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The Science of Personality Differences: Personality Traits

Learn about The Big Five personality traits and how they became the foundation for assessing individual differences in the ways people interact with their social and physical worlds.
This chapter is from the book

When I was in high school, I signed up for the student newspaper. To get me started, the editor offered some standard advice on how to write a story. He said I should be sure to answer five questions: What happened? Who was involved? When? Where? Why? He said that knowing about these “five Ws” served as a check for completeness because novices sometimes left out one or more of them. He then assured me that I wouldn’t need them for long because answering these questions was something I was already inclined to do intuitively.

Intuition is also what journalists rely on when they size up people. Through years of practice, they develop a knack for identifying distinctive personality traits and finding the words to describe them. The gifted among them are so good at it that they can create a revealing portrait in a single paragraph. Consider, for example, Joe Klein’s description of the personality of an American politician:

  • There was a physical, almost carnal, quality to his public appearances. He embraced audiences and was aroused by them in turn. His sonar was remarkable in retail political situations. He seemed able to sense what audiences needed and deliver it to them—trimming his pitch here, emphasizing different priorities there, always aiming to please. This was one of his most effective, and maddening qualities in private meetings as well: He always grabbed on to some point of agreement, while steering the conversation away from larger points of disagreement—leaving his seducee with the distinct impression that they were in total harmony about everything. ... There was a needy, high cholesterol quality to it all; the public seemed enthralled by his vast, messy humanity. Try as he might to keep in shape, jogging for miles with his pale thighs jiggling, he still tended to a raw fleshiness. He was famously addicted to junk food. He had a reputation as a womanizer. All of these were of a piece.1

Notice that Klein needs only a handful of evocative words to highlight the main characteristics of his subject: carnal, needy, messy, maddening, fleshiness, addicted, and womanizer. To round out his description, he uses a few short phrases, such as “his sonar was remarkable,” “high cholesterol quality,” and “aiming to please.” When he can’t find a simple word or phrase to describe something that he considers particularly revealing, he makes up a whole sentence: “he always grabbed on to some point of agreement, while steering the conversation away from larger points of disagreement—leaving his seducee with the distinct impression that they were in total harmony about everything.” By using words and phrases that all of us can understand, Klein tells us a great deal about the personality of an extraordinary public figure: Bill Clinton.

The combination of words and phrases is, of course, critical. There are other people who are needy but who are neither carnal nor womanizers. Some of them may also have remarkable sonar but without being messy or maddening. What makes Klein’s description so recognizable is that, as he points out, all the traits “were of a piece.”

So how did Klein do it? Was he intuitively asking himself a set of questions that are as obvious to him as the five Ws? Did he leave out anything important? Can we learn a technique to make our own descriptions of people more incisive and complete?

Words from the Dictionary

The development of a simple technique to describe personalities was set in motion in the 1930s by Gordon Allport, a professor of psychology at Harvard. Although Allport was well aware of the uniqueness of each individual, he also knew that scientific fields get started by breaking down complex systems into simple components. Just as understanding the great variety of chemical compounds depended on identifying a limited number of elements, understanding the great variety of personalities may depend on identifying a limited number of critical ingredients. But what exactly are those ingredients?

Allport’s answer was traits: the enduring dispositions to act and think and feel in certain ways that are described by words found in all human languages. Just as chemical elements such as carbon and hydrogen can combine with many others to form endless numbers of complicated substances, traits such as being outgoing and being reliable can combine with many others to form endless numbers of complicated personalities. But how many traits are there? And how could Allport find out?

To answer this question, Allport and his colleague, H.S. Odbert, made a list of the words about personality from Webster’s New International Dictionary.2 By analyzing this list, they hoped to identify the essential components of personality that were so obvious to our ancestors that they invented a great many words to describe them. Instead of just concocting an inventory of personality traits out of their own heads, Allport and Odbert would be guided by the cumulative verbal creations of countless minds over countless generations, as recorded in a dictionary.3

It soon became clear that these researchers had bitten off more than they could chew. The list of words “to distinguish the behavior of one human being from another” had 17,953 entries! Faced with this staggering number, they whittled it down using several criteria. First, they eliminated about a third, such as attractive, because the entries were considered evaluative rather than essential: “[W]hen we say a woman is attractive, we are talking not about a disposition ‘inside the skin’ but about her effect on other people.”4 Another fourth hit the cutting room floor because they described temporary states of mind, such as frantic and rejoicing, rather than the enduring dispositions that are defining features of personality traits. Others were thrown out because they were considered ambiguous. In the end, about 4,500 entries met the researchers’ criteria for stable traits.

This doesn’t mean that personality has 4,500 different components; many of the words on the list are easily identifiable as synonyms. For example, outgoing and sociable are used interchangeably. Furthermore, antonyms, such as solitary, describe the same general category of behavior, but at its opposite pole—instead of saying “not sociable” or “not outgoing,” we might say “solitary.” In fact, a wonderful feature of natural language is that it lends itself so well to a graded (or dimensional) description of specific components of personality, from extremely outgoing at one pole to extremely solitary at the other, with modifiers to specify points in between. Put simply, the ancestors who gradually built our language—and all languages—left us with many choices for describing ingredients of personality.

Recognizing that outgoing and solitary both refer to aspects of an identical trait, how many other words also fit into this category? When I looked up outgoing in my thesaurus, I found these synonyms, among others: gregarious, companionable, convivial, friendly, and jovial. When I looked up solitary, I got, among others, retiring, isolated, lonely, private, and friendless. This tells me that the group of experts who put together this thesaurus decided that all these words belong in a box that can be labeled Outgoing–Solitary. Needless to say, each word in the box may also have some special spin of its own. For example, solitary, lonely, and private don’t mean exactly the same thing, and writers such as Joe Klein may mull them over to get just the right one. Nevertheless, we all know that these words have a lot in common. To psychologists such as Allport, they all refer to a single overarching trait.

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