Studying the big five personality traits

Nowadays personality trait test becomes more and more famous in recruitment and personal assessment, it is aiming to predict possible academic success and work performance in different settings. Although there are many academic theories attempt to conceptualize and generalize individual differences in the personality research field, such as psychoanalytic theory, psychodynamic theory, phenomenological theory and cognitive theory. (B.R. Hergenhahn, 1994). Each theory contributes a lot on the understanding and conceptualizing of human individual differences. No matter what theory the investigator chose they all had the common goal to build a structured model to describe and explain personality trait. From Sigmund Freud’s Id – Ego – Superego model to R.B.Cattell’s 16 personality factors model, we can see that every famous trait-orientated psychologist would put forward one personality model. However, by analyzing those personality models it is easy to find out that there were huge differences about the number and nature of factors.

Since 1980s, trait-orientated psychologists/researchers reached a consensus about the description mode of personality and they have suggested that there are five major personality factors which also called as the Big Five Personality Trait model. (Arnold J et al, 2005) The five dimensions of this model was not presenting or deriving from any of the particular one theories above, but obtained from the daily common words that people used to characterize others and themselves. Instead of displacing all the existing theories, the Big Five Personality Trait model works multifunctional because it is able to represent various personality trait theories in the same framework. (John and Srivastava, 1999)In recent decade, the Big Five personality trait model has made remarkable progress, and also demonstrated and supported by many research studies, most psychologists regarded it as the best personality model so far (MBA LIB. 2010).

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The Big Five Personality Trait model highlighted the universality of every dimension in this model. These five traits include (Arnold J et al, 2005):

Openness to experiences. This trait describes people, who are interested in many things, appreciation for art, emotion, fantasy, aesthetic, feelings, actions, ideas.

Conscientiousness. This trait describes people have a tendency to show their self-discipline, act orderly and dutifully, and personal achievement striving.

Extroversion. This trait describes people who treat others warmly, actively, excitement seeking, maintains positive emotions and tends to seek simulation when companying others.

Agreeableness. This trait describes people tend to trust others more, being straightforwardness, modesty, tender-mindedness and cooperative with others.

Neuroticism. This trait describes people who tend to feel anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness etc easily.

When assessing a psychological theory or model whether to be successful or not, there are few essential aspects should taken into account.

First, when establishing a new theory or model it is important to consider its compatibility with other existing psychological theories. Eysenck derived his PEN model from Cattell’s 16-factor model and within the same factor analytic psychological model however, they are not contradicted, McMartin proposed “the structure of personality is best conceptualized as consisting of five major traits, rather than Eysenck’s 3 types” (McMartin, 1995) (Nathan C. Popkins, 2010) Therefore it is clear to see that the Big Five Personality Trait model is coherent with other factor-analytical models and all these models should not conflicts with each other directly. Some psychologists have assessed the Big Five Personality Trait model by using the Trait Descriptive Adjectives (TDA) and found highly internal consistency and reliabilities, and their factor structure is easily carried out with same method and procedure. (John and Srivastava, 1999.)

In recent years, some research studies also showed that the five-factor model is also compatible with other psychological personality models. Some psychologists attempted and already discover the correlation relationship between the Big Five Personality Traits and Freud’s famous psychoanalysis theories. (Huey and Weisz, 1997) Although they only found out the relationship between some elements of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory and some elements of the Big Five Personality Trait, it also helps for proving of the compatibility and adaptability of the Big Five Personality Trait.

Secondary, a successful psychological theory or model should also be capable to apply widely such as in clinical and organizational field, and it also needs to maintain in a high degree of consistency. McAdams suggested that the Big Five Personality Trait model is more like a list with five dimensions which is helpful to specify and classify personality traits than a psychological theory (McAdams, 1992). To apply the model into academic field to find its effectiveness, Digman (1990) claimed that the Big Five Personality Traits model provides a useful view of broad dimensions that characterize human individual differences. “These dimensions can be measured with high level of reliability and impressive validity.” (Digman, 1990, page 436) Digman had summed up that the Big Five Personality Traits model applies well for providing the personality traits structure. (Digman 1990)

As its advantages of being simplified and systematical, it has been agreed by many researchers. As Jianan Zhong and Jinyun Duan (2004) indicated that they thought the Big Five Personality Traits is a well established model for describing personality traits. For a long time, researchers have realized that the number of major personality traits is actually less the Catell’s 16 factors and Eysenck’s 3 factors, therefore 5 factors seemed to be a reasonable choice. At the meanwhile, there are some criticisms raised. First, it is a non-explainable descriptive model, it cannot be said that there is only 5 factors to identify human personality traits (Eysenck, 2001). Second, the Big Five’s advocates assumed that the five variables are independent to each other; however the situation is not always so (Eysenck, 2001). Third, there are still arguments among the meaning of these five variables, it has been limited by the different adjectives in different language systems thus the compatibility of the model has been questioned. Fourth, many different ideas on how many should we number for the factors appears, there are 3, 4, 6, 7 factors separately. And finally, the Big Five Personality Traits is not capable and suitable for all cultural backgrounds; apart from the United States, researchers should carry out their own local studies (Boies K et al., 2001) (Ashton M C et al., 2000.).

