The Lexical Hypothesis
The story begins with Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert, who hypothesized
Those individual differences that are most salient and socially
relevant in people's lives will eventually become encoded into
their language; the more important such a difference, the more
likely is it to become expressed as a single word.
This has become known as the "Lexical Hypothesis."
What Allport and Odbert did, though, was to go through two of the
most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at
the time, and extract 18,000 personality-describing words. From this
gigantic list, they extracted 4500 personality-describing adjectives
that they found describing observable and relatively permanent traits.
And then, in 1936, they rested their case.
The case was picked up again in 1946 by Raymond Cattell, who used new
technology, i.e. computers, to do data reduction on the Allport-Odbert
list. He organized the list into 181 clusters and asked people to
rate people they knew by the adjectives on the list. Using factor
analysis, he ended up with twelve factors. He added four factors that
he thought ought to have been there, and ended up with the hypothesis
that individuals describe themselves and each other according to sixteen different, independent factors.
With these sixteen factors as a basis, he went on and constructed
the 16PF Personality Questionnaire, which is still being used in
universities and businesses for research, personnel selection and the
like. Later research has failed to replicate the results, however, and
it has been shown that Cattell retained too many factors. The current
16PF, however, takes these findings into account and is in fact a very
good test which is still being developed. In 1963, W.T. Norman redid
Cattell's work and suggested that five factors would be sufficient.
The Dark Ages
And then for seventeen years, nothing happened: It was proven that
personality is not stable, but varies wildly with situations, so that
prediction of behavior by personality test is impossible: Social
Psychologists demonstrated that character, or personality, is
something humans impose on people in order to maintain an illusion of
consistency in the world. The final nail in the coffin was Walter
Mischel's 1968 book Psychological Assessment which
demonstrated that personality tests cannot predict behavior with a
correlation of more than 0.3.
Around 1980, three things happened that brought the present strain
of personality research out of the Dark Ages. These were Personal
Computers, Statistical Aggregation, and The Big
Traditionally, Psychologists who needed computers had to rent
access to a mainframe. Suddenly, they could do their statistical
analysis on their desktops. This meant that anybody could, for
instance, re-examine the Allport-Odbert list. But why would they, if
personality is an illusion?
It was argued that personality psychologists had looked at behavior
from the wrong level. Instead of trying to predict single instances
of behavior, which just didn't work, researchers should try to
predict patterns of behavior. Correlations soared from .3 to
.8. Hey presto, we've got personalities anyway! Social Psychologists
still argue that we impose consistency on the world, but that there is
in fact more consistency to begin with than they once thought.
The Big Five
At a symposium held in Honolulu in 1981, the four prominent
researchers Lewis Goldberg, Naomi Takamoto-Chock, Andrew Comrey, and
John M. Digman reviewed the personality tests available at the day,
and decided that most of the tests that held any promise seemed to
measure a subset of five common factors - in fact the same as Norman
had discovered in 1963.
We've got triangulation!
Both the lexical hypothesis, then, and more theory-laden research
converge on a model that states that personality can be described in
terms of five aggregate-level trait descriptors. The Big Five model is still in a state of transition, and researchers tend to develop their own variants, however when researchers talk to each other, they
usually translate their model into the one proposed by Norman in 1963.
- Surgency or Extraversion
How energetic one is. People who score high on this factor like to work in cooperation with others, are talkative, enthusiastic
and excitement seeking. People who score low on this factor prefer to work alone, and can be perceived as cold, difficult to read, even a
One's level of orientation towards other people. Those who score high on this factor are usually co-operative, can be submissive, and concerned with the well-being of others. People who score low on this factor can be challenging, competitive, sometimes even argumentative.
These are the two "social" factors. People who score more than middle on both plus more than middle on IQ tend to have high "emotional intelligence."
How "structured" one is. People who score high on this factor are usually productive and disciplined and single tasking. People who score low on this factor are often less structured, less productive, but can be more flexible and inventive,
and can be multitasking.
