Personality traits are attributes of a person that are reasonably characteristic of the person, enduring over time, and relatively consistent across situations. Our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving emerge from these “default settings.”
Traits are usually described as falling along a continuum, which ranges from very low to very high.
Each person is a complex collection of personality traits. However, psychological researchers have tried to identify the most essential personality traits. They asked themselves, “If we had to describe a person using only five traits, which five would they be?” One well-supported model is known as “The Big-5” (Costa & McCrae, 1980), which includes the five traits of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (or OCEAN for short). Each Big-5 personality dimension is described in the sections below.
It is important to mention that being low or high in any given trait is not necessarily a “good” or “bad” thing. As Lee & Aston (2012) have said: “One way to understand the [personality] dimensions is to consider each as a contrast between two opposing strategies for interacting with one’s surroundings… Opposite poles of a personality dimension represent opposite ways of dealing with some aspect of life. There are some times and places in which people having the high pole of a dimension would be better suited to their environment; in other times and places, the low pole would be better… [There are] pros and cons of having high or low levels of [each] dimension.”
Although each of us have certain default settings, our ways of being in the world can still be flexible. In life we encounter a wide variety of situations, and each calls for different behaviors. Behavioral flexibility enables us to skillfully adapt to the unique demands of each situation. Psychological rigidity, on the other hand, prevents us from adapting appropriately. Excessive rigidity in any given personality trait is like wearing a winter jacket year-round. It may make sense in the winter, but it is a poor choice in the summer. Fortunately, psychotherapy is predicated on the notion that change in personality is possible. Extremes in personality can be softened and greater flexibility in our ways of being can be achieved. As the Eastern adage goes: “Well-makers lead the water (wherever they like); fletchers bend the arrow; carpenters bend a log of wood; wise people fashion themselves.”
Someone who is high in conscientiousness is naturally good at planning and organizing. They are achievement-oriented, purposeful, strong-willed, and determined. They also tend to be reliable, punctual, and attentive to detail. Their caution and their ability to push a project to completion stems from superior impulse control.
Those who score low in conscientiousness tend to be more lackadaisical in working toward their goals. They tend to be less orderly, less disciplined, and less efficient. They also tend to be more spontaneous and less likely to fully think through decisions before taking action.
Neuroticism, or Negative Affectivity, is the general tendency to experience negative emotions such as fear, sadness, embarrassment, anger, guilt, and disgust. If a person is high in neuroticism, they are more susceptible to psychological distress and find it harder to rebound from stressful situations. People high in neuroticism also tend to be prone to insecurity and irrational ideas.
Individuals who score low on measures of neuroticism are emotionally stable — calm, even-tempered, relaxed, and able to face stressful situations without becoming upset or rattled. They also tend to be self-assured.
Agreeableness is an interpersonal tendency towards altruism. A person high in agreeableness tends to be sympathetic to others and eager to help them, and believes that others will be equally helpful in return. They tend to prefer “getting along” to “getting ahead.”
By contrast, those who score low on measures of agreeableness tend to be more competitive than cooperative. They tend to be skeptical of others’ intentions, and are usually more egocentric than considerate and charitable. In extreme cases, they can be hostile and antagonistic.
Individuals high in extraversion are sociable, enjoy people, and prefer large groups and gatherings. They tend to be talkative, active, and energetic, and look forward to opportunities for excitement and stimulation. They also tend to be upbeat, optimistic, enthusiastic, and cheerful in disposition.
Individuals who are low in extraversion, are reserved and enjoy their alone-time. They tend to be even-paced. They may also tend towards submissiveness.
Openness to Experience
Openness to Experience is probably the most difficult of the Big-5 traits to describe, so I have left it for last. Open individuals are curious about both their inner and outer worlds, and their lives are creative and experientially rich. They are unconventional, willing to question authority, and prepared to entertain new ethical, social, and political ideas.
Individuals who score low on openness tend to be conventional in behavior, and prefer the familiar to the novel. They tend to be socially and politically conservative.