The Five Factor Theory of Personality

personality-typeThe Five Factor Theory was first introduced by McCrae and Costa (1984) and is based on the assumption that personality is relatively stable in adulthood. Generally, the traits that we show at the age of 30 would remain essentially unchanged into old age. (McCrae & Costa, Personality in Adulthood) Therefore, assessing personality based on the core traits what will not change through adult life seemed like a reliable method. There have been a lot of multi-cultural, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies throughout the past two decades. All of this research has confirmed the reliability and validity in the NEO Personality Inventory, or NEO-PI (Costa & McCrae, 1985, 1989) and has postulated there are indeed universal personality traits that characterize people all over the world.

Based on this extensive research and years of observing and interviewing people, McCrae and Costa identified the five core traits what describe a personality: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness (to experience), Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. These are the basic dispositions that endure through adulthood and shape our behavior and lives.

Calm – Worrying
Even-tempered – Temperamental
Self-satisfied – Self-pitying
Comfortable – Self-conscious
Unemotional – Emotional
Hardy – Vulnerable


Reserved – Affectionate
Loner – Joiner
Quiet – Talkative
Passive – Active
Sober – Fun-loving
Unfeeling – Passionate


862369_freedom1Openness to Experience

Down-to-earth – Imaginative
Uncreative – Creative
Conventional – Original
Prefer routine – Prefer variety
Uncurious – Curious
Conservative – Liberal

Agreeableness                                           Conscientiousness

Ruthless – Softhearted                                 Negligent – Conscientious
Suspicious – Trusting                                   Lazy – Hardworking
Stingy – Generous                                          Disorganized – Well-organized
Antagonistic – Acquiescent                        Late – Punctual
Critical – Lenient                                           Aimless – Ambitious
Irritable – Good-natured                             Quitting – Persevering

8 comments for “The Five Factor Theory of Personality

  1. lsky
    August 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Looks like the 5 traits described above are more like groups of actual traits. Is that correct? For example, under Neuroticism there are 6 possible traits, the combination of which forms your neurotic profile.
    Assuming that I’m right and that you can’t have varying degrees of a trait (i.e. you can only be Calm or Worrying, nothing in between), then for each group we have C(6,2) = 15 combinations. Then we have 15 distinct profiles for Neuroticism, 15 for Extraversion, 15 for Openness, etc.

  2. Dima
    August 29, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    You are absolutely right – these Five fundamental traits (basic tendencies) are actually composed of six more. On each of these, a person can score Very high, High, Average, Low or Very low. Therefore, the test really provides us with a detailed profile of the individual. Unlike some other tests, who attempt to determine whether you are A or B, this Personality inventory accepts that you might be a little bit of both, and C and D also. The scores can be numerically translated and mapped on a graph, outlining one’s profile.
    So, essentially, you can have a varying degree of a trait. You don’t necessarily have to be either Calm or Worrying, you can score Average. This makes sense, doesn’t it? You naturally worry in some situations, but remain cool-headed in others.
    Think of traits as a tendency to show consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions. Yet, traits are only dispositions, not absolute determinants and can be found in varying degrees in people (McCrae and Costa).
    It is also important to remember that psychologists are rarely interested in predicting a single behavior. On the contrary, they try to understand the way people act in general and be able to predict behaviors across situations. In other words, when we use personality traits, we try to predict long-term patterns of behavior with great precision. Exceptions will always exist.

    This multidimensional approach is what makes the test very appealing to me. Furthermore, these five traits really appear to be universal and we find them across cultures and nations. In fact, the creators of the Five Factor Model and this Personality Test started their search for the universal human traits by going through dictionaries, picking the common adjectives that people of different languages used to describe one another.

    The Five Factor Model is among the most reliable and valid tests out there. It is widely used by psychologists and psychiatrists and provides many insights about the individual, because it addresses so many different aspects of a personality. Many of the psychological tests have been designed to measure pathological traits and be used in the clinical setting only. This test can be used with both healthy and mentally disturbed individuals, which makes it very valuable, in my opinion.

