelligence) and particularly with divergent thinking. One conceptualization of this dimension includes facets such as openness to ideas, actions, values, feelings, aesthetics, and fantasy. Other conceptualizations suggest facets of complexity, culture, creativity/innovativeness, curiosity, intellect, and having a preference for change and variety.


Agreeableness includes characteristics such as likability, kindness, courteousness, and nurturance. Individuals scoring high on Agreeableness are described as amicable, cooperative, popular, easy to live with, affectionate, sensitive, caring, altruistic, kind, tender-minded, and softhearted. They are interested in helping others and behaving in prosocial ways. Individuals scoring low on this dimension can be described as uncooperative, disagreeable, unfriendly, selfish, hostile, and egocentric. Facets of Agreeable-ness have received little attention in the literature. Depending on the conceptualization, they include nurturance, trust, modesty, tolerance, likability, straightforwardness, and tender-mindedness. Some conceptions of the Big Five include warmth as a part of Agreeableness, and others place warmth with Extraversion. Similarly, some measures of the Big Five suggest that hostility is a marker for the negative pole of Agreeableness, and others include it as part of Neuroticism.


Conscientiousness refers to the cluster of traits relating to prudence, achievement, dependability, persistence, order, and impulse control. Although this dimension has most frequently been called Conscien­tiousness, it is sometimes referred to as “conformity” or “dependability” (carefulness, thoroughness, responsi­bility, organization, efficiency, planfulness). Because of its relationship to a variety of educational achievement measures and its association with volition (hard work, achievement orientation, perseverance), it has also been called “will to achieve.” Typical behaviors characteriz­ing individuals high on this personality trait include careful planning, delaying gratification, following rules and norms, organizing, working hard, and persisting in goal-directed behavior. Individuals scoring high on Conscientiousness are also described as organized, thorough, competent, work oriented, perfectionistic, and driven. Individuals scoring low on Conscientious­ness are often disorganized, quitting, irresponsible, careless, negligent, weak-willed, undependable, and sometimes hedonistic and impulsive. According to var­ious conceptualizations, facets of Conscientiousness include reliability (dependability), orderliness, impulse control (cautiousness), decisiveness, deliberation, punc­tuality, formalness, conventionality (having traditional values), achievement orientation, and industriousness (hard work).

It should be noted that the Big Five personality dimensions can be combined to create composite or compound personality characteristics. This can be viewed as analogous to combining primary colors to create a multitude of shades in the color spectrum. For example, integrity is a trait made up of high Conscien­tiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability. Studies indicate that there may be greater predictive value for such compound personality traits than for each of the Big Five factors or their facets alone.

The Big Five and Careers

The last decade and a half has witnessed the utiliza­tion of the Big Five framework in multiple occupational domains. Many studies have examined how the Big Five relate to organizational behavior and outcomes. In addition, researchers have also taken advantage of the organizing scheme offered by the Big Five to quantitatively summarize a number of existing studies.

Career Attraction, Choice, and Job Search

The Big Five have been linked to occupational inter­ests and career decisions. Individuals with investigative interests tend to score high on Openness, whereas indi­viduals who express interest in artistic jobs score high on Openness and somewhat low on Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability. Social interests are related to Extraversion, prosocial ones to Agreeableness. Interest in enterprising jobs is associated with high Extraversion, low Agreeableness, and low Openness. Individuals with interests in conventional jobs score high on Conscientiousness and low on Openness. Students who score high on Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability tend to be more decided about their career choices. Interestingly, these three dimensions are often aggregated into a compound trait called “integrity.”

Extraversion and Conscientiousness are useful predictors of college students seeking and obtaining employment upon graduation. This finding can be explained in terms of particularly effective job-seeking behaviors and patterns among the extraverted and conscientious. Individuals high on Extraversion and Conscientiousness network more intensely and use multiple job search methods.

Career Preparation: Educational Success and Job Training

Conscientious individuals tend to do well in settings in which knowledge acquisition is a central activity. Conscientiousness is a consistent, positive predictor of educational success in high school, college, and graduate school. Other dimensions of the Big Five have also demonstrated predictive value for academic success, but their utility has not been as strong, as consistent, or as generalizable across educational settings. Openness, because of its relationship with cognitive ability, does not incrementally enhance the acquisition of declarative knowledge.

Job-training performance is also predicted well by Conscientiousness. That is, individuals who score high on Conscientiousness scales tend to be more successful in job training. Furthermore, both Extraver­sion and Openness are also associated with performing well in training and provide about the same level of predictive power as Conscientiousness.

