Understand Yourself With the Big 5 Personality Traits

Our personalities are relatively stable. Barring brain injury, you won't wake up tomorrow with a radically different personality. Anyone who's tried to change knows how sticky our traits can be. Change, if it happens at all, is slow and incremental. The defiant child becomes the strong-willed adult. The gregarious child becomes the gregarious adult.

Being human today is complicated. Unlike our generalist early ancestors, our lives are challenging (and specialized) enough without having to go against the grain of our basic personality. Which is why it's important for us to do what we're best suited for. This applies to work, relationships, and even how we spend our free time.

Self knowledge allows us to do more of what we're good at, and, at least, develop strategies to counterbalance our weaknesses. But even more important, self-knowledge helps us navigate the moment-by-moment flow of life.

In a very real sense, we construct little worlds that only we inhabit. These worlds are heavily influenced by our personality traits.

But how we feel internally isn't always an accurate reflection of reality. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's like a kaleidoscope, one of many facets. Understanding our personality tendencies allows us to say to ourselves, "Oh, silly you, you're doing that thing again." It creates a mental reset, the coveted 'space between thoughts' we find most commonly in the float tank.

Many avoid learning about personality for fear of the truth. But self-knowledge is never a bad thing. It's information we can use to make small adjustments and improve our internal experience and external result.

We probably can't remake ourselves wholesale. At least not with today's technology. But we can understand why we tend to do certain things and adjust accordingly. We can alter the internal narrative by 'stepping into the gap' between our thoughts. We can develop insight.

Self-understanding has its own corrective power. And isn't that the whole game? If our experience was perfect at all times we wouldn't float or try to improve in any other way -- whether internal or external.

So, other than the internal knowingness that comes with floating and meditative practices, how can we understand ourselves better?

One intellectual approach is highly effective.

Introducing the Big 5 Personality Traits

The Big Five Personality Test is a shortcut to self-understanding. It gives us a framework to understand the angels and demons of our nature. And, after seeing an objective measure of our personality, our own thoughts and actions often shock (and amuse) us. Here we are acting as the test said we would.

There are many different personality measures, but the Big Five Personality Test has the weight of evidence behind it.

So, what is it?

"The Big Five personality traits, also known as the five factor model (FFM), is a model based on common language descriptors of personality."

[Note: All italicized quotes are from Wikipedia.]

Wikipedia goes on, of course. But let's break that statement down into normal-speak. It's stating that this theory is based on human language. Over a long enough timespan natural human languages have developed descriptors for every type of personality trait. Psychologists have analyzed these descriptors and broken down personality into five basic dimensions. It's important to note that these traits are cross cultural. These linguistic studies of the Big Five Personality traits have eliminated cultural difference.

Imagine a tree-like structure. There might be hundreds of smaller branches, but they all converge at only a handful of major branches that stem from the trunk. The Big Five are those major branches.

Psychologists learned that people have generally consistent personalities. If observed for long enough, people exhibit patterns in the way they act, speak, and respond to stimuli. Hence the descriptors.

A natural next step for psychologists was to develop tests that would allow individuals to understand themselves. The method of testing is to analyze language, typically the language test subjects use about themselves. Most tests focus on adjectives (happy, sad, nice, hard-working, etc.)

Using this method, Big Five Personality tests measure individual's level on each of the big five aspects of personality. Test subjects answer a battery of questions. The test matrix then analyzes your answers and shows your results.

One currently available test is understandmyself.com (Float House IS NOT an affiliate). With this test, subjects self identify with certain phrases. A complicated, automated statistical analysis follows. And 15 minutes after beginning the test, you find yourself reading highly accurate information about yourself.

For the cost of a couple of lattes, you get a detailed understanding of your own personality. Most people, upon seeing their results, can't believe how well the test describes them.

Let's take a look at the big five.

Agreeableness

Agreeableness is the personality measure associated with, "...a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others."

We should all want to be more agreeable right? Not so fast. One of the outstanding things about the understandmyself.com test is that it shows you both sides of the personality traits coin.

