The Big Five Personality Traits

Personality and The Big Five

Whether it is an interaction in a hiring interview, with a colleague, a customer, or just an everyday situation involving people, their individual differences quickly come into action. Some of them might sit quietly in a corner and observe the surroundings, others jump right into conversations with people they have never met before. Some people enjoy small talk; others start conversations immediately with their deep thoughts. People are unique and have diverse reactions in the same situations. All these unique behavior patterns, attitudes, feelings, or thoughts are a manifestation of people’s personality.

Understanding personality might not seem like the most important factor when selecting new employees. However, anyone who works with a person whose personality just does not “fit” the position they are in or the company culture itself, realizes instantly that the personality fit of employees is a crucial component to building a successful company. A quiet, shy, analytical person will likely not thrive in a high-speed, high-pressure sales position. Just as an extraverted people person that likes a constant change of pace would probably not be happy in an accounting position looking at spreadsheets every day. When the personality does not correspond with the position or the company culture, everyone loses. Personality testing can help address these issues and help recruiters find the right candidates that have not only the necessary skills but also fitting personality. The Big Five Personality Traits model is the longest-standing framework for organizing the underlying personality traits and it is also the most reliable and widely used model in pre-employment personality testing.

The basis for this theory can be traced back to the 1800s, however, the model in its current form has been developed and popularized in the second half of the 20th century. The five personality traits are Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE are often used to name and remember the model. The Five-Factor model is also a common name for this framework. This naming variability is a direct result of several different research teams working independently on the same theory, with Lewis Goldberg being recognized as the researcher that coined the most common name - The Big Five Personality Traits. The traits are not considered to be binary categories like most other trait theories but are rather taken as a spectrum where a person is placed somewhere between the two extremes. This means that an individual is not classified as either an extravert or an introvert, but the Big Five model places them somewhere on the spectrum of extraversion. The traits are also independent of each other – a person can be high on one trait and low on another one – which makes this model extremely versatile and allows for a more detailed look at the unique human personality.

History and development

The Big Five traits model is based on the lexical hypothesis, an idea that postulates that personality traits and individual differences that are most relevant to a group will become encoded in that group’s language. By studying language, therefore, it is possible to create extensive terminology of personality traits. Psychologist Francis Galton was the first one to notice this phenomenon in the 19th century. He used a dictionary to find all the people-related adjectives describing their character and developed first such taxonomy of personality traits. L. L. Thurstone later picked up this idea, in his research he provided people with a list of 60 adjectives used for describing people and asked his study subjects to rate people close to them using these adjectives. He then used a statistical method of factor analysis to see how these adjectives were interconnected and found out that they can be grouped into five clusters corresponding with the five traits we know today.

In 1936, psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert wanted to expand on this theory by including every possible adjective describing types of behavior or personality traits and extracted around 4,500 terms from Webster’s New International Dictionary. They have noticed that these adjectives can too be grouped into several broader traits. Many researchers including Raymond Cattell, Donald Fiske, Warren Norman, Robert McCrae, or Paul Costa then used factor analysis, just as Thurstone, to look at the relationships between these adjectives trying to find underlying superordinate factors. Although the researchers named these factors differently as they worked independently, they all came to the conclusion that there are five distinct broad categories of human traits. While there does not exist an all-encompassing personality model, each of these big broad five trait categories covers hundreds of “smaller” personality-related terms and facets making it exhaustive enough to pick up on individual differences. Later twin studies of these traits found that they are partly inherited (heritability around 40 - 60% based on the specific trait) and partly the result of upbringing and environment. Although there can be some variance throughout life, these traits are considered to be mostly stable from childhood to adulthood, which makes it possible to draw implications for later behavior and performance.

The Big Five Traits

Big Five Factors

Openness to Experience

The openness to experience dimension is related to a person’s willingness to try new things. It is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experiences. People that are open to experiences are curious, creative, willing to try new things that challenge their beliefs, and are also more inclined to engage in risky behavior than people whose openness to experience is low. People closed to experience may prefer routines to change, they feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations and value the safety of predictability. Openness to experience is also often linked to intelligence, which might be a result of experiencing more situations where new knowledge can be learned (e.g. museum visit). People scoring high on this trait are also more capable of “thinking outside of the box.”


Conscientiousness is a dimension that can be described as a tendency to control impulses and act in a socially acceptable manner. These characteristics help to achieve goal-oriented behaviors. Conscientious people are persistent, self-disciplined, reliable, and in control. They are aware of their actions and the consequences; they set ambitious goals and work very hard to achieve them. They might be perceived as stubborn and extremely focus, but they are often very successful in school as well as in their career, particularly excelling in leadership positions. On the other hand, people with low conscientiousness tend to be less motivated, less tidy, and punctual, but more spontaneous and flexible. They do not set such ambitious life goals and they often act on their impulses.


This dimension has two well-known ends of the spectrum – extraversion and introversion. It is characterized by the breadth of interaction with the external world (as opposed to depth). People scoring high on the extraverted scale are very sociable, outgoing, talkative, enjoy social events and meeting new people. They may often seem dominant in social settings, as they tend to be loud and energetic. They draw their energy from meeting a lot of people and interacting with them. People with low extraversion – introverts have contrasting behavior. They value their quiet time, meeting new people, and talking with bigger groups of people can be exhausting for them as they prefer smaller groups of people they already know. They might seem shy, although this is not always the case. They just tend to be more reserved and less involved in the social world.


