Lots of different areas of study appropriate common-language terms as jargon words with a specific meaning in the context of that particular field, but the names of the Big 5 personality traits have always bothered me. They appear to be rather prejudicial.

For example, scoring high on Agreeableness sounds like it should be a good thing to an uninformed person. But from a psychological perspective, highly agreeable people often allow themselves to be taken advantage of, and tend to be emotional doormats.

Openness is another one that is confusing. Nobody wants to believe they are closed-minded. But in reality, a person who scores low in Openness is consistent, cautious, and deliberate in their actions, which is not a bad thing at all in many circumstances.

Language has a tendency to bias our thinking in certain ways, and one would think this would be more of a problem in psychology than in other sciences. Other sciences either borrow obscure words from other languages or they make up new ones to avoid terms that are culturally or linguistically loaded.

Since there is a growing body of evidence that the Big 5 are more innate than learned, and since each dimension is a scale on which either extreme is considered a bad thing, it would seem to me that we'd want to use less partisan names for those traits.

Why aren't the descriptors more neutral in tone?


2 Answers 2


Well, in a recent debate whether Big Five is... ahem... sexist, this was mentioned, which pertains your question:

There’s another flaw when it comes to taking Big Five personality tests online. The online versions of the Big Five traits inform people of negative character traits, without explaining that the positivity or negativity of all characteristics is shaped by context.

Costa believes that the Big Five’s willingness to point out negative traits makes the test more accurate: Myers-Briggs avoids “anything that could be negative. And that’s a great big marketing thing,” he says. But each potentially negative Big Five character trait is informed by the situation. “They’re only negative in certain contexts,” he says.

For example, Costa explains, agreeable people are great for a blind date, but tend to be overly dependent. Disagreeable people, meanwhile, aren’t good at smoothing over arguments. But they’re also less likely to obediently follow immoral orders—such as those demonstrated by the Milgram experiment, wherein participants are asked to administer increasingly intense electric shocks to a victim. (The longer IPIP-NEO test briefly acknowledged the importance of context, noting, “agreeableness is not useful in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions,” but the Big Five Inventory website offered no such explanations.)

For more context, Paul Costa is one the original authors of NEO-PI, one of the main instruments that shaped Big Five testing.

So, according to him, avoiding negativity either explicit (or the complementary/implicit one) in the design wasn't a goal because it hindered accuracy. I guess that doesn't completely answer the question about naming of the dimensions, but it's probably informative. (Do note that one of the Big 5 dimensions has a rather negative name--neuroticism.)

Costa's point about commercial tests' negativity-avoidance seems to apply to DISC as well.

The factor-naming issue itself was covered in detail in a 1992 paper of McCrae and John (which has very high number of citations for a psychology paper):

The consensus that five-factorists see among themselves may be puzzling to outsiders because the "disagreement among analysts as to factor titles" that Tupes and Christal noted still plagues the field (John, 1990b). Factor names reflect historical accidents, conceptual positions, and the entrenchment that comes from a published body of literature and from published instruments. There are two prominent systems for naming the factors, one derived from the lexical tradition and one from the questionnaire tradition.

Many writers take Norman's (1963) annunciation of an "adequate taxonomy of personality attributes" derived from Cattell's reduction of natural language trait terms as the formal beginning of the FFM, and the factor numbers and names Norman chose—I: Extraversion or Surgency; II: Agreeableness; III: Conscientiousness; IV: Emotional Stability; and V: Culture—are often used. Peabody and Goldberg (1989) have noted that the order in which these factors emerged roughly parallels their representation among English language trait terms in the dictionary: Many more words can be found to describe aspects of Factors I through III than of Factors IV and V. The factor numbers, I to V, are thus meaningful designations. Roman numerals also have the advantage of being theoretically neutral; they seem to stand above the fray of disputed factor interpretations.

