Big Five Theory of Personality

In this article, we will learn about the Big five factor personality theory.  It is one of the widely popular personality theories. The Big Five serves as an integrated system and represents personality description. Moreover, doing so in a common framework instead of replacing the earlier systems.
But, first we will see how psychologists answer to the question:


What is Personality?

Definitions by psychologists 

Gordon Allport : “Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychological systems that determines his unique adjustments to the environment”
Normann Munn : Personality is a unique combination of individual’s physical structure, needs, interests, abilities and aptitudes.”

Big Five Factor Theory of Personality

Robert McCrae and Paul Costa (1987) developed a personality traits theory. It explains the big five major factors of personality. According to them, personality traits are basic tendencies. Although, they root in biology and interact with external influences. It includes culture in shaping the skills, habits, tastes and values of the individual.
The Big Five personality dimension is the result of finding a general taxonomy. Even though, these dimensions do not represent a particular theoretical perspective. But from people’s description of themselves and others, it is easy to derive it in their natural language.
The five major factors of personality are as follows  : 
1. Openness to Experience
2. Conscientiousness
3. Extraversion
4. Agreeableness
5. Neuroticism

Openness to experience (O)

Openness is best described as a person’s willingness to try new things and be open to new experiences. However, a personality trait related to appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, creativity, imagination curiosity and variety of experience is Openness to experience .

Facets of Openness to New Experiences

  • Fantasy / Imagination
  • Aesthetics / Artistic Interest
  • Feelings / Emotionality
  • Adventurousness / Exploration
  • Ideas / Curiosity
  • Values / Tolerance to Ambiguity
This is also called as Intellect or Intellect/ Imagination. Those who score high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.
People who are open to experience are curious, imaginative and creative. Whereas, those who are less open to experience are non creative and lack aesthetic sense. As a result, people who try to maintain the status quo and who don’t like to change things would score low on openness.

Conscientiousness (C) :

Conscientiousness is a personality trait showing tendency to display self discipline. However, it relates to the way in which people control, regulate and direct their impulses.

Facets of Conscientiousness

  • Competence / Self – Efficacy
  • Organizing
  • Sense of Duty / Obligation
  • Achievement Striving
  • Self – discipline / Willpower
  • Deliberation / Cautiousness
Well organized, responsible, dependable and hardworking people have high conscientiousness. Whereas, people having low conscientiousness are – unorganized, irresponsible, spontaneous and careless. Hence, those who score high in this dimension are punctual and careful as well.
For example- An individual scores low on this dimension. He/she might always be late to important social events. Similarly, might borrow belongings and fail to return them. Or return them in poor condition.

Extraversion (E):

Carl Jung (1933) first used the term extraversion. Also he believed that all people are mainly divided into two personality types: ‘extraverts’ and ‘introverts’. Whereas, ‘Extroversion’, is a trait characterized by activities and energy creation from external means.
This is also called as ‘Surgency’.

Facets of Extraversion

  • Warmth / Kindness
  • Gregariousness
  • Assertiveness
  • Lively temperament
  • Excitement seeking
  • Positive emotion / Cheerfulness
People having high extroversion are talkative, enthusiastic, open minded, sociable, assertive and courageous. But, people having low extroversion are less talkative, shy, alone and less involved.

Agreeableness (A) :

Agreeableness refers to the basic emotional style of a person. However, an agreeable person may be easygoing, friendly, and pleasant (at the high end of the scale). Whereas Grumpy, crabby, and hard to get along with (at the low end).

Facets of Agreeableness

  • Trust in others
  • Straightforwardness / Morality
  • Altruism
  • Compliance / Co-operation
  • Modesty
  • Tender-mindedness / Sympathy
It is a personality trait  showing an ability of an individual to get along with people. Moreover, it shows concern for social harmony. Hence people having high agreeableness are kind, loving, caring, friendly and cooperative. But, people having low agreeableness are non – cooperative, jealous and hostile.

Neuroticism (N) :

Neuroticism refers to emotional instability or stabilityIt is one of the personality traits which leads to experience of negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety or depression

Facets of Neuroticism

  • Anxiety
  • Hostility / Anger
  • Depression
  • Self – Consciousness
  • Impulsiveness / Immoderation
  • Vulnerability to stress / Fear / Learned helplessness
 People who are worriers, overanxious, and moody would score high on this dimension. However, those who have even-temper and calm would score low. Besides, a person having high neuroticism is anxious, depressed and irritable. He/she is also fearful, impulsive, angry and unstable. Likewise, an individual scoring low on neuroticism, is – balanced, calm and stable. 
This five factor is useful in understanding the personality profile of people across cultures . Thus, this model represents an important theoretical development in the field of personality . It is also consistent with the analysis of personality traits found in different languages. The studies of personality carried out through different methods also support this theory . Hence, it is now one of the most promising empirical approach to the study of personality.
Although regional variations exist in application of this theory. Still, cross-cultural research from 56 countries has found some contrast evidence. Also these five trait dimensions are in all primary cultural regions of the world (Schmitt et al., 2007). Furthermore, it appears that these dimensions are recognizable in most languages and cultures.
They are also consistent when assessed by either self-ratings or observers. (Allik et al., 2013; McCrae & Terracciano, 2005). Hence, this raises some questions about the origins of the Big Five trait dimensions. Are child-rearing practices across all cultures similar enough to result in these five aspects of personality? Could these five dimensions have a genetic component that transcends cultural differences?

Important Characteristics of the Big Five Factors

The following are some of the important characteristics of the five factors:
  1. The factors are dimensions, not types. Hence, people vary on them, with most people falling between the extremes.
  2. These factors are stable over a 45-year period. Beginning in young adulthood (Soldz & Vaillant, 1999).
  3. However, the factors and their specific facets are partially heritable. (Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley, 1998; Loehlin, McCrae, Costa, & John, 1998).
  4. They probably had adaptive value in a prehistoric environment (Buss, 1996).
  5. These factors originated in diverse languages. Such as German and Chinese (McCrae & Costa, 1997). Thus, these factors are universal.
  6. Knowing one’s placement on the factors is useful for insight. Furthermore, it can help in improvement through therapy (Costa & McCrae, 1992).

Criticism on Big Five Theory of Personality

Some theorists have stated that an individual may not always express these personality traits in the same way. Especially across different situations. Moreover, Walter Mischel, a social cognitive theorist, has emphasized that there is a trait–situation interaction. However, the particular circumstances of any given situation influence the way a trait expresses. (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). An outgoing extravert, for example, might laugh, talk to strangers, and tell jokes at a party. But, that same person, if at a funeral, would still talk and be open. However, the jokes and laughter would be less likely to occur.
To check your understanding of the topic take this short test –Click here for MCQ test on Big Five Theory of Personality


  • Ciccarelli, S. K.; White J. N. Adapted by Girishwar Misra (2018). Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson.
  • Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research, Pune. (2020)

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However, Researchers and psychologists have put forth various theories and developed personality tests. In these tests, people fall into different personality types. It based on the traits they exhibit.
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