The Big Five

What are The Big Five

I’m not going to go to huge lengths here to explain what they are – there’s wikipedia, a million other webpages, and some really great YouTube videos for that. What I will do, though, is explain how I best understand them, and why I think this model is important and useful.

Low-resolution filter on complexity

I think of The Big Five (or ten aspects) as the application of a low-resolution filter to something with an inherently high degree of complexity – human personalities.

When we draw a picture of a house, we don’t bother with all of the detail, right down to the cracks in the mortar. It’s usually sufficient for whatever purpose (to imagine what an extension might look like, for example) to get the bounding proportions about right, and to faithfully represent features like the roof-line and the windows. Although there is a great deal more nuance that isn’t represented, there is sufficient detail in the ‘low resolution’ house, but at a fraction of the effort that would be required to fully explain the house in detail.

The same is true when we describe humans using the Big Five model. Jungian Archetypes are used to the same end.

Some people are uncomfortable with the trade-off and repudiate the idea that humans can be explained using just ten aspects. I agree that there will be a lot of information lost, but also a huge amount of information retained, which is then condensed down into a product that is easy to understand and work with. This is valuable.

It’s worth reflecting for a second that there is an even lower-resolution filter which is very often applied, but doesn’t retain enough information to be useful. That filter is the notion of the political Left and Right.

It’s common for people to apply The Big Two (Left/Right) to a person, and make logical connections such as: Person A is in favour of Brexit > Person A is on the political right > Person A must oppose gay marriage.

The Big Two is an example of a personality heuristic in which the trade-off is too great. It is over simplified, and too much nuance and detail has been lost.

They are about natural tendency, not capability

An introvert can ‘hold court’ in front of huge audiences. Both Robbie and Robin Williams are said to be examples of introverts that were capable of entertaining and captivating audiences on a huge scale. This is because introverts can perform, it will just be a more physically draining experience than it will for an extrovert. Both men, like all introverts, were said to require time alone after a performance to “recharge”.

Likewise, a person with low compassion (an aspect of agreeableness) can tune into the feelings of others and display compassion, it will just take a lot more effort and mindfulness than it would for a naturally compassionate person.

Although individuals are usually referred to as being n-th percentile, they actually behave more like a population, with a distribution around a mean. The standard deviation will be low, but factors like the amount of sleep the person has had, whether they are hungry, etc. all affect our moment-to-moment position on the scale. Our distribution also shifts and changes as we age.


In the above image, the black line is the population mean agreeableness (mean 50%), the green line is an individual at 25 years old (mean 55%), and the red line is that same individual at age 50 years (mean 45%).

The agreeableness of the individual is much less variable than it is across all of the individuals in the population (which is why the green and red lines are so ‘bunched up’) – there are individuals that are much more or less agreeable in the population than this individual is on his most agreeabale or disagreeable of days. His agreeableness does fluctuate, like all people’s, but only a small distance either side of a mean agreeableness.

This individual has become, on average, less agreeable as they’ve aged. It’s important to note, though, that they are still more agreeable at 50 years old on an agreeable day than they were at 25 years old on a disagreeable day.

We could imagine similar distributions being overlaid for the same individual depending on whether it was am/pm, winter or summer, before or after payday, etc. This is well understood – and exploited by everyone from marketeers to politicians – and there is incredible research around the conviction results from judges in the am vs pm.

Small differences in means lead to big differences in the extremes

The principle here is that populations can simultaneously be ‘not that different’ on average, and very different in the extremes.

Take this representation of people in (fictional) Town A vs. Town B on the agreeableness scale.

Town A vs. B Agreeableness

Here you can see that there is huge overlap in the middle of the distribution, where most people in both towns can be found. Although Town B has a slightly higher mean agreeableness, if you were to pluck random pairs of people from both populations then you’d be wrong almost as often as you were right if you bet that person B was more agreeable than person A.

At an individual level, the statistical distribution has very poor predictive power. To say that an individual must be disagreeable because they come from Town A would be logically unsound.

However, it’s a different matter at the extremes. If we were to round up the most disagreeable people from the combined populations of both towns, then almost twice as many of them would come from Town A as from Town B.

Screenshot 2018-10-25 at 07.15.47
Close-up on the left-hand “tail” of the distributions, showing the “least agreeable”.


Knowing that someone is extremely disagreeable, it’s not a bad bet that they come from Town A.

Least Agreeable (1)

This is actually the case for the populations of males and females. A population of females (controlling for all other factors, such as age, etc.) will be, on average, slightly more agreeable than a population of males (please note that the example above (Town A vs B) does not represent the actual distribution in males vs. females).

