The Big Five Personality Model: An Empirical Tool for Understanding Yourself

It goes a long way to determining who you are, the choices you make, and how well you do in life.



Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The Story of Personality Theory

Some 80-plus years ago researchers embarked on one of the longest (and most boring) projects in human psychology. It started with the idea that people are born with different character traits that remain relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime.

They called this idea personality.

To test this hypothesis one researcher began by picking up a dictionary and highlighting any word he could find related to human behaviour. After putting this list together, another researcher (presumably because the first one killed himself out of boredom) took that list and started to categorise these words into overarching traits.

Unfortunately he also killed himself, so another bunch of researchers took over and began the painstaking job of measuring these traits on a large number of people over a very long period of time.

The researchers who managed not to kill themselves (God bless) started narrowing this list down by binning any trait that fluctuated too much. Eventually, the list got smaller and smaller until, by the 1960s, they were left with just five.

Those were:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

At this point, researcher number 648 (I believe it was) confidently declared that these five traits can be used to explain all human behaviour. It took another 20 years or so before researchers had the data to back up this bold claim, but number 648 was right!

The Big Five, as they are now referred to, “have been found to contain and subsume most personality traits.” They are considered to represent the basic structure of what we call personality. The data has shown they are relatively stable over time and that there is a genetic component to it.




Aviator. Author. Awesome Father. Expert in stalling. I combine lessons in aviation with modern psychology to help people navigate life.