Personality Traits: the Big Five

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Personality research centers around five central personality traits, known as the Big Five. These are extraversion, altruism, consientiousness, emotional stability and openness for new experiences.

Personality Trait

A personality trait is a hypothetical, stable characteristic of the personality that can influence the behavior, thoughts and feelings of a person in various contexts. According to most theories, differences in personality can be described based on a limited number of personality traits. In most theories, a trait is constituted out of a continuum between two opposed characteristics. With the help of personality tests, the position of a person on this continuum is determined.

The Big Five

Initial research on personality traits resulted in different numbers of traits, ranging from 3 (by Hans Eysenck) to 16 (by Raymond Cattell). As more and more research and personality tests were performed, scientists came to the conclusion that the ideal number lies somewhere in between these two. This led to the development of the Big Five, five central personality traits that can be used to generally describe the personality of someone:

  • Extraversion: the will to open up and be involved in social activities. Assertiveness and interest in seeking out excitement. At the other end of the continuum, people tend to be quiet, withdrawn less involved socially.
  • Altruism: the extent to which one possesses a selfless concern for others. Optimistic about human nature. The other side of the spectrum comprises individuals who are motivated solely by self-interest and are skeptic about human nature.
  • Conscientiousness: showing self-discipline and acting dutifully. Aiming for achievement, even against outside expectations. The opposite side is characterized by spontaneity and susceptibility to lose self-control.
  • Emotional stability: not easily upset. Calm and free from persistent negative feelings. The other end of the trait continuum can be described as emotional very reactive and prone to stress, with a tendency to experience mostly negative emotions.
  • Openness for new experiences: intellectually curious and appreciate many forms of art. Sensitive of beauty and general awareness of their own feelings. At the other end of the continuum, people with conventional interests can be found, often suspicious about art and science.

Research has shown that these five trait continuums occur in almost all human cultures and that most people use these five traits when asked to describe themselves or other people. The most common way to test the for the Big Five is through questionnaires.


  • Ekehammar, B. & Akrami, N. (2007). Personality and Prejudice: From Big Five Personality Factors to Facets. Journal of Personality. 75(5), pp. 899 – 926.
  • Gosling, S.D.; Rentfrow, P.J. & Swann, W.B. Jr. (2003). A very brief measure of the Big-Five personality domains. Journal of Research in Personality. 37(6), pp. 504 – 528.


V Kumar
Posted on Apr 19, 2011
James R. Coffey
Posted on Apr 12, 2011