How the Big 5 Make Up Your Personality

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We've already told you about the Big Five personality traits, and how easy it is to figure out your personal scores. But what do those scores actually mean, and how do they add together to make the "you" that you are? Let us explain, with a little help from The Great Courses Plus and Mark Leary, Ph.D.

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An Ocean of Personality

In case you don't remember, these are the "Big Five" personality traits:

  • Openness: How willing you are to entertain new ideas and experiences
  • Conscientiousness: Your consideration of social mores and expectations
  • Extraversion: Your ability to comfortably engage with other people
  • Agreeableness: How accommodating and friendly you are to other people
  • Neuroticism: How much you experience negative emotions

Some of them seem objectively good, others less so, but the truth is that everybody has their own particular personality blend that makes up the person that they are.

It might seem strange to think that a five-pillar model could be enough to describe the entire gamut of human personalities, but five factors can describe a lot. "If we wanted to classify people into all possible unique combinations of the Big Five traits and we were going to use only five levels of each trait to do the classification, we would need over 3,000 unique categories," says Dr. Leary. "But there's even more diversity than that because each of the Big Five actually has more than just five levels."

It's important to remember that your score on the Big Five test isn't necessarily an indication of your value as a person or your overall morality. It's good to be conscientious, sure, but if your score is too high that might indicate a degree of rigidness to societal expectations. And agreeableness is great, but so is standing up for yourself. One of the clearest examples of that is openness. As Dr. Mark Leary describes in The Great Courses Plus program on personality traits, if you are yourself a more open person, you will hear open traits as being more positive, but people on the low end of the openness spectrum will hear them as sounding flighty and unreliable. It's all about what you value.

The Secret Sixth

Then again, there might be more than just five personality traits. Some psychologists have noted the Big Five in other animals, particularly chimps and dogs, plus another factor: dominance. It's hard to say to what extent a tendency toward dominance or submissiveness shapes human personality, but that could also be considered as being rolled up in extraversion.

Still, there's a human-centric sixth trait that some psychologists think might play a major role, and they call it honesty-humility. It's basically your willingness to tell the truth and act unselfishly even if it's not in your best interests — or, on the low end, your willingness to lie, cheat, and steal to gain the success you know in your heart you deserve. They call this version the HEXACO model; the H for the new trait, the E for "Emotionality" instead of "Neuroticism," and the X for "eXtraversion." It's one more degree of precision, and one more way of thinking about the way you encounter the world.

Want to know more about how your own personality works? Learn from the experts in Mark Leary, Ph.D.'s "Why You Are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality" through The Great Courses Plus online learning platform. It's one of the best ways to enrich your mind with classes taught by experts in their field — and one of the only ways you can join an astronomy class taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 31, 2018
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