How the Big 5 personality traits were discovered

Would you describe yourself as jolly, merry, witty, lively, peppy, talkative, articulate, verbose, gossipy companionable, social, outgoing impulsive, carefree, playful, zany, mischievous, rowdy, loud, prankish, brave, venturous, fearless, reckless, active, assertive, dominant, energetic, boastful, conceited, egotistical, affected, vain, chic, dapper, jaunty, nosey, snoopy, indiscreet, meddlesome, sexy, passionate, sensual, flirtatious, reserved, lethargic, vigorless, apathetic, cool, aloof, distant, unsocial, withdrawn, quiet, secretive, untalkative, indirect, humble, modest, bashful, meek, shy, joyless, solemn, sober, morose, moody, tactless, thoughtless, unfriendly, trustful, unsuspicious, unenvious, democratic, friendly, genial, cheerful, generous, charitable, indulgent, lenient, conciliatory, cooperative, agreeable, tolerant, reasonable, impartial, unbiased, patient, moderate, tactful, polite, civil, Kind, loyal, unselfish, helpful, sensitive, affectionate, warm, tender, sentimental, moral, honest, just, principled, sadistic, vengeful, cruel, malicious, bitter, testy, crabby, sour, surly, harsh, severe, strict, critical, bossy, derogatory, caustic, sarcastic, catty, negative, contrary, argumentative, belligerent, abrasive, unruly, aggressive, biased, opinionated, stubborn, inflexible, irritable, explosive, wild, short-tempered, jealous, mistrustful, suspicious, stingy, selfish, ungenerous, envious, scheming, sly, wily, insincere, devious, persistent, ambitious, organized, thorough, orderly, prim, tidy, discreet, controlled, serious, earnest, crusading, zealous, moralistic, prudish, predictable, rigid, conventional, rational, courtly, dignified, genteel, suave, conscientious, dependable, prompt, punctual, blasé, urbane, cultured, refined, formal, pompous, smug, proud, aimful, calculating, farseeing, progressive, mystical, devout, pious, spiritual, mature, coy, demure, chaste, unvoluptuous, economical, frugal, thrifty, unextravagant, messy, forgetful, lazy, careless, changeable, erratic, fickle, absent-minded, impolite, impudent, rude, cynical, nonreligious, informal, profane, awkward, unrefined, earthy, practical, thriftless, excessive, self-indulgent, tough, rugged, unflinching, wordless, calm, stable, sedate, peaceful, confident, independent, resourceful, ruthless, insensitive, cold, stern, frank, blunt, explicit, curt, terse, touchy, careworn, whiny, oversensitive, fearful, nervous, fussy, unstable, unconfident, self-critical, unpoised, cowardly, timid, unventurous, wary, docile, dependent, submissive, pliant, naive, gullible, superstitious, childlike, intelligent, philosophical, complex, deep, insightful, clever, creative, curious, alert, perceptive, logical, certain, informed, literate, studious, intellectual, pensive, thoughtful, meditative, literary, poetic, artistic, musical, simple, narrow, ignorant, dull or illogical?

These were some of the words that psychologists of the 20th century were using in their search for a list of the fundamental, irreducible, universal human personality traits. What they wanted to know was, do these words group together into meaningful patterns that indicate those underlying traits?

The thing that made this endeavour possible was a statistical technique called factor analysis, which was developed in the early 1900s, pioneered by Charles Spearman. Factor analysis uses statistics to look for clusters of related items in a set of data - exactly what the personality theorists needed because they were looking to see how the words above cluster together to indicate fundamental personality traits.

One of the first people to try this out was LL Thurstone. He asked participants in his study to think about someone who they knew well and then choose words to describe that person. The participants were given a list of sixty words to choose from and they could use as many of these as they liked for each person they described.

What Thurstone was then able to do was use factor analysis to see if certain words would consistently appear together to describe the same type of person. For example, maybe every time someone was described as tidy, they were consistently also described as precise. Whereas maybe there was another type of person who was never given these descriptors – instead, this other type of person was consistently described as both careless and impetuous. If so, the factor analysis would pick this up and show that the words tidy and precise cluster together in one group whereas careless and impetuous cluster together in another one. When the factor analysis took all sixty words into account, across descriptions of multiple people, it found that the words did group together, and they formed five distinct clusters.

Despite this early indication of five fundamental personality traits, it took until well into the 1980s for psychologists to begin to agree on the five factor model of personality. The 297 words at the start of this blog are taken from a list of 1,431 words used by Lewis Goldberg in 1990 to try and establish once-and-for-all the idea that personality can be distilled down to just five traits. What Goldberg found was that the five factor model of personality held up when using a wide variety of different methods of factor analysis, whether you ask people to describe themselves or other people. He therefore stated:

' now seems reasonable to conclude that analyses of any reasonably large sample of English trait adjectives in either self- or peer descriptions will elicit a variant of the Big-

Five factor structure, and therefore that virtually all such terms can be represented within this model.'

Although there is now wide consensus about a five factor model of personality, there is still discussion about exactly how to define these factors. One of the predominant tools used to measure these five personality traits was developed by Costa and Macrae and is called the NEO-Personality Inventory-Revised. The five dimensions it measures are called Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (N, E, O, A and C).

But notice the word dimensions here, because each of these factors represents a continuum. The aim is not to find out if you are an extrovert or an agreeable person. The aim is to find out where you are on each continuum in order to grow in self-awareness.

So here's where we get a glimpse of the way in which factors analysis has helped to organise those words we started with. Below are words which describe people who are high on the continuum for each of the Big Five personality traits:


  • Active, assertive, energetic, enthusiastic, outgoing, talkative, warm, excitement seeking


  • Appreciative, forgiving, generous, kind, sympathetic, trusting, modest


  • Efficient, organised, reliable, responsible, thorough, competent, dutiful, self-disciplined


  • Anxious, self-pitying, tense, touchy, unstable, worrying, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive, vulnerable


  • Artistic, curious, imaginative, insightful, original, wide interests, unconventional aesthetically reactive

And to get a rough idea where you stand on these five dimensions, try an online test.