    If you are interested in the topic, you might be interested in reading my article on comparing Personality traits in different states in the US. I am currently working on this one, so expect to see it in a day or two.

    Warm regards!

  3. lsky
    October 20, 2009 at 11:59 am

    How does this test compare to the Myers-Briggs personality test? Isn’t the MBTI one of the most widely accepted metrics? I’m sure there are also other personality tests – it’s very confusing – it would be nice if they could come up with a standard of some kind to measure human traits/behavior. But then again, psychology is a new science.

  4. Dima
    October 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Thank you for raising this question.

    Truthfully, there are many personality inventories out there, with varying degrees of ‘popularity’, validity and reliability. The MBTI really is widely accepted. The main difference between these tests is their theoretical background – they describe personality in terms of different core traits or types.

    The Myers-Briggs personality test borrows fundamental personality constructs from Carl Jung, who focused on two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions: thinking and feeling, sensing and intuition. Each of these could be manifested either in the attitude of Exraversion or Introversion. Subsequently, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers developed this concept further to a total of four dichotomies: Extraversion – Introversion, Sensing – Intuition, Thinking – Feeling, Judging – Perceiving. These ‘types’ (not called traits) generate 16 different ‘type combinations’.

    Personally, I am in favor of the fact that there are variations in Personality Inventories. As different tests have different focus, they can be used selectively in different settings. If we are using the inventory when hiring personnel, we might be interested in very specific aspects of personality. These may not interest us as much when we are diagnosing a pathological case or profiling a serial killer. Not to mention, we might be concerned about different traits when recruiting a CIA operative versus hiring a teacher. This is the beauty of having different inventories.

    I understand how having one uniform test can possibly eliminate biases and/or confusion. However, I don’t think the young science of psychology has the knowledge to point out with absolute certainty what are the fundamental, universal personality traits.

    The Rorschach inkblot test is also among the personality tests. It was widely used in the past, but today it has proven to have little construct validity. Yet, many psychologist, especially those with psychoanalytical background, still choose to use it. Counselors and Psychologists come from different theoretical backgrounds and, therefore, use different approach in studying and assessing personality. A person should be well aware of this when looking for a therapist and choose one whose approach would be most effective. For example, I will not be pleased if my therapist is assessing my personality solely on the Rorschach inkblot test. Similarly, I will not be pleased if I were evaluated for a job position based on this test. Yet, what if this was accepted as the one universal personality test? Would this make personality assessment better? Who is to say what aspects of personality matter the most? If we decided X, Y and Z are the most desirable traits, would people start exhibiting conformity in ofter to fit a desirable profile? Should there be a desirable profile, or should we accept diversity of traits? These are all loaded questions whose answers are not readily available. I am not convinced we can commit to just one test. We do not posses that body of knowledge about personality yet.

    I always encourage people to be skeptical and informed consumers of tests (personality, IQ, etc.). More and more psychological inventories are introduced and forced upon us every day. Each day, important decisions are made based on these tests. Thus, it is important to be knowledgeable of their validity and reliability.

    I agree it can be very confusing for the consumers of all these tests. Still, I posit to you, this is the best we have so far.

  5. Emanuela Buttigieg
    August 10, 2011 at 7:44 am

    I would like to know whether there is a relationship between the personality traits and the intention to whistle-blow. My dissertation will focus on the perception of accountants to whistleblowing and I tought of including a personality test to see whether there are personality differeneces when it comes to a hypothetical dilemma.

    You can contact me on my e-mail

  6. Gen
    September 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    You may wish to correct the spelling error in the second paragraph. Last I checked the personality trait was “conscientiousness” not “consciousness”! Otherwise, a nice little summary!

  7. Dima
    November 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for catching that. I appreciate the feedback.

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