Being high in the agreeableness trait isn't all good. Nor is being low in agreeableness all bad. In fact, people who are low in agreeableness, while potentially being abrasive, are often very successful because they don't mind stirring the proverbial pot. They may be difficult to handle at times, but they are tough and make for excellent negotiators. In fact, being low in agreeableness is positively associated with higher salary.

On the other hand, agreeable people seek to avoid conflict. While this might be generally positive, there are times when taking a stand for yourself is important -- when negotiating a salary for example.

Conversely a person low in agreeableness might want to learn to soften themselves in certain situations -- parenting for example. You might kick butt in the boardroom, but a 'take no prisoners' strategy will not likely lead to a positive result at home with a 7-year-old child.

Extraversion

This trait has entered common parlance. Extraversion is described as, "Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness."

Furthermore, "High extraversion is often perceived as attention-seeking, and domineering. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed."

While there are many different ways a self-understanding of this trait might help us, the most clearly obvious is in our career choices. Someone high in extraversion will suffer if put in a job that requires long periods stuck alone at a desk. Conversely, someone low in extraversion will not likely enjoy a job in sales.

If you find yourself hating your work, your personality, and particularly this trait, might be the very first place to check. So often, when we select a career, we're young and impressionable. Not knowing what to do, we follow someone else's well-meaning advice. Or we do what 'the family has always done.' But this might be a recipe for disaster, if, for example, you're high in extraversion but the family has 'always done' accounting.

Openness to Experience

This trait is one that we understand intuitively, but most people would fail to describe it in the way psychologists have.

"Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine."

Artists and writers are uncommonly high in openness. You might be, too, if you already like to float. As floating is a novel experience unto itself. People low in openness commonly say, "Why would you want to lock yourself in a tank?"

People high in openness, seeking out novelty often create incredible things. But on the downside, are far more likely to engage in risky behavior.

This trait also explains two different approaches to fulfillment, "individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences. Conversely, those with low openness seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded."

It's easy to see how openness to experience can be a positive to emphasize but also a trait that, if you have it in abundance, needs to be balanced.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is characterized by, "A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior."

This trait, probably more than all the others, is one people seek to strengthen. Being highly conscientious is correlated with many positive life results, because most things worth doing require long term, almost stubborn commitment.

Knowing you're low in conscientiousness can be a major eye opener. This self-awareness might not immediately make you a diligent soldier. But it will give you awareness that there are some things you just need to do, regardless of whether you want to do them. Being able to see the bigger picture, and the positive outcomes your actions will bring about, might be enough to remind you to overcome your lack of conscientiousness.  

Conversely, being very high in conscientiousness can cross the line into stubbornness. Knowing you're high in conscientiousness, you might decide to step back and allow things to happen once in a while.

Neuroticism

This is the primary dimension of negative emotion in the Big Five model.

"Neuroticism identifies certain people who are more prone to psychological stress. The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability."

It's hard to imagine what positive could come out of being high in neuroticism. But the correlations are interesting. Because, "A high stability manifests itself as a stable and calm personality, but can be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned. A low stability expresses as a reactive and excitable personality, often very dynamic individuals, but they can be perceived as unstable or insecure."

Perhaps the people who experience these negative emotions are more attuned to how others feel and use the shared experience of difficult emotions to inspire their dynamism.

But on a personal level, understanding that you're higher in a neuroticism is a true doorway into our own mind. It puts feelings of anxiety and depression into perspective. And, in some cases, knowing this tendency may help alleviate these feelings.   

How The Traits Work Together

One of the best things about this test is that the results discuss some of the interesting combinations you might be dealing with. Does being high in openness but also high in neuroticism lead to an internal battle, for example? What should you do if you have lots of great ideas (high openness) but never seem to follow through with anything (low conscientiousness)? 

It's fascinating, and it can be complex to understand. Like all things, take it with a grain of salt. Your results don't mean you're unable to change. But they will shine some light on the mysterious inner workings of one's own psyche.