The second tradition that led to the modern FFM comes from the analysis of questionnaires, and particularly from the work of H. J. Eysenck, who identified Extraversion (E) and Neuroticism (N) as major components of psychological tests. (It was Wiggins, 1968, who dubbed these the "Big Two," setting the stage for Goldberg's 1981 designation of the FFM as the "Big Five.") Costa and McCrae (1980) added a dimension they called Openness to Experience (O), and later (1985, 1989) created scales to measure Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C). A number of publications (e.g., Borkenau & Ostendorf, 1990; Funder & Colvin, 1988; Tellegen & Waller, in press; Wiggins & Pincus, 1989; Zuckerman, Bernieri, Koestner, & Rosenthal, 1989) have adopted this nomenclature. Note that N corresponds to low Emotional Stability, —IV, and O is a variant of Norman's Factor V.

If the advantage of the Norman numbers is their theoretical neutrality, the disadvantage is their low mnemonic value. Initials, originally popularized by H. J. Eysenck, are easier to interpret, and they may be less theoretically laden than full names. To those for whom Neuroticism connotes psychiatric disorder, negative affectivity (Watson & Clark, 1984) or simply nervousness may seem more apt; all can be characterized by N. Likewise, E can also stand for energy or enthusiasm (cf. Watson & Clark, in press); O for originality; A for affiliation (Leary, 1957) or affection (Brand, 1984), and C for constraint (Tellegen, 1982) or control (Krug & Johns, 1986).

So yes, if the spelled-out names really bother interpretation-wise, an alternative is to use just the first letter designator (and/or numbers, but the latter seems a less popular approach). I did see recent papers do the former (use just the letters) although mainly in tables for compactness.

And in excruciating detail as to level of consensus on the naming of each factor (which seems to be roughly N > E ~ A ~ C > O), the same paper continues:

The problem of what to call the factors is not merely a matter of convention. The labels refiect conceptualizations, and five-factor advocates differ in the details of their views on the factors, and thus in their preferred names. [...]

There is probably the least controversy about the definition of N. N represents individual differences in the tendency to experience distress, and in the cognitive and behavioral styles that follow from this tendency. High N scorers experience chronic negative affects (Watson & Clark, 1984) and are prone to the development of a variety of psychiatric disorders (Zonderman, Stone, & Costa, 1989). The recurrent nervous tension, depression, frustration, guilt, and self-consciousness that such individuals feel is often associated with irrational thinking, low self-esteem, poor control of impulses and cravings, somatic complaints, and ineffective coping (McCrae & Costa, 1987). Individuals low in N are not necessarily high in positive mental health, however that may be defined—they are simply calm, relaxed, even-tempered, unflappable.

Despite the long and common use of the term Extraversion, there is less consensus about E. Most of the differences can be traced to the fact that E and A together define the Interpersonal Circumplex, around which interpersonal terms are spaced almost evenly. The traditional axes of the circumplex are Dominance (or Status) and Affiliation (or Love; Wiggins, 1979), and the major dispute about E (Norman's Factor 1) concerns its alignment with these axes. Goldberg (1990), guided by his analyses of English language trait terms, and Wiggins (in press), guided by the interpersonal tradition, identify this factor with Dominance. McCrae and Costa (1989c) argue that E is best seen as located midway between Dominance and Warmth (although perhaps a bit closer to Dominance). This position, which Peabody and Goldberg (1989) designate as I', is close to the location of such traditional questionnaire measures of E as H. J. Eysenck and S. B. G. Eysenck's (1975) E scale and the EI scale of the MBTI.

The advantage ofthe I' position is that it aligns the factor more closely with its noninterpersonal aspects, particularly positive emotionality. As Watson and Clark describe in their contribution to this issue, the tendencies to experience positive and negative emotions are not opposites, but orthogonal dimensions that define an affective plane. People who are cheerful, enthusiastic, optimistic, and energetic are not necessarily low in anxiety or depression—that depends on their level of N. But cheerful people consistently tend to be dominant, talkative, sociable, and warm, and Watson and Clark (in press) argue that positive emotionality should be seen as the core of E. This somewhat unorthodox view is probably a useful corrective to the narrowly interpersonal interpretation of E as sociability.

