Friday, 17 August 2018

The Big Five Personality Test

Personality is a very interesting thing. It encompasses the way we act and speak; the way we present ourselves; our attitude towards others; our expression of our values. Our personality can polarise others before they have even met us.

What is interesting is that our societies - cultures - have different desired personality characteristics: sometimes for age groups, sometimes for genders, sometimes for other sub-groups from within our cultures, such as unmarried people, teenagers or retirees. It is hard to know how much is 'born' and how much is 'made', but we can be very sure that, once we are mature, our personality characteristics don't change very much over our lifetime.

In the USA, there is a test known as the 'Big Five' personality test, or the 'OCEAN' test, which rates workplace personality characteristics. The characteristics rated within the US are (in decreasing order of importance): extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. Many, many personality tests are based on the Big Five, including International Personality Item Pool (IPIP); NEO-PI-R; The Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI); the Five Item Personality Inventory (FIPI); DISC assessment; FACET test; and the relative-scored Big 5 measure. 

The trouble is, the characteristics valued in the US are not the same as those valued elsewhere. In New Zealand we have value characteristics of respect, honesty, humility and self-effacement, will, loyalty to family, individualism, and a certain conformity to UK values from our overall society. When we split our society along ethnic lines, this holds true for Pākehā society, but not for Māori and Pasifika societies (Spoonley, 1998). In China, valued personality traits are modesty, strictness, responsibility, and reputation. In Vietnam the values - and therefore personality characteristics focus on family and society – reputation, loyalty, parents, spirituality, humanitarianism, hard-work, self-sacrifice, and cultural purity (Daft, 2007). How do New Zealanders, Chinese and Koreans hope to take the Big Five test and get any sense out of it?

For more than a decade, I have been getting my leadership students to complete a big five test. Halfway through each course we have a discussion about what the students think are key skills for Kiwi leaders. I try to avoid presenter bias, but each year, students come up with Open mindedness being the most important, followed by Conscientiousness equal with Agreeableness in second place. Least important is Extraversion. We usually have an in-depth discussion as to why this has been included and how much weight should be placed upon it, and why neuroticism has been included.

Martin Luenendonk from the placement site,, has also written on the topic of flawed personality tests, which can be read here.

Almost all of our testing has come out of America, due to their superb research base following WWII. However, testing has not been normalised for other nations. I would imagine that, as China starts to publish more research in a range of areas, we will see a shift in focus and the personalities which are reflected within it. Further, I suspect we will also see a reduction in normalising instrument costs via AI and supercomputers such as Watson.

Exciting times!




  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and to need to point out the HEXACO model is very similar to the "big 5" and adds a honesty/humility trait. Based upon your thoughts it seems this might be close some of the gaps you cited for Big 5.

    1. Thanks for that, Thankful reader! I really appreciate the info, and I see on the website that there is a book on the test. I will definitely check the test and the book out more thoroughly. Do you know if any independent research is being done on Hexaco-PI-R?

  2. One glaring omission to this blog is the absence of research done for it. One thing Americans are known for is that they are research-driven, and we can spot people who don't do their homework from a mile away. Let me explain.
    This blog claims that extraversion is the most redeeming personality trait among Americans in leadership positions; the good news is that this just isn't factual. In America, the two most important traits would be conscientiousness and openness to experience. Conscientiousness, because you obtain success only if your path towards it is well-organized, and openness, because openness and high intelligence are highly correlated. Extraversion comes in at #3, with agreeableness and neuroticism rounding out the last two.
    Neuroticism is a trait we all have. Some of us more than others, but all have it. How often have you seen your own boss fly off the handle after the slightest provocation? He's a leader; perhaps a very good one, but what you're witnessing there is neuroticism. You might say that neuroticism is the "human" in the phrase "I'm only human..." Therefore, any dimension of human personality would be incomplete if something like neuroticism isn't included.
    The Big Five is the most complete picture of human personality yet devised. It is so complete that it is highly unlikely that it will ever be supplanted. Just because one disagrees with an aspect of it does not mean it is incorrect; in fact, the disagreement certainly points to a lack of understanding on the part of the person doing the disagreeing! And if China were to adopt a scale different than the Big Five, the only reason for them doing so is because they will avoid adopting anything that originated in America (China is profoundly insecure, and their envy of western traditions (the USA) is woven in every foreign policy decision they make.). It would eventually come back to haunt them, as the Big Five is based on rigorous science from decades of hard research in both clinical and behavioral psychology. And since American science is governed by the Scientific Method, the science behind the Big Five cuts through cultures countries, and customs. Perhaps they should consider the older saying, "facts don't care about feelings..." --Ben Shapiro

    1. Thank you for your comments, Constellar. It is my understanding that the big five psychological trait theory tests have content and construct validity, as the Advanced Multi-Dimensional Personality Matrix Abridged–Big 5 Personality Test has been independently evaluated (Buros, 2019). The difficulty is how to measure face validity in a different culture, and whether criterion validity holds true across cultures. Both Asian and Eastern European nations have found mismatches with this etic assessment.

      I know this is off the point somewhat, but I have not experienced my managers 'fly off the handle'; I have two women managers, and they are good leaders. They are measured, enthusiastic, and demonstrate transformational leadership styles.


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