The Five Factor Model of Personality
The precise definition of personality has been a point of discussion
amongst many different theorists within many different disciplines since the
beginning of civilisation. Personality can be defined as “the distinctive and
characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour that define an
individual’s personal style and influence his or her interactions with the
environment” (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith & Bem, 1993: 525). It can be proposed
that personality psychology has two different tasks. “The first involves
specifying the variables on which individuals differ from one another. The
second involves synthesising the psychological processes of human functioning
into an integrated account of the total person” (Atkinson et al., 1993: 532).
There are many different theories of personality and many different theorists.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the trait approach, specifically the
five-factor model. Both the development and limitations of the Five-Factor model
of personality shall be discussed.
Trait theory is based on several assumptions. The first assumption is
that any difference between people that is seen as significant will have a name.
Secondly, these names, known as traits, are conceived of as continuous
dimensions. In general, trait theories assume that people vary simultaneously on
a number of personality factors. These traits are of both the conjunctive and
disjunctive form. Therefore, to understand a trait, it is necessary to
understand what a particular trait is and what type of behaviour is evidence of
that trait. (Atkinson et al., 1993). Five factor theorists are one set of trait
theorists. The claim of five factor theorists is that behaviour can be best
predicted and explained by measurement of five dominant personality factors. The
five factor theory is a fairly recent proposal and has its basis in earlier work,
which shall be discussed.
One of the statistical techniques most commonly used in the study of
personality is that of factor analysis:
By identifying groups of highly intercorrelated variables,
factor analysis enables us todetermine how many underlying
factors are measured by a set of original variables. In other
words, factor analysis is used to uncover the factor structure
of a set of variables. (Diekhoff, 1992: 333)
A factor analysis will generally show that a smaller number
of factors represents the same information as the original number of variables.
Once the variables making up the factors have been identified, some of the
redundant variables may be removed (Diekhoff, 1992). As such, a large number of
traits may be reduced to a number of personality factors. The procedure of
factor analysis was a significant part of both the development and criticism of
the five personality factor theory, as well as the theories on which it is based.
An experiment conducted by Allport and Oddbert (1936, cited in Goldberg,
1990) was based on the assumption that a dictionary contains a list of every
possible trait name. Oddbert and Allport took every word from a dictionary that
related to personality descriptors. This list was then revised to remove
synonyms and unclear or doubtful words. Another researcher, Raymond Cattell
(1945, cited in Atkinson et al, 1993) further revised the Allport-Oddbert list
to 171 words. A study was then conducted by Cattell on a group of subjects who
were asked to rate people they knew on the 171 traits. The results were factor
analysed and 12 personality factors were found. However, 4 additional factors
were found by analysing self-ratings. Cattell concluded that, in the adult human,
16 personality factors were dominant.
Eyesenck, (1953, cited in Atkinson et al, 1993) was another major
theorist to use factor analysis. Although using the same basic approach as
Cattell, Eyesenck used a more discriminatory factor analysis which resulted in
far less than 16 factors. Eyesencks’ major factors are introversion-
extroversion and neuroticism. These are believed to be ordinal factors and as
such, scores on each dimension are independent of one another. The majority of
future studies concluded that the actual number of personality factors, for
which there is significant evidence, is between Eyesencks’ two and Cattells’ 16.
Since Cattells’ study, many researchers have conducted similar studies,
or re-analysis of Cattells’ original data. Most of the researchers, such as
Norman (1967, cited in Merenda, 1993) found support for far less than 16
personality factors. At most, it was generally concluded that there are between
three and seven factors of personality. As a compromise, many researchers agree
that there are five personality factors, as suggested by Norman’s original work
(1963, cited in Goldberg, 1990). Support for the Five-Factor model comes from
current researchers such as McCrae and Costa (1985) and Goldberg and Saucier
(1995). Opposition to the theory is also abundant, such as the work of Jack
All trait theorists agree that there is a finite number of traits on
which people have a “score”. The exact number of traits is still currently a
point of contention amongst theorists. However, “today we believe it is more
fruitful to adopt the working hypothesis that the five-factor model of
personality is essentially correct.” (McCrae & John, 1992: 175). There is also
still “disagreement among analysts as to factor titles” (John, 1990: 96). Many
writers have adopted the names used by Norman (1963, cited in Goldberg, 1990)
which are; extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability
and culture. For simplicity, this is the version of the five factor model that
shall be adopted for this essay.
The best known limitations of the five factor model of personality
relate to the problems of trait theory in general. Trait approaches are directed
primarily at specifying the variables of personality. There is little dealing
with the dynamic processes of personality functioning. Traits are static
entities and more complete theories of personality, such as those of Eyesenck,
come from a combination of trait theory with another psychological theory. For
example, Eyesenck adopted a learning theory to combine with trait theory. As
such, trait theory, and therefore the five factor model, do not deal with a
large aspect of personality: change.
Mischel (1968, cited in Atkinson et al. 1993) is perhaps the best known
critic of the trait theorists. Basically Mischel states that the underlying
assumption of the approach may be untrue: people may have such dynamic
personalities that they do not possess trait-like characteristics. Mischel also
claims that there should be a high correlation between scores on a trait measure
for a subject and performance in a situation where that trait is evoked. However,
according to Mischel, the correlation is extremely low. Mischel further argues
that knowing a persons’ “traits” does not help predict their behaviour and
measures of the same trait do not correlate highly with one another. Although
this criticism seems almost perfect, there is still a large number of trait
theorists. Their responses to Mischel’s criticism shall be evaluated.
