A Convergence on 5 Basic Traits

Goldberg (1993) reported an "electrifying burst of interest" in trait theories. The reason for the excitement was that many different research teams appeared to be zeroing in or converging upon the same group of five important traits as somehow fundamental to human personality. Digman (1990) described how different research teams made the same discovery. In each case, the research was done independently, using different methodologies, yet the researchers came up with the same basic list of characteristics.

What caused an "electrifying burst of interest"?


The Big Five traits in modern personality research, as labeled by different researchers

Note that some authors listed only four dimensions instead of five, because some considered intelligence something distinct from personality. Also notice that some of the words used in the same column (that is, describing the same trait) label opposite ends of a continuum. A person given a high rating on agreeableness would be given a low rating on paranoid disposition. This means they represent the same dimension, but opposite ends of it. If each dimension is regarded as one trait, then we have five traits, now commonly known as the Big Five.

Why are there opposite words in some columns?

Some of the labels are odd. Surgency, for example, is not a word people use every day. It refers to the tendency of a people to put themselves forward, to surge outward in their activity. This is what most people call extraversion or activity level, the opposite of being shy or inhibited. Cattell's words, like "exvia" for extraversion, were invented by Cattell and not used by other researchers.

The remarkable thing—as Goldberg, Digman, and others pointed out—was that so many different research projects came up with compatible conclusions. This makes it seem that "something is there" and traits are not just figments of a researcher's imagination.

How would you use the five traits to make a personality profile?

How could these five traits be used to describe a unique personality? You could rate the person on each of the five dimensions, using some standardized test or interview technique. For most psychologists, this would be the beginning of a personality description. Then you could add all the unpredictable, individual things about an individual that make that person really unique.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey