Personality is an underappreciated factor in a person’s ability to successfully navigate the personal, social, economic and work-related challenges which come as part and parcel with existence in a complex and multi-faceted society.
We often talk about a person’s education or socioeconomic status as determinants for numerous events in life, including all-cause mortality, the kind of partner they’ll marry, where they’ll live, the job or career they’ll have. Of course, education and socioeconomic status are predictive of these factors, and it is essential to research this. However, we forget how crucial a person’s personality is in determining all of these events too. Personality may, in many cases, ‘override’ a person’s socioeconomic or educational status in determining the likelihood of many of their life outcomes.
There is already a growing body of evidence pointing to incremental associations of the Big Five with success at school and at college/university as well as with career success – often over and above parental socioeconomic status (SES) and cognitive ability.1
Indeed, personality determines so much of our lives. This is not to say that socioeconomic status and education aren’t important factors; they are. But what I find encouraging is that the research suggests that personality traits can get you ahead irrespective of your educational or socioeconomic background. Now, this isn’t so much help if you happen to have personality traits that are not particularly correlated with success in multiple domains, which is certainly possible (that isn’t to say you have a bad personality, but one that might not be useful in achieving career success or wealth.) But if you happen to have been dealt a bad hand in life; educationally or socioeconomically, but are fortunate to have traits that predict success in certain areas—you might just find success regardless.
I always considered personality testing a madcap science in which charlatans peddled junk that appealed to those who read horoscopes and dabble in the occult. That is until I found the Big Five Traits via Jordan Peterson—cue shock horror from anyone aware of Jordan Peterson and who is perhaps mildly sensitive. Do not fret as this article is not about the old man. We will remain solely focused on the Big Five. I happen to have heard about it through him.
For many, many years, I had been aware that my personality was, well, quite different, if you will. Growing up, I’d always felt pretty different, and I knew that I was pretty “extreme” in ways, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was. Other kids even told me that I was different on more than one occasion. (I should add, as I’ve grown older, I feel fine about this, heck, on a lot of days, I even quite like myself!)
Nevertheless, I was always highly introspective and questioned why I was the way I was. I knew that just being me got me into trouble, particularly with anyone in authority or who felt like they should be in charge. I also knew that I could rub my friends or acquaintances up the wrong way.
It was difficult because I was never a “bad” kid. I wasn’t violent or malicious or particularly nasty, so I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong, and therefore my mistreatment or misunderstanding by others often felt unjustified. Don’t get me wrong; I’m more than aware of the bad/immoral/wrong things I’ve done in life. I can’t say I carry any of it with me or feel any guilt as it’s part of growing up and being human. It doesn’t make sense to me to hold onto negativity—I think those that do suffer the consequences. Nevertheless, I didn’t believe I should need to be any different from who I was, and I also didn’t think I should ever acquiesce to authority simply on the basis that they said they were in authority. You can see how I was destined to be a handful.
When I was younger, even through my early twenties, I didn’t have the vocabulary to eloquently describe my actions or why I was the way I was. Therefore, I was intrigued to find out details about my personality when I came across the Big Five Traits. Before I dove in, I did a little research and found that the concept had been extensively researched and statistically validated. I was sold and gladly paid the small fee of $10 to take the test.
I was eager to find out why I had been given such a hard time by people throughout my life, for in essence moving to the beat of my own drum. I had begun to realise that my innate lack of conformity, disregard for groupthink and aversion to power structures was the predominant cause for my struggles to fit into many facets of society—particularly the military, of course! But I wanted to know what about my personality was the cause. I wanted to have the words to describe the way I was. People do find labels and “diagnoses” of sorts cathartic. Many people report being relieved when they are informed they have dyslexia or have attention deficit disorder or depression. We find the known, described and labelled to be comforting. I suppose I was looking for the same thing in terms of my personality.
I chose a peaceful morning to take my test. I had done some exercise and munched on some porridge. It was around 8 am, and I was having the first of many cups of tea to come. (Nb. it is essential to take the test when you feel calm and as content as possible, preferably in the morning with a fresh mind, so as not to skew your results.)
I spent around fifteen minutes or so, perhaps longer, carefully choosing the answer that felt correct in response to the 100 statements. The statements were jumbled up, not in any particular thematic order, and many seemed similar. The statements aimed to figure out where my personality fell on a percentile.
The Big Five Traits consist of five factors (in this test broken down into two more)
Agreeableness: Compassion and Politeness
Conscientiousness: Industriousness and Orderliness
Extroversion: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness
Neuroticism: Withdrawal and Volatility
Openness to Experience: Openness and Intellect
The results that I was presented with were based entirely on my self-report of the 100 statements, compared to thousands of others who had taken the test.
The results section stated;
Remember that each personality trait and aspect (and your relative position with respect to them) has advantages and disadvantages. It is for that reason that variation exists in the human population: there is a niche for each personality configuration. Much of what constitutes success in life is therefore the consequence of finding the place in relationships, work and personal commitment that corresponds to your unique personality structure. Good luck with your expanded self-understanding!
With apprehension and excitement, I continued down the page to reveal my results…
Quick note: I will gladly elucidate the results of my test—it would be funny to feel the need to keep it a secret when there’s nothing secret about how others perceive you! However, I won’t provide all of the text explaining the results as it would make this post far too long, I will offer some exciting sections. Please do the test yourself to reveal your results and gain further understanding!
