“No matter who you are, The Man does occasionally bend his ear to you even if his eyes are looking elsewhere, he does now and then condescend to listen to your demands and let you appear at his side. But you never think to listen to yourself, to bend your own ear to what you yourself have to say.”Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)
In Personality and Trajectory (Part1), I brought up the idea of studying our personality in order to tailor our life trajectory. When we clearly understand what our personal preferences are, we could start to build an environment that compliments them. Since building something like a life trajectory is a massive undertaking, I recommend starting with a rough sketch of our preferences, so to speak, and refining it from there. In that post, I proposed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a means of creating this rough sketch of our trajectory.
This post is mainly going to focus on The Big 5 Model, also known as the five-factor model (FFM) or the OCEAN model. It will provide descriptions of each dimension of personality according to the FFM, as well as what success would look like for people who score high or low in each particular dimension. I will also discuss how we can use The Big 5 Model to add on to and polish our pre-existing trajectory framework based on MBTI.
Before I really get into this, I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Personality and its Transformations Lecture Series. It’s free on YouTube and it’s filled with everything you need to know about personality, how it transforms, and much much more. Jordan covers The Big 5 Personality Traits as well as other concepts related to psychology and philosophy.
The Big 5
This model of personality suggests that there are 5 main dimensions to human personality. Each dimension, or factor, was determined through a factor analysis applied to personality surveys. The factor analysis was applied to the surveys to discern commonalities between descriptive words that people would use to describe themselves. This means that these experiments were based on semantic associations and not quantitative empirical data, however, no model of personality is perfect and knowledge of The Big 5 is extremely valuable for developing an even deeper understanding of our personalities.
Some critics of The Big 5 claim that 5 dimensions are not complex enough to capture a human being. While it is true that The Big 5 Model probably does not accurately capture a human being in its entirety, 5 dimensions do carry sufficient complexity to describe human behavior. Newtonian physics occurs in 3 dimensions (4 tops) and that’s enough to invite serious complexity. Add 2 more dimensions and we get the complexity of a human…sounds about right to me. 5 dimensions are plenty complicated, especially when we dive into how people’s personalities fit into these groups.
Another thing to keep in mind is, similarly to MBTI, these personality traits can fluctuate over our lifetime and that is okay. Humans are constantly growing and changing and personality goes along for the ride.
Our own personality should be one of the biggest factors when we are considering which choices to make when building our lives. If we’re high in extraversion, then we probably won’t want a job that sits us in front of computer screens all day with little social interaction. If we’re lower in conscientiousness, we wouldn’t want to be in a position of high power and authority because people are going to need things from us all the time and that would drive us crazy.
Before I get too ahead of myself.
The 5 dimensions of personality are:
Percentage vs Percentile
FFM is measured by percentiles. This is not to be confused with the percentage. Let me give an example to make this clear. If someone were to score 90th percentile in extraversion, this would be mean out of 100 people they are more extraverted than 90 of them while being less extraverted than 9 of them. This does not mean that they are 90% extravert and 10% introvert, although that is a common interpretation.
All the traits are normally distributed, meaning most people are in the 50th percentile range while there are very few who score high or low.
Or to be more specific, openness to experience. This dimension explores how open-minded someone is. Openness can be broken up into six subcategories which are:
- Active Imagination
- Aesthetic Sensitivity or Artistic Interests
- Awareness of Inner Feelings or Emotionality
- Preference for Variety or Adventurousness
- Intellectual Curiosity
Openness can be expressed through any of these six categories but does not have to be in all of them. For example, one who is high in openness may express it through their heightened preference for variety, but may not have a particular aesthetic sensitivity. However, that same person will most likely have a higher aesthetic sensitivity than one who is less open.
People who are high in openness tend to be more liberal, have more imaginative sexual fantasies, and experiment with drugs or participate in other risky activities. What is novel is exciting to the open person. Open people also need to be creative, if they aren’t they lose their vitality quickly.
Openness has also been found to be positively correlated with intelligence. Right now, it’s unclear whether intelligence may predispose the individual to openness or if openness predisposes intelligence but nonetheless they are correlated. (McCrae and Costa, 1987).
People who are low in openness tend to be more conservative, don’t like trying new things, and enjoy routines. Closed individuals are less flexible than their open counterparts and tend to be more analytical.
Individuals who score low in openness may do well at jobs that don’t require creativity and involve routines. Individuals who score high in openness may do well at jobs that require creativity and flexibility. Success to the open person can look like large blocks of time for creative work and exploration while success to the closed person can be predictable and orderly environments.
