A Beginner's Guide to the "Big 5" Personality Traits
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A Beginner’s Guide to the “Big 5” Personality Traits

Post Author - Mile Živković Mile Živković Last Updated:

What if you could sum up the entire human personality into five main buckets?

While the human personality is pretty complex and nuanced, the Big Five personality test has been used since the 1980s for psychological research, education, and hiring, among other things.

However, because the human personality is so complex, there’s a lot to know about how to use personality traits to assess and manage employees (and whether or not the Big Five personality traits are been accurate).

Use this guide to learn everything you need to know, from how it started to how you can measure personality traits, its relevance in 2024, and applications for hiring.

TL;DR — Key Takeaways

  • The Big Five Personality test dates back to the 1950s. Although it has undergone many iterations to reach its current state, it has stood the test of time.

  • There are several ways to measure the Big Five personality traits, the most common being the Big Five Inventory and the NEO Personality Inventory

  • The Big Five personality traits are openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

  • This test is scientifically valid, but take it with a grain of salt and combine it with other testing methods for a fuller picture of someone’s personality traits and abilities (especially in the workplace!).

  • When hiring, the Big Five personality traits can help improve communication, understand employee motivation, build more diverse teams, and manage them more effectively.

History of the Big 5 personality theory

The Big Five personality traits theory was originally developed in the 1960s when researchers Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal analyzed words to describe human behavior. They came up with a five-factor model based on Surgency, Agreeableness, Dependability, Emotional Stability, and Culture.

Big Five personality traits explained

In the 1980s, Lewis Goldberg coined the term “Big Five,” and in 1985, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae developed the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI), a Big Five testing method that is still used today.

In the 2000s, various researchers (from fields such as psychology, organizational behavior, and health) tested the Big Five personality test and confirmed its validity.

How the Big Five personality traits are measured

As the Big Five personality test changed and evolved, so have the different ways to measure it.

The first and most common method of obtaining the results is the Big Five Inventory or the BFI. Launched by Oliver John, the BFI presents test takers with a number of questions listed as statements, similar to psychometric tests. Test participants should rank how much they agree on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (or “very accurate” to “very inaccurate”).

Example of Big Five personality question

The second method frequently used is the NEO Personality Inventory, or the NEO PI-R, created by Paul Costa and Jeff McCrae. It is a bit broader and involves 240 questions. The test can be administered through self-reporting or by an observer ranking the answers.

This test costs $129 per test taker. It takes 30-45 minutes to complete, and each of the five traits is scored from 0 to 4. The scores are then compared against normative data.

The Big Five personality traits

The Big Five personality traits are commonly named the OCEAN model or the OCEAN test. Once you see them in writing, it becomes clear why:

  • Openness to experience

  • Conscientiousness

  • Extroversion

  • Agreeableness

  • Neuroticism

Based on self-reported answers to questions, test takers are scored in different dimensions and given a score out of 100 for each of the personality traits.

Let’s explore each trait and show what it means to score low or high for each one.

Openness

Openness to experience means being willing to try new things, step outside one’s comfort zone, and be vulnerable.

Low openness to experience: These people prefer structure as opposed to exploring new things and don’t have a penchant for abstract thinking and art.

High openness to experience: These people love to explore and learn, have vivid imaginations, typically work in a creative field or have a creative hobby, they love meeting new people.

Openness personality trait

Conscientiousness

Conscientious people have good impulse control, behave in a way that is generally accepted by society and tends to do the things that drive them to their desired goals. Out of the five broad dimensions, this one is arguably the most valuable for employee performance and reliability.

Low conscientiousness: These people can be procrastinators, don’t have strong impulse control, and tend to make rash decisions.

High conscientiousness: Great leaders who behave well in social situations, tend to perform well in school, love to complete tasks, and close in on their goals.

Extraversion

Extroverts tend to gain energy from external sources. They are sociable, talkative, and have no problems expressing their emotions. Given their assertiveness and emotional expressiveness, they tend to make great leaders and, in general, fare well in their careers.

Low extroversion: More reflective, prefers solitary activities, socializes selectively, and has very little need for attention.

High extroversion: High income, great career performance, easily adjusts themselves to challenges and new situations.

Agreeableness

Individuals who have high levels of this personality trait tend to conform to rules. They are more benevolent and have a strong desire to fulfill social obligations. They care deeply about the well-being of others, making them key to a workplace with great teamwork and interpersonal harmony.

Low agreeableness: These people consistently show competitive, selfish behavior and a lack of empathy.

High agreeableness: They have great relationships with others, are more satisfied in their relationships, and have strong social support but tend not to be very creative.

