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?


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