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This chapter is from the book

Bundling Traits

A statistical technique for studying the relationships between these words was invented in the nineteenth century by Francis Galton, a founder of modern research on personality, whom you'll read more about later. The technique is used to calculate a correlation coefficient, a number between 1.0 and -1.0 that measures the degree of sameness (positive correlation) or oppositeness (negative correlation). Although Galton invented the technique for other purposes, he also happened to be interested in categorizing the words that we use for personality traits,6 and he would have been pleased to learn about this application.

To get a feel for this calculation, let's think about the positive correlations we would find if we asked people to rank someone on outgoing, sociable, and gregarious by using a scale of 1 to 7. Knowing that these words are synonyms, we would expect to find that if John ranks Mary a 6 on outgoing, he likely will rank her around 6 on each of the others. If he then ranks Jane as a 4 on outgoing, he likely will rank her around 4 on each of the others. And if Jennifer ranks Jim a 1 on outgoing, she likely will rank him around 1 on each of the others. Plugging these scores into Galton's formula would indicate a great deal of sameness.

Now what sort of correlations would we find between the words in the first non-synonymous quintet (outgoing–bold–talkative–energetic–assertive)? Studies show that these words are correlated strongly, but not as strongly as synonyms, and similar positive correlations are found among the words in the second non-synonymous quintet (reliable–practical–hardworking–organized–careful). In contrast, when we compare the scores for words such as outgoing from the first group with words such as reliable from the second group, we don't find a correlation. This comes as no surprise because we all know that being outgoing and being reliable are not intrinsically related.

Determining the correlations among five or ten words is fairly easy. But determining the correlations among a thousand words was stalled until researchers could turn it over to a computer. To get the raw data, thousands of ordinary people were asked to apply each of these words by ranking their applicability to themselves or another person using a scale of 1 to 7. The mass of data was then analyzed with a more advanced statistical technique, called factor analysis, which measures the correlation between each word and all the others and organizes the correlations into clusters. In this way, some words were identified as highly correlated to each other, making them good representatives of a particular cluster, which psychologists call a domain.

By the early 1980s, the results were in: The words that describe personality traits can be boiled down to just five large domains (see Table 1.1), which Lewis Goldberg named the Big Five.7 Each of them has been given a reasonably descriptive name: Extraversion (E), Agreeableness (A), Conscientiousness (C), Neuroticism (N), and Openness (O). If you have trouble recalling these names at first, as I did, you can use the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE to jog your memory until they become second nature.

Table 1.1. The Big Five: Representative Words



Extraversion vs. Introversion

Outgoing, bold, talkative, energetic, assertive

Withdrawn, timid, silent, reserved, shy

Agreeableness vs. Antagonism

Warm, kind, cooperative, trusting, generous

Cold, unkind, uncooperative, suspicious, stingy

Conscientiousness vs. Disinhibition

Reliable, practical, hardworking, organized, careful

Unreliable, impractical, lazy, disorganized, negligent

Neuroticism vs. Emotional Stability

Tense, unstable, discontented, irritable, insecure

Relaxed, stable, contented, imperturbable, secure

Openness vs. Closedness

Imaginative, curious, reflective, creative, sophisticated

Unimaginative, uninquisitive, unreflective, uncreative, unsophisticated

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