Neuroticism

People with high levels of neuroticism are usually less emotionally stable, anxious, moody, irritable, and prone to more mood swings. They’re not as resilient in the workplace as some of the other personality traits and won’t make for ideal managers.

Low neuroticism: Higher confidence and security, more daring and adventurous.

High neuroticism: Likelihood for high anxiety, worry, oversensitivity, and ease of anger.

Is a Big Five personality test scientifically validated?

The Big Five personality test is one of the most scientifically validated and widely used models in personality psychology, backed by a substantial body of empirical research.

For example, one study shows a relationship between the Big Five personality traits and how likely someone is to face burnout in their job. Other studies show correlations between social status and personality traits, such as conscientiousness and emotional instability.

When analyzing the universality of the test, however, a more recent study found that it may not be as reliable outside of WEIRD countries, an acronym for Western Educated Industrialized Rich Developed Nations. How so? Some people were found to be more perceptible than others to an “acquiescence bias”, a likeliness to agree more than disagree.

Nonetheless, it’s used extensively in psychological research and practical applications, such as in recruitment and mental health assessments. Studies have consistently found that these five dimensions capture the most important aspects of human personality.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

Personality tests are scientifically valid, but take the results with a grain of salt if you’re using them to make critical decisions about hiring, training, or promoting across a global workforce.

Other factors that influence personality traits

Just because someone takes a Big Five personality test once doesn’t mean that they’ll have the same result again when they take it at a later date. That’s because personality is not static. It changes as we experience new things and encounter new people and ideas as we age.

For example, other factors that influence personality traits in people include:

  • Genetics: Studies with identical twins have shown that certain personality traits have a genetic component and are likely to be carried down with heritability. There are significant gender differences, too, as some findings suggested.

  • Environment: A broad range of environmental factors influence personality traits, from childhood to the culture you’re exposed to.

  • Social influences: Friendships and acquaintances we make during our lifetime, as well as educational experiences.

  • Life experiences: Traumatic events such as the loss of someone close, as well as work and career events.

  • Biological factors: Neurochemistry and variations in hormones can affect how we think and act. Plus, our individual brain structure.

  • Cognitive factors: Thought patterns, beliefs, and different levels of cognitive intelligence can massively affect personality traits.

  • Situational variables: People behave differently based on their social interactions, so they might display different personality traits based on the situational variables and the role they are expected to play.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

When performing a Big Five personality test, anonymous and online test results have proved to be more consistent than in-person tests. This is explained by the influence of situational variables, which skew the results in candidates who answer according to what they think is correct rather than what is true.

  • Evolutionary factors: Some circumstances could cause personality traits to change over time. For example, being agreeable can be advantageous in social situations, causing someone to adopt this personality trait.
  • Health and physical well-being: Issues with health and well-being can have a major impact on personality traits, leading to higher neuroticism. Sleep and diet are relevant factors as well.
  • Developmental changes: As we age, we can lose or develop specific traits due to maturity.
  • Societal and historical context: Dramatic shifts in economic and political climate can cause shifts in personality traits.

Using personality tests in hiring

By thoughtfully incorporating personality tests into your hiring process, you can improve your chances of finding the best fit for the job and your company culture. This will lead to better performance and satisfaction for both the employer and employees.

Of course, personality tests have pros and cons. Potential drawbacks to be mindful of include:

  • Over-reliance on personality test results can overshadow other important factors like skills, experience, and cultural fit.

  • Hiring managers may exhibit similarity bias, favoring certain traits and specific personality types, leading to a homogenized workforce.

  • Personality tests can undermine diversity and inclusion efforts. They may contain cultural, gender, or socioeconomic biases, potentially disadvantaging certain groups of candidates.

  • The dynamic nature of personality means there can be significant changes over time, reducing the long-term accuracy of test results.

  • Candidates might manipulate their responses to present themselves in a more favorable light, undermining the accuracy and reliability of the results.

TL;DR: It’s important to use personality tests in the hiring process as part of a broader, balanced assessment strategy. For example, consider combining them with more objective tests, like cognitive ability and technical, job-specific tests. The latter can even help predict job performance, too.

Looking to use personality traits in hiring? Here are four great use cases.

Improve communication

Understanding a candidate’s Big Five personality traits allows you to tailor the communication during the hiring process to better suit their needs.

For example, candidates who score high in extroversion will benefit from a more dynamic interview style. They’ll enjoy a more interactive interview with multiple participants.

On the other hand, if the candidate scores lower in extraversion, they’ll prefer a calmer interview experience. They’ll appreciate a single interviewer and an interview with a clearly laid out structure, where they can reflect and dive deep into one-on-one conversations.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

Speaking of job interviews, understanding the candidates’ personality traits can also help you tailor your interview questions according to the person you’re talking to.

