The Big Five model of personality has been studied by psychologists over the course of nearly a century, starting with D.W. Fiske’s research in 1949.
Gordon Allport, an American psychologist sometimes described as a founder of the field of personality psychology, published in the 1920s about what he termed “cardinal traits,” core characteristics thought to define a person’s personality. His research developed a lexicon of over 4,500 vocabulary words to describe personality traits. Then in 1949, through a study of clinical trainees, Fiske attempted to find consistent structural factors of personalities1. He identified a core group of four similar factors, with three distinct levels of behavioral ratings.
As the field of psychology developed, personality research became more refined and competing, but related frameworks developed—some with as many as 16 factors and others with as few as four. But, somehow the number five kept coming up. Robert Costa and Paul McCrae developed the so-called Five Factor Model in 1987, and Lewis Goldberg developed the “Big Five Model” in 1993, both using the same core personality factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Since then, these Big Five personality traits have been studied and validated time and time again by many researchers over decades.
Some of the most interesting recent research suggests that biological and environmental factors play a role in personality development. For example, a 2015 study of the personalities of twins2 suggests that both nature and nurture affect the development of each of the Big Five personality traits. In that study, 127 pairs of fraternal twins and 123 pairs of identical twins were put to the Big Five test. The findings showed the heritability of openness and neuroticism, and subsequent research has been done to further explore the genetic basis for some of the other traits.
There is also some valid criticism of the Big Five personality traits. “In particular, most of the research on personality is done with people from western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries,” explains Lira de la Rosa. “As such, the Big Five personality traits may not capture personality traits across cultures.” He says that research shows that some of the Big Five personality traits are not observed as often in some other cultures.
Phillips also adds that critics ask, “How can one test determine a person’s personality?” After all, personalities may shift over time. And it’s the mix of traits—not each one individually—that defines our personalities. So, tests like these—when not taken under the supervision of a trained professional—can sometimes be used to justify ill-conceived or overly simplified conclusions about people’s characters.