personality traits

This page is about a couple of different systems of describing personality traits. They were both derived by using factor analysis to reduce personality-related adjectives that frequently appeared together (e.g. “inquisitive” and “creative”) down to a small number of broad traits that are believed to be behind all the associated descriptors.

Now, do these systems have any actual use? Maybe, but I do think they’re taken too seriously and grossly overused by many people (especially in HR) today. I actually had to do one of these “Big Five” tests as part of my entry application to the uni where I did my Masters, and they outright said that “mismatched” personality traits would count as a mark against you… that seems to set an insane amount of store by what’s basically an online quiz. There seems to be, at best, a weak amount of correlation between supposedly desirable traits for a position and actual job performance once you’re in it, so these tests definitely should not be used for those kinds of purposes.

You can also question how accurate they are. For example, the original Big Five was English-centric; studies into other languages kept finding a sixth, honesty-related, factor (which eventually led to the revamped HEXACO system). Some languages had the honesty-related factor instead of a different factor, like agreeableness. Some other studies have found evidence for further factors that aren’t part of either of these systems (like a hedonism/spontaneity factor). But even beyond that, when it comes to giving people quizzes to determine their personality types, how reliable are those quizzes? Especially since a bunch of findings (e.g. low agreeableness, low openness, high neuroticism) seem clearly “negative”. And even if people answer honestly, how variable are individuals’ personality traits over time? How much could “negative” trait findings be due to a bad mood or a recent adverse life event, rather than an actual inherent part of your personality?

But maybe these systems for analysing traits have some legitimacy as part of a broader picture – in aggregate – if not at the individual level. For example, these kinds of traits have been used as part of studies into personality formation, studies which found that genetics and upbringing are of roughly 50-50 relevance. The traits were used to judge what participants’ personalities actually were, in order to compare them. Perhaps these models are “good enough” for that study to have been valid? Or, some would say, all of it is junk science. I don’t have the academic background in this field to make a judgement as to who is right 🙃

As an educated layperson, I feel like these systems could be useful as a tool to understand yourself. For example, if you feel you have “high neuroticism”, maybe you could find resources on strategies you could employ in order to reduce the negative impacts of neuroticism on your life or productivity. Or maybe knowing you have “low extraversion” might make you steer yourself towards a career path where independence and careful thought before action is more desirable than in like… the majority of careers. So to that degree I think these ways of thinking might be handy, but I don’t think they should be used by HR or university admissions to make those decisions for people. God forbid. (Here’s an article(external link) that touches on inappropriate use of such tests in job interviews – in this case, using AI to try to measure interviewees’ levels of various traits through the intonation of their voices…)

The Big Five

Under the Big Five model, there are five main traits:

  • Extraversion
    • positively linked to outgoingness, assertiveness, action-orientedness, and more willing to just dive into different activities
    • negatively linked to being more independent (as in less reliant on external validation or stimulation), more reserved, taking more time to think before you act
  • Agreeableness
    • positively linked to being considerate, kind, trusting, trustworthy, willing to compromise, and optimistic about human nature
    • negatively linked to being self-interested, competitive, cynical, unfriendly and uncooperative
  • Openness to experience
    • positively linked to curiosity, imaginativeness, appreciation of art and beauty, more self-awareness, better abstract reasoning
    • negatively linked to being “data-driven”, dogmatic, and highly persevering
  • Conscientiousness
    • positively linked to being self-disciplined, striving for achievement and preferring planned activities
    • negatively linked to being more flexible and spontaneous, but also unreliable and sloppy/careless
  • Neuroticism
    • positively linked to feeling anxious, irritable, stressed, miserable and dissatisfied
    • negatively linked to resilience, and being more likely to feel content or relaxed

HEXACO model

A revision of the Big Five model where the factor analysis was done with a greater number of adjectives, and found the adjectives to reduce down to six factors, not five. Three of them are the same as the Big Five model, two (emotionality and agreeableness) are very similar, and one (honesty-humility) is kind of a spinning-out of what the Big Five would consider “Agreeableness”.

  • Honesty-Humility
    • positively linked to sincerity, fairness, avoidance of greed, modesty
    • negatively linked to boastfulness, greediness, pomposity, hypocrisy
  • Emotionality
    • positively linked to sentimentality, as well as feeling anxious, stressed, upset, etc. easily
    • negatively linked to resilience, self-assuredness, courage
  • eXtraversion
    • positively linked to being outgoing, active, talkative
    • negatively linked to being shy, reserved, passive, introverted
  • Agreeableness
    • positively linked to being gentle, forgiving, flexible, agreeable
    • negatively linked to being grumpy, ill-tempered, stubborn
  • Conscientiousness
    • positively linked to organisation, thoroughness, carefulness
    • negatively linked to absent-mindedness, laziness, irresponsibility, sloppiness
  • Openness
    • positively linked to curiosity, imaginativeness, appreciation of art and beauty, unconventionality, intellectualism
    • negatively linked to shallowness, uninquisitiveness, conventionality

As far as my own personality goes, I would rate myself very high on honesty-humility, emotionality, agreeableness and openness, somewhat high on conscientiousness, and very low on extraversion 🙂 I could kind of link this to what have been the strengths and weaknesses in my professional existence so far – generally my strengths were in building relationships with people (but not in an “instant best mate of everybody” way, more of a “slow and steady” way), while my weaknesses were in excessive perfectionism and therefore spending too long on tasks or getting too stressed about them relative to their actual importance 😆 I also know I get very tired in jobs where I’m talking to people nearly non-stop. I feel like a better fit for me than what I have been doing would be something with more of a balance – some interaction with people, and some time spent working independently on tasks. Maybe at a 1:3 ratio. Just a guess, really, cos all the jobs I’ve had have been basically 100% one or the other 🙃