Cambridge Analytica captured the data of 87 million Facebook users, without their consent, and then used that data to target them with political advertising. This data included some people’s self-assessments on the Big Five Personality Factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.
What and how much can the Big Five really reveal about us?
As a clinical psychologist, who has been using the the Big Five with clients for over 35 years, my professional opinion is: it reveals a hell of a lot.
The Big Five measures personality traits. Personality traits are enduring predispositions to think, feel, and behave in highly predictable ways. It is based on almost 100 years of factor analytic research, in which words describing human beings and their behavior are subjected to intense statistical analysis. The Big Five also tends to be stable across a lifetime after the age of 18. This is partly why people who are attempting to access specific populations for political or marketing reasons have recently begun to use the Big Five.
I have used the Big Five for 35 years….. because it is so powerful….. so predictive. In all these years, knowing where a person scores on the Openness domain of the Big Five, I have only made one mistake in predicting how a person voted in a presidential election. That’s powerful!
Highly open people tend to focus on creating new stories of their lives in the present and for the future. They tend to be more tolerant of diversity. They even seek it out. They may be ‘dreamers’. People low on Openness are much more inclined to want to believe that the best times have been in the past and we need to recreate the past. They have more rigid and exclusionary values systems. They may define themselves by what they are not. They may project blame on people with difference. They fear difference and tend to be skeptical of any data that does not support their ideology. The extreme right of the political spectrum and the extreme left tend to be low in Openness.
The Big Five have been validated in populations across the world. For example, the most commonly recognized personality trait across the globe is Warmth. Measuring a trait involves two poles so the opposite of Warmth is Coldness. People who score high on Warmth, are friendly and easily engage with others. They often have many friends. On the other pole, people who are Cold tend to be hard to read and have difficulty engaging with others. They sometimes even have problems with spontaneous speech. Warmth is a sub-scale of the Big Five factor of Extraversion. Most researchers would agree at this point that Extraversion is a genetic personality trait. It’s hardwired (nature). Not all of the Five Factors are quite so genetically based. Many are more subject to life experience or nurture. Personality is, after all, a series of habits. Some habits are easier to change than others.
I use a specific instrument that measures the Big Five called the NEO-PI-3. I use it at the beginning of my engagement with my clients to clarify inner dynamics, needs, and behaviors. Knowledge of where a person scores on the NEO allows extremely accurate prediction of behavior. Each Factor of the NEO has six subscales. On each subscale a person’s score places them on a normal distribution curve. Based on the their placement on the curve, a person is more or less predisposed to behaving in a certain way. A person who scores in the 95th percentile of Neuroticism will spend more of their life energy worrying than a person who scores at the 50th percentile. At the 10th percentile, the person is essentially saying that they are free of worry.
When I begin to engage with my clients at the beginning of our time together, clarifying where they score against a normative population is often extremely useful. Shy people (or introverts) often know that this is true, but sometimes it’s helpful to know, for example, that they are more introverted than 95 out of 100 people.
When Amelia and I work with couples, I have each member of the couple fill out the the Big Five (via the NEO) on themselves and each other. Without fail, what is working and not working in the relationship rapidly reveals itself. It tends to show places where there are misperceptions and can provide the couple with a clear focus to shift behavior in certain areas of conflict or concern. It can also lead to increased empathy for one’s partner. The Big Five is very predictive on the outcome and relative health of a relationship…and can even shed light on whether a couple is going to sustain their relationship over time. For example, I have never seen a couple that is not well matched on the Openness domain create a common story for their family and relationship that gives pleasure to both.
Here are key aspects of each domain of the Big Five:
Neuroticism or Negative Affectivity
People high on neuroticism tend to experience anxiety, depression, anger, impulsivity, and vulnerability. It’s difficult for them to be in the present, in the now. Neuroticism, unlike introversion-extroversion can change significantly if a person dedicates themselves to tools like meditation or mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is the antidote to high levels of neuroticism. On the other pole, people low in neuroticism are either extremely stable and present…. or in abject denial of their emotional states. There are some people who never learned to process or interpret internal sensory or feeling states. This is especially the case for people who are low on neuroticism and low on openness — in particular, openness to feelings. The psychobabble term for their condition is alexothymia — without words for feelings. Alexithymics typically have A LOT of physical symptoms.