E is distinguished by its breadth of content. In their review, Watson and Clark (in press) identified seven components of E: venturesomeness, affiliation, positive affectivity, energy, ascendance, and ambition. As Table 1 shows, Costa and McCrae's view of E is similarly broad, although they would divide affiliation into warmth and gregariousness and assign ambition to C." The fact that such a wide variety of interpersonal, affective, and temperamental variables covary probably accounts for the fact that this factor is so well represented in English language adjectives and so often described by personality theorists. The lexical literature suggests that individuals low in E can be described as quiet, reserved, retiring, shy, silent, and withdrawn (John, 1990a), and Q-sort correlates point to emotional blandness and overcontrol of impulses as additional attributes. Nowhere in this description is introspectiveness seen: Low E must be distinguished from Guilford's (1977) Thinking Introversion (which is more closely related to O and C). The confusion between social and thinking introversions is perpetuated in the MBTI, where both kinds of traits are attributed to individuals classified as Introverts. In fact, the MBTI EI scale is a relatively pure measure of low E (McCrae & Costa, 1989a).

The label Agreeableness has been almost universally used for Norman's Factor II, but as Digman (1990) noted, "Agreeableness . . . seems tepid for a dimension that appears to involve the more humane aspects of humanity—characteristics such as altruism, nurturance, caring, and emotional support at the one end of the dimension, and hos tility, indifference to others, self-centeredness, spitefulness, and jealousy at the other" (pp. 422-424). Digman and Takemoto-Chock (1981) offered "Friendly Compliance versus Hostile Noncompliance" as an alternative descriptor for the factor, and Graziano and Eisenberg (in press) adopted the contrast "Agreeableness versus Antagonism." Because A must be orthogonal to E, the location—and thus the interpretation— of A depends to some extent on one's view of E. Again, Goldberg and Wiggins see this factor as Love or Warmth; Costa et al. (1991) note a cluster of attributes that blend Warmth and Submission, including trust, modesty, and compliance.

Like A, C is a highly evaluated dimension; indeed, A and C are the classic dimensions of character, describing "good" versus "evil" and "strong-willed" versus "weak-willed" individuals. Perhaps it was these moral overtones that often led scientific psychologists to ignore these factors, but in fact, both represent objectively observable dimensions of individual differences. Some people are thorough, neat, wellorganized, diligent, and achievement-oriented, whereas others are not, and self-reports of these characteristics can be validated by peer or spouse ratings (McCrae & Costa, 1987).

A number of different conceptions of C have been offered. Tellegen's (1982) Constraint and Hogan's (1986) Prudence reflect an inhibitive view of C as a dimension that holds impulsive behavior in check. Digman and Takemoto-Chock's (1981) Will to Achieve represents a proactive view of C as a dimension that organizes and directs behavior. The term Conscientiousness combines both aspects, because it can mean either governed by conscience or diligent and thorough. Empirically, both kinds of traits seem to covary.

The greatest controversy concerns O, and the root ofthe controversy is the disparity between natural language and questionnaire studies. Studies of trait adjectives in English (Goldberg, 1990; John, 1990a) and German (Ostendorf, 1990) typically show a factor defined by such items as intelligent, imaginative, and perceptive, and researchers from Fiske (1949) to Hogan (1986) and Digman (1990) have identified this factor as some form of Intellect. However, many traits related to O are not represented among English trait adjectives—there is, for example, no single English word that means "sensitive to art and beauty" (McCrae, 1990). Researchers using questionnaires have typically found a much broader factor that includes, in addition to creativity and intellectual interests, differentiated emotions, aesthetic sensitivity, need for variety, and unconventional values. This broader concept can be traced to Rogers (1961), Rokeach (1960), and Coan (1974); McCrae and Costa (in press) have argued that O is seen structurally in the depth, scope, and permeability of consciousness, and motivationally in the need for variety and experience. Ideas, of course, form an important aspect of consciousness, but fantasies, feelings, sensations, and values are also experiences to which individuals can be more or less open. Several discussions of the relative merits of these two conceptions have been offered (Digman, 1990; John, 1990a; McCrae & Costa, 1985b, in press; Peabody & Goldberg, 1989). One point that should be emphasized is that neither Openness nor Intellect is equivalent to measured intelligence; O is a dimension of personality, not intellectual ability, and many people score high in O without having a correspondingly high IQ.