This factor is related to how people get along with others. Extraversion is related to the source of energy and the interest in interacting with others, while agreeableness is related to a person's orientation towards others. It tells us how individuals usually interact with people. Agreeable people are friendly and co-operative, they tend to be very likable. They value working with others, trust them, and are always happy to jump in and help others in times of need. They dislike any form of conflict or confrontation and thus are usually the peacemaker within a group trying to appease others. Disagreeable people, on the other hand, are less concerned with making friends or pleasing others around them. They trust others less and are trusted by other people less as well. They usually look after their own self-interest which makes others think they are selfish. They are competitive and challenging which might sometimes come across as argumentative.


The dimension of neuroticism is also often referred to as emotional in/stability. It is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. People scoring high on neuroticism worry constantly. They tend to be fearful, anxious; they focus on the negative side of situations, and they often over-think and exaggerate their problems. These people may be less successful in coping with day-to-day stressors and they might become angry or frustrated that they experience these everyday obstacles. High neuroticism might also result in worse quality of relationships as high-neuroticism people are generally more negativistic and tend to dwell on issues. People scoring low on neuroticism experience less worry and self-doubt. They can stay calmer during a stressful situation and are less preoccupied with the negative aspects of their everyday lives. This might make them seem more confident and adventurous.

The Big Five Personality Traits and the workplace

The Big Five model belongs to the most researched personality models there are. It has been studied across various populations and its existence has been validated in many cultures and environments. The hiring process and workplace in general is an environment where this model has been highly utilized. There have been many studies linking these five traits to people’s job performance and job behavior and when used correctly and in an informed manner, this model can become a very useful tool for companies in the recruitment of new talent as well as development and motivation of current employees. Test Center, for instance, offers exceptionally reliable pre-employment personality assessment tests based on The Big Five Personality traits theory that are specialized for every major job industry and have been validated over a large sample from various industries, disciplines, and regions.

So, what personality traits from The Five-Factor model should employers look for when they are recruiting new employees? Researchers Sackett and Walmsley were interested in finding this out, so they analyzed large datasets of structured job interviews to see what traits companies are usually looking for and how well do these traits actually predict job performance. From their analyses, they came to the conclusion that conscientiousness is the trait that has the biggest influence on job performance and is also the most sought-after trait by employers. Conscientious people usually have higher levels of job-related knowledge as they learn more. They also possess the characteristics of great leaders and often put work first. They are dependable, persevering, and orderly which are all attributes highly important for workforce readiness. The second trait that is both sought after by companies and can predict job performance is agreeableness. Agreeable people are a great addition to any team, as they are very cooperative, tolerant, they trust and value their coworkers, they have generally high job satisfaction and are less likely to be involved in workplace accidents. They probably will not strive for a leadership position; however, they will be a great team member that can help keep the peace in the team and resolve issues before they arise. Agreeableness is, however, negatively associated with salary, as agreeable people lack the skills and will to negotiate with their superiors.

High scores on neuroticism, on the other hand, have been linked to higher stress levels and a higher probability of burnout. These people have worse ability to cope with work-place related stress and failure, while also having a tougher time managing their emotions. People who score low on neuroticism, thus have high emotional stability, tend to be highly satisfied with their job and life, have lower stress levels, and are also more likely to cope well with high work demands.

The researchers found that these three traits and attributes related to them were important for a wide variety of jobs independent of what type of job it is or what knowledge and skills are required for its completion. The remaining traits, openness to experience and extraversion, are important as well, however, they have shown to predict more specific aspects of job performance rather than overall success. Extraverted people are the ones who like to take charge in situations, they are, therefore, suitable for leadership roles. They are also very successful in sales positions or management roles, but they can act impulsively. People with high openness to experience are great for workplaces with constant changes and fast pace as they are very flexible and adapt to workplace changes easily. They can also be great leaders and their performance does not tend to decline over time.

Companies that realize these individual differences can benefit greatly from implementing The Big Five Personality Traits theory into their company culture and management of their workforce. They can implement these findings while recruiting new employees to ensure hiring only the most fitting people, thus avoiding high turnover and absenteeism. Leaders can use this model to help them motivate their current employees, as they are aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and motives. With understanding these unique characteristics, leaders can improve their leadership effectiveness and improve the job performance of their employees as well.


Every job or position requires a different set of knowledge, skills, but also personality characteristics. In some roles, people have to be extremely analytical, focused, and meticulous; in other ones, it is okay to overlook a detail here and there, but the person needs to be confident, assertive, and persuasive to do the job properly. These characteristics are not visible, so companies have to rely on personality tests to assess the fit of the person for the position. The market for psychometric tools for companies is large, so, understandably, the reliability of the methods varies. Assessment tests based on The Big Five Personality Traits theory belong to some of the most used tools in the hiring process. The validity and reliability of this theory have been proven by countless studies made mostly in the last 30 years, but also by the fact that at least four research teams have independently developed the same model, slightly differing only in naming the traits or the name of the model/theory itself.

The five traits - openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, can be seen in the workplace every day. Highly conscientious employees are probably the ones always turning their work ahead of time, doing more, and quickly getting promotions. The people that are always the most negative and stressed when a deadline comes close are the ones with high neuroticism. When employers take this theory and personality testing into account and try to incorporate the knowledge into the management techniques used in the company, they can maximize the performance of their workforce while also making sure that their employees can prosper in the positions they are in.

Last Updated on October 21, 2020