As mentioned previously, Extroversion-Introversion is relatively hard-wired. In the United States, we are an extroverted society and tend to reward extroverts, which puts introverts in a difficult situation. There are cultures, however, like the Laps in Northern Scandinavia who are extremely introverted. You can sit with them for long periods of time and few words will be spoken. In general, Extroverts are social, active, expressive, like to be with people and like to be in large gatherings. Introverts, on the other hand, avoid large gatherings of people (unless they have a “safe person” with them) and tend to have far fewer friends and like meeting with only one or two others at a time. An introvert can learn to act like an extrovert but their internal wiring and the pleasure (or lack thereof) of intense social engagement doesn’t tend to change. An introvert and an extrovert can live and thrive together as long as the introvert doesn’t insist that every date night involve sitting on the sofa at home reading a book and the extrovert doesn’t constantly insist on going to wild parties.
I call Openness the matching variable in life. It determines to a great extent the kind of work you do, where you live, the people you hang out with, and what gives you pleasure. Highly Open people tend to be artistic and creative and… try to create new stories for their own lives and the life of the planet. People low on Openness tend to be far more rigid, exclusionary, and have difficulty engaging in novel activities. For example, a person low on Openness to Actions (a sub scale of Openness) will tend to go to the same restaurant, sit at the same table, hope to have the same waitress, and order the same meal. When asked why they do this, they tend to say, “That’s what I like. Why should I do anything else?” On the other side of the spectrum, a person high on Openness is wanting to try new foods, go to new places, and is willing to conduct experiments…because novelty is the desired goal. Perhaps important for our times, people low on Openness to Values tend to believe that their beliefs are the only beliefs and may go to great lengths to impose their values on others.
Agreeableness is a completely interpersonal domain. People high on Agreeableness tend to be sweet and kind. They like to be nice. They are afraid of upsetting and disappointing others. On the other hand, people low on Agreeableness tend to be judgmental and disruptive and actually enjoy creating discomfort. Interestingly, effective leaders, especially in times of change, tend to be somewhat low on Agreeableness as they are willing to lead others through discomfort knowing people must go through this to adapt to changing times. Personally, being a person quite low on agreeableness, I try and surround myself with people higher on agreeableness to be my goodwill ambassadors. With 35 years of experience in the trenches of transformation, I haven’t seen many people change…. comfortably. However, I have learned that genuine kindness and tenderness are connective and lead to safety and presence. So both sides of the Agreeableness Factor are influential… depending on the context.
Conscientiousness is the only personality trait that all employers want their employees to be relatively high in. Conscientious people are competent, create order, are self-disciplined, strive to achieve goals, and keep their word. At the extreme end, they can be relatively intolerable control freaks. On the other hand, people low on Conscientiousness generally tend to be impulsive, playful, and live in the moment. Parties are more fun with people lower in Conscientiousness. Workplaces that don’t have a lot of people higher in Conscientiousness will simply not be able to deliver what they say they are going to deliver. Conscientiousness is an extremely important trait for an individual or a group to get down the line or down the field of life. Highly conscientious people make things happen. A conscientious fascist is very scary. On the other side, people who are extremely high on Openness and low on Conscientiousness are essentially dreamers. They have a lot of ideas but most of their ideas are never manifested. That said, Conscientiousness is something that people can learn. It involves self-discipline.
We all want to be seen and known. At least, that’s true for the people who come to see me. For a variety of reasons, probably because I am extremely high on Openness, I attract clients who are extremely high on Openness. They often feel like “odd ducks” so I informally call my practice The Odd Duck Club.
Being an Odd Duck, it took me quite a long time, to realize that most people are not going to understand my perspective and how I see the world. This is not my fault or their fault, it has to do with fundamentally different filters of consciousness. What do I prioritize? Living in a cabin in the woods, nurturing deep relationships with an extended chosen family, spending 12 hours/day unreachable off the Grid, reading extensively, only having material objects around me that are beautiful or useful, alternating working deeply with people around transformation and making things out of wood, metal and glass. I get up every morning and sit and meditate, vision, and plan by a river far away from human sounds and human activity. “The I/eye cannot see itself” so I surround myself with people who give me honest feedback, who see me. I spend an hour a day in tenderness with my sweetie. All this is my truth and the things that give me pleasure… and constitute my uniqueness.
Everyone has to find their own way. Everyone is on their own Hero’s Journey…..individuating from the familial and cultural patterning that they used to survive. Personally, I think it is extremely helpful to know where you score on the Five Factors as one map for your larger life journey.
If you want to take the Big Five for free, from a reliable source, go here:
To toot my own horn a bit, I’ve interpreted over 1000 NEOs and I consider it something of an art form to reflect the uniqueness of each person’s personality. It’s a snapshot of a unique self. It can be a step in moving towards a more authentic self if used well.
If you want to do a formal assessment and interpretation with me, get in touch! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
May the wind be at your back.