- Neuroticism or (inversely) Emotional Stability
Tendency to worry. People who score low on this factor are usually calm, relaxed and rational and may sometimes be perceived as lazy and
incapable of taking things seriously. People who score high on this factor are alert, anxious, sometimes worried.
- Culture or Openness to Experience or Openness to Ideas
Tendency to be speculative and imaginative. People who score high on
this factor are neophilic and curious and sometimes unrealistic.
People who score low on this factor are down-to-earth and practical
and sometimes obstructive of change.
There is a lot of research available on the Big Five. The problem
is that very little of it is published in books with pictures -
most of it is relatively uncompiled in research journals. In order to make use of the Big Five, then, one needs to be up to date on the literature.
When conflicts are due to differences in personality, it is
usually due to differences in Openness to Experience.
The factors that predict job performance are Conscientiousness
(which should be high) and Neuroticism (which should be low).
Leaders should be high on all factors except Neuroticism
and Agreeableness which should be low - and salespeople should
be similar but with even higher scores on Surgency.
Incidentally, this is culture-dependent - in most countries outside
the USA (including Canada), leaders and salespeople should be higher
on Agreeableness than in the USA
What about the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), then, which I assume most of you have heard of?
Well, it seems that it measures four of the factors -
Neuroticism is left out, but has been proposed as added in
newer revisions, against much protesting. The MBTI is not based on
the lexical hypothesis but on a theory which is, to Jung's
credit, fairly head-on with current research. There is one issue with
the MBTI, though, and that is the notion that all the 16 types it
covers are equally good but different - this, the Big Five research
has shown, is not true. Most ENTJ's are better leaders than most INTP's, not
just different types of leaders. This one issue does of course not invalidate all of the MBTI, which is a very good test.
Current research concentrates on three areas. The first is: Are the
five factors the right ones? Attempts to replicate the Big Five in
other countries with local dictionaries have succeeded in some
countries but not in others. For instance, Hungarians, apparently,
don't have Openness to Experience. Of course they do,
others say, the problem is that the language does not provide enough
variance of the related terms for proper statistical analysis. Some
have found seven factors, some only three.
The second area is: Which factors predict what? Job outcome as
leaders and salespeople has already been measured, and lots of
research is currently being done in expanding the list. You need to
search the literature to find just what you're looking for,
unfortunately. Barrick and Mount's research are good places to start.
The third area is to make a model of personality. Costa and
McCreae have built what they call the Five Factor Model of
Personality which is an attempt to use the Big Five to provide a
model of personality that can explain issues in personality from the
cradle to the grave. They don't follow the lexical hypothesis,
though, but favor a theory-driven approach.
Everybody is interested in personality, inasmuch as everybody
interacts with themselves and other people. The Big Five is a
convenient way to reduce personality into manageable bits. I hope this
little piece has been entertaining and informative, and would like to
receive lots of questions for a follow-up article.
Some literature and a link
About the history of the Big Five
Digman, John M. (1996)
The curious history of the Five-Factor Model.
In: Jerry S. Wiggins (ed.), The Five-Factor Model of Personality:Theoretical Perspectives chapter 1, pp. 1-20.
New York: Guilford
John, Oliver P. (1990) The "big five" factor taxonomy:
Dimension of personality in the natural language and in questionnaires.
In: Lawrence A. Pervin (ed.), Handbook of Personality chapter 3.
New York: Guilford
About the content of the Big Five
Barrick, M.R. and Mount, M.K. (1991)
The Big Five Personality Dimensions and Job Performance: A meta-analysis
Personnel Psychology 44, 1-26
Barrick, M.R., Mount, M.K. and Judge, T.A. (2001)
The FFM Personality Dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis of
International Journal of Selection and Assessment
Books with pictures
Howard, P.J. and Howard, J.M. (2001)
Owner's Manual for Personality at Work, The: How the Big Five Personality Traits Affect Performance, Communication, Teamwork, Leadership, and Sales
Austin, Texas: Bard Press
A link and a test
Being the most computer-savvy of Psychologists, prominent Big Five researchers have created a collaborative web site called
The Personality Project.