Why are you the way that you are? Introducing the Big Five
Almost too often, people will reflect on decisions that they make, or actions that they take and wonder what on earth compelled me to do that. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed with happiness and joy, then start to feel sadness and disappointment just a few hours later. Other times we compare ourselves to someone else and wonder why we cannot do the things that they can or think the same way they do. Do you ever experience this and wonder why you are the way that you are? I know that I find myself in this position all too often. The reality is, there is not just one simple explanation for why you are the way that you are. Any number of factors could explain the aspects that make you the person you are, such as biology/genetics, brain structure, culture, and learning from your environment (Funder, 2013). Although these factors can provide some insight for why you are the way that you are, I feel that one great way to better understand yourself is by learning about the Big Five Personality Traits.
For those of you that have never heard of the Big Five, you may be wondering what they are. Psychologists believe these are universal traits that can be identified within an individual and they use these traits to reveal how personality correlates to an individual’s behavior (Funder, 2013). In addition, the Big Five Personality Traits are meant to be a type of “map” of human personality that helps explain the interconnection of different personality traits humans can have. Each trait is listed below with a brief explanation so you can get a better idea of what I am talking about (Srivastava, 2018):
Extraversion—behavioral actions; marked by profound engagement in the external world, energetic, optimistic, talkative, assertive, and are known for seizing the moment vs. being low key, quiet, deliberate, and disengaged from the social world.
Conscientiousness—belief patterns; concerns the way we control, regulate, and direct impulses; some individuals plan ahead, are organized, dependable, and have lots of self-discipline vs. those who are spontaneous, less goal-driven, like the thrill of ever-approaching deadlines, and less careful.
Openness to Experience—belief patterns; distinguishes the differences between imaginative, creative cognitive thought vs. down-to-earth, conventional thinking.
Agreeableness—behavioral actions; individuals that value social harmony, and are considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise vs. individuals that are suspicious, uncooperative, and not strongly affected by human suffering.
Neuroticism—your emotions; individuals that primarily experience negative feelings such as anxiety, anger, or even depression vs. individuals who are calm, emotionally stable, and typically have positive emotions.
It is important to know that each trait is put on a spectrum that compares you to other people in your age group, so as to explain whether you are “high” or “low” in a specific trait. For example, a person that is “high” in the extraversion personality trait is characterized by being really outgoing, talkative, energetic and assertive. Whereas an individual that is “lower” on the spectrum for this particular trait is characterized as introverted, quiet, low-key, less excitement seeking, and disengaged from the social world (Srivastava, 2018). On the extraversion spectrum, I am considered an ambivert, which means that I embody the characteristics of both an introvert and an extravert. I discovered where I fell on this extraversion-introversion scale by completing an assignment for my personality psychology class, which required me to take a personality test and talk about my results. As an ambivert, there are days that I love being surrounded by people and having meaningful conversations with anyone that is willing to talk with me. However, on other days I just want to be in complete solitude, so I can be alone with my thoughts and enjoy the quiet. I truly had no idea why I would switch between the social scene and solitude so often, and I thought that something might be wrong with me since I could never stick to being extraverted, like so many of my friends do effortlessly. Now that I’ve learned more about the Big Five, I understand that it is perfectly normal for me to be this way, and my intention is for you to be able to find the same clarity about your own unique personality.
A trait that I want to continue focusing on in this blog is extraversion, as I feel this is a personality trait that is easy to recognize and relate to. There are six domains (also called facets) that are found within the extraversion trait, including friendliness, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity level, excitement seeking, and cheerfulness. Essentially, how you score on each of these facets will combine to influence whether you are categorized as high or low in extraversion overall. Famous psychologist Carl Jung was the first to come up with the idea of extraversion and introversion. He wanted to convey the idea that people recharge their energy by either being around people (extraversion) or by being more alone (introversion).
One thing I have noticed when interacting with friends and family is that an introverted person will sometimes feel inferior compared to an extraverted person because they are not as outgoing and do not enjoy being the center of attention. It is no secret that we live in a society that embraces extraverts, but this in no way means that there is no value in introversion. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “Introverts reflect a strategy of observing carefully before acting, thus avoiding dangers, failures, and wasted energy, which would require a nervous system specially designed to observe and detect subtle differences that others miss” (p. 145). In this instance, Cain is describing how introverts might thrive in solitude, and produce some of their best work when they are able to remain focused on the task at hand without distractions. In addition, Cain is also describing how introverts tend to notice the smaller details while they are recharging in their alone time, compared to extraverts who tend to focus on the big picture and connecting with the people they constantly surround themselves with. With that being said, it raises the question: why does our society overlook the value of introverts so often? It is clear that introverts are just as important as extraverts, yet their needs are often ignored or discouraged.
As an ambivert, I can say that I personally have experienced differences in the way that I am treated based on how social I feel on a particular day. For example, one day I was hanging out with some friends and I was being quiet and disengaged from our conversations. One of them eventually noticed that I was not being all that talkative and asked if I was okay or if there was something wrong. Although I appreciated the concern, I found it interesting that she thought something was wrong because I was quiet. I can only imagine how often an introverted person is asked this exact same question. Susan Cain had it right when she decided to name her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, as all of the talking and social scenes our society emphasizes overlooks the value that can be found in a quiet place and has deemed it odd when we choose being alone rather than going out. How often have you been asked if you were okay because you were being “too” quiet? Conversely, how often have you asked someone else if they were okay for the exact same reason? We are all guilty of thinking that there is something wrong with being quiet, but maybe it is time for us to recognize that it is normal to not always engage in the noise all around us.
I recognize that this blog post mostly focused on extraversion and not the rest of the Big Five Personality Traits. In my next blog post, I will be discussing Contentiousness to give you more insight about your belief patterns, and more information about the Big Five - so stay tuned! If you are interested in learning more about why you are the way that you are, TOPPS is an excellent resource. TOPPS has psychologists with training in understanding how our personalities sometimes lead to behaviors that get in the way of our being successful. For more information, please visit our Psychological Services and do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns that you may have.
Cain, Susan. (2012) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers.
Funder, David (2013). The personality puzzle (6th Edition). New York: Norton ISBN: 9780393124415
Srivastava, S. (). Measuring the Big Five Personality Factors. Retrieved [May 14, 2018] from https://pages.uoregon.edu/sanjay/bigfive.html