Five-Factor Model of Personality

The five-factor model of personality (FFM; often referred to as the Big Five model) is an empirically derived approach that organizes the structure of personality into five broad factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. Numerous studies have been conducted on the model and many of these lend support for the existence of the five factors across a wide range of cultures. The five factors have been linked to numerous life outcomes, such as career and relationship trajectories, coping, health-related behaviors, well-being, and maladjustment.

History of Five-Factor Model

The origins of the FFM can be traced to William McDougall’s proposal in 1932 that personality could be broadly conceptualized as being composed of five factors. Not long after, in 1934, Louis Leon Thurstone used factor analysis to reduce 60 trait adjectives down to five factors. In 1936 Gordon Allport and H. S. Odbert identified 18,000 terms in an English dictionary that could be used to describe an individual, later reducing this list to 4,000 words. Approximately 10 years later, Raymond Cattell condensed this list to 35 clusters, with 12 underlying dimensions. Cattell and his colleagues added 4 more dimensions to these 12 and developed the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16 PF).

In the 1960s, two psychologists, Ernest C. Tupes and Raymond E. Christal, used Cattell’s scales in a study of Air Force trainees. Their analysis of the data suggested the presence of five broad factors. Warren Norman replicated these five factors in 1963 and they became known as the “Norman Five.”

Despite their convergence on five factors, these works remained relatively unnoticed until the late 1970s and early 1980s when several lines of independent research sparked renewed interest. Among these were studies conducted by Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr., whose names have since become synonymous with the FFM or Big Five model of personality structure. Building upon the work of their predecessors, Costa and McCrae developed the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI) to measure the five traits. Although many different measures of the FFM have been developed, Costa and McCrae’s NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R) remains the most widely used and researched.

Five-Factor Model Description and Measurement

The results of repeated independent studies have yielded interpretations consistent with the five factors named by Costa and McCrae. Neuroticism (N, sometimes referred to by its polar opposite as Emotional Stability) represents the tendency to experience psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, irritability) and to display maladaptive responses. Extraversion (E, sometimes called Surgency) refers to a predisposition to experience positive affect (e.g., joy, passion) and to an interpersonal style that is energetic, enthusiastic, and assertive. Openness to Experience (O, sometimes called Openness to Intellect, and sometimes abbreviated as Openness) reflects a tendency to be curious and imaginative, and to seek novel experiences and ideas. Agreeableness (A, sometimes called Friendly Compliance) involves a trusting, caring, and forgiving interpersonal style. Conscientiousness (C, sometimes referred to as Dependability) pertains to an individual’s level of organization, dependability, and persistence in pursuing goals.

Using measures such as the NEO PI-R, psychologists can describe an individual’s personality according to these five dimensions, often referring to people as “high” or “low” on a given trait. For instance, others would most likely characterize a person who is high in Conscientiousness as dependable, reliable, hardworking, and highly motivated. Some measures of the FFM also include facet subscales that further subdivide each of the traits into more specific components.

Multicultural Considerations in Five-Factor Model

Numerous cross-cultural studies suggest that the traits described by the FFM may be universal (i.e., observed across a wide range of cultures). Using self-report and/or ratings from collaterals (e.g., friends, family, and coworkers), all five factors have been replicated in numerous linguistic and cultural contexts, including, for instance, Germany, Canada, Finland, Poland, and the former Soviet Union. However, it is important to note that, even though all five dimensions have been observed cross-culturally, the actual meaning of factors may differ across cultures. For instance, the Openness factor appears to encompass intellect as a key component when assessed in the American English, German, and Dutch languages. In the Italian language, this factor seems to convey a rebellious component.

In addition, it is possible that other traits, not included in the FFM, are important to understanding personality. For example, Interpersonal Relatedness, which involves a desire for harmony in relationships, has been observed to be important in Chinese cultures and among multiethnic individuals. Furthermore, numerically identical scores on a given scale, such as Extraversion, may actually reflect lower (or higher) levels of the trait in one culture as compared to another.

Greater within-culture variability is observed in self-reported trait scores among European as compared to Asian samples. This could be due to a tendency for Asians to avoid extreme responses, which, in turn, results in a narrower range of scores. Individual differences might also be attenuated in collectivistic cultures in which individuals sometimes de-emphasize their unique attributes to avoid “standing out” as “different.” It is also possible that individual differences are simply less salient in more collectivistic cultures.

