"The Big Five," by Lewis R. Goldberg, PhD, Signal Patterns Scientific Advisory Board Chairman
What are the best ways to describe an individual's personality? One might list all of the things that individuals do all day every day of their lives, but that would take too long and be far too detailed to be of much use. Alternatively, one might use more abstract attributes as a way of summarizing the major ways that individuals differ from each other. Every language on the face of the earth includes hundreds, if not thousands, of words that refer to the ways that individuals differ; English, for example, includes at least 20,000 words of that sort (for example, talkative, agreeable, hard-working, nervous, intelligent). Perhaps those terms that make it into a language and then stay there for centuries are those that people have found to be most useful for describing themselves and others. This "lexical hypothesis" is the basis of much modern research on the structure of human personality traits.
Personality-descriptive terms, when extracted from a dictionary, can be used by individuals to describe themselves and others (Q: How talkative is Peter? A:  Not at all,  A little bit,  Somewhat,  Moderately,  Extremely). And, this same thing can be done in many different languages throughout the world. In any language, many of the terms will be very similar in their meanings (for example, synonyms like shy and bashful) whereas some terms may mean much the opposite of other terms (for example, antonyms like talkative and silent). In general, one can measure the extent of similarity between pairs of personality terms with a statistic called the "correlation coefficient." Based on the intercorrelations among all pairs of personality terms, one can then group the terms into categories or clusters using a statistical procedure called "factor analysis." The result of research using those statistical techniques is a tentative answer to the important scientific question: "How many different relatively independent kinds of terms are there in that specific language?"
Are there hundreds? Dozens? Probably not. In many languages, it has turned out that the magical number is something like five or six. In English and other northern European languages like German and Dutch, there has seemed to be five major dimensions or "factors" to represent the majority of personality-descriptive terms in that language. This "Big-Five" factor structure has become a scientifically useful taxonomy to understand individual differences in personality traits. What are the Big-Five factors? The first is Extraversion versus Introversion, which includes traits such as Active, Assertive, Energetic, Gregarious, and Talkative versus their opposites. A second factor is called Agreeableness, which includes traits such as Amiable, Helpful, Kind, Sympathetic, and Trusting versus their opposites. A third factor has been labeled Conscientiousness, which includes such traits as Dependable, Hard-working, Responsible, Systematic, and Well-organized versus their opposites. A fourth factor contrasts traits related to Emotional Stability, such as Calm, Relaxed, and Stable, with opposite traits such as Afraid, Nervous, Moody, and Temperamental. And, finally, there is a constellation of traits related to Intellect and Imagination, such as Artistic, Creative, Gifted, Intellectual, and Scholarly versus their opposites.
Is that all there is? Certainly not, but this is a good starting point. Most personality-related words in many modern languages can be classified by their locations in the five-dimensional space provided by the Big-Five factors. Terms are scattered throughout this five-dimensional space, with most terms being blends of two or three of the Big-Five factors. As a consequence, this five-factor model provides a rich framework for classifying personality traits, and measures of those five broad dimensions have proven to be extremely useful for describing individual persons. Indeed, measures of the Big-Five factors have proven to predict educational and occupational attainment, marital success, good health habits and medical outcomes, and even longevity versus mortality.
- Lewis R. Goldberg, PhD, Signal Patterns Scientific Advisory Board Chairman
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