A recent study illustrates the empirical basis for broadening the conception of this factor beyond Intellect. John (1989a) examined ACL and CQS data from expert raters at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research. Based on a review of the literature, a panel of judges selected 112 prototype items from the ACL to mark the five dimensions. Many of the terms selected to represent O were consistent with either an Intellect or an Openness interpretation, including wide interests, imaginative, original, curious, and artistic. But because the literature emphasized the Intellect interpretation, judges also included such terms as wise, logical, and foresighted. When observer ratings on the 112 items were factored for a sample of 280 ratees, the five-factor model was clearly recovered, but wise, logical, and foresighted were not among the clear definers of the Intellect/Openness factor (Table 1 lists the six highest-loading adjectives). Empirical analyses shifted the factor from a clear Intellect to a mixed Intellect/Openness factor. When ACL factor scores were correlated with CQS ratings by the same experts, the significant correlates (|r | > .40) showed the full range of traits associated with Openness. Individuals rated low on the factor were described by "judges in conventional terms," "favors conservative values," and "represses anxiety;" those rated high were described by "high degree of intellectual capacity," "enjoys aesthetic impressions," "has wide interests," and "unusual, unconventional thought." As seen in this list, O includes aspects of intellect, but is considerably broader in scope.

What is obvious from all this is that many researchers have gone to great lengths to put interpretive names to the factors. You can argue that that is a bad thing, but then I'm not here to argue the counterpoint, but to show it happened.

There are however some researchers which have argued that [counter]point, on the basis that interpretive naming can lead to further testable hypotheses as to the underlying mechanisms for the factors:

Whatever the inadequacies of the natural language for scientific systematics, broad dimensions inferred from folk usage are not a bad place to start a taxonomy. Even in the biological taxonomy of animals, “the technical system evolved from the vernacular” (Simpson, 1961, pp. 12–13).

Obviously, a system that initially derives from the natural language does not need to reify such terms indefinitely. Indeed, several of the dimensions included among the Big Five, most notably Extraversion and Neuroticism, have been the target of various physiological and mechanistic explanations (e.g., Canli et al., 2001; see also L. A. Clark, 2005). In research on emotion regulatory processes, the links between the Big Five, the chronic use of particular regulatory strategies, and their emotional and social consequences are being articulated (John & Gross, 2007). Similarly, the conceptual explication of Extraversion and Neuroticism as persistent dispositions toward thinking and behaving in ways that foster, respectively, positive and negative affective experiences (e.g., Tellegen, 1985; see also Clark & Watson, Chapter 9, this volume) promises to connect the Big Five with individual differences in affective functioning, which, in turn, may be studied in more tightly controlled laboratory settings (see Gross, Chapter 28, this volume). At this point, the Big Five differentiate domains of individual differences that have similar surface manifestations— just like the early animal taxonomy that was transformed by better accounts of evolutionary processes and by the advent of new tools, such as molecular genetics. Likewise, the structures and processes underlying these personality trait domains are now beginning to be explicated. Explanatory and mechanistic terms will likely change the definition and assessment of the Big Five dimensions as we know them today.

  • $\begingroup$ How is Big 5 sexist? $\endgroup$
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @WesSayeed: that's a separate question, but if you read the article linked, they complain that because the sample used for scoring purposes has score differences between men and women, the plain-language reported results are more negative for the exact same answers if the subject checks the "women" box. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 22:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @WesSayeed Read the linked article. I think it's a bit of clickbait to call it sexist outright, but it is more accurate to say that the results are typically reported compared to others of the same sex, which if not recognized could mislead interpretation, and those interpretations go in the direction of common sexist stereotypes. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 22:01
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I just read some of that linked article so I see what you're saying now. @BryanKrause is right; it's a bit disingenuous to call it sexist without any follow-up of why differences exist when men vs. women take the test. $\endgroup$
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 22:03

To this research psychologist, the labels seem fairly neutral compared to the labels in other personality taxonomies such as Meyers-Briggs (as discussed by Fizz). There's cultural baggage on a label like "Openness", but whether people would like to think they have it doesn't imply it's the wrong term. For example, perhaps the most contested term and construct in personality psychology is intelligence. Certainly people want to think they have it, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong label. Back to Openness, if people considered the whole label, Openness to new experience, they might better recognize that it isn't necessarily attractive. For example, not everyone likes museums or wants to try unfamiliar foods. There's risk in using everyday language, but there's also harm in using a fully neutral term like Type-A Personality, because it obscures the meaning and makes discussion and theory-building correspondingly more difficult.


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