And, as above, it would be a huge mistake to pick any one female at random and bet that she was more agreeable than any one randomly selected male. The chances are that they sit somewhere in the middle hump of the distribution, where there’s an almost equal probability that the chap will be the more agreeable of the pair.

However, if you round up all the least agreeable people, there’s going to be a much higher proportion of men in that population. In real societies we call these constituencies prisons, and you do indeed find that the least agreeable in our societies (violent criminals, etc.) have a higher representation from males than females.

You can do this at the other end of the scale, too. You can create environments that will attract the most extremely compassionate people in our society. Care homes, hospitals and nurseries are good examples. In these environments you should expect to observe a higher proportion of females.

But, labouring the point, if you were looking for someone highly compassionate for a job in a care home and one woman and one man turned up to interview, you would be a fool to make any assumptions about their level of compassion based purely on gender. The fact that they have turned up to the interview tells us that they must have a higher than average predisposition for the role, and that’s all you need to know. Their gender gives you no more useful information, and you should interview them on equal terms.

It’s worth saying that the above example is strictly observational and speaks nothing at all to the reasons for the effect. There’s a lot of compelling evidence for it being cultural and biological (that men are more likely to be brutes because it’s in their DNA, vs. it being the way we raise our boys, for example). There are lots of scientific papers on this subject as well as op eds, etc. – so it’s very much an open (and hot) topic, but it does make for a very good example of the effect, which is consistent with real-world observation.

We’re not done yet though – it gets even more nuanced than that. It’s possible for a population to be over represented in both poles of the extremes, regardless of the mean difference. This is due to the standard deviation in the population.

Lets return to two equally sized towns, A & B. A & B have exactly the same average conscientiousness. However, the standard distribution in Town B is higher. This means that if you are looking for the very most extremely conscientious or un-conscientious, then you’re more likely to find a higher proportion of Town B Folk in both extremes.

Town A vs. B Conscientiousness

As in the agreeableness example, you’d be a fool to make any assumptions at an individual level about conscientiousness based solely on whether they came from Town A or Town B. The Town of an individual gives you no information about how conscientious they are.

However, you should expect to observe much greater wealth inequality in Town B than in Town A. This is because salary expectation is highly correlated with conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is much more ‘spread out’ in Town B; there will be more extremely conscientious people and extremely un-conscientious people. In Town A the distribution is much tighter, meaning the distance between the extreme ends of the scale is smaller.

A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous

A superficial understanding of the Big Five model could be dangerous. It could lead to generalisations of individuals based on the population from which they come, driven by differences in the population means.

It could also lead to black and white thinking about capability of an individual, vs tendency. If you were to test an individual and find out that they are 75th percentile for neuroticism, then you might reject them on the basis that ‘they are neurotic’.

Please don’t do that. I test extremely highly for neuroticism. Knowing that makes me focus much more than most people do on my mental health. I exercise, try to eat right, and regularly meditate to mitigate my predisposition to depression (correlated with high neuroticism). Because of this, perversely, I think I’m actually less likely to suffer the negative consequences of high neuroticism than someone of average neuroticism that doesn’t have the tools to work with it.

Understanding team dynamics, and diversity gaps

Take a board of directors of a company. If you were to test all of the individuals to understand their (current – see comments about individuals having a distribution against each aspect rather than a fixed, eternal score) aspect profile, and find that they all overlap, then you have a diversity problem.

Notice here that this is true regardless of the demographic profile of your board. This is as true if you had a board entirely comprised of men, or of women, and everywhere in between.

I’m talking about personality and viewpoint diversity, which is critical to the healthy operation of a board. If you only have disagreeable people on your board, then you should worry about the culture you’re likely to create. Likewise, if you only have agreeable people. You need a balance.

As stressed above, if you find that you have such an imbalance, then you’d be a fool to use generalised population statistics as a lead to plugging the (viewpoint) diversity gap. If you are looking for an agreeable person to balance a generally disagreeable board, and you only interview women on the basis that they have a slightly higher population agreeableness, then I’m afraid you’re guilty of gender discrimination.

However, if you advertise in such a way as to attract more agreeable people (of either gender) and screen using a personality test to find the most extremely agreeable from the pool of candidates, then you should not be surprised to find a higher proportion of females in your shortlist.

And this is one of the most powerful applications of the model, as far as I’m concerned. A recruitment process which depersonalised all applications and simply submitted to the interviewing manager a summary of the following, would be close to a truly meritocratic recruitment process:

  1. academic qualifications;
  2. summary of previous roles (time served, job title – basics like that);
  3. Big Five profile; and
  4. IQ scores.

