Believe it or not, This Personality Test is Backed by Science

Issue 5, Volume 113

By Frances Schwarz 

The universe has its fair share of Buzzfeed quizzes, ready to tell the test-taker what vegetable most resonates with them or when they will get married. Zodiac signs and Myers-Briggs personality types riddle dating profiles, daily life, and even job applications, with 13 percent of employers using personality tests during the hiring process. Despite the popularity of these personality tests, they have failed to garner the approval of psychologists, leading many to believe that science has yet to find an effective model—but this is not the case.

The Big Five model, also known more professionally as the Five Factor model, encompasses five basic personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Each of these traits represents a spectrum that encompasses the characteristics that can be found in most individuals.

The Big Five was a saving grace after decades of research stretching back to the 1930s. The field contained a mystifying assortment of largely unrelated theories since each paper tended to design its traits independently of the other. The Big Five theory emerged slowly from the disarray. In 1936, Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert first formed a list of 4,500 traits, which was narrowed down to 16 by Raymond Cattell and his colleagues in the 1940s, and finally to the Big Five traits by Paul Costa and Robert McRae in the 1970s. The world’s most prominent psychologists gathered in Honolulu in 1981 to assess the Big Five model, where they concluded that it was the most robust model of personality.

The first trait, extraversion, is familiar to experienced investigators of their own personality. Extraversion is characterized by sociability, assertiveness, emotional expressiveness, and, beyond the scientific community, breaking into song and dance.

Agreeableness contributes to attributes such as kindness, affection, and empathy. Those high in this trait may engage in more prosocial behaviors, or voluntary behaviors intended to benefit others.

Openness is also referred to as openness to experience, for intuitive reasons. Highly “open” people tend to have an eclectic range of interests or possess the eagerness to experience new things. Abstract or unconventional thinking may be difficult for those low in this trait.

Conscientiousness is defined by goal-directed behaviors and good impulse control. Conscientious people are mindful of deadlines, considerate of the impacts of their actions, and less prone to procrastination.

Finally, neuroticism is characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Those high in neuroticism may experience significant stress, struggle to bounce back from stressful events, or, as some may have observed, huddle in dark corners.

The Big Five traits are not a comprehensive list of differences among individuals, but rather categories within more specific differences, which are known as facets, which tend to vary. For instance, those who are highly neurotic or introverted are more prone to social inhibition, or shyness; those who are highly agreeable tend to be more altruistic.

The Big Five can also have predictive power. Conscientious people may find themselves having an easier time transitioning to college and keeping up their grades; highly neurotic people may have less social support or have more unhappy marriages. One study found that 22 percent of the variance in life satisfaction among men and 17 percent among women was related to the Big Five traits. Surprisingly enough, one’s lifespan can also relate to personality, with conscientiousness in particular having a positive effect.

The traits that one possesses may change over the course of one’s lifetime. The exact patterns across age are unknown, though a 2017 study using data from 16 different studies found that agreeableness tends to remain stable while the other four traits decrease with time. The decline in conscientiousness and openness is linear, whereas the decline in neuroticism follows a U-shaped curve and the decline in extraversion follows a hill-shaped curve. Personality change is also more rapid in earlier years, with people often settling into themselves, and perhaps steering away from openness-related experiences like cliff-diving, later on in life.

Men and women also tend to differ in levels of these traits, though conclusions are hazy. Most research has found that young women score higher than young men in neuroticism in a gap that narrows with age, though the higher scores from women seen in extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness are less agreed upon. The reason for this variance is unknown, with self-perception, societal norms, evolution, culture, and even social media playing a potential role.

While significant changes within an individual are rare, recent research suggests that such change can happen with consistent and deliberate effort. Emotional stability was the trait domain that showed the most potential for change, followed by extraversion. According to one study, individuals must first wish to change their trait-related behavior; second, they must view such changes as feasible; lastly, this change needs to become habitual.

Still, an individual’s rank order on any given trait compared to those of the same age remains surprisingly consistent with time. Some parts of our personality may have been granted at birth. Twin studies over the past decade have shown about 40 to 60 percent of trait variance is thought to be genetic, which, depending on the person and their family, may or may not be good news.

Those accustomed to the detailed profiles of popular models may find themselves yearning for more than the causations and correlations above. It wouldn’t be hard to create personality types based on the Big Five, in which combinations of those high and low in a given trait are given profiles and predictions. However, such a model wouldn’t make waves in psychology. Popular models are often type-based, meaning they place people into categories, as opposed to trait-based, which tend to be more accurate, as they acknowledge the independent and flexible nature of traits.

It is important to remember that macro definitions of personality have their limits. People change, people stay stagnant, and people show resistance to labels of all kinds. That doesn’t mean that identifying one’s personality is useless—self-awareness has hefty psychological benefits, including higher job satisfaction and happiness. Ultimately, whether you are a soul searcher or a researcher, you may reach a better understanding of yourself with a healthy dose of Big Five-adjacent psychology. At the very least, you should find it more accurate than that Buzzfeed quiz about the pizza slice that most resembles you.