What Do The Big Five Personality Traits Say About You?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated January 26, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychologists have long debated how best to categorize human personality traits. One reason is that learning more about who we are can help us better understand how to make ourselves happy and healthily relate to others, and can also point us in the right direction for self-improvement and growth. Today, most agree that an overview of an individual’s basic personality can be described in reference to where they fall within five key categories. Getting to know these “big five” can help you understand more about yourself and how you relate to the world.

What Are Your Big Five Personality Traits?

The History Of Personality Studies In Psychology

The history of the study of personality traits is long and varied, beginning with ancient Greek and Chinese societies which both offered “physiological and psychological explanations for the variety of personality types”. When the field of psychiatry began in the 1700s, the theory that personality variance had to do with neuroanatomy was put forth—though it was later discredited. 

By the 1930s, the focus had shifted to the idea that every individual is unique, and that there are a variety of cognitive and motivational factors that may influence one’s personality. This view was encapsulated in the work of Gordon Allport, who compiled a list of thousands of words that can apply to personality and sorted them into three key categories. Then in 1981, Lewis Goldberg put forth his theory that personalities can be best categorized according to five key dimensions—which is where the nickname “big five” came from. Support grew for this theory. It’s now widely referred to in the field of psychology and has been built upon since.

The Big Five Personality Traits

So what are the five key classifications of human personalities as put forth by Goldberg? The acronym “OCEAN” is often used to list them: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. Let’s take a look at these traits individually, each of which can be considered to be a spectrum rather than something a person completely does or does not have.

  1. Openness To Experience

This trait refers to an individual's willingness to venture outside of their comfort zone. Exploring the unknown, being vulnerable, and thinking outside the box are all part of this trait. Someone who has a high level of openness is likely to enjoy the arts, engage in a creative career or hobby, seek out travel, and enjoy meeting new people. On the other hand, someone who is low in openness may prefer routines instead of variety, stick to what they know, and tend to enjoy less abstract arts and entertainment.

  1. Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness describes the tendency to control one's impulses and follow social guidelines on acceptable behavior. Individuals who are conscientious excel in delaying their gratification, respecting the rules, and organizing. Those higher on this spectrum are often more likely to succeed in school and/or their career. According to this theory, they may persistently pursue their goals and excel in leadership positions. On the other hand, those who are low in conscientiousness may be seen as inconsistent and impulsive, but may be very good at going with the flow or following their own path.

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  1. Extroversion

This personality trait refers to how an individual receives energy and how they prefer to interact with others. According to this theory, extroverted people may draw energy from being around others, while introverts may regularly tire of interacting with people and need to recharge on their own. Those who are high on the extroversion spectrum may be more outgoing or sociable. People who are lower on the spectrum might be more reserved or quiet.

  1. Agreeableness

This factor has to do with how well people might get along with others. Those who are ranked highly in agreeableness may be well-liked by many, but they may also tend to go along with what other people want rather than voicing their true opinions. People who are low on agreeableness may be considered more blunt or tough, but they may have fewer difficulties voicing how they truly feel. People who rank low on the agreeableness scale may even feel more comfortable doing activities like negotiating, competing, or overseeing others. For those who are high on the agreeableness scale, being liked may feel very important.

  1. Neuroticism

This trait refers to the extent to which one is able to manage their emotions and anxiety. A person who is considered neurotic may come across as more stressed out, but they also might be extremely conscientious about their surroundings and responsibilities. A person who is not neurotic might be more relaxed, but may struggle to stay on top of responsibilities. A neurotic person also might be more risk-averse, while a non-neurotic person might be more open to risks and changes in plans. Neurotic people may have difficulties with their self-confidence. Non-neurotic people might be more adventurous or confident, but they also might be less aware of surroundings or less detail-oriented.

How Are Personality Traits Formed, And Can They Change?

Research suggests that as much as 40–60% of personality traits have a heritable, genetic component, though the detailed mechanisms of this process are not well understood. Some researchers have also studied whether personality traits change over time, like as a person ages and/or goes through challenging life circumstances. The results are mixed. One study, for instance, found personality traits in adults to be relatively fixed over a four-year period. Another found that personality “changes at least as much as economic factors and relates much more strongly to changes in life satisfaction [...], therefore suggest[ing] that personality can change and that such change is important and meaningful”. Still another found that adults tend to become less extroverted and open and more agreeable with age. That said, learning more about what your own key personality traits may be right now can give you useful insight into yourself at your current stage of life. 

Identifying Your Own Key Personality Traits

An online search will yield a variety of options for free tests you can take to identify which end of the spectrum you gravitate toward for the big five traits. You may also be able to identify tendencies in yourself simply by reading the descriptions of each one. As you learn more about how these traits may apply to you, remember that none of them is inherently positive or negative—and that human personalities are complex and simply can’t be entirely captured with any type of simple test or metric. All personality types have their unique strengths and weaknesses, and learning more about your type can simply be a way to appreciate yourself for where you excel and direct your attention toward potential areas where you could improve. 

How A Therapist Can Help

If you have concerns as you’re interpreting your own placement along these five spectrums or if you’d simply like support in learning more about yourself or engaging in self-improvement practices, a therapist may be able to help.

They can provide a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your feelings and assess your experiences to learn more about who you are and how you might improve your well-being. 

Each individual and circumstance is different, which is why there are all kinds of therapy methods and formats available. If you prefer to meet with a professional in person, you can search for a provider in your local area. If you prefer to meet with a professional from the comfort of your own home, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp may be an option to consider. You can get matched with a licensed therapist based on your needs and preferences as mentioned in a brief questionnaire, and you can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits for a variety of situations, so you can generally choose the format that works best for you.

Takeaway

Human personality is a complex topic. Classification systems like the big five aim to help both psychologists and individuals make more sense of a person’s natural tendencies in order to optimize their well-being. 

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