The Big Five personality traits explained


Kevin Mangelschots

It’s strange how people who are seemingly the same as us have such strikingly different personality types when we get to know them.

The reason? Differences in the Big Five personality traits. Let’s find out what those attributes are.

What are the big five traits?

Many psychologists believe that there are 5 basic dimensions of personality. These 5 basic dimensions are called the “big five” personality traits.

The acronym “OCEAN” can help to remember these attributes, since every letter in the acronym refers to the first letter of the traits.

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Image of the acronym “OCEAN”, which represents the following big 5 personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Openness to experience (inventive/curious VS consistent/cautious)

Illustration about how change leads to new experiences drawn on a blackboard with chalk.

Openness to experiences compasses how open a person is to new experiences and new or different ideas.

  • People high in personality trait openness

    If you are an open person then you like to learn new things and hear and tolerate different points of view, different ideas, and values.

    All in all, people high in trait openness like variety, are independent and imaginative. They often have rich, well-developed inner worlds and enjoy fantasy.

  • People low in personality trait openness

    A person who’s lower in trait openness to experience is more likely to conform, be practical, and prefer routine.

    People low in trait openness don’t like change and generally behave according to the quote: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

    They like things to stay the way they are. They value stability and the predictability this stability provides.

    Likewise, they are more rigid and less flexible in their thinking, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. Furthermore, they prefer dealing with facts rather than fantasy.

Conscientiousness (efficient/organized VS extravagant/careless)

A library of books put neatly in order.

  • People high in personality trait conscientiousness

    Conscientious people are organized people who work hard and consistently to reach their goals. They value competence and are self-disciplined. They carry a strong sense of duty wherever they go.

    Conscientious people who are underperforming or not working hard enough to reach their goal(s) will start feeling anxious and useless. This pushes them to work harder and more consistently.

    They are careful, disciplined people and punctual regarding their work.

  • People low in personality trait conscientiousness

    People low in trait conscientiousness are disorganized and don’t like working hard to reach their goals. They don’t necessarily value competence as much as their more conscientious peers and often lack self-discipline and a sense of duty.

    Their rooms tend to be more disorganized, and they don’t, or at least not with the same intensity, experience the negative emotions that conscientious people feel when not working hard and frequently.

    People low in trait conscientiousness value their free time and are perfectly fine not engaging in productive behavior. They are more likely to be careless and to behave impulsively.

Extroversion (outgoing/energetic VS solitary/reserved)

Image describing the key differences between extroversion and introversion.

  • People high in personality trait extroversion

    We know that there are many differences between extroverted and introverted individuals.

    Extroverted personality types are sociable, fun-loving, empathic, enthusiastic, and affectionate.

    They’re more externally focused, on the physical world, rather than being internally focused.

    What typically characterizes an extrovert is their large threshold and thus need for external stimulus compared to their introverted companions. Thus, they often seek excitement in activities and other individuals.

    Extroverted people get and recharge their energy from being around and socializing with other people. Being alone drains them of their energy. This is why it’s very common for extroverted people to actively search for other people and things to do. Especially activities where lots of people are involved.

  • People low in personality trait extroversion

    Introverted personality types are retiring, sober, low in enthusiasm, and reserved.

    They are preoccupied and focused on their rich internal world rather than being outwardly focused on the physical world.

    What typically characterizes an introvert, also called a person who’s low in trait extroversion, is their lower threshold and thus, as a result, lower need for stimulus compared to their more extroverted companions. They are remarkably excitable and thus prefer quiet places with a low amount of stimuli.

    People low in trait extroversion get and recharge their energy from downtime. Which is often in the form of being alone and occupied within their rich internal world, reading, playing video games, or just plainly in the act of thinking.

    Being around other people drains introverted individuals of their energy. This is why it’s not uncommon for introverts to avoid large groups of people and go through seemingly long periods of solitude.

    Being introverted does not mean the same as being shy, by the way. Even though, shyness is frequently associated with being introverted. Probably because introverted people are generally quieter and enjoy thinking more rather than speaking.

Image of the big 5 personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism, and the symptoms of them.

Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate VS challenging/callous)

  • People high in personality trait agreeableness

    Agreeable people are easy to get along with. They are kind, caring, empathic, and non-competitive.

    They generally put other people’s needs first and are often unwilling, sometimes even unable, to stand up for themselves. Agreeable individuals care deeply about other people’s opinions and are thus more influenced by the opinions of others than disagreeable people are.

  • People low in personality trait agreeableness

    Disagreeable people are tough, harsh, competitive, ruthless, suspicious, uncooperative, not all that empathic and put themselves and their own needs on the forefront.

    They don’t care all that much about other people’s opinions and thus remain largely uninfluenced by other people.

    Interestingly, low agreeableness is the correlated the strongest with the dark triad.

Agreeable people are easier to get along with than disagreeable people.

However, disagreeable people mainly have the advantage of reaching their goals faster and easier because they are less affected by other people’s opinions and because they know exactly what they want.

Disagreeable people are also more adept at negotiating on their own behalf, leading to people low in trait agreeableness often getting what they want and often getting paid a higher salary than agreeable people who perform the same job.

Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous VS resilient/confident)

Image of a woman showing signs of insecurity.

Trait neuroticism means how intensely you experience negative emotions and how many negative emotions you experience.

Being declined by a girl you asked on a date will be experienced a lot more negatively and linger longer for the man high in trait neuroticism than for the man who’s low in trait neuroticism.

The person low in trait neuroticism will in this particular case probably casually blow it off as “well, it can’t always be the right one” and/or “the next date will go better” while the person high in trait neuroticism will probably be affected and attribute the rejection personally by telling himself “I’m simply not good enough” or “I will never find a girlfriend.”

  • People high in personality trait neuroticism

    People high in trait neuroticism will experience less positive emotions than people low in neuroticism do. They are often anxious, sensitive, insecure, and self-pitying.

    They tend to be self-conscious and analytical rather than impulsive.

  • People low in personality trait neuroticism

    Personality types low in trait neuroticism tend to be more calm, secure, confident, and self-satisfied.

    They are more resilient against negative life events and life in general. They tend to be impulsive and not self-conscious at all.

How are the big five traits assessed?

Image of the big 5 personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism, and the symptoms of them.

Several tests/measures of the Big Five personality traits list exist:

  • International Personality Item Pool (IPIP)
  • NEO-PI-R
  • Self-descriptive sentence questionnaires
  • Lexical questionnaires
  • Self-report
  • Relative-scored Big 5 measure
  • The Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) and the Five Item Personality Inventory (FIPI) are very abbreviated rating forms of the Big Five personality traits.

The most frequently used measures of the Big 5 comprise either items that are self-descriptive sentences or, in the case of lexical measures, items that are single adjectives.

Self-testing of the big five personality traits is possible in the form of a questionnaire.