Feeling a little self-reflective? If you’ve ever hopped down the rabbit hole of personality assessments — or even just taken a basic psychology class in college — you’ve probably stumbled across the Big Five model of personality.
Officially called the Five-Factor Model, the Big Five can be used to learn a little more about how your personality stacks up against other people — and whether you might be more prone to certain tendencies or behaviors.
It’s not a crystal ball, and the results aren’t equally accurate for everyone, but psychologists and sociologists still consider this model to be super important when studying human behavior.
Interested in how the Big Five can help you better understand yourself (and others)? Here’s a closer look at how the whole thing works and what the test might mean for you.
The five-factor model of personality — often called the Big Five — is a psychology model designed to capture the major differences in people’s personalities in five key traits.
The traits are measured using questionnaires that ask how much you agree or disagree with certain statements, like whether you consider yourself curious about different things, or whether you like to keep things in order.
A psychologist might give you a questionnaire, but you can also take one for yourself online. The test rates your answers to determine how high you score for each of the five personality traits.
What makes the Big Five different from a random personality quiz you found on Buzzfeed? For one, they’re based on statistical studies of responses to personality questions, not just one psychologist’s theory.
As for what the traits actually are? Glad you asked.
1. Openness to experience
This basically means how open you are to new things. People who are more open to experience tend to be more imaginative and creative. After all, being exposed to different ideas can give you more lightbulb moments of your own.
Scoring higher in conscientiousness means you’re more self-disciplined, goal-oriented, and organized. Basically, you come up with a plan to make something happen — and you stick with it.
People who are more extraverted tend to be more assertive and sociable, while those who are less extraverted are more quiet and reserved. If you’re highly extraverted, you’ll probably have a wide social circle. If you’re less extraverted, you might focus your energies on a few close friends instead.
It’s another way of saying easygoing. People who score high on agreeableness tend to be more tolerant and cooperative and they tend to be seen as compassionate and trustworthy.
It’s a key measure of how anxious, self-conscious, and pessimistic a person is. People who are neurotic tend to be more affected by negative situations, since they’re less emotionally resilient.
The Big Five has a long history. Starting in the 1930’s, researchers started studying English words often used to describe certain personality traits. Using statistics, they discovered that certain characteristics were linguistically related. By the 1960’s, these characteristic clusters were organized into five overarching traits, and they were dubbed the Big Five in 1981.
Fast forward to 2020. The Big Five still play a major role in psychology now, but today, not every expert agrees that they’re the be-all and end-all to understanding your personality or predicting how you’ll act in certain situations. And they may not be as universal as previously thought.
If you took a Big Five test today, your score would probably be similar to if you took the test 5 years ago or 20 years from now.
What’s more, the same types of traits tend to co-occur across different people, over and over. “The test is extremely stable,” says Pascal Wallisch, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychology at New York University.
Many experts say that’s because the Big Five ultimately reflect human biology and how our bodies react to stressors in the environment.
What’s more, large-scale studies have uncovered genetic links between certain traits — and that having certain genes increases the risk for certain personality disorders.
But there’s more to it. “There’s no question that culture and self identity determine how people answer for certain traits like agreeableness or open-mindedness,” Wallisch says.
Studies on identical twins, who share very similar genes, suggest that environment can heavily influence an individual’s personality — and by extension, how they might score on a Big Five test.
There’s also the fact that the Big Five traits came about from studying only English words. “The concept of ‘universal’ may not apply to all cultures and countries,” says Michael Ceely, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist based in in the San Francisco Bay area.
Case in point: A review of tests conducted in local languages from 23 middle- and low-income countries found that the Big Five didn’t always do a great job of measuring personality traits.
Even among English speakers, there’s some debate over whether the test results are always reliable.
Most online tests ask you to enter your gender before getting started, and one journalist found that her personality traits were rated differently when she entered her gender as a woman compared to when she entered it as a man.
Personality assessments are a fun way to navel-gaze for a few minutes. But beyond that, what info are you actually getting from a Big Five test — and how much can you trust the results?
Major studies have found that the Big Five model holds up in more than 50 countries worldwide. And experts agree that it can do a good job of describing an individual’s personality.
“It’s by far the most reliable personality test we have. Far more reliable and consistent over time than the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator,” Wallisch says. “The problem is validity. In other words, does it predict actual behavior?”
Experts aren’t sure. A person who scores high on neuroticism, for instance, is more prone to anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia. But that doesn’t mean you’ll definitely have one of those disorders, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you’re a neurotic person.
“Any personality test shows tendencies, not absolutes,” Ceely says. “If the test shows you were higher than normal in neuroticism, your answers suggest a tendency toward more negative reactions to stressful events. The lesson here could simply be to work on your optimism.”
What’s more, five traits might not be enough to describe the whole of who you are — even if they’re very broad, Wallisch points out.
Keep in mind, too, that the biases in your own answers can affect your results. “People who are self-aware and honest with themselves are far more likely to get an accurate profile,” Wallisch says. “But in my research, few people are willing to admit that they are ‘unconventional’ or ‘uncreative,’ even if they are.”
How you construe the test questions can also have an impact. “Because there is wide variation in the cultural use and meaning of words, one person’s interpretation of a test question may differ from someone else’s,” says Ceely.
For instance, since the test was developed by English speakers in a Western culture, someone growing up in the U.S. is more likely to get an accurate result than someone who grew up in an Asian country, for instance.
Because we can’t wrap up this article without giving you a chance to take the test, here’s a link to the BFI’s website.
A Big Five test can tell you whether you lean one way or another on several major personality traits. But it doesn’t say everything about who you are — and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll react a certain way in a given situation.
“It’s a big mistake to let the Big Five define who you are,” Ceely says. “Only you have to power to do that.”