The Big Five Quickstart (Fonte)
An Introduction to the Five-Factor Model of Personality for Human Resource Professionals
Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D., and Jane M. Howard, M.B.A.,
Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS)
Charlotte, North Carolina
Section One: Background and Theory of the Five-Factor Model

Get ready, trainers and consultants! The personality paradigm is shifting. For three decades, the training community has generally followed the assumptions of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers & McCaulley, 1985). These assumptions included:

  • · a four-dimension model,
  • · bimodal distribution of scores on each dimension,
  • · sixteen independent types,
  • · the concept of a primary function determined by Judger/Perceiver preference, and
  • · a grounding in the personality theory of Carl Jung (1971).

The emerging new paradigm is not a radical departure from the MBTI, but rather more of an evolution from it. But, the new paradigm is sufficiently different from the old one to require a significant shift in thinking. For example, the new paradigm involves:

  • · five dimensions of personality,
  • · a normal distribution of scores on these dimensions,
  • · an emphasis on individual personality traits (the type concept is gone),
  • · preferences indicated by strength of score, and
  • · a model based on experience, not theory.


Personality theories, or models, are metaphors for describing something which is intrinsically indescribable--the human personality. For example, Robert Ornstein (1993, pp. 2-3) writes, "Ideas for personality classifications...provide everyone from small children to clinical psychiatrists with a routine for classifying people, one that helps us make sense of ourselves and others. But that's all they do, since one system doesn't map on to the other.... We need an explanation to get through the day, and that is what most personality-typing systems provide."

All language, in fact, is metaphor--it is a process by which we express one thing--the complex fabric of people and their environments--in terms of another--language. We shall never know the entire truth--we can only talk about it. All our language is about what we experience, but it is not the experience itself. Why, even our scientific instruments can only approximate a description of the true nature of things. Again, Ornstein says that even positron emission tomagraphy (PET) scans are not a "‘window’ to the mind, but merely...a metaphor." PET scans and personality models are both metaphors for describing the person.

Certainly, some metaphors are more vague than others. A PET scan is less vague than a paper and pencil questionnaire like the MBTI. The history of the study of personality has been one of minimizing vagueness. Just as the theory of Carl Jung reduced the vagueness of the theory of humors (which spoke of phlegmatics, melancholics, sanguines, and cholerics), so Jung's theory will be replaced by a model of personality which is yet less vague. In a sense, the history of intellectual activity is the story of our efforts to find the "source" metaphor from which all other metaphors are derived. Just as Latin was the parent, or source, language of all the romance tongues (such as French and Italian), so all of our personality metaphors (such as Freud's and Jung's) must have a parent, or source, metaphor that encompasses all the truths of the individually derived personality metaphors. There is some truth in Jung's theory, Freud's theory, and others' theories, but the human personality fabric is woven from a far more complex set of fibers than any one theory contains.


Just as all cloths are woven from fibers, so all theories are composed of language. Language is the one ingredient that all theories have in common. So, it is from language itself, and not theories, that we must extract the source metaphor for describing personality. This was the insight that propelled Tupes and Christal during the 1950’s into the research that led to what we know today as the Five-Factor Model (FFM), or the Big Five theory.

Allport and Odbert (1936) were the first researchers to identify the trait-descriptive words in the English language. Their compendium of 4,500 words has been the primary starting point of language-based personality trait research for the last sixty years. Much of the early research, however, was seriously flawed. Raymond Cattell's work was typical of the serious limitations of lexical studies done in the 1940's. Using modern computers, subsequent replications of his original studies done by hand or by early computers revealed calculation errors and, therefore, invalidated many of his findings.

The first evidence that flaws existed in Cattell's work was revealed by Fiske (1949), who suggested that five, not sixteen, factors accounted for the variance in personality trait descriptors. But Fiske stopped there, making no big deal of his finding and not himself quite sure what to make of his results. From 1954-1961, two Air Force personnel researchers, Tupes and Christal (1961), became the first researchers to make use of Allport and Odbert's work. Building on Cattell and Fiske, Tupes and Christal thoroughly established the five factors we know today. Sadly, they published their results in an obscure Air Force publication that was not read either by the psychology or academic communities.

Then, in the late 1950’s, Warren Norman at the University of Michigan learned of Tupes and Christal’s work. Norman (1963) replicated the Tupes and Christal study and confirmed the five-factor structure for trait taxonomy. For bringing this discovery into the mainstream academic psychology community, it became known, understandably but inappropriately, as “Norman's Big Five.” Rightly, it should be Tupes and Christal's Big Five. A flurry of other personality researchers confirmed Norman's findings.

