Let us be honest, most of us adores observing the behavior of strangers in public places (well, at least I do. Airports are great for it. Please do not judge).

Imagine for a moment you are outside, looking around and observing others. Let us notice how they are dressed, the style of clothes they are wearing, the brands we can identify, their socialization behaviors with others, if they are talking to strangers or quiet in their place, if they are being loud or not. There is so much to see.

Can all of these patterns of behavior tell us what kind of people they are? It sure can. But to analyze them, we need a system of analysis, right? Right. There is a great deal that we can understand of someone at an individual level, we just need to find an accurate way of doing so.

Psychologists have long attempted to develop models to allow us to understand human behavior, through profile of one’s personality (defined by Kassarjian in 1971 as “the combination of characteristics, patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make up an individuals’ distinctive character”). This way, we could understand human behavior at an individual level.

The Big 5 Model

Over the years, psychologists developed many systems and models to understand human personality (e.g. see Cattell’s system, Eysenck’s System, Guilford’s, Murray’s Need System, The Interpersonal Circle). However, perhaps the most adopted personality model is the BIG 5 Model (by the way, does it not sound as an amazing name for a band or hip-hop act? “And now… what you have all been waiting for… the BIG 5!”).

There are many interesting facts about the Big 5 model. The first is that its development is not credited to one single author. You see, around the 1940’s a number of different psychologists were working concurrently on the development of such models, and interestingly, they all arrived in the development of fairly similar dimensions which became the Big 5 (the term “Big 5” is credited to the Lewis Goldberg, emeritus professor at the University of Oregon).

Quickly the model became extremely popular and used across several contexts: marketing, human resources and more. And there is an easy way of remembering all the dimensions: as you would imagine, a human personality is complex and deep as an… OCEAN. Exactly! The word ocean makes up an incredible acronym for the five human personality dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and agreeableness.

Shall we discuss each one of them? Ok, let us start:

    • Openness: This factor represents one’s openness to new experiences, to situations that are unfamiliar. Individuals who are very high in openness tend to be very curious, audacious, risk takers, have broad interests, creative and untraditional. On the other hand, individuals who are low on openness tend to be down to earth, sticking to their comfort zones and tend to repeat preferences (e.g. my father, for example, who rates quite low on openness, has always taken us to the same destinations and eaten at the same restaurants for years! Now imagine how it felt for me, being a child and high on openness!).
    • Conscientiousness: This dimension refers to behaviors related to organization, and how goal directed and focused one is. Therefore, people who score high in conscientiousness tend to be hard-working, organized, disciplined, likes things being scheduled and planned. Contrarily, individuals ranking low in this dimension tend to be lazy, careless and negligent, for example. Thus, it is not surprising that rating high on conscientiousness is associated with professional success.
    • Extroversion: Extroversion evaluates one’s level of interpersonal interaction, need for stimulation and ability to deal with unknown stimuli. For this reason, people who score high on extroversion tend to be sociable, talkative, are optimistic and affectionate. They need constant stimulation from others and the environment. Contrarily, individuals who score low on extroversion (introverts) tend to be reserved, quiet and sober. For introverts, being surrounded by unknown others or in an unknown place can be extremely tiresome and often they need time alone after a party, for example, to recover from the high stimulation. The same applied for lecturers that after lecturing to many students, lock themselves in their offices to relax from the emotional exhaustion and reduce stimulation.
    • Agreeableness: Agreeableness deals with behaviors related to social harmony. Agreeable individuals are caring, avoid conflict, and are softhearted and forgiving. They try their best so that themselves and others get along. Individuals who score low on agreeableness are more manipulative, ruthless and like to impose their opinions and ideas. They do not mind having conflicting situations, because for them, their opinions and desires, for example, should prevail. So people who rate low in agreeableness tend to be very difficult to socialize with. Maybe for this reason and their manipulative character, they commonly develop relationships with individuals who score high on agreeableness (typically labelled as the “good cop” and the “bad cop”. Are you parents like that?).
    • Neuroticism: Finally, the dimension of neuroticism measures one’s emotional stability. Thus, individuals who score high tend to be quite nervous, anxious, insecure and emotional. And importantly, their emotional state may change rapidly from enthusiasm to concern, from happiness to sadness, for example. Contrarily, low neuroticism means someone which is normally calm, relaxed, secure and at time, unemotional. They are the ones who in a moment of despair or risk (e.g. a car accident, a chaotic situation at work or broken water pipe at home) are capable of maintaining emotional control and focusing on solving the problem.

In 2016 professor Brian Little delivered an inspiring Ted Talk discussing the 5 personality factors and analyzing his own behavior. I would definitely suggest watching it, as it will help immensely the understanding of all dimensions:

Most People are Not WEIRD!

In June 2010, Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan published a paper at the Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal titled “The weirdest people in the world?”. In it, the authors suggested a super creative acronym: “WEIRD”, to designate “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic” societies. The paper discusses how in general researchers assume very little variability among markets. And they were absolutely correct!

Only one month later, in July 2010, the same authors published also a very interesting opinion article on Nature, with the another great title: “Most people are not WEIRD“. Their argument was compelling and very telling. A survey from 2008 had identified that 96% of all participants in studies published in top psychology journals had come from WEIRD countries (e.g. USA, UK, Germany, Australia).

And most psychology theories and models, for example, have such profile of participants. Consequently, the question is: How much can we generalization their findings? Would the Big 5 dimensions also apply for behavioral traits of humans in poor areas in India, slums in Brazil or for populations in remote islands?

A study from 2019 titled “Challenges to capture the big five personality traits in non-WEIRD populations” suggests that there are clear validity issues when applying the model in these countries. Issues with the measurements include response patterns (tendencies to respond in a certain way) and educational level, for example. For this reason, although being highly popular model, it is important to be aware of the limitations of it.

Would You Like to Take the “Big 5” Test?

There are many websites which allows you to take the Big 5 personality test, by answering all items of the original scales and receive a final score per factor. One of the most popular sites available online, which I often recommend to my students, is Truity.com.

So if you are interested and keen to take the test, simply click on the image below to answer it or click here.


Source: truity.com/test/big-five-personality-test

5 Interesting Publications Involving the Big 5 and Music

As you can imagine, there is a strong link between the types of human personality and music consumption, preference and emotional reaction to it. And this is something that interests me quite a lot, as their link is so clear to see.

So I have selected here 5 interesting publications involving these topics to illustrate a few examples of what the scientific community has found:

      1. Langmeyer, A., Guglhör-Rudan, A., & Tarnai, C. (2012). What do music preferences reveal about personality?. Journal of individual differences.
      2. Rawlings, D., & Ciancarelli, V. (1997). Music preference and the five-factor model of the NEO Personality Inventory. Psychology of Music, 25(2), 120-132.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, the Big 5 model is a highly validated personality model and extremely useful for psychologists and marketers, academics and the industry (but remember to verify where the data was collected. Not all people are WEIRD!).

Personally I would suggest you take the test and reflect on your own findings. It will certainly help you understand each dimensions and will provide great insights into human behavior.

From then on, “people watching” will become much interesting!