1. Agreeableness: Very Low
…People with very low levels of agreeableness are seen by others as markedly competitive, colder, tougher and very much less empathic. They do not easily see the best in others and are not particularly tolerant (an attitude that is much valued by agreeable people). They are very much less concerned about the emotional state of others, are uncommonly willing to engage in conflict, and will happily sacrifice peace and harmony to make a point or (if conscientious) to get things done. People may find them painfully straightforward and blunt. They tend very strongly towards dominance, rather than submission (particularly if also below average in neuroticism)…
Reading this really made a lot of things about my personality, the way I act and am perceived by others, very clear. You will see in the following that my Agreeableness trait is particularly low, not because of a lack of compassion, but because of absolute defiance to authority. Seriously, reading this made me realise why I absolutely despised my time in the military—and made me question how the hell I ever decided to join!
Compassion: Typical or Average
…People who are typically compassionate people are reasonably interested in the problems of other people, and other living things. They are somewhat concerned about helping other people avoid negative emotion, but are willing to stand their ground, even when others get upset. They make time and do kind things for others, but balance that with fulfilling their own needs and interests. They have a soft side, but are not pushovers. Other people consider them reasonably sympathetic and nice, and will sometimes turn to them for a listening ear. They can be empathetic and caring. However, they are not primarily other-oriented, so they can negotiate effectively on their own behalf. This helps ensure that they get what they deserve, and shields them from the development of resentment…
Politeness: Exceptionally Low
…People who are exceptionally low in politeness challenge and confront authority – and they are not obedient. If they are respectful, it is grudgingly, and will only be manifested toward people who continually both deserve and demand it. They are comfortable confronting other people, and enjoy it. People extremely low in politeness are motivated to engage in conflict and to seek out confrontation. They may have a strong tendency toward conduct-disordered, antisocial, delinquent, even criminal behaviour, particularly if male and adolescent. They may find themselves very frequently in trouble with authority, in consequence. Their scepticism can make it extremely difficult for them to find a place in the middle or lower hierarchies of power and dominance. They are hyper-dominant, rather than submissive (particularly if they are also low in neuroticism)…
Conscientiousness: Moderately High
...Moderately conscientious people are more likely than average to obtain higher grades in academic settings (particularly if they are also intelligent), and to make competent administrators and managers. They like to have everything in its proper place, but are not particularly obsessed with detail. They tend to do things by the book. Moderately conscientious people are somewhat prone to guilt (although they organize their lives so that they have comparatively little to feel guilty about). They are also more sensitive than average to shame, self-disgust and self-contempt…
Extroversion: Exceptionally High
…People who are exceptionally extroverted have a remarkably difficult time keeping things to themselves and tend to tell everyone everything. They are extremely self-disclosing (particularly if also high in neuroticism) and they warm up very quickly to other people. They speak first and most often in meetings. They can be extremely captivating and convincing. They will be the first to act exceptionally often…
Neuroticism: Moderately High
…People with moderately high levels of neuroticism are somewhat more likely to think that things have gone wrong in the past, are going wrong now, and will continue to go wrong into the future. They are also a bit more likely to be unhappy, anxious and irritable when just thinking or remembering, and when they encounter a genuine problem…
Openness to Experience: High
…People with high levels of openness to experience are much more likely than average to be characterized by others as smart, creative, exploratory, intelligent and visionary. They are highly interested in learning, and continually acquire new abilities and skills. They are very curious and exploratory. They find themselves unusually interested in abstract thinking, philosophy, and the meaning of belief systems and ideologies…
I hope you found this a thought-provoking article and that you are now considering taking the Big Five Traits test yourself. Again, the link is here, and let me know how you go!
Since I took the test, I had Anna take it and also a good friend. It is possible to link the results of the tests into a relationship report. Let’s just say it made for highly illuminating viewing when Anna and I compared our reports. We are both extremely high on trait Extroversion and we are TOTAL opposites on trait Agreeableness, particularly Politeness in which Anna is literally the most polite person in the room whereas I am the least. (It is important to remember that the word politeness in this context has absolutely nothing to do with pleases and thank yous. I’d like to think anyone who has met me considers me to be well mannered, of course, only if I deem them to deserve it 😉 )
It’s hardly surprising I suppose. Two extremely disagreeable people wouldn’t survive in a relationship; one would likely slaughter the other. Likewise, two extremely agreeable people would be chewed up and spat back out by the world we live in. Choose your teammate carefully.
I have recently been re-evaluating my Big Five. Every year or so I take a look back at my report. I do it because it helps me to remember what situations I need to exercise caution in and also what to be aware of when encountering certain people. It’s not about trying to change who you are—that doesn’t happen; personality is too strong a mix of nature and nurture. It’s about having knowledge of self and awareness of what type of people and situations you need to tread more carefully. I know that I am somebody who is markedly affected by their environment. I look back to remind myself what types of occupations I might be best suited to. For instance, I’m clearly not suited to the military, but I’ve found greater success in academia—even though I didn’t enjoy school, which is likely because academia comes with much more flexibility and autonomy; questioning is encouraged, at least it should be.