Can the five factor model explain personality?

Every person is unique. From being geniuses to serial killers, people and their personalities can vary in many ways. What makes a person the way he/she is, is a question that everyone would like to answered. What exactly is personality and is it the factor that makes everyone different? In an attempt to solve this dilemma, there is a need for clear definitions. Personality is generally defined as the ‘distinctive and relatively stable pattern of behavior, thoughts, motives and emotions that characterize an individual’, including a wide range of human behavior, conscious or unconscious ((Wade and Tavris, 2006). It is widely agreed upon that personality originates from within a person, although, a few argue that external and social factors can also be used to study personality. Many theories, that attempt to define personality and build a model around this abstract concept, are used as a tool to speculate and offer guidelines (Ewen, 2003).

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Many psychologists came up with theories that attempt to define personality types. According to Gordon Allport, most people have a few central traits that can be used to characterize them and have further secondary traits that are more changeable. Raymond Cattel studied this by using a statistical method called factor analysis and came up with the 16 Personality Factors. Eysenck came up with the PEN (psychoticism, extroversion, neuroticism) model, which promoted just three factors.

Nowadays, most modern psychologists agree on five central factors, known as the Big Five or the Five Factor Model (FFM), which form a cluster of personality traits that divide people into the following personality types: Extroversion vs. introversion, neuroticism vs. emotional stability, agreeableness vs. antagonism, conscientiousness vs. impulsiveness, openness to experience vs. resistance to new experience.

Extroversion vs. introversion explains the level to which people are sociable or shy. Extroverts are engaged with the outside world, are full of energy, like to talk and get attention and are assertive. Introverts are low key, like to be alone and need less simulation. In neuroticism, people experience anxiety and negative emotions. They are emotionally reactive as compared to people low in neuroticism, who are calm and emotionally stable. Agreeableness vs. antagonism describes the good nature or the irritableness of people. Agreeable people strive for social harmony and get along well with people. Antagonistic people, on the other hand, are disagreeable, skeptical and uncooperative. Conscientiousness people are responsible and dependable, whereas, impulsive people are rash and fickle. People are open to experiences if they are curious and creative, but conforming and unimaginative people are resistant to new experiences.

Being able to define human personality has been a major challenge for psychologists and the five factor model (FFM) has emerged as a distinct personality dimension and is central in describing personality variations within mentally stable people. It has integrated and systemized wide ranging concepts and measures using various assessment methods and case studies (McCrae and Costa, 1999).

The model is also supported by many factor-analytic studies and research has been conducted on diverse people and over large time periods, leading to the observation that the Big Five remain constant and stable over a person’s lifetime, especially, after the age of thirty. The five-factor model is also consistent with other models such as Eysenck’s PEN model, Catell’s 16 Factor Model and other psychological theories. Psychologists are also trying to establish a ‘Taxanomy of personality’ so people can easily be described using the sliding scales of the 5 variable of the FFM. According to Digman, the FFM has ‘given a useful set of very broad dimensions that characterize individual differences. These dimensions can be measured with high reliability and impressive validity’ and it ‘provides a good answer to the question of personality structure’ (Digman, 1990). Digman conducted studies in Japan, Philippines and Germany and states that the model is applicable cross culturally and does not fail when faced with linguistic barriers. Differences within the sexes have also been taken into account and males are shown to score higher on extraversion and conscientiousness, and females on neuroticism and agreeableness.

The FFM has also been useful in predicting job performance; conscientious and extravert people perform better at work than people with neuroticism, and agreeableness correlates negatively with job performance in a leadership role. Conscientiousness is also seen as a predictor of academic performance and openness to experience is an unrelated factor (Neubert).