Candidates scoring high on openness tend to do well with questions regarding their creativity and adaptability to change will reveal how these candidates will fare in new situations.

If your potential candidates score low on neuroticism, you can ask personality questions about handling stress and maintaining performance under pressure to reveal how they would perform in real-life situations.

Understand employee motivations

Being informed about the employees’ Big Five personality traits can help you understand not only their personality differences but also how they are motivated. Here are some examples of those five broad dimensions.

🐣 Openness to experience: These employees are motivated by opportunities to express their creative side, innovate, and learn. Give them projects where they can solve problems and explore new ideas.

🏅 High conscientiousness: These people have highly goal-directed behaviors. They need more structure and an environment where they can set and achieve goals. For them, motivation comes from being recognized for their hard work and reliability. Give them clear goals and regular feedback.

🥳 Extroversion: These employees get their drive and motivation from interacting with others and working in a team setting. They enjoy more collaborative and leadership roles. Give them jobs that involve speaking in public, managing teams, and collaborating in group settings.

🫶🏽 Agreeableness: This employee gets their motivation from a sense of community and helping out their teammates. For them, cooperation is key, and they will be best motivated in roles that give them the opportunity to support their team members. For this personality trait, give them roles where they have to work on team-oriented projects.

🙇 Neuroticism: This personality trait can be motivated by feelings of stability, reassurance, and security. People with high levels of neuroticism perform best in environments with minimal levels of anxiety. To give them the best motivation, place them in roles with predictable work environments.

Build diverse teams

Understanding the Big Five personality traits can help you build a more diverse team. Simply put, you’ll know how to create a more dynamic, varied team with more perspectives and different approaches to problem-solving.

First, determine which traits are important for specific roles.

For example, if you’re hiring for creative roles (e.g., content marketer, designer), high openness will be pretty important. On the other hand, if the position requires a detail-oriented person, high conscientiousness will be at the top of your priority list.

Second, hiring with the Big Five personality traits in mind ensures cognitive diversity in your team. By hiring team members with different personality traits, you ensure a good mix of problem-solving approaches and a variety of perspectives.

Last but not least, you can hire not just for cultural fit but also for cultural add. Once you understand the predominant personality traits in your team, you can look for new hires to add to the mix instead of creating an army of lookalikes.

More effective management

With the help of the Big Five personality test, you can become a better manager and foster better management styles in your company in more ways than one.

Personalized approaches to management

Once you know your team’s personality traits, you can adjust how you manage them. For example, employees who score high in openness enjoy working on new experiences and more creative projects. You should encourage them to innovate and give them ample opportunities to grow, learn, and develop.

Conversely, agreeable employees tend to value cooperation and harmony in the workplace. To engage these team members, provide them with team-building games and activities and regularly acknowledge their effort and performance.

Better team dynamics

When you’re familiar with your team’s personality traits, you can combine them to balance out a particular trait with something that compliments it. You can create a good mix of these five broad dimensions and even out reliability, creativity, cooperation and sociability.

On top of that, you can assign specific roles based on these five factors. For example, being an extrovert is closely related to being a great leader.

hiring for culture fit

Conflict resolution

You can predict behavior in the workplace once you’re familiar with the personality traits of your team members.

For example, employees who are highly agreeable have good impulse control and excellent emotional stability. You can use them to mediate and resolve conflicts more efficiently.

On the other hand, high neuroticism is linked to more careless behavior and emotional instability, which means they might need a helping hand in conflict resolution.

Improved performance management

Each personality trait will require a different strategy for managing their performance and motivating them to excel in the workplace.

For example, you should set ambitious goals for open employees and more structured ones for conscientious ones. You should praise extroverts often and in public, while introverts should be recognized privately for their achievements.

Personality and job performance

Better leadership development

While this is not always a reliable psychological model, it can help you determine which personality traits make good leaders. For example, extroverted leaders should be encouraged to use their social skills, while conscientious employees in leadership positions should focus on strategic planning instead.

Test more than personality with Toggl Hire

Personality trait tests like the Big Five can give you valuable insights into someone’s character. However, if you’re looking to make a hiring decision, Big Five personality tests work best in combination with other test types, like skills assessments.

With comprehensive hiring tools such as Toggl Hire, you get the best of both worlds. You get the broad dimensions of someone’s character traits, and you learn about the hard skills that are needed for the role.

Create a free account and start testing your job candidates today!

Mile Živković

Mile is a B2B content marketer specializing in HR, martech and data analytics. Ask him about thoughts on reducing hiring bias, the role of AI in modern recruitment, or how to immediately spot red flags in a job ad.

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