Measure your personality using the science-backed Big Five

Darryl Bachmeier
Jul 15, 2019
Mind


Have you ever wondered what science has to say about personality? Learn about the Big Five traits and find out whether it’s possible to change your personality.

We often look at people around us and unconsciously track patterns of behavior. When we look at someone who enjoys socializing with people and loves going to parties, we say that person is ‘extroverted’. When someone displays a habit of agreeing excessively and trying to please those around, we label that person as too ‘agreeable’ and ‘people-pleasing’.

What we are trying to do with these labels is categorize their ‘personality’. We search for the best description of who they are as people, and what makes them different from others.

Personality psychologists have, for many years, tried to find a reliable way of measuring the personalities of human beings. They have found that personality is best defined (and measured) by talking about personality traits.

Personality traits

Personality traits can be thought of as axes on a graph. They are basic dimensions that define a certain kind of personality and you can find people lying anywhere along that dimension.

For example, extraversion is a commonly recognized personality trait. Those who you consider ‘introverted’ will have a very low score on the extraversion dimension. Similarly, those who are ‘party animals’ and who instantly become the center of attention in social gatherings will rank very high on this trait.

So it goes that if we can find all the unique personality traits seen in human beings, we can map out every single person’s personality by giving them a high, medium, or low score on each of those traits.

The Big Five

As it turns out, two research teams comprising of scientists from the National Institute of Health, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Oregon, figured out in the 1970s five fundamental traits that constitute personality.

The researchers used statistical analyses to track five independent dimensions that sufficiently covered all the words and descriptors we use to highlight patterns of personality.

Although there are other sets of personality traits (ranging from 3 to 16) proposed by other researchers, the Big Five is widely accepted today as an accurate and reliable measure of personality.

These traits are conveniently identified by the acronym OCEAN. Let’s dive into what each personality trait represents.

Openness

People who are high in openness exhibit a greater acceptance of new ideas and other kinds of novelty. They appreciate art, literature, music, and all kinds of creative pursuits. They are also highly imaginative and often proceed in directions that are against tradition.

On the other hand, those who are low in openness prefer to stay grounded to their original beliefs and do not welcome new ideas and activities into their lives. They stick to tradition and are not attracted to creative pursuits.

Conscientiousness

A conscientious individual is characterized by high levels of self-discipline and punctuality. You will hardly ever find this person late to an event, unprepared, or disorganized. They will also plan everything beforehand and have a strong sense of duty.

Someone who scores low on this personality dimension will turn out to be more impulsive, preferring to make on-the-spot and unpredictable decisions. This person will have a poor work ethic, putting things off for the last moment, and often showing up late to events.

Extraversion

You might already be well-aware of this personality trait. Extroverted people, i.e. those who score high on this trait, are the ones you see holding center stage in parties and social gatherings, effortlessly interacting and conversing with strangers and winning them over.

Those who score low on extraversion, i.e. the ‘introverts’ tend to stay away from large gatherings and prefer silence and solitude. On a random holiday, you will find an introvert snuggled up in bed with a cup of coffee, devouring an engaging novel.

Agreeableness

If you’ve ever encountered a person who just wants to have his own way in every situation, who directs and forces everyone to accept his thinking and his methods, then know that this person scores low on this personality trait. These disagreeable people can turn out to be quite rude and uncooperative at times.

Conversely, those who score high on agreeableness tend to avoid confrontations that might lead to conflict, and always seek to dispel tense situations by giving in to the demands of the other party. They tend to agree on most issues with whoever they are currently talking to, and are generally very quick to forgive.

Neuroticism

By now, you must’ve already gotten the hang of it. People who are high in neuroticism always have a nagging feeling of anxiety keeping them on the edge of their seats. They constantly worry about little things, and it does not take much to disturb their emotional and mental balance.

If you score low in neuroticism, you will find yourself a lot calmer and more stable in even anxiety-inducing situations. You will be able to ‘keep it together’ in high-pressure events and act in a self-assured and secure manner.

Figuring out what’s going for you, and what’s not

Researchers have found that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of your personality. You can’t choose the personality ‘settings’ that you inherit from your parents, and you can’t choose the environment you grow up in either.

Because of this, you may find yourself struggling with an aspect of your personality that is directly affecting the quality of your life. Maybe you’re a people-pleaser and end up feeling like a doormat in your relationships. Or, you may be unable to fulfill your commitments and work hard to achieve your goals.

It is important that you find out exactly what personality trait you either have too much or too little of. If you’re a people-pleaser, you’re likely very high in agreeableness. If you’re unable to work hard and meet your targets, you may be low in conscientiousness. Identifying the problem is the necessary first step you need to take to start working towards a solution.

Well, can I really change my personality?

The simple answer is yes, but it is very difficult. Research has found that it is possible for people to alter individual traits of their personality through targeted and sustained effort, mostly under the supervision of a trained psychologist.

This is a revolutionary finding - you can no longer justify your poor habits or bad behavior by saying that ‘you’re just like that’ or that ‘you can’t do anything about it’.

Every one of us now has the responsibility to identify the parts of our personality that are detrimental to our wellbeing and goals, and the power to take steps to improve, slowly, but surely.

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