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Your whole personality is made up from only 5 items

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Are there only 5 key factors that make up a person’s personality? what do they mean? And what am I supposed to do about it?

What are the 5 key personality factors?

Psychologists have identified 5 personality traits which go into making up a person’s whole personality. This has not been done lightly or even recently, but over decades and involving many thousands of people from all races, genders, socio-economic status, and many different languages. Not everyone absolutely agrees with this notion of personality (but this is normal for science in most areas!) yet it is the clearest picture we have. These traits collectively are referred to as the ‘big 5’ and these 5 traits may give us an indication of what we are best suited to in terms of a job and maybe a clue as to why we differ with some other people and subsequently struggle with them in working or personal relationships (NB understanding this may help soothe and maintain those relationships). The body of research underpinning this is literally huge; are you interested in finding out your own score? ( Maybe best to do this now, before you read my descriptions and interpretations of the big 5 below).

Trait #1: Openness to experience (openness and intellect)

This relates to creativity, interest in arts (e.g., literature, music, film, painting) and intelligence (especially verbal intelligence). People high in this trait are seen as intelligent, smart, and creative, they are probably very interested in learning, reading, and acquiring new skills. High scorers may also find it hard to concentrate on any one thing as they are so exceptionally interested in everything it becomes difficult to settle and focus… why do we have this trait? Well, I guess innovation would never take place if we did not- this trait in all probability coupled with high conscientiousness will be present in some of the world’s greatest problem-solvers… If you have extremely high openness to experience you may also struggle to keep your thinking on track, as you leap quickly from idea to idea, whereas scoring very low may mean a certain inflexibility and narrow viewpoints.

Trait #2: Conscientiousness (industriousness and orderliness)

The degree to which you work hard, see a task through to completion and literally the way you like/need to have things in order. You won’t be surprised to learn orderliness is a good predictor of job/career success, but also a predictor of success per se. Imagine two athletes with similar genetics, both are javelin throwers. One fastidiously records their workouts in the gym, sets, reps, what they eat and their body composition and never misses a workout etc, and one sort of does these things but in a slightly more haphazard way, occasionally misses a task here and there; the outcomes will probably make a difference, especially in competition where the gap between winning and losing is so very slim. At the heart of orderliness is a need for cleanliness and a dislike of dirt, mess, and uncleanliness- maybe born out of our desire to avoid disease. Clinical psychologist and supremo thinker Jordan Petersen points out the downside to extreme orderliness when he suggests that the Nazi regime were certainly very conscientious…conscientiousness can be really helpful but in extreme also means rigid and obsessive, on the other hand extremely low conscientiousness and you have an undisciplined and careless person.

Trait #3: Extraversion (enthusiasm and assertiveness)

The degree to which you are extroverted versus introverted- it is not as simple as dancing on tables and always needing to be the centre of attention equalling extrovert and locked away alone with a book equals introvert, wait a minute, yes it kind of does... Highly extrovert types may also be overly dominant and impulsive, whereas extremely introverted types can be prone to isolation and depression.

Trait #4: Agreeableness (Compassion and politeness)

So on the positive side of being high in this trait you may be nurturing, caring and really good at seeing the good in others… you may also not be very good at bargaining and tend to avoid conflict. Women, in general, are more agreeable than men (this is a representation of data not my opinion!). High disagreeableness? Prison- as this will tend to be the trait higher in criminal versus non-criminal populations. In other words, there is a downside to being high/very high in agreeableness and also for disagreeableness. if you are highly agreeable you may also struggle to assert yourself/bargain for a pay rise, but a low level of agreeability may spell out callousness, aggression, and bullying... We also tend to become more agreeable with age.

Trait # 5: Emotional Stability (withdrawal and volatility)

This is obviously seen as a negative trait as it relates to our susceptibility to emotional pain, sadness, fear, and anxiety and yet it has also been imprinted into the human personality for a reason (probably survival by worrying about things e.g., predators or dangerous people/situations). If you score highly for neuroticism, it suggests more anxiety and emotional pain to deal with whereas very high emotional stability suggests risk taking/dangerous behaviour.

What am I supposed to do about it?

Personality traits are probably an inherent part of us from birth… even little babies can be more/less emotionally stable than their siblings (ask anyone with several kids) so to some extent they are fixed. There is, however, the notion that we might ‘stretch’ some of these traits to suit ourselves. Let me fess up here, I score low in one of the most useful traits: conscientiousness (I’d give you an example, but I can’t be bothered). I am low, especially in the part of that trait which relates to ‘orderliness’ (although I am also fairly industrious) and that can be a problem, it means I put a lot of effort in but do not always keep things in great order… however, as we get older we probably become more conscientious (orderly) than when we were young (I think that is also true for me) but when I am trying to get things done it has often been a real problem, filing is often not filed (just left somewhere vaguely related to work…) and to be honest many times I have just not been able to cross the t’s and dot the I’s in a whole host of tasks… so what can I do? Well to stretch this trait in a more positive direction I can be aware of it and be careful to do partnership work with more conscientious types- (I am also high in agreeableness so won’t want to let them down) and I can purposefully use ‘to do’ lists and similar tricks to help ensure I stick to tasks and I also might have to accept a certain limitation to my level of conscientiousness and provide something else for example zest, creativity and my industriousness to a project; whilst asking my partner(s) to assess the level of detail.

Our analysis is a little slim here, as you will discover if you go in depth, for example, the five traits are each broken down into 2 sub-sections (each subsection is represented in brackets in the descriptions above). If you really want to go into the detail on this, and gain a comprehensive report of what your traits say about you, I highly recommend Jordan Petersen’s personality test:

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