The Big Five: Theory or Phenomenon?

four-leaf_and_five-leaf_cloversIn an earlier post, I suggested that the Big Five model, even as a taxonomy, contains assumptions about how personality works. Having read Sanjay Srivastava’s illuminating article “The Five-Factor Model Describes the Structure of Social Perceptions” (Psychological Inquiry, vol. 21, issue 1 [2010]), I revise my argument as follows:

The Big Five model, a taxonomy of social perception, presumes that patterns in people’s perception of others can inform our understanding of social constructs of personality. In particular, it postulates implicitly that when you have groups of correlated traits, with maximum variance between the groups, you can meaningfully label the groups and regard them as major factors of personality.

That sounds reasonable enough on the Big Five’s part–but before addressing it, I should distinguish among three concepts. (Thanks to Dr. Srivastava for distinguishing helpfully between the first two.)

First, there is the Five-Factor Theory formulated by Robert (Jeff) McCrae and Paul Costa. It offers a theoretical basis for this overall approach to personality. It contains sixteen postulates, only one of which brings up the Big Five in particular.

Next, there is the Big Five model itself–which, according to Srivastava, is best understood as a taxonomy of social perception, not of personality per se. It sets the stage for investigation of the sources, processes, and consequences of social perception. On p. 7 of the article above, he writes:

It is an interesting and worthy enterprise to study the characteristics of persons who are reliably described as extraverted, agreeable, etc.; but if you want to really understand the Five-Factor Model, you need to frame your questions in terms of perception–and in order to avoid the dead ends of previous eras, you need to study perception in a way that accounts for the entire chain of causation from the neuropsychic bases of behavior in targets to the inferential processes by which perceivers perceive (as proposed by Funder, 1995).

Finally, we have various Big Five personality tests, which people take out of sheer curiosity, as part of an experiment, or for some external purpose such as employment. It is in these tests that much of the mischief arises (in my view)–because if the Big Five are a taxonomy of social perception, they essentially say more about how others tend to perceive people who appear to share traits with you than they say about who you are. The distinction is essential, and it isn’t made often enough. Also, they presume that a person’s relationship to the Big Five can meaningfully be described on a sliding scale. This, too, merits questioning.

But let’s go back to the Big Five model. It makes sense to view it as a taxonomy of social perception. In Srivastava’s words (on p. 9), “traits are what people want to know when they get to know a person.” But clearly there are problems with grouping such traits together, even when such grouping is suggested by the data. The larger categories may obscure the distinctions between the sub-traits. (And that’s why I see the Big Five model as a hypothesis or theory: It postulates that such grouping is meaningful and informative.) Drawing on Jack Block’s critique of the various models in the Big Five framework, Srivastava writes on pp. 13-14:

As Block notes, it is difficult to come up with single words or even short phrases that adequately capture the breadth of meaning of the five factors. The single-word trait terms encoded in language are probably closest to the level of abstraction that perceivers operate at most of the time (cf. John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991, for a more nuanced view). At lower levels of the hierarchy–aspects, facets, and especially individual trait concepts–we will need to develop increasingly differentiated theories to account for the social concerns that these dimensions encapsulate.

Yes, this is a problem, and it exists even before we get to tests. Martha Smith once commented on Andrew Gelman’s blog (in response to one of my comments), “In other words, [the researchers] did not start with definitions of traits; this was exploratory research that gave them candidates for traits. The real definition of the traits was ‘whatever this linear combination measures.’ However, the labels they attached to these factors became ‘reified’ — that is, taken to be The Real Thing Measured, even thought the labels were fuzzy terms subject to varying interpretations.”

An associated problem is that the Big Five is a taxonomy of general tendencies in social perception; thus it does not account for exceptions and outliers, which could be every bit as informative as the tendencies, if not more so.

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops: Big Five tests–and other personality tests–do not tell you how extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, etc., you are. They tell you to what degree your self-identified traits match traits that people tend to associate with each other in their observations of others–and that researchers have therefore grouped in larger categories.

Now let us get to specifics. One of my qualms with personality tests is that they encourage self-revelation along the lines of “The test says I’m introverted, but I always thought I was extraverted, because I….” etc. etc. This doesn’t seem necessary or helpful. Let’s instead look at a hypothetical situation.

Someone takes a Big Five test and scores low on Agreeableness–but would be described by friends, as gentle, considerate, and kind. Of course there’s a discrepancy between how you see yourself and how others see you–but there’s also a problem of complexity. You may have many possibilities in your character; different ones come out at different times. If you come upon a statement like “I can be cold and uncaring,” you might ask yourself, “What does ‘can’ mean? How do I answer something like that? Is this asking how often I act or think in an uncaring way? Or how intense my lack of caring can be when it occurs? Is it asking about my outward affect, or about my thoughts?”

Or at a group level, what does 60% Agreeable mean? Does one person’s 60% resemble another’s, or did they score at 60% for different reasons?

Taking a taxonomy of social perception and turning it into an assessment of individual personality–even, shall  we say, social perception of individual personality–involves a few iffy leaps of reasoning. People treat those tests with much more certainty than they actually merit. But even without the tests, the taxonomy alone leaves one with questions and uncertainties. I am glad that there are researchers who look into the uncertainties and help us understand what they are.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. In addition, I added a missing end quotation mark in the paragraph that begins “But let’s go back….”

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