You would still need to interview to dig deeper into all of this, but it will have removed (most – it could be argued that previous role history could smuggle in some) bias driven by age, gender, name (there is a bias between names like Giles and Tarquin vs. Clive and Dave), and cultural background. This bias might kick in at the interview stage, but at least the shortlist is not driven by superficial characteristics.

Here, action is being taken to ensure equality of opportunity (virtuous), given the requirements of the role, and not equality of outcome (reprehensible, and often described as “equity hiring”, or “positive discrimination”).

Understanding yourself

I’m an introvert. I’ve always known this, and testing confirmed it. It came as no surprise.

To really understand it, though, has made a huge difference in my life.

Firstly, understanding exactly what introversion is has made a huge difference. It’s not the same as being shy, and it’s not the same as being a misanthrope. I enjoy people, and I enjoy talking to them about subjects that interest me. However, large energetic social situations drain me. I find parties exhausting. ‘Working a room’ will totally drain me of energy. A couple of hours into a party I will feel tired, and I’ll want to retreat home to spend some time alone to ‘recharge’.

This is the textbook definition of introversion. Any introverts reading this will immediately recognise it.

Extroverts will find this odd. They will feel sapped of energy if they spend too much time alone, and will need to find a vibrant social situation in which to ‘recharge’.

Secondly, understanding all this means that I can be kinder to myself. I don’t beat myself up for not looking forward to large social functions, and I don’t consider myself a weirdo. This makes me more able to enjoy the large social functions I do have to attend. I can mentally prepare, I won’t be anxious about the way that I will feel a couple of hours into it, I can make efforts to create a smaller more intimate gathering within the larger social function (a table of close friends), I can plan an earlier exit route, and I can plan some recovery time afterwards.

As another example, those that are high in agreeableness might find themselves putting others before themselves rather too much in life. This can lead to resentment and suffering. Being able to recognise this about yourself might force you to put some focus on yourself from time to time, and demand support from others. This won’t be easy or come naturally, but it will be good for you in the long run.

Similar measures can be taken for whatever it is you discover about yourself.

Re-orientating our educational institutions

I didn’t have the tools to understand all this when I was of school age, and it led to some unnecessary suffering. School is an incredibly ‘full on’ experience, socially. Even during class time there was a great deal of social interaction and then, between classes, there was the playground, with all its politics and social dynamics.

This was exhausting to me as an introvert and I used to, from time to time, fake illness or ‘bunk off’ to get some head space. I would use this time going for a walk in the countryside alone to ‘recharge’.

In schools, being able to focus and to develop expertise in a series of subjects is the road to success. Conscientiousness is king.

Our institutions are very bad at nurturing, or even tolerating, personality types which don’t conform – often diagnosing those that struggle to sit still and focus on a given task as having some variant of ADHD, and medicating them to dampen down their energy. These are bad children, and they need to be made to behave. It’s heartbreaking.

A young developing mind, which is higher in openness than conscientiousness (there is a strong inverse correlation, so this will happen a lot), will get bored and seek stimulation – especially as high openness to experience is also highly correlated with high IQ. I speak from direct experience. I am high openness, relatively high IQ, and very low conscientiousness. I was bright, but bored, and got up to all sorts of high-jinx to find new ways to entertain myself in school. Try as they might, the institution failed to train me into being a sit-still-and-focus type. Thank God these were the days before schools realised it was easier to sedate kids with drugs than to face the inevitable defeat of trying to make these children “be good”.

This approach, I suspect, did relatively little harm at a macro scale (and plenty of harm at an individual level) when there was lots of value to be added by humans that could sit still and execute repetitive tasks – or, if they where of high intellect, organise and manage others to do this in ever more efficient ways – but I fear that these types of work are firmly in the cross-hairs of AI, and we are breeding a generation which will find itself redundant when they graduate.

Instead, we desperately need to understand the human condition better, and orientate our institutions around creative productivity (creating new businesses, etc) which are likely to be outside of AI-competence for some time.

Individuals and school authorities need to understand that the world needs highly conscientious people to execute tasks and manage operations efficiently (for now…), and less conscientious but highly open minded and free thinking minds to challenge norms and invent new shit. The current model is training and supporting the half of the population that stand a good chance of being made redundant, and totally failing the half that will create the future.

It’s no coincidence that so many founders (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Evan Williams – to name a few) dropped out of college before graduating. They were more interested in exploring new territory and creating new ventures than they were in working hard to achieve their degrees.

As we move into the AI world, we will need to spot the next creators early and support them in adding the value that AI cannot. We need diagnostic tools (like the Big Five model) to recognise them, and we need an enlightenment in our educational systems so that they can be nurtured.

What progress could be made if we had institutions that could nurture and develop these types of minds instead of medicating and rejected them?..

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.