Big Five

Understanding The five-factor model of personality

Historically, the interest in personality measurement (both in general human behavior and more specifically in work behavior) began with the development of a taxonomy of personality dimensions labeled the Big Five or the Five Factor Model (FFM) (Digman, 1990; McCrae & Costa, 1985, 1987).

The Five Factor Model of Personality—often referred to as Big Five—is a taxonomy of five personality factors, composed of conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness to experience.

According to the Big Five or the Five Factor Model, an individual’s personality can be described by where that individual falls on five dimensions:

  • openness to experience,
  • conscientiousness,
  • extraversion,
  • agreeableness, and
  • neuroticism (the opposite of emotional stability).

A useful mnemonic acronym for the five scales is OCEAN, or CANOE.

Table 1.1 The Five Factor Model
FactorCharacteristics
ConscientiousnessOpens in new windowResponsible, prudent, self-controlled, persistent, organized, achievement-oriented
ExtraversionOpens in new windowSociable, assertive, talkative, ambitious, energetic
AgreeablenessGood-natured, cooperative, trusting, likable, friendly
Emotional stabilitySecure, calm, low anxiety, low emotionality
Openness to experienceOpens in new windowCurious, intelligent, imaginative, independent

Beneath each proposed dimension, there are a number of correlated and more specific primary dimensions. For example, extraversion Opens in new window is said to include such related qualities as gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, warmth, activity, and positive emotions.

Roberts and colleagues (2005) argue that conscientiousness Opens in new window can be broken down further into three subfactors including industriousness, order, and self-control.

Of the five FFM factors, the first to attract attention from I-O psychologists was conscientiousness. More recently, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness are also attracting increased attention (Barrick & Mount, 2005).

In some early research, Barrick and Mount (1991) proposed, on the basis of a meta-analysis, that conscientiousness was likely positively related to success in all aspects of work for all occupations. That was a strong statement, but it was supported by their analyses.

Lee, Ashton, and de Vries (2005) propose that a dimension of honesty-humility needs to be added to the FFM. Some evidence (Marcus, Lee, & Ashton, 2007) suggests that this new dimension might be useful in predicting counterproductive work behavior such as theft.

conceptualizing the five factor model

The FFM was the result of both statistical analyses of personality test information gathered over many decades and a careful conceptual analysis of what most personality tests were trying to assess.

The FFM is a good way to gain a broad understanding of the structure of personality, but it may be a bit too general for dealing with specific aspects of work behavior.

In fact, many work-related personality models such as the Five Factor Model Questionnaire (FFMQ; Gill & Hodgkinson, 2007), the Hogan Personality Inventory (Hogan, Davies, & Hogan, 2007), and the Personal Characteristics Inventory (Mount & Barrick, 2002), have developed from the more generic FFM and they are all relevant to work behavior Opens in new window.

Virtually all modern personality models resemble the Five Factor Model (FFM) in that they propose that we can describe someone’s personality by looking at some small number of relatively independent factors.

Personality can be defined in simplest terms as the typical way that an individual has of responding. It is considered a collection of traits because it is fairly stable, even though situations and circumstances might lead a person to behave in a way that is out of character with his or her overall personality.

Using the FFM as an example, the model identifies five different components that, when taken together, give a fair representation of how a person typically responds to events and people (see Table 1.1 above).

Considerable evidence suggests that although the five factors might express themselves in slightly different ways in various cultures, the FFM seems applicable cross-culturally (McCrae; Tsaousis & Nikolaou, 2001) and that culture and personality may be linked (Hofstede & McCrae, 2004).

Criticism of the Five Factor Model

Naturally, there were disagreements with the five factor taxonomy and with the presumed overarching importance of conscientiousness.

  1. The first disagreement was that five factors are too few to capture the full range of aspects of personality (Tellegen, Grove, & Waller, 1991).
  2. The second criticism was that although conscientiousness might be correlated with a wide range of work behaviors, it was not highly correlated with them. In addition, extraversion often correlated as highly with behavior as did conscientiousness.
  3. A third criticism was that there were combinations of the five factors that led to greater predictive power than any one of the factors by itself (Ones, Viswesvaran, & Schmidt, 1993).

The first and third criticisms present an interesting dilemma, since one argues for more factors, whereas the other seems to be arguing for fewer factors.

It is conceivable that no one seem to disagree that the FFM contains the minimum number of relevant personality characteristics; the debate seems to be about the optimum number.

Interestingly, Musek (2007) has suggested that there is really only one personality factor: a combination of the Big 5. Presumably, he calls his theory the Big 1 theory. He proposes that this single factor represents all the things one would value in a personality: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, extraversion, and openness.

What seems to be true is that, although each of the five broad personality factors does predict successful (in contrast to unsuccessful) performance of certain behaviors, some combinations of the factors may be stronger predictors than any single factor.

This introduces the idea of a functional personality at work—the way an individual behaves, handles emotions, and accomplishes tasks in a work setting: a combination of Big 5 factors (Barrick, Mount, & Judge, 2001), meaning that not just one factor predicts success, but a combination of factors.

For example, Ones et al (1993) found that individuals who were high on conscientiousness, agreeableness (likable, easy to get along with, friendly), and emotional stability (displaying little emotion: showing the same emotional response in various situations) tended to have higher integrity (quality of being honest, reliable, and ethical).

Dunn (1993) found that managers believed that a combination of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability made applicants more attractive to managers who had hiring responsibilities.