This is one of the biggest predictors of long-term life success. People who score high in conscientiousness tend to be responsible, organized, hard-working, intentional, goal-oriented, self-disciplined, and serious. These are the types of people who would spend all day chopping down trees to build a cabin if you left them alone in a forest with an ax. Conscientious people tend to be in leadership positions along with earning more and better work relationships. These folks also love to plan things.
Similar to openness, conscientiousness can be broken up into the following six subcategories:
Conscientiousness can be expressed through any of these categories, but not all. People high in conscientiousness tend to be great at self-regulation and impulse control. When taken to the extreme, conscientiousness is responsible for the “workaholics” and “perfectionists“. These types rarely miss bill payments, take notes, keep promises, and are punctual. They are less likely to engage in risky behavior. High scoring conscientious types also tend to keep to-do lists and attend to tasks with little delay.
People who are low in conscientiousness tend to be laid-back, less achievement-driven, and are more likely to commit anti-social or criminal behavior. Especially if they are paired with low agreeableness. Nonconscientious types are also more likely to oversleep, be late, or avoid tasks that demand action.
Success for conscientious people looks like the most conventional sense of the term. They would excel in high-powered positions with clearly defined rules. Their life would be full of routines and order. Clean environments where everything is in its place.
Success for nonconscientious types may look like surrounding themselves with automated actions and little external responsibility. They would probably excel in positions requiring creative work with a fair amount of flexibility, not the types of jobs that require someone to show up and act on a regular basis. They would prefer a little more chaos in their environments and would probably be bothered by too much order. Nonconscientious types would probably love having pets (as long as they are conscientious enough to take adequate care of them!).
This trait is the dimension of positive emotion and an indicator of how outgoing or social someone is. Highly extroverted types love to be around people, go to social gatherings, and work well in groups. They also tend to seek out the company of others, are enthusiastic, energetic, and action-oriented. These people are the life of the party and love being the center of attention.
The six subcategories which extraversion is expressed are as follows:
- Activity level
Unlike MBTI, there is no introversion dimension. In The Big 5 Model, introversion is just the absence of extraversion. Kind of like cold from the scientific perspective. There is no cold, just the absence of heat.
People who score low in the extraversion dimension are commonly referred to as introverts. Introverts have less enthusiasm and energy than extroverts, are less involved in social activities, and tend to be quiet and keep to themselves.
Matching a job to our level of extraversion is crucial in building a satisfying life trajectory for ourselves. Higher scoring extraverts may want to go into jobs that need a high level of interaction like teaching, sales, nursing, PR, or other service jobs. Introverts may want to find jobs that allow them to work independently or don’t require much social interaction. Excellent jobs for that could be authors, librarians, engineers, music or video editors, or computer scientists.
Success to an extrovert would require them to nurture their relationships carefully so they can have people there to celebrate their big wins with them. Success to an introvert would require them to create plenty of opportunities for space for recharging in between their other activities.
We can’t talk about this dimension without talking about Ambiverts. These types are equal parts of extroverted and introverted. They don’t have preferences for working in groups or alone. They are not uncomfortable in social settings, but being around people can tire them out. They love being the center of attention, but only for a short time. Some people think they’re quiet, while others think they are social. They lose themselves in conversation just as easily as they can lose themselves in their own thoughts. Ambiverts tend to do extremely well in both personal and professional settings.
This is the social harmony and cooperation dimension. High scorers of agreeableness tend to be friendly, self-sacrificing, warm, polite, helpful, considerate, and generous. They usually take the Lockean approach to human nature and believe that people are fundamentally good. Agreeable people see others as decent, honest, and trustworthy much like themselves. Agreeable people are more than willing to put aside their own interests for the good of other people or social harmony. In unhealthy doses, agreeable people could end up as pushovers.
Agreeableness can be expressed in these six subcategories:
People who are low in agreeableness are known as disagreeable and tend to put their own needs above those of others. They are also more distant, less friendly, and less cooperative than their agreeable counterparts. Highly disagreeable people tend to gravitate towards anti-social or criminal behavior.
Success to an agreeable person will have a lot of social cohesion. They would love to be surrounded by people who like them and are great at building teams and maintaining relationships. Some great careers for agreeable types include nurses, counselors, teachers, or HR specialists.
Success to a disagreeable person will have a lot to do with how they feel about their own desires. Since social harmony is not a big goal of disagreeable folks, their own interests will take that place. So a successful disagreeable person would be more satisfied with getting what they want at the cost of social cooperation than being tactful and considerate of others’ needs. Some great careers for disagreeable people include scientists, critics, or soldiers.