But, even within the academic bastion of truth, politics prevailed. The influence of behaviorists, social psychologists and an especially withering attack by Walter Mischel (1968), led to the suppression of trait theory. During the 1960's and 1970's traits were out of favor--only behaviors and situational responses were allowed. However, radical behaviorism began to fall from its pedestal in the early 1980's with the rise of cognitive science. Cognitive scientists proclaimed that there was more to the human mind than stimulus and response (Howard, 1994). Throughout the 1980's and continuing through the present, a plethora of personality researchers have established the Five-Factor Model as the basic paradigm for personality research. Four excellent summaries of this research tradition are Goldberg (1993), Digman (1990), John, Angleitner, & Ostendorf (1988), and McCrae (1992).


Each of the Big Five dimensions is like a bucket that holds a set of traits that tend to occur together. The definitions of the five super factors represent an attempt to describe the common element among the traits, or sub-factors, within each "bucket." The most commonly accepted buckets of traits are those developed by Costa and McCrae (1992). Their nomenclature was developed for an academic and clinical population. Our emphasis will be on applying their knowledge to the workplace. In 2001, we introduced the WorkPlace Big Five Profile (Howard & Howard, 2001a), a 107-item Big Five survey with language oriented towards the world of work that measures the Big Five and 24 subtraits. We had to abandon such NEO terms as “Neuroticism”--imagine an executive being called “High Neuroticism”! In this section, we will present our workplace version for use in professional development activities.

The Need for Stability Factor (N)

The Need for Stability refers to the degree to which a person responds to stress. More resiliant persons tend to handle stressful workplace situations in a calm, steady, and secure way. More reactive personas tend to respond in an alert, concerned, attentive, or excitable way, thus creating te opportunity to experience more workplace stress than others.

We have identified four main correlated traits which comprise the need for stability “bucket”. They are listed and defined in Table 1.

Levels of Need for Stability

At one extreme of the need for stability continuum, we have the Reactive, who experiences more negative emotions than most people and who reports less satisfaction with life than most people. That is not meant to place a value judgment on reactives, however, as the susceptibility to the need for stability in the workplace provides the basis for shaping extremely important roles in our sociaty such as social scientists, customer service professionals, and academicians. However, extreme reactivity (high need for stability) can interfere with the performance of many jobs.

Table 1. Four Facets of Need for Stability (Howard & Howard, 2001a) with Anchors for the Two Extremes of the Continuum

On the other extreme of the need for stability continuum, we have the Resilients, who tend to be more rational at work than most people and who appear rather impervious sometimes to what's going on around them. We think, for example, of our choir director who didn't miss a beat during a dress rehearsal when the podium on which he was standing collapsed forward. He simply placed his feet at angles like a snow plow and kept his baton moving. Of course, all the singers and instrumentalists broke out laughing at this classic example of non-reactivity. He's unflappable. And that extreme is also the foundation for many valuable social roles--from air traffic controllers and airline pilots to military snipers, finance managers, and engineers.

Of course, along the Need for Stability continuum from reactive to resilient is the vast middle range of what we call Responsives, who are a mixture of qualities characteristic of resilients and reactives. Responsives are more able to turn behaviors from both extremes on and off, calling on what seems appropriate to the situation. A responsive, however, is not typically able to maintain the calmness of a resilient for as long a period of time, nor is a responsive typically able to maintain the nervous edge of alertness of a reactive (as, for example, would be typical of a stock trader during a session).

The Extraversion Factor (E)

Extraversion refers to the the degree to which a person can tolerate sensory stimulation from people and situations. Those who score high on extraversion are characterized by their preference of being around other people and involved in many activities. Low extraversion is characterized by one’s preference to work alone and is typically described as serious, skeptical, quiet, and a private person. Howard and Howard ‘s six main facets of extraversion are described in Table 2.

Table 2. Six Facets of Extraversion (Howard & Howard, 2001a) with Anchors for the Two Extremes of the Continuum

Levels of Extraversion

On the one hand, the Extravert tends to exert more leadership, to be more physically and verbally active, and to be more friendly and outgoing around others than most people tend to be. This extraverted profile is the foundation of many important social roles, from sales, to politics, to the arts and the softer social sciences.

On the other hand, the Introverts tend to be more independent, reserved, steady, and more comfortable with being alone than most people are. This introverted profile is the basis of such varied and important social roles as production managers and the harder physical and natural sciences.

In between these two extremes are the Ambiverts, who are able to move comfortably from outgoing social situations to the isolation of working alone. The stereotypical ambivert is the Player-Coach, who moves upon demand from the leadership demands of Coach to the personal production demands of the Player.

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