Is there any ways to measure our five personality traits? In 1985, Costa and McCrae brought up a questionnaire to measure the Big Five Personality Traits – NEO-PI (Costa P T, McCrae R R. 1985, 1989). After that, they came up with the new edited version – NEO-PI-R and NEO-FFI. They made this personality model becoming measurable; however, there are also criticisms. Frame of reference effects (Schmit M J, Royan A M, 1993) is one of the concerning, a reliable result will gain from some of the volunteer respondents, for those are not volunteers, such as a job seeker, they might be truthful on the description of themselves, they will characterize themselves as being reliable, hard-working and organized etc to get the job position. Therefore this may lead to the raising of general ideal-employees.

Despite the inadequate aspects, the Big Five Personality Traits model still has advantages. It provided an integrated theory framework; it is simple which is consistent with economic principles. For this reason, there are huge amount of application researches about industry and organizational psychology in recent years.

Since the research carried out about the correlation relationship between the Big Five Personality Traits model and the job performance, there is an agreed conclusion that this personality traits model can predict job performance, especially contextual performance (Goliath. 2010.). In these five major traits, conscientiousness is the most effective predictor. A research in 2000 (Gregory M.H et al., 2000) has demonstrated the above conclusions in advance, it also took into account of various job type and diverse performance criterion, and the findings showed that the agreeableness has the better prediction to the service job, openness to experience has the better prediction to the managerial job type, conscientiousness works the most effectively to predict different job types and different performance criterion. Jeffrey et al. (2001) carried out a research study to measure 276 students’ personality dimensions by using NEO-PI-R. The subjects were placed in a group decision-making scenario to observe the task performance and contextual performance, and the contextual performance has been divided into cooperative behavior and voice behavior. The so-called voice behavior refers to the creative and constructive communicational behavior for the purpose of improving the environment, change the orientation. Detailed content includes providing constructive suggestions to the organization, such as how to improve the organization; how to perform the task; persuade others to accept new ideas, advices and guidance etc. The results showed that agreeableness is significantly positive correlated to the cooperative behavior; however it is significantly negative correlated with voice behavior. The research findings also supported the point of view of dividing the contextual performance into cooperative behavior and voice behavior.

In order to investigate the interactional relationship between agreeableness and conscientiousness to the task performance, Witt (2002) use the personality questionnaire with 120 items to measure five factors in seven companies with different job types, it used higher assessment as main method to assess the task performance. The findings showed that, there are 5 out of 7 indicated that the staff with high conscientiousness but low social ability is ineffective especially in the situation where the cooperation with others is essential. In another word, among these work situations, the correlation between conscientiousness and task performance is influenced by agreeableness. Higher agreeableness works better than low agreeableness.

It is easy to see that the Big Five Personality Traits model is able to predict task performance well and in particular the contextual performance.

Jennifer et al. (2001) gathered 149 staff with different job types to carry out the research study about the relationship between openness, conscientiousness and creative behavior by using the questionnaires. NEO-FFI was used to measure openness and conscientiousness, the creative behavior was assessed by higher assessment. The result showed that, when the environment allows the personality to express, openness will accelerate the occurrence of creative behavior, whereas conscientiousness will block it. This seems to be contradicted to the above research findings of ‘conscientiousness is a predictor of good task performance, the key issue here is the environment is also an important factor. It is valuable to conduct further research to stimulate staff with high conscientiousness but low openness to reach their potential of creativity.

Costa and McCrae (Li Wang et al. 2000) also suggested that when dealing with the life stress events, people with higher openness would like to use a variety of coping strategies effectively. Because when facing the new environment, people with higher openness tends to be patient to discover, therefore they feel less tense when dealing with changes, they can manage to cope with the changes within the organization.

The Big Five Personality Traits model can also be applied with the research about job satisfaction. Timothy (2002) gathered 334 relevant data among 163 dependent samples about personality traits and job satisfaction to do the meta- analysis. The findings indicated that openness and conscientiousness are significantly negative correlated with job satisfaction.

Besides, David et al. (2002) conducted the research between the Big Five Personality Traits model and self-respect. The result showed that the self-respect is significantly negative correlated with neuroticism and is significantly positive correlated with extroversion, whereas there is no significant correlation with openness and agreeableness.

Piers (2002) did the investigation on the relationship between the Big Five Personality Traits model and self well-being. The findings showed that neuroticism is significantly negative correlated with self well-being, however openness is positive correlated with self well-being, whereas there is no significant correlations between other factors and self well-being.

Openness and job satisfaction, self-respect and self well-being all positive correlated, however, neuroticism is significantly negative correlated with all of these. In other words, neuroticism and extroversion are closely related with the life functions.

To sum up the above applied research of the Big Five Personality Traits model, we can conclude that despite the consideration of cognitive and intellectual factors, this personality traits model can be used as a predictor during the selection and employee allocation. General speaking, conscientiousness has the better prediction to the task performance. For service work, agreeableness is an excellent predictor. For creative work, for instance, strategy planning, advertisement, art, literature etc, openness predicts better than other dimensions. For managerial work, extroversion predicts better than other dimensions. Besides, Barry and Stewart (Yufan Liu et al, 2002) also found out that within a group of people, the team performance carried out the best when the proportion of openness is adequate. Too much or too few openness people would not be conducive to the improvement of team performance.

Unstable neuroticism has a negative impact on individuals in many ways; hence we should control our emotion wisely to improve individual’s emotional stability. In a larger sense, the Big Five Personality Traits model provides us a reference to understand and shape our personality traits. Every positive outcome such as stable emotions, openness or agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion will help people to build a relatively perfect self.

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