This dimension determines our susceptibility to negative emotion. Negative emotion being anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, depression, worry, or loneliness, not negativity. Highly neurotic individuals tend to respond worse to stressors and interpret them as more severe than they are. People who score highly in neuroticism have a harder time remaining emotionally stable and balanced. People who are high in neuroticism feel negative emotion faster and more intensely than less neurotic types. They are emotionally reactive and tend to give emotional responses to situations that normally wouldn’t affect many people. Highly neurotic types tend to be self-conscious, shy, and have trouble controlling urges or delaying gratification.
The six sub traits of neuroticism are as follows:
Individuals who score low in neuroticism are known as emotionally stable. People with lower levels of neuroticism are desired in most professions because they tend to get less distracted by work, their personal lives, or other stressors.
High levels of neuroticism are associated with a higher risk of mental illness and less favorable results on measures of health and relationships. However, neuroticism provides a higher sensitivity to potential threats which is a useful survival mechanism. People with high levels of neuroticism also learn faster than their emotionally stable counterparts. I talk a fair bit about the utility in experiencing negative emotion in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). We learn faster when we experience negative emotion and since neurotic types are more sensitive to negative emotion, they experience this sooner.
The knowledge of our own sensitivity to negative emotion is critical when examining the potential realities in front of us. Fairly neurotic types may want to consider that they don’t work well under pressure and plan ahead so their work can be done at a leisurely pace. Emotionally stable types may not have to exercise that type of consideration, but may keep in mind they would be fantastic for high-pressure careers like firefighting or surgery.
Methods of Identifying Personality
All of this knowledge is great, but how do we determine exactly where we land on each dimension?
There are multiple methods with some being more accurate and precise.
The easiest is taking a test while in a neutral psychophysiological state. There are tons of resources online. I recommend understandmyself.com. Make sure you are as neutral as possible. Don’t take the test upset, tired, or hungry. On the flip side, also don’t take it if you are happy, excited, or anxious! This knowledge is crucial to take into account when we plan our futures including study schedules, career goals, relationship choices, and other life plans.
Be sure to keep in mind that personality, especially since there are no flawless models, is just a starting point when it comes to designing a life trajectory. Paying attention to our inclinations is a promising way to know what kind of life fits us best. Knowing ourselves takes time because we have multiple levels all working together like an orchestral symphony. Personality is a great starting point for building a foundation for the knowledge and cultivation of our inclinations. People like Steve Jobs or Robert Greene achieved the levels of success they had because they took the time to get to know themselves and cultivated their personal interests.
Knowing ourselves intimately gives us access to deep satisfaction that we couldn’t get anywhere else. I was lucky enough to have parents support my inclination in music at a young age. I got to explore my love for music and the deeper I got, the more I fell in love with it.
Fast forward to post-college where I am forced to deal with the realities of life and decide what my life will mean, I learn that I’m high in trait openness. From my own analysis and reflection, I discovered that long periods of time where I can be creative will satisfy my openness appetite. Combining the knowledge of these two ideas, I spend years slowly molding my schedule into one that provides me ample time to be creative. Today, I can say with 100% certainty that it gives me inner peace and a pure sense of satisfaction to have connected with something deep within me. Getting to know ourselves is truly the best way to spend our time. It enriches every aspect of our existence.
Another method of identifying personality is writing an autobiography. Now, this doesn’t have to be some thick book. It could be short with just a few paragraphs. There are no rules for writing the autobiography other than you have to write it yourself. The real meaning lies in what we write and not how much we write. This method is less quantitative than the online exams but could offer deeper insights.
Articulating the past is helpful because we can clearly see how we understand the past. We can stand back, look at the picture as an outsider, and make sound judgments about what we think, or feel, or know.
Writing an entire biography is difficult, so to make it a little more manageable, just start by breaking our life story up into 5 epochs. The way in which we divide up our lives gives us a hint into what we value. For example, when I last did this exercise I noticed that my epochs were based on what my main occupation was at the time. This particular division suggests my proclivity towards high conscientiousness. The time before last, I split my life up by which people I spent the most time around, which can suggest my agreeable tendencies.
Write your story and see how you know yourself. It can be very interesting to examine our lives through our own eyes.
The world of personality research has given us a wealth of knowledge that we can use to better understand ourselves and others. Relationships regarding personality are not blanket statements about any specific group of people. There will be exceptions in every case. For example, women tend to be more agreeable than men but that does not mean there are no agreeable men or disagreeable women.
One personality relationship worth paying attention to is between gender differences. Across cultures, women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, friendliness (extraversion subset), and emotionality (openness subset). Men, on the other hand, typically report higher levels of assertiveness (extraversion subset), and adventurousness (openness subset). There is much overlap between men and women except for the difference in neuroticism, which is the biggest and most prominent difference in these self-reported studies.