Although these simple categorizations seem very appealing in trying to define personality, there is another side to the picture that examines the limitations of the model. It is argued that the model is not really a theory of personality as a good theory must adequately explain the system of personality. It can, therefore, more aptly be called a trait theory (McCrae and Costa, 1999). Even though the model has convergent validity, it cannot be claim to also have construct validity, as judgments can converge without being correct (Davis and Millon, 1993). According to McAdams, the FFM is not really a theory but a list of explanatory variable useful in identifying and classifying personality traits. He says the variables are too broad and, in many situations, cannot anticipate behavior. Establishing the universality of the FFM has also been called into question. A research showed that in Spanish, seven factors were required to explain personality dimensions and in Italy, only three were needed (Wade and Tavris, 2006).

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Moreover, the five-factor model does not take into account or explain the part of personality that is different for every person. It requires speculation to interpret individual behavior from personality profiles of people. Even in the context of work environment, it has been argued that the five factor model is not enough to predict performance. Factors such as cognitive ability, emotional intelligence and creativity add a lot to the value of an employee. Transformational leadership and job satisfaction also add a lot to the job performance of an individual. It does not explain the motivation behind becoming a leader or explain how traits interact with the environment to produce leadership qualities (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2007).

A model has limited importance if it cannot be applied and according to Davis and Millon, the FFM model has many weaknesses when applied in the clinical domain as many traits involved in disorders are missing, hence, it is of more use in the academic and experimental context (Davis and Millon, 1993). Being restricted by the trait hierarchy is not advisable since there is limited information regarding personality pathology already. Other levels of trait hierarchy also help in providing information useful in clinical application. Another empirical study concluded that even though the FFM captured a significance variance for several personality disorders, it significantly predicted only 5 of the 11 disorders because of wide and intangible characterizations (Clark, 1993).

Theoretically, the model has been questioned on many aspects. McAdams critiques the model on the lack of causal explanations of human behavior and experience. He believes it describes the ‘psychology of a stranger’ as it describes people one knows nothing about, failing to describe the hidden aspects of personality. Behavior might not predict personality accurately as many people do not behave in accordance to their personalities in all situations. It is said that personality is an illusion and people only behave in accordance to the social context. According to Taylor & Macdonald, the FFM is significantly correlated with religious beliefs, suggesting on the possibility that there is some correlation that goes deeper than just outward behavior (Emmons, Barret and Schnitker, 1999).

The model is often criticized by other alternate models such as Cattel’s 16 factor model and Eysenck’s PEN model which states the three uncorrelated dimensions of personality: psychotism, extraversion and neuroticism. According to Eysenck, the additional two traits, agreeableness and conscientiousness, are overlapping and excessive. He greatly supported the use of valid criteria to test the practicality of a theory and used his arousal theory to explain the causal roots of three factors. He tested Cortical arousal for extraversion, Visceral brain action for neuroticism and Gonadal hormones for psychoticism. Hence, the PEN theory focuses on the causal aspects of personality and is supported by credible evidence, making it more than just a descriptive theory (Eysenck, 1990).

Coming to a conclusion about the validity of the FFM model in explaining personality, the model can be seen as one angle about how and why individuals act the way they do but cannot provide a complete and comprehensive character profile. It does not explain the core aspects of human nature or take into account environmental factors, reasons behind personality development, individual differences or clinical disorders. According to Block (1995), the statistical and empirical grounds of the model are shaky and it is still very premature to accept it widely. McAdams criticizes the model as it cannot predict how people will behave in certain situations and why they behave the way they do. It cannot be used to reflect upon the entre personality of a person as it ignores the sociocultural context of human development. Moreover, some respondents might not even be able to take the questionnaires required to assess their personality types (Cavanaugh and Blanchard-Fields, 2006). McAdams correctly sums up by saying that the FFM is one important model in personality studies, not the integrative model of personality and cannot be used as the final, well rounded theory of personality (McAdams, 1992). Personality is a very abstract concept and to define it in terms of any one model will be unreasonable and it might forever remain a dream of psychologists to found a very precise, well rounded and all-encompassing theory of personality as no two people are the same and categorizing them might remain impossible.



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