The Big Five model is a very big deal to psychologists, and has been for decades. At the moment, it is the most respected, widely studied method for accomplishing the tricky task of summing up someone’s personality. It consists of five dimensions, and as the University of Oregon social psychologist Sanjay Srivastava explains on his website, each is perhaps best understood as containing a bundle of traits:
Extraversion. The broad dimension of Extraversion encompasses such more specific traits as talkative, energetic, and assertive.
Agreeableness. Includes traits like sympathetic, kind, and affectionate.
Conscientiousness. Includes traits like organized, thorough, and planful.
Neuroticism. Includes traits like tense, moody, and anxious.
Openness to Experience. Includes traits like having wide interests, and being imaginative and insightful.
Researchers developed these five dimensions through statistical analysis — they found that people who plan a lot tend to also be organized, for example, and people who are sympathetic also tend to be kind. These dimensions are mostly stable at the individual level. “If you take a bunch of 20-year-olds and rank them on extraversion, and then wait 20 years and measure them again, you’ll find the people who scored highest at age 20 will tend to be high at age 30,” explained Christopher Soto, a personality psychologist at Colby College. That said, “there are definitely also changes” — people can certainly become more extraverted or less neurotic over their lifespan.
So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out. First, you’ll first be asked to rank yourself on each of the Big Five, on a scale of 0 to 100. Then you’ll take a short version of the test designed by Soto and Oliver John of the University of California, Berkeley, after which the test will reveal how you rank, your approximate percentile relative to the data Soto and John have collected from previous test-takers, and how your score compared to your estimate and to the average score from Soto and John’s data.
I tend to be quiet.
I am compassionate and have a soft heart.
I tend to be disorganized.
I worry a lot.
I am fascinated by art, music, or literature.
I am dominant and act as a leader.
I am sometimes rude to others.
I have difficulty getting started on tasks.
I tend to feel depressed or blue.
I have little interest in abstract ideas.
I am full of energy.
I assume the best about people.
I am reliable and can always be counted on.
I am emotionally stable and not easily upset.
I am original and come up with new ideas.
I am outgoing or social.
I can be cold and uncaring.
I keep things neat and tidy.
I am relaxed and handle stress well.
I have few artistic interests.
I prefer to have others take charge.
I am respectful and treat others with respect.
I am persistent and work until the task is finished.
I feel secure and comfortable with myself.
I am complex or a deep thinker.
I am less active than other people.
I tend to find fault with others.
I can be somewhat careless.
I am temperamental and get emotional easily.
I have little creativity.
This is what my level of extraversion means.
This is what my level of agreeableness means.
This is what my level of conscientiousness means.
This is what my level of neuroticism means.
This is what my level of open-mindedness means.
How should you interpret your scores? There’s some potentially useful information there — in fact, one reason psychologists are very into the Big Five is that its dimensions seem to correlate with some rather important life outcomes. “It was designed to be a useful summary of a wide spectrum of traits that matter in human social relations,” said Srivastava. “So while you can certainly go into much more depth (either with more nuanced trait measures, or with a totally different approach to personality besides traits), there’s quite a range of information packed into those 5 scores.”
In 2006, the UC-Riverside psychologists Daniel J. Ozer and Verónica Benet-Martínez published a review of the literature on these correlations in the Annual Review of Psychology. Among other links, they found that higher extraversion is correlated with a lower prevalence of depression; agreeableness is correlated with enhanced longevity and a lower risk of heart disease; and neuroticism — unsurprisingly — is correlated with lower subjective well-being (you can view the table running down their findings here). Sometimes things aren’t that clear-cut: as of the paper’s publication, researchers hadn’t found links between the openness dimension and outcomes dealing with social and family relations, for example. And some dimensions, like extraversion and agreeableness, are correlated with an increased likelihood of some personality disorders, but a decreased likelihood of others.
Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that while these correlations are meaningful at the population level, just because you score high or low on a given dimension isn’t reason to think you’re fated for any particular outcome. That is, there are plenty of highly neurotic people who are happy, and there are plenty of highly extraverted people who are unhappy.
As for the relationship between people’s personalities and what they think their personalities are, here things are a bit more complicated. Generally speaking, people are okay but not great at this sort of self-evaluation. In one 2010 paper from Social and Personality Psychology Compass, for example, the psychological researchers Simine Vazire and Erika N. Carlson reviewed a bunch of the past literature on this question and found that overall, “people’s perceptions of their own personality are certainly more accurate than random guesses would be, but they are substantially far from perfect.”
Soto explained that there are certain patterns to how people misfire when evaluating their personalities, and in some cases your friends, family members, or co-workers might possess a more accurate sense of who you are than you do. “Some kind of behavior and aspects of personality are highly observable by others, like extraversion, and for those peers are generally better,” he explained. “Other things are more about your internal emotions and thoughts, and there the self is better.” In other words, it isn’t hard for your friends to tell whether or not you talk to a lot of people at parties, so if you have a false sense of your own level of extraversion, the truth of the matter is evident to observers. For traits like neuroticism, on the other hand, external observers have a lot less to go on, so in most cases you will be a better judge than people who know you.
Taking a Big Five test like this one is simply a good way to better understand yourself. It can also help put things in context — as Srivastava put it, “through the feedback, you get to find out where you stand relative to other people. Everybody has ideas about what they’re like, things like ‘I’m kind of reserved’ or ‘Sometimes I get pretty anxious.’ All of those things are on a spectrum of human experience, and getting standardized feedback tells you where you are on that spectrum.” In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.
BFI-2 items copyright 2015 by Oliver P. John and Christopher J. Soto. Reprinted with permission. For more information about the BFI-2, visit the Colby Personality Lab website at http://www.colby.edu/psych/personality-lab/.