Each of these traits has been believed to have evolved out of survival. However, success in the modern world and survival in the wild require different abilities and skills. Agreeableness, for example, is great for caring for infants. That’s why we choose to take care of them if they’re crying at 3 in the morning rather than throw them out the window. However, agreeableness isn’t so great for moving up the corporate ladder. Sure we need some agreeableness to cooperate with everyone, but we need to be disagreeable enough to fight for opportunities and look out for our own interests. All of these traits are useful for survival, but not in the modern world. Some of them can do more harm than good, I talk a little bit about that in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2).
There are also trends with personality and birth order. Frank Sulloway, an American psychologist best known for his work on birth order personality research, argues that firstborns are higher in conscientiousness and lower in openness than their later-born siblings. He also argues that firstborns are more socially dominant. There have been other studies conducted that have fallen in line with Sulloway’s claims, but with a small correlation.
There are some correlations between personality and substance abuse as well. The personality profile of a typical heroin user would be low in neuroticism, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness. The personality profile of a typical ecstasy user would be high in extraversion, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness.
There are also connections between personality and health. Research has found that being high in conscientiousness can add 5 years to your life and being high in neuroticism is related to less favorable health outcomes. People who report high levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness tend to have lower risks of mortality as well. It seems like it pays off to try to be conscientious, extroverted, and open.
Here are some connections between academic achievement and personality. Conscientiousness is predictive of GPA and exam performance. Students who report higher levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to have higher GPAs and exam scores. Those who report higher levels of neuroticism tend to have less desirable academic outcomes.
Personality can also be a predictor of job performance. This is partly why I suggest using personality to help shape our life trajectory. We are more likely to enjoy jobs that we would excel in. People who excel in leadership positions are perceived to have low levels of neuroticism and high levels of openness while maintaining balanced levels of conscientiousness and extraversion. Studies have found that employees are less likely to view their supervisor’s actions as abusive if they consider their supervisor to be high in conscientiousness.
Professional burnout is highly correlated with high levels of neuroticism. People who report higher levels of agreeableness tend to make less money than their disagreeable counterparts.
Conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the conscientiousness the better their performance. Extraversion is the 2nd biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the extraversion the better their performance. Agreeableness and Neuroticism are tied for 3rd, lower levels of each being tied to higher performance.
Research on how the individual traits affected individuals and organizations at work found that individuals (or organizations of individuals) who are higher in openness are more proactive with tasks but less organized and proficient. Both of these effects are mutually exclusive. Those who are more agreeable tend to be less proactive with tasks. Those who are higher in extraversion are, on average, less proficient at tasks. Those who are high in conscientiousness tend to relate positively in all forms of work performance. Highly neurotic types tend to relate negatively to all forms of work performance.
In romantic relationships, personality could predict satisfaction and relationship quality during the various stages of a romantic relationship.
Dating couples’ studies suggest that people will have higher relationship satisfaction and quality if they see their partner with lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of conscientiousness as well as see themselves with higher levels of conscientiousness.
Engaged couples’ studies suggest that relationship satisfaction and quality are higher among those who report their partner as high in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness and lower in neuroticism. Satisfaction and quality are also higher for those who report themselves as higher in extraversion and agreeableness. Neuroticism predicts worse relationship satisfaction and quality for both self-reported and partner-reported studies.
Married couples, on the other hand, demonstrate higher levels of relationship satisfaction and quality when self-reporting higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness as well as partner-reported agreeableness.
Personality can also show up with people’s political identification, but not with all 5 traits. People who are higher in conscientiousness tend to be more conservative, while people who are higher in openness tend to be more liberal. The other three traits have not been found to be linked to preferred political ideology.
Personalities are subject to change as our lives move and one of the traits the changes the most with age is neuroticism. Research has found that neuroticism tends to decrease with age and after major life events.
Similar to MBTI, The Big 5 has a few critiques as well. While The Big 5 is more based on empirical evidence, it is still limited in its predictive power and does not accurately encompass all of the human personality. However, it’s one of the best models we have and that doesn’t mean that we can’t use it to our advantage.
Since there is more research related to the Big 5, we can use what rings true from The Big 5, MBTI, our personal experiences, and other sources to clearly articulate our preferences. We can use everything we know about personality to create a more refined way of determining our life trajectory. Keep in mind which traits you have and how they will change and use that knowledge to inform your choices when you choose what you do for work, who you marry, where you live, and why you do what you do.
While it’s great to tailor our life trajectory to our personalities, that does not mean we should avoid exposing ourselves to the opposites of our preferences. Wisdom is always on the other side of what we are.
“Become who you are. Become all that you are. There is still more of you – more to be discovered, forgiven, and loved.”Carl Jung (1875-1961)