Personality traits are patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are relatively enduring across the life span. The history of personality psychology has witnessed the birth of numerous traits and trait models of personality. In the 1980s and 1990s, the five-factor model (FFM) ascended to popularity and is considered by many personality psychologists to offer a comprehensive trait taxonomy.
The traits that constitute the FFM are extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Extraversion, sometimes referred to as surgency, is indicated by assertive, energetic, and gregarious behaviors. Neuroticism is essentially equivalent to emotional instability and can be seen in irritable and moody behaviors. Openness to experience, sometimes referred to as intellect, indicates an individual’s inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and propensity for intellectually challenging tasks; whereas agreeableness is indicated in empathic, sympathetic, and kind behaviors. Finally, conscientiousness refers to an individual’s sense of responsibility and duty as well as foresight.
The FFM was developed largely on the basis of the lexical hypothesis, which suggests the fundamental traits of human personality have, over time, become encoded in our language. Following this hypothesis, the task of the personality psychologist is to cull the essential traits from the thousands of adjectives found in language that distinguish people according to their behavioral dispositions. The lexical hypothesis can be traced back to the 1930s, and the advent of multiple factor analysis in that same decade provided an empirical method for culling these verbal descriptions. In the latter half of the 20th century, personality psychologists in fact relied primarily on factor analysis to discover and validate many of their trait theories. A large number of personality psychologists have concluded that the FFM represents the most successful outcome of these efforts.
Three lines of research have provided support for the construct validity of the FFM. First and foremost, the five factors have consistently emerged from factor analyses conducted on numerous data sets composed of descriptive trait terms from a number of languages, including English, Chinese, and German. Second, twin and adoption studies have revealed a substantial genetic component (as high as 79%) to the five factors.
Third, the five factors have been applied across the life span. For instance, studies have shown that children use the five factors when freely describing themselves and others, and parents’ natural language descriptions of their children can be classified according to the five factors. Individuals’ relative standings on the five factors have also been shown to be fairly stable across much of the adult life span. Recent efforts have finally sought to explicitly treat the five factors as temperaments that are present from birth, thus placing the FFM squarely in a developmental context.
Despite all of its success, the FFM has been roundly criticized by a number of scholars. One issue raised by these scholars concerns the absence of a comprehensive theory. The lexical hypothesis, while intriguing and rational, is considered far too narrow to qualify as a theory of personality. A related issue regards the generic nature of the factors, which are considered to be too broad to provide a sufficiently rich understanding of human personality. Critics have also raised important methodological concerns, which have revolved around the use of factor analysis as the primary tool of discovery and validation for the FFM. Finally, disagreements among trait theorists have also been prominent in the literature. Some researchers have argued that three traits are sufficient: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism (egocentric, cold, impulsive). Others have argued that a larger number of traits are needed to provide a comprehensive taxonomy.
The FFM will nonetheless likely continue into the foreseeable future as a popular trait model of human personality. The five factors have proved extremely useful to researchers and practitioners in a variety of areas, such as the social, clinical, and industrial-organizational domains. It has unquestionably generated a great deal of research and discussion, and it has played an important role in revitalizing the discipline of personality psychology.
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