Five-Factor Theory

McCrae and Costa have proposed a five-factor theory based on the large body of research on the FFM. The factors are included as part of a concept labeled basic tendencies in the theory. Rather than explaining the development of the factors themselves, the theory attempts to account for research findings on the FFM.

Basic Tendencies include personality traits and other biologically based components such as cognitive ability, perception, and sexual orientation. Although Basic Tendencies are primarily genetically based, they are also influenced by other biological mechanisms such as diseases, pharmacological interventions, and prenatal influences.

The theory also postulates Characteristic Adaptations. These result from the interaction of Basic Tendencies with External Influences (the social and physical environment, including cultural and historical context). Characteristic Adaptations include an array of psychological features, such as skills, interests, attitudes, beliefs, plans, goals, habits, self-concept, and how an individual experiences social roles and relationships. The influence of Basic Tendencies on behavior or experience is mediated by the influence of Characteristic Adaptations.

Another concept, the Objective Biography, refers to everything the individual thinks, does, or feels, and, as such, is referred to as the “output” of the personality system. The Objective Biography includes such things as one’s career-related behaviors, emotional reactions, and relationship history.

Although five-factor theory is still in its infancy, it was formulated on the basis of a large body of empirical literature on the development of personality. The theory readily accounts for the stability of personality observed in numerous studies. Cross-cultural studies also lend support to the theory. However, the theory remains to be adequately tested.

The Five Factors across the Life Span

Research indicates that personality traits, including the Big Five, tend to remain remarkably stable after age 30. Nevertheless, there is evidence of broad patterns of personality change that occur at predictable points during the life span. For instance, compared to older adults, college-age individuals tend to score higher on Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness, and lower on Conscientiousness and Agreeableness. These patterns of change have been observed across a wide range of cultures. Another finding that has been observed in several cultures is that women tend to score higher than men in Neuroticism, Openness, and Agreeableness.

Research on the FFM has demonstrated links between an individual’s personality traits and life course. Neuroticism is the trait most clearly linked to psychological adjustment. Men who are high, versus low, in Neuroticism are more likely to develop psychological disorders. They also tend to smoke more and are more likely to demonstrate poor adjustment throughout the life span. For example, they experience greater career and marital disruption, and report lower levels of morale and life satisfaction. Men who are high on Neuroticism are also more likely to report experiencing a midlife crisis, and neuroticism in both husbands and wives is predictive of divorce.

The remaining traits appear to be associated with several positive and some negative outcomes. For instance, those high in Extraversion tend to enjoy higher income levels and greater job satisfaction, and may be more likely to emerge as leaders. Open individuals demonstrate greater evidence of creative potential and openness has been linked to higher scores on measures of intelligence, although research findings are somewhat inconsistent in this regard. High levels of openness are sometimes related to bizarre (e.g., psychotic) thinking, but open individuals may be more likely than less open individuals to seek mental health treatment when needed. Agreeable individuals often report that their goals are meaningful and they may experience more effective social relationships than those who are less agreeable. Agreeableness is often highly valued in service-related occupations. Conscientiousness is associated with increased income levels, job status, and job satisfaction. Conscientious individuals also appear to be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, but extreme Conscientiousness may be linked to obsessive-compulsive features.

The Five-Factor Model and Coping

Several studies have examined how personality traits relate to coping methods. Neuroticism is associated with various forms of psychopathology, such as depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and somatic complaints. It appears that neurotic individuals are poor at coping, in part, because they tend to create their own distress. For instance, neurotic individuals often interpret ambiguous circumstances in more threatening ways, are more easily upset, and are prone to dramatizing minor issues. Other ineffective coping strategies associated with Neuroticism include passivity, self-blame, hostile reactions, and wishful thinking.

Conversely, Extraversion is associated with a tendency to experience positive affect, while less often experiencing negative affect. Since extraverts tend to interact more with others, it is reasonable to conclude that they are more likely (than introverts) to seek others during stressful times. Extraverts are frequently able to assess problems in a more positive light, and display more active and effective coping mechanisms.

