Agreeableness is one of the five major dimensions of personality within the five-factor, structural approach to personality (also known as the Big Five). It is an abstract, higher-level summary term for a set of family relations among lower-level traits that describe individual differences in being likable, pleasant, and harmonious in interactions with others. Research shows that persons who are “kind” are also “considerate” and “warm,” implicating a larger, overarching dimension that is relatively stable over time and related to a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and social behaviors. Of the five major dimensions of personality in the Big Five, agreeableness is most concerned with how individuals differ in their orientations toward interpersonal relationships.
Agreeableness has a curious history, relative to many other recognized dimensions of personality. Unlike the supertraits of Extraversion and Neuroticism, agreeableness was not widely researched because of top-down theorizing about its link to biology or to especially conspicuous social behaviors. Instead, systematic research on agreeableness began as a result of reliable research findings arising in descriptions of the self and of others. Because of its bottom-up empirical origins, there is room for debate about a suitable label for this hypothetical construct. Not all theorists concur that Agreeableness is the best summary label for the interrelated lower-level traits, habits, and dispositions. Other labels used to describe the dimension are tender-mindedness, friendly compliance versus hostile non-compliance, likeability, communion, and even love versus hate. To avoid problems of overlap with everyday meanings, some theorists proposed that the dimensions be given a number (the Roman numeral II has been used in the past) or a letter A (for agreeableness, altruism, or affection). Whatever the label picked, the empirical regularities with attraction, helping, and positive relations remain.
Agreeableness Relations to Other Personality Traits
As for the Big Five dimensions, one might intuitively expect agreeableness to be related to extraversion because both are concerned with social relations. Indeed some theorists have tried to force agreeableness-related traits to fit under the extraversion umbrella, placing traits like “warm” with extraversion, not agreeableness. Empirically, however, the two major dimensions are related to different social behaviors. Extraversion is linked to the excitement aspects of social relations and to dominance, whereas agreeableness is related to motives for maintaining harmonious relationships with others. Extraversion is about having impact on others, whereas agreeableness is about having harmony and pleasant relationships. Overall, empirical research suggests that agreeableness is distinctive and is not highly correlated with the other dimensions of the Big Five, at least in young adults.
Agreeableness may not be highly correlated with other Big Five dimensions of personality, but it is probably related to other traits, habits, and attitudes. Intuitively, one might expect empathy to be one component of agreeableness. Studies show that agreeableness is related to dispositional empathy. Persons high in agreeableness report greater ease in seeing the world through others’ eyes (perspective taking), in feeling the suffering of others (empathic concern), but not necessarily in experiencing self-focused negative emotions (personal distress) or in observing victims in sorrow. Past research showed that these cognitive and emotional processes are related to overt helping, so one might expect persons high in agreeableness to offer more help and aid to others, even to strangers, than do their peers. Recent empirical research supports the claim that agreeableness is related to both empathy and helping.
Moving further away from intuition toward theory, agreeableness seems to be related to frustration control. Because of their motivation to maintain good relations with others, persons high in agreeableness are more willing or better able to regulate the inevitable frustrations that come from interacting with others. Theorists proposed that agreeableness (along with its conceptual cousin Conscientiousness) may have its developmental origins in an early-appearing temperament called effortful control.
Agreeableness Relation to Social Behaviors
Agreeableness can also be understood by examining social behaviors that are related to it. Overall, agreeableness seems to be positively related to adaptive social behaviors (i.e., conflict resolution, emotional responsiveness, helping behavior) and negatively related to mal-adaptive social behaviors (i.e., prejudice, stigmatization).
Agreeableness is a major predictor of emotional experience and expression. Research using both self-report and objective physiological measures shows that high-agreeable people are more responsive in emotionally evocative situations than low-agreeable people. High-agreeable adults and children report greater efforts to control their emotional reactions in social situations, especially when asked to describe emotional content to a friend or stranger. Recent research shows that agreeableness is related to emotional responsiveness in situations involving people in relationships but not necessarily excitement or danger. In sum, agreeableness seems to be related to patterns of controlled emotional responsiveness to interpersonal situations.
In studies of group processes, research shows that agreeableness is related to lower within-group conflict and higher overall group evaluations. More specifically, high-agreeable people are more liked by their group members and report more liking for the other members of their group. Research has also shown that agreeableness is negatively related to competitiveness in groups and positively related to expectations of group interactions. High-agreeable people expect to enjoy the group interaction more than their low-agreeable counterparts. Agreeableness also predicts the type of conflict resolution tactics people use. For instance, agreeableness is positively related to constructive conflict resolution tactics (e.g., negotiation) and negatively related to destructive resolution tactics (e.g., physical force).
Research shows that agreeableness is related to prosocial behaviors, such as helping. High-agreeable people offer help across a range of situational contexts. Low-agreeable people, however, seem to be much more influenced by situational variations, such as victim’s group membership, cost of helping, and experimentally induced empathy. Low-agreeable people are more likely to offer help when the victim is a member of one’s own group or costs of helping are low. High-agreeable people also report greater feelings of liking and similarity toward the victim. Agreeableness is also related to two of the major dimensions of prosocial emotions, namely empathic concern and personal distress. Agreeableness is the only dimension of the Big Five approach to personality to predict both empathic concern and personal distress. Overall, agreeableness seems to predict dispositional prosocial motives to help.
So far, research on agreeableness and prejudice has focused on one type of prejudice, antifat bias. Research shows that low-agreeable people exhibit more prejudice toward overweight women than their high-agreeable counterparts. Not only do people low in agreeableness exhibit more dislike for an overweight interaction partner, but when given the opportunity to switch from an overweight to an average weight interaction partner, low-agreeable people switch more often than do high-agreeable people. Agreeableness predicts other forms of prejudice as well. Agreeableness is negatively related to prejudice against a wide range of both positive (i.e., handicapped) and negative (i.e., rapists) social groups, and positively related to efforts to suppress such prejudice. To examine this idea of suppression, people were brought into the lab and put under cognitive load when making decisions about liking for these groups. Results indicate that when looking at the groups rated most negatively by everyone (e.g., rapists, child molesters) suppression has no effect on either high- or low-agreeable raters. When looking at groups that are common targets of prejudice (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, gays), suppression is linked to lower prejudice in high-agreeable persons. Apparently, those high in agreeableness suppress their prejudices at least for certain groups.
Agreeableness Implications and Future Directions
Agreeableness is a summary term for individual differences in liking and attraction toward others. Persons high in agreeableness differ systematically from their peers in emotional responsiveness, empathic responding, in reports of feeling connected and similar to others, and in efforts to maintain positive relations with others. Low levels of agreeableness are associated with psychopathology, such as antisocial personality and narcissism, and with other failures to regulate emotion and social responses to others.
So far, agreeableness has been primarily a descriptive term for behavioral differences. Recently, researchers have begun probing processes that might underlie the behavior differences. This focus on process will help uncover other differences linked to this major dimension of personality.
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