Five Factor Model Of Personality Essay Research

Five Factor Model Of Personality Essay, Research Paper

The precise definition of personality has been a point of discussion amongst many different

theorists within many different disciplines since the beginning of civilisation. Personality can be

defined as “the distinctive and characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour that define

an individual’s personal style and influence his or her interactions with the environment” (Atkinson,

Atkinson, Smith & Bem, 1993: 525). It can be proposed that personality psychology has two

different tasks. “The first involves specifying the variables on which individuals differ from one

another. The second involves synthesising the psychological processes of human functioning into an

integrated account of the total person” (Atkinson et al., 1993: 532). There are many different theories

of personality and many different theorists. The purpose of this essay is to examine the trait approach,

specifically the five-factor model. Both the development and limitations of the Five-Factor model of

personality shall be discussed.

Trait theory is based on several assumptions. The first assumption is that any difference

between people that is seen as significant will have a name. Secondly, these names, known as traits,

are conceived of as continuous dimensions. In general, trait theories assume that people vary

simultaneously on a number of personality factors. These traits are of both the conjunctive and

disjunctive form. Therefore, to understand a trait, it is necessary to understand what a particular trait

is and what type of behaviour is evidence of that trait. (Atkinson et al., 1993). Five factor theorists are

one set of trait theorists. The claim of five factor theorists is that behaviour can be best predicted and

explained by measurement of five dominant personality factors. The five factor theory is a fairly

recent proposal and has its basis in earlier work, which shall be discussed.

One of the statistical techniques most commonly used in the study of personality is that of

factor analysis:

By identifying groups of highly intercorrelated variables, factor analysis enables us to

determine how many underlying factors are measured by a set of p original variables. In other

words, factor analysis is used to uncover the factor structure of a set of variables. (Diekhoff,

1992: 333)

A factor analysis will generally show that a smaller number of factors represents the same information

as the original number of variables. Once the variables making up the factors have been identified,

some of the redundant variables may be removed (Diekhoff, 1992). As such, a large number of traits

may be reduced to a number of personality factors. The procedure of factor analysis was a significant

part of both the development and criticism of the five personality factor theory, as well as the theories

on which it is based.

An experiment conducted by Allport and Oddbert (1936, cited in Goldberg, 1990) was based

on the assumption that a dictionary contains a list of every possible trait name. Oddbert and Allport

took every word from a dictionary that related to personality descriptors. This list was then revised to

remove synonyms and unclear or doubtful words. Another researcher, Raymond Cattell (1945, cited

in Atkinson et al, 1993) further revised the Allport-Oddbert list to 171 words. A study was then

conducted by Cattell on a group of subjects who were asked to rate people they knew on the 171

traits. The results were factor analysed and 12 personality factors were found. However, 4 additional

factors were found by analysing self-ratings. Cattell concluded that, in the adult human, 16

personality factors were dominant.

Eyesenck, (1953, cited in Atkinson et al, 1993) was another major theorist to use factor

analysis. Although using the same basic approach as Cattell, Eyesenck used a more discriminatory

factor analysis which resulted in far less than 16 factors. Eyesencks’ major factors are introversion-

extroversion and neuroticism. These are believed to be ordinal factors and as such, scores on each

dimension are independent of one another. The majority of future studies concluded that the actual

number of personality factors, for which there is significant evidence, is between Eyesencks’ two and

Cattells’ 16.

Since Cattells’ study, many researchers have conducted similar studies, or re-analysis of

Cattells’ original data. Most of the researchers, such as Norman (1967, cited in Merenda, 1993)

found support for far less than 16 personality factors. At most, it was generally concluded that there

are between three and seven factors of personality. As a compromise, many researchers agree that

there are five personality factors, as suggested by Norman’s original work (1963, cited in Goldberg,

1990). Support for the Five-Factor model comes from current researchers such as McCrae and Costa

(1985) and Goldberg and Saucier (1995). Opposition to the theory is also abundant, such as the work

of Jack Block (1995).

All trait theorists agree that there is a finite number of traits on which people have a “score”.

The exact number of traits is still currently a point of contention amongst theorists. However, “today

we believe it is more fruitful to adopt the working hypothesis that the five-factor model of personality

is essentially correct.” (McCrae & John, 1992: 175). There is also still “disagreement among analysts

as to factor titles” (John, 1990: 96). Many writers have adopted the names used by Norman (1963,

cited in Goldberg, 1990) which are; extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional

stability and culture. For simplicity, this is the version of the five factor model that shall be adopted

for this essay.

The best known limitations of the five factor model of personality relate to the problems of

trait theory in general. Trait approaches are directed primarily at specifying the variables of

personality. There is little dealing with the dynamic processes of personality functioning. Traits are

static entities and more complete theories of personality, such as those of Eyesenck, come from a

combination of trait theory with another psychological theory. For example, Eyesenck adopted a

learning theory to combine with trait theory. As such, trait theory, and therefore the five factor model,

do not deal with a large aspect of personality: change.

Mischel (1968, cited in Atkinson et al. 1993) is perhaps the best known critic of the trait

theorists. Basically Mischel states that the underlying assumption of the approach may be untrue:

people may have such dynamic personalities that they do not possess trait-like characteristics. Mischel

also claims that there should be a high correlation between scores on a trait measure for a subject and

performance in a situation where that trait is evoked. However, according to Mischel, the correlation

is extremely low. Mischel further argues that knowing a persons’ “traits” does not help predict their

behaviour and measures of the same trait do not correlate highly with one another. Although this

criticism seems almost perfect, there is still a large number of trait theorists. Their responses to

Mischel’s criticism shall be evaluated.