Conscientious people are likely to use well-organized plans that aid them in coping with stress. Agreeable people may turn to social support networks to help alleviate their distress. Although Openness appears to be largely unrelated to mood and well-being, those who are more open might be expected to use their imagination to identify creative ways to cope with stressors. Overall, however, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism seem to be the best predictors of coping style.

The Five-Factor Model and Health Behaviors

The FFM may be predictive of health behaviors, such as smoking, physical activity, and diet. For instance, among women, high levels of Neuroticism, Extra-version, and Openness have been linked to less healthy habits, whereas high levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness have been linked to healthier attitudes and behaviors. Similarly, men who are more neurotic practice fewer healthy habits, whereas those who are more conscientious and agreeable demonstrate healthier attitudes. Conscientiousness in particular is related to longevity, which may be a function of engaging in fewer unhealthy behaviors.

Three of the five factors are linked to risky sexual behaviors. Behaviors that place one at greater risk of HIV infection (e.g., lack of condom usage) are associated with higher levels of Neuroticism and lower levels of Conscientiousness. In addition, those who are low in Openness may be prone to denying the possibility that they could become infected.

Five-Factor Model Implications for Counseling Practice

The FFM was developed to describe normal, as opposed to pathological, personality traits. Thus, the model and its associated measures, including the NEO PI-R, appear to be well suited for an approach that emphasizes client strengths and normal, developmental concerns. The NEO PI-R, which is usually completed in 30 to 40 minutes, lends itself well to brief therapy approaches. An interpretive report is available that provides a narrative description of the client’s personality and identifies potential implications regarding several clinically relevant areas (e.g., mood and psychological adjustment, coping mechanisms, interpersonal styles, cognitive processes, and motivation). In addition, collateral ratings from spouses, peers, and others may be useful, particularly within the context of marriage and family counseling.

Because measures of the FFM are not inherently focused on psychopathology, scores on the five traits can readily be discussed with clients. Such results can be useful in identifying clients’ strengths and in tailoring interventions to individual clients. For instance, those who score high on Openness often engage in the spontaneous use of humor to cope with stress, whereas those low on Openness are more inclined to use faith-based coping strategies, such as prayer. Extraverted individuals might prefer group and talk-oriented therapies, whereas introverts might benefit from more directive, task-oriented approaches. Open individuals could be expected to respond well to novel, innovative approaches, whereas those lower on this trait might prefer conventional approaches that provide more structure and direction.

Counselors might also find the FFM useful in predicting clients’ responses to counseling. For instance, Conscientious clients might be inclined to diligently follow treatment recommendations, and Agreeable individuals might be expected to be more cooperative and trusting and, hence, to develop rapport quickly. In contrast, Neurotic individuals are inclined to hold unrealistic expectations, and might benefit from assistance with setting clear, realistic goals at the outset of treatment.

The FFM can also be useful in career counseling. The five broad factors are related to John Holland’s six vocational interest types (i.e., Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional). Generally, Extraversion is associated with Enterprising and Social interests, Openness is related to Artistic and Investigative interests, and Agreeableness is associated with Social interests. However, examination of the five traits at the more specific facet level may prove most useful when assisting clients with career-related decision making. For instance, those who score high on the Ideas facet of Openness might find Investigative careers to be most satisfying, whereas those who score high on the Aesthetics facet of Openness might find Artistic careers more rewarding.

Although the NEO PI-R was not specifically designed to measure psychopathology, scores on the NEO PI-R correlate with measures of mental disorders. As such, the instrument might be useful in alerting counselors to signs of psychopathology. For instance, Neurotic individuals may be more vulnerable to developing psychological disorders. Counselors working with clients who score high on this trait might consider following up with further assessment to examine for psychopathology.

It should be noted that, although these recommendations are based on existing empirical evidence regarding the FFM, counseling process and outcome research that is specifically focused on examining the preceding predictions is needed. Additionally, it is important to attend to multicultural factors when integrating knowledge of the FFM into counseling practice. Despite extensive cross-cultural research on the FFM, it should not be assumed that the model generalizes to all cultures. Therefore, counselors would do well to consider each client’s unique background when using the FFM as a framework for conceptualizing clients’ presenting concerns.


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