Personality and the Big 5

We all, I suspect, hold some common sense idea about personality without having to know very much about the science that underpins it. We might be able to spot an introvert or extrovert, although perhaps we just think of them as excitable or reserved. You might even have taken a test that purports to be able to tell you what your personality is (although many just tell you which Star Wars character or what type of pizza you are).

According to the most widely (and probably most controversial) test of personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or just MBTI), I am an INTP (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving). I don’t need a test to tell me that I’m an introvert, although I’m not too sure about the rest. The introvert part of it, however, also correlates with my results from another test of personality, the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (or EPQ).

I can be pretty sure, therefore, that I’m an introvert, but what exactly does this mean?

When we discuss personality, we often refer to traits, those elements of a personality that can be captured using psychometric tools designed to measure personality. Traits are habitual patterns of thought and behaviour which should (and I stress should) remain stable over time. This would mean that the pattern of behaviour you displayed when you’re young should still be evident when you get old.

We might, therefore, find that some people display extrovert traits because they are highly sociable and love being the centre of attention or we might describe someone as neurotic because they appear to have a poor grasp on their emotions. We might describe someone as resilient or gritty.

After years of disagreement about personality traits, psychologists reached a general consensus that there are only five traits, represented by the Big 5 (or the Five Factor Model). It’s worth noting, however, that not all agree on this.

The table below lists the factors and their characteristics.


There has been a good deal of research over the years that finds that personality traits are pretty consistent in the long term. For example, Roberts and DelVecchio found that consistency of personality increases up to the age of about 30 and then stabilises between 50 and 70. Interestingly, some studies have also found that IQ remains relatively unstable in childhood, is fairly inconsistent during the teenage years and then stabilises as we get older.

Avshalom Caspi followed a group of children from the age of 3 up to the age of 21 and found significant consistency in personality. That said, a more recent longitudinal study found very little consistency in personality from the age of 14 to 77. Despite these finding, however, we need to be very cautious of taking this particular study at face value. A great deal of advancement has occurred in personality research in the intervening time and data was collected from as far back as 1947, before the development of the Big 5 model.

Another study conducted by McCrae, found that some traits are more stable than others, while others might be situation specific – think about, for example, the child who seems quiet and reserved when in the classroom, but extrovert when out in the playground with friends.

Are some traits more useful than others?

All traits serve a purpose, but some might be more useful in the classroom. Certainly, openness to experience and conscientiousness (more recently termed ‘grit’, although some will still try and convince they’re different) are more advantageous to academic achievement, but what about introversion and extroversion?

Some studies find that extroverts are more likely to be financially successful, nevertheless, introverts are more cautious and have a tendency to think about things more deeply, so both traits are useful. There are two broad arguments at play here, do we agree with the view that all of our students should behave in the same way, ways that we see as advantageous to academic achievement? Or, do we believe that each person is unique and finds their own path through the world? Should we change our introverts into extroverts because they then have a greater chance of success? This might sound somewhat Orwellian, but it was, in fact, a proposal suggested by The Sutton Trust in their publication A Winning Personality in 2016.

Personality in the Classroom

Even though some research suggests that personality traits are far from stable, it’s worth realising that classrooms will be filled with very different people. Some will obey the rules while others will activity and deliberately defy them, no matter what the punishment. We can encourage traits such as conscientiousness, but they are, to an extent, guided by factors beyond anybody’s control (such as heritability).

Reward systems are often necessary to circumvent issues relating to personality. Some students will be intrinsically motivated (they will work hard because of some internal desire) while others will need to be extrinsically motivated if they are to develop conscientiousness.

Watch Professor Brian Little discuss the puzzle of personality.

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