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Using the Big Five

After the Big Five was discovered, it became the foundation for assessing individual differences in the ways people interact with their social and physical worlds. Three domains—Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—mainly relate to ways of interacting with other people. The other two—Conscientiousness and Openness—are more general.8

  • Extraversion is the tendency to actively reach out to others. People high in Extraversion are stimulated by the social world, like to be the center of attention, and often take charge. They also like excitement and are inclined to be upbeat, fun loving, full of energy, and to experience positive emotions. People low in Extraversion are less interested in interpersonal interactions and tend to be reserved and quiet. But their relative lack of interest in being with people need not indicate that they don't like them, or that they are socially anxious or depressed; they may just prefer to be alone.
  • Agreeableness is the tendency to be altruistic, cooperative, and good-natured. People high in Agreeableness are considerate, compassionate, helpful, and willing to compromise. They truly like people and assume that everyone is decent and trustworthy. People low on Agreeableness are more self-interested than altruistic, more competitive than cooperative, and likely to be skeptical of others' intentions. They also tend to be cold, antagonistic, and disrespectful of the rights of others.
  • Conscientiousness is the tendency to control impulses and to tenaciously pursue goals. People high in Conscientiousness are orderly, reliable, hardworking, neat, and punctual. They tend to plan ahead and think things through. They are more interested in long-term than short-term goals. People low in Conscientiousness are more spontaneous, less constrained, less dutiful, and less achievement-oriented. Although Conscientiousness shows up prominently in the performance of tasks, it also influences interpersonal relationships.
  • Neuroticism is the tendency to have negative feelings, particularly in reaction to perceived social threats. People high in Neuroticism are emotionally unstable, tend to be upset by minor threats or frustrations, and are often in a bad mood. They are prone to anxiety, depression, embarrassment, self-doubt, self-consciousness, anger, and guilt. People low on Neuroticism are emotionally stable, calm, composed, and unflappable. But their freedom from negative feelings does not imply that they are particularly inclined to have positive feelings.
  • Openness is the tendency to be imaginative and to enjoy novelty and variety. People who are high in Openness tend to be artistic, nonconforming, intellectual, aware of their feelings, and comfortable with new ideas. People low in Openness prefer the simple, straightforward, familiar, and obvious to the complex, ambiguous, novel, and subtle. They tend to be conventional, conservative, and resistant to change. Although people who are high on Openness enjoy the life of the mind, Openness is not identical with intelligence. Highly intelligent people can be high or low on O.

After you've mulled over the broad meanings of these five domains, you can get a better sense of them by applying them to someone you know. You might start by asking yourself how outgoing, good-natured, reliable, moody, and creative that person is compared with others. In doing this, you will notice that the person's relative rankings vary somewhat depending on the situation.9 For example, a person may be outgoing with friends but shy with strangers, so you have to decide on the average scores by summing up the many observations you've made.10 From this, you will come away with a profile of the person's basic tendencies, such as moderately extraverted, very agreeable and conscientious, a little neurotic, and very open. Although this is no more than a rough summary of how you regard this person, the Big Five framework will have helped you put your intuitive assessments into words. You will then be in a position to more thoughtfully compare this person with others by seeing his or her differences more clearly.11

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