Many contemporary personality psychologists believe that there are five basic dimensions of personality, often referred to as the “Big 5” personality traits. These five primary personality traits are extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
Understanding what each personality trait is and what it means to score high or low in that trait can give you insight into your own personality—without taking a personality traits test. It can also help you better understand others, based on where they fall on the continuum for each of the personality traits listed.
Some use the acronym OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) to remember the Big 5 personality traits. CANOE (for conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion) is another option.
History of the 5-Factor Model of Personality
Trait theories of personality have long attempted to pin down exactly how many traits exist. Earlier theories have suggested various numbers. For instance, Gordon Allport’s list contained 4,000 personality traits, Raymond Cattell had 16 personality factors, and Hans Eysenck offered a three-factor theory.
Many researchers felt that Cattell’s theory was too complicated and Eysenck’s was too limited in scope. As a result, the Big 5 personality traits emerged and are used to describe the broad traits that serve as building blocks of personality.
Several researchers support the belief that there are five core personality traits.1 Evidence of this theory has been growing for many years in psychology, beginning with the research of D. W. Fiske (1949), and later expanded upon by others, including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).
The Big 5 Personality Traits
While there is a significant body of literature supporting these primary personality traits, researchers don’t always agree on the exact labels for each dimension. That said, these five traits are usually described as follows.
This personality trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight.1 People who are high in openness tend to have a broad range of interests. They are curious about the world and other people and are eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences.
People who are high in this personality trait also tend to be more adventurous and creative. Conversely, people low in this personality trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.
- Very creative
- Open to trying new things
- Focused on tackling new challenges
- Happy to think about abstract concepts
- Dislikes change
- Does not enjoy new things
- Resists new ideas
- Not very imaginative
- Dislikes abstract or theoretical concepts
Standard features of this personality trait include high levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, and goal-directed behaviors.1 Highly conscientious people tend to be organized and mindful of details. They plan ahead, think about how their behavior affects others, and are mindful of deadlines.
Someone scoring lower in this primary personality trait is less structured and less organized. They may procrastinate to get things done, sometimes missing deadlines completely.
- Spends time preparing
- Finishes important tasks right away
- Pays attention to detail
- Enjoys having a set schedule
- Dislikes structure and schedules
- Makes messes and doesn’t take care of things
- Fails to return things or put them back where they belong
- Procrastinates important tasks
- Fails to complete necessary or assigned tasks
Extraversion (or extroversion) is a personality trait characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.1 People high in extraversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. Being around others helps them feel energized and excited.
People who are low in this personality trait or introverted tend to be more reserved. They have less energy to expend in social settings and social events can feel draining. Introverts often require a period of solitude and quiet in order to “recharge.”
- Enjoys being the center of attention
- Likes to start conversations
- Enjoys meeting new people
- Has a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances
- Finds it easy to make new friends
- Feels energized when around other people
- Say things before thinking about them
- Prefers solitude
- Feels exhausted when having to socialize a lot
- Finds it difficult to start conversations
- Dislikes making small talk
- Carefully thinks things through before speaking
- Dislikes being the center of attention
This personality trait includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors.1 People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this personality trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.
- Has a great deal of interest in other people
- Cares about others
- Feels empathy and concern for other people
- Enjoys helping and contributing to the happiness of other people
- Assists others who are in need of help
- Takes little interest in others
- Doesn’t care about how other people feel
- Has little interest in other people’s problems
- Insults and belittles others
- Manipulates others to get what they want
Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability.1 Individual who is high in neuroticism tends to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and sadness. Those low in this personality trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient.
- Experiences a lot of stress
- Worries about many different things
- Gets upset easily
- Experiences dramatic shifts in mood
- Feels anxious
- Struggles to bounce back after stressful events
- Emotionally stable
- Deals well with stress
- Rarely feels sad or depressed
- Doesn’t worry much
- Is very relaxed
How to Use the Big 5 Personality Traits
Where you fall on the continuum for each of these five primary traits can be used to help identify whether you are more or less likely to have other more secondary personality traits. These other traits are often split into two categories: positive personality traits and negative personality traits.
Positive Personality Traits
Positive personality traits are traits that can be beneficial to have. These traits may help you be a better person or make it easier to cope with challenges you may face in life. Personality traits that are considered positive include:
Negative Personality Traits
Negative personality traits are those that may be more harmful than helpful. These are traits that may hold you back in your life or hurt your relationships with others. (They’re also good traits to focus on for personal growth.) Personality traits that fall in the negative category include:
For example, if you score high in openness, you are more likely to have the positive personality trait of creativity. If you score low in openness, you may be more likely to have the negative personality trait of being unimaginative.
The universality of Primary Personality Traits
McCrae and his colleagues found that the Big 5 personality traits are remarkably universal. One study that looked at people from more than 50 different cultures found that the five dimensions could be accurately used to describe personality.
Based on this research, many psychologists now believe that the five personality dimensions are not only universal but that they also have biological origins. Psychologist David Buss has proposed an evolutionary explanation for these five core personality traits, suggesting that they represent the most important qualities that shape our social landscape.
Factors Influencing Personality Traits
Research suggests that both biological and environmental influences play a role in shaping our personalities. Twin studies suggest that both nature and nurture play a role in the development of each of the five personality traits.2
One study of the genetic and environmental underpinnings of the five traits looked at 123 pairs of identical twins and 127 pairs of fraternal twins. The findings suggested that the heritability of each personality trait was 53% for extraversion, 41% for agreeableness, 44% for conscientiousness, 41% for neuroticism, and 61% for openness.
Longitudinal studies also suggest that these big five personality traits tend to be relatively stable over the course of adulthood. One four-year study of working-age adults found that personality changed little as a result of adverse life events.
Studies show that maturation may have an impact on the five personality traits. As people age, they tend to become less extroverted, less neurotic, and less open to an experience. Agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tend to increase as people grow older.