The main defence of the trait approach comes in two forms. Firstly a
conceptual form in which Mischel’s understanding of what makes up a trait is
questioned. The second form of defence comes from a methodological perspective,
where the measurement of “trait” behaviour is examined. To be able to
appropriately comment on trait theory, it is important to understand exactly
what a trait is. McCrae and Costa (1995) suggest that not every person has every
trait. Therefore it is possible to confuse descriptors of behaviour with traits.
There needs to be consistencies of behaviour to evidence a trait. Also traits
can be of either a conjunctive or disjunctive type. It has been suggested that
the evidence suggested by Mischel is invalid because aggression was seen as
conjunctive when it is actually disjunctive. Correcting this mistake could
significantly increase the correlation between different measures of the same
trait. As such, one criticism of Mischel may be answered.
The second defence of trait theory examines the research method used by
Mischel. It is proposed that it is necessary to have many more than one
observation of behaviour, before comparing behaviour to trait scores. The
reasoning behind this argument is that each trait test has at least 20 to 40
items. As such, there should be at least half as many observations. A single
question test would be unacceptable and therefore a single observation of
behaviour should also be unacceptable. Another possible experimental error may
have occurred due to moderator variables. Moderator variables such as sex of
subject may change the correlation between behaviour and trait scores. If these
variables are controlled for, the correlation may significantly increase and
Mischels’ criticism may need to be re-evaluated.
Cattell’s 16pf, the predecessor of the five factor model, also had a
significant limitation. The 16 pf had a low predictive power of performance of
a subject on a given test, when used alone. However, the personality profiles
which can be created using the 16pf are reasonably effective in an applied
situation in predicting adjustment of an individual entering a particular group.
Also, the performance predicting power of the 16 pf can be improved by giving
the 16pf and correlating it to some measure of the person’s performance.
Multiple regression can then be used to weight each of the 16pf factors so that
correlation between the 16pf score and performance is at maximum. This gives a
more satisfactory prediction of performance using the 16pf, yet it’s predictive
power is still quite low. The 16pf is still used in many applied situations
because no other psychological tool is available with better predictive power.
Since the five factor model is based on the 16pf, this limitation is also
applicable to the five factor model.
It is possible to suggest that the limitations pertaining to the trait
approach and 16pf are insignificant or not applicable to the big five model of
personality. However, there are limitations that specifically relate to this
model. Jack Block (1995) and Dan McAdams (1992) are the main theorists to
evaluate the five factor model specifically and examine it’s limitations.
Block’s criticisms are answered by theorists such as McCrae and Costa (1995) and
Goldberg and Saucier (1995).
The basis of Block’s argument is that it is uncertain that all important
trait-descriptive terms are representatively distributed in language. For
instance, collectively suppressed traits might be unrepresented. Another major
point is that the Big Five are very broad and might not differentiate accurately
enough for practical applications. For example, assigning people to high, middle
and low on each of the factors gives 243 personality types, which may be enough
types but doesn’t solve the broadness problem. Block suggests a few changes to
procedure should be adopted but admits “my suggestions are mild, obvious and
entail scientific sobriety coupled with slow, hard work aiming to educe order
from the present jumbled empiricism characterising personality psychology”.
(Block, 1995: 209).
Both Costa and McCrae (1995) and Goldberg and Saucier (1995) suggest
that Block has lost sight of why the five factor model was developed. Block
criticises the model for not being applicable to practical situations when it’s
purpose is to describe the full range of personality traits. Block’s criticism
also “does not distinguish between the Big Five model … from alternative
models of the causal underpinnings of personality differences” (Goldberg &
Saucier, 1995: 221). A large amount of crucial evidence supporting the Big Five
model is also left out of the criticism. Each reply also suggests that Block’s
closing suggestions provide few specific proposals of alternative models.
McAdams’ (1992) critical appraisal of the five-factor model outlines
several major limitations. McAdams views the five-factor model as “essentially a
‘psychology of the stranger’, providing information about persons that one would
need to know when one knows nothing about them. It is argues that because of
inherent limitations, the Big Five may be viewed as one important model in
personality studies but not the integrative model of personality”. Some of the
limitations described are those applicable to all trait theories and one applies
to the 16pf and any theories based on the 16pf. However, two limitations
specific to the five factor model are discussed.
The main limitation specific to the five factor model of personality are
firstly a failure to offer a program for studying personality organisation and
integration and secondly a reliance on statements about individuals by other
individuals. The extent to which the five-factor model is a major advance in
personality study therefore depends on what is hoped to be gained in the field.
If personality study is interested in the study of observer’s trait ratings, the
big five model is extremely useful. If the purpose of the field is also to
investigate observers’ attributions about individual differences the five-
factor model is less significant. If the study of personality aims to emphasise
the whole person and the dynamic nature of personality, the model seems to be
only of minor concern. As such, from the view of “multifaceted personology, the
five-factor model is one model in personality… not the model of personality”
(McAdams, 1992: 355).
In conclusion, the support and criticisms of the five factor model are
not as black and white as would be hoped. Each argument has logical reasoning
and can provide evidence to support itself. Each view also has a large number of
supporters. Neither one is necessarily correct, as it is possible for the model
to be applicable at some stages, and not applicable at others. As a result, it
is probable and acceptable to conclude that the five factor theory may or may
not be an appropriate model of personality. Perhaps a comparison of how much
supporting literature there is for each argument is a useful method for deciding
which theory an individual may choose to support.