The main defence of the trait approach comes in two forms. Firstly a conceptual form in

which Mischel’s understanding of what makes up a trait is questioned. The second form of defence

comes from a methodological perspective, where the measurement of “trait” behaviour is examined.

To be able to appropriately comment on trait theory, it is important to understand exactly what a trait

is. McCrae and Costa (1995) suggest that not every person has every trait. Therefore it is possible to

confuse descriptors of behaviour with traits. There needs to be consistencies of behaviour to evidence

a trait. Also traits can be of either a conjunctive or disjunctive type. It has been suggested that the

evidence suggested by Mischel is invalid because aggression was seen as conjunctive when it is

actually disjunctive. Correcting this mistake could significantly increase the correlation between

different measures of the same trait. As such, one criticism of Mischel may be answered.

The second defence of trait theory examines the research method used by Mischel. It is

proposed that it is necessary to have many more than one observation of behaviour, before comparing

behaviour to trait scores. The reasoning behind this argument is that each trait test has at least 20 to

40 items. As such, there should be at least half as many observations. A single question test would be

unacceptable and therefore a single observation of behaviour should also be unacceptable. Another

possible experimental error may have occurred due to moderator variables. Moderator variables such

as sex of subject may change the correlation between behaviour and trait scores. If these variables are

controlled for, the correlation may significantly increase and Mischels’ criticism may need to be re-


Cattell’s 16pf, the predecessor of the five factor model, also had a significant limitation. The

16 pf had a low predictive power of performance of a subject on a given test, when used alone.

However, the personality profiles which can be created using the 16pf are reasonably effective in an

applied situation in predicting adjustment of an individual entering a particular group. Also, the

performance predicting power of the 16 pf can be improved by giving the 16pf and correlating it to

some measure of the person’s performance. Multiple regression can then be used to weight each of

the 16pf factors so that correlation between the 16pf score and performance is at maximum. This

gives a more satisfactory prediction of performance using the 16pf, yet it’s predictive power is still

quite low. The 16pf is still used in many applied situations because no other psychological tool is

available with better predictive power. Since the five factor model is based on the 16pf, this limitation

is also applicable to the five factor model.

It is possible to suggest that the limitations pertaining to the trait approach and 16pf are

insignificant or not applicable to the big five model of personality. However, there are limitations that

specifically relate to this model. Jack Block (1995) and Dan McAdams (1992) are the main theorists

to evaluate the five factor model specifically and examine it’s limitations. Block’s criticisms are

answered by theorists such as McCrae and Costa (1995) and Goldberg and Saucier (1995).

The basis of Block’s argument is that it is uncertain that all important trait-descriptive terms

are representatively distributed in language. For instance, collectively suppressed traits might be

unrepresented. Another major point is that the Big Five are very broad and might not differentiate

accurately enough for practical applications. For example, assigning people to high, middle and low

on each of the factors gives 243 personality types, which may be enough types but doesn’t solve the

broadness problem. Block suggests a few changes to procedure should be adopted but admits “my

suggestions are mild, obvious and entail scientific sobriety coupled with slow, hard work aiming to

educe order from the present jumbled empiricism characterising personality psychology”. (Block,

1995: 209).

Both Costa and McCrae (1995) and Goldberg and Saucier (1995) suggest that Block has lost

sight of why the five factor model was developed. Block criticises the model for not being applicable

to practical situations when it’s purpose is to describe the full range of personality traits. Block’s

criticism also “does not distinguish between the Big Five model … from alternative models of the

causal underpinnings of personality differences” (Goldberg & Saucier, 1995: 221). A large amount of

crucial evidence supporting the Big Five model is also left out of the criticism. Each reply also

suggests that Block’s closing suggestions provide few specific proposals of alternative models.

McAdams’ (1992) critical appraisal of the five-factor model outlines several major limitations.

McAdams views the five-factor model as “essentially a ‘psychology of the stranger’, providing

information about persons that one would need to know when one knows nothing about them. It is

argues that because of inherent limitations, the Big Five may be viewed as one important model in

personality studies but not the integrative model of personality”. Some of the limitations described are

those applicable to all trait theories and one applies to the 16pf and any theories based on the 16pf.

However, two limitations specific to the five factor model are discussed.

The main limitation specific to the five factor model of personality are firstly a failure to offer

a program for studying personality organisation and integration and secondly a reliance on statements

about individuals by other individuals. The extent to which the five-factor model is a major advance

in personality study therefore depends on what is hoped to be gained in the field. If personality study

is interested in the study of observer’s trait ratings, the big five model is extremely useful. If the

purpose of the field is also to investigate observers’ attributions about individual differences the five-

factor model is less significant. If the study of personality aims to emphasise the whole person and the

dynamic nature of personality, the model seems to be only of minor concern. As such, from the view

of “multifaceted personology, the five-factor model is one model in personality… not the model of

personality” (McAdams, 1992: 355).

In conclusion, the support and criticisms of the five factor model are not as black and white as

would be hoped. Each argument has logical reasoning and can provide evidence to support itself.

Each view also has a large number of supporters. Neither one is necessarily correct, as it is possible

for the model to be applicable at some stages, and not applicable at others. As a result, it is probable

and acceptable to conclude that the five factor theory may or may not be an appropriate model of

personality. Perhaps a comparison of how much supporting literature there is for each argument is a

useful method for deciding which theory an individual may choose to support.


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