Job Performance and Its Components

Task Performance and Overall Job Performance. Hundreds of studies have examined how the personal­ity attributes clustered under the umbrella of the Big Five relate to job performance. These studies have been summarized using a quantitative-data-pooling technique called meta-analysis. The conclusions from meta-analyses indicate that Conscientiousness is the Big Five dimension that is most consistently related to task performance, overall job performance, and effectiveness across diverse jobs, settings, and cultures. For jobs that require interpersonal interactions, such as management and sales, Extraversion is also related to job performance. For both these job categories, the assertiveness/dominance facet of Extraversion is responsible for the lion’s share of prediction of job performance. At times, some factors (e.g., Agreeableness) can be used to predict lower performance in some domains (e.g., negotiation) and higher performance in others (e.g., teamwork). It is noteworthy that studies suggest that the validity and usefulness of personality measures are not destroyed or even markedly degraded by motivated response distortion of test takers in high-stakes assessments (e.g., personnel selection).

Organizational Citizenship Behavior. Performance behaviors that are not part of the formally prescribed tasks comprising a given job have been termed citizenship behaviors (OCBs) or contextual performance. Aspects of citizenship behaviors include helping and cooperating with others as well as promoting the employing organization in general by going beyond the call of duty. Meta-analytic reviews of studies linking the Big Five and OCBs indicate that Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability are useful for predicting the interpersonal facilitation dimension of OCBs. Also, Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability have non-negligible, positive relationships with job dedication. Conscientiousness is also linked to altruism and generalized compliance. It is, overall, the most consistent predictor of OCBs.

Counterproductive Work Behaviors. Workplace deviance (encompassing behaviors such as theft, misuse of resources, excessive absenteeism, workplace aggression, and violence) is strongly related to three of the Big Five dimensions: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability. Individuals who score low on these three Big Five factors engage in counterproductive behaviors to a greater extent than do others. Integrity tests that are typically used to predict counterproductive work behaviors and workplace deviance usually assess these three dimensions of the Big Five.

Work Attitudes and Organizational Behaviors

Job Satisfaction. Understanding and explaining satis­faction among workers has also benefited from the Big Five personality framework. Emotional Stability and Extraversion have been shown to predict job satisfaction across jobs and settings. Although some substantial relations have been reported for Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, these are not as pervasive and generalizable. Openness appears unrelated to job satisfaction.

Motivation. There are multiple motivational theories and accompanying frameworks. Across three of these, specifically, goal setting, expectancy, and self-efficacy motivation theories, Emotional Stability and Conscientiousness have been found to relate to performance motivation. It seems that not only cognitive appraisal of external incentives and personal goals influence the strength of performance motivation; Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability also seem to relate to motivation through their influence on self-regulatory processes.

Leadership. All dimensions of the Big Five except Agreeableness have been linked to leadership emergence as well as leadership performance in groups. However, across settings, the strongest and most consistent predictor of both emergence and performance is Extraversion. Transformational leaders, who are charismatic, elicit cooperation and loyalty, and inspire and motivate their followers to reach common goals, tend to score high on Extraversion and low on Neuroticism.

Career Success

Career success can be conceptualized in many ways, including being successful in terms of salary and occupational status or being satisfied with one’s choice of occupation and position. Longitudinal studies indicate that Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability predict occupational status and income. That is, individuals who are conscientious and emotionally stable attain higher-status occupations and earn higher salaries. Conscientiousness alone has been found to predict long-term career satisfaction. For people-oriented jobs, Agreeableness also relates to salary level.


A leading personality psychologist has noted that a scientific taxonomy assists researchers in organizing and integrating research results by offering a standard scientific nomenclature. This is exactly what the Big Five model has helped to accomplish. The purpose of a model such as the Big Five is not to reduce the complexity of individuals to just five easily manageable traits. Rather, the Big Five personality dimensions have provided a framework in which to organize and describe personality characteristics in order to further our knowledge via scientific research. They are the building blocks in the hierarchical structure of personality. Furthermore, they can be used to conceptualize and describe personality traits in a hypothetical multidimensional space and thus further our understanding of human behavior.

Evidence supporting the validity of the Big Five factors of personality is compelling. The Big Five have facilitated communication of results among work psychologists who use personality variables in their research and organizational practice. The Big Five taxonomy has been instrumental in allowing for the cumulation of empirical findings across individual studies and has thus promoted a science of organizational behavior and industrial psychology that includes crucial individual differences. Personality traits from the Big Five framework have been linked to career choice, preparation, job performance, work attitudes, organizational behaviors, and career success. The impact of the Big Five in the world of work is pervasive. The applied uses span career guidance, personnel selection and placement, staffing, and many other human resource interventions. Any personnel decision would benefit from taking information on individual differences in personality into account.

See also:


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