I’m a longtime personality test and typing nerd. One of my college psychology classes briefly touched on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality typing system based on the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who was the founder of the field of analytical psychology. My professor suggested we take the test in our spare time and report back on what we learned.
After that, the MBTI was the gold standard as far as I was concerned. Understanding the implications of the different factors of my personality was a kind of a lightbulb moment for me. At a somewhat surface level, for the first time I finally understood why I behaved certain ways and why I experienced the world as I did for the first time. (I’m an INFP, by the way.)
Recently, however, I started to become frustrated with myself because I was struggling to make changes to a few of my habits. I was trying to get more organized, maintain new commitments to healthfulness, and get back into a routine. And, to my annoyance, I was mostly failing. The MBTI didn’t offer me solutions, either.
It actually gave me excuses. In the world of Myers Briggs, struggling to stick with routines because they feel limiting and boring is just part of who I am.
This is one of the limitations of the MBTI and other personality typing systems according to Dr. Brenton Wiernik, an industrial–organizational and personality psychologist. Personality shouldn’t be seen as innate or fixed, he argues. And personality traits certainly shouldn’t be seen as either/or things.
Enter the Big Five, one of Wiernik’s areas of expertise and a way of thinking about personality that is set apart from typing and tests. Much to my delight, this model of thinking about personality even provides useful information for making lifestyle adjustments that are in line with your personality traits.
What is the Big Five?
The Big Five isn’t a test or even a personality typing system. Instead, it's a comprehensive way of thinking about personality, and according to Wiernik, this is one of the many ways it has an advantage over the MBTI, Enneagram, or True Colors.
“Rather, the Big Five traits are at the center of the scientific consensus model of personality. Beginning in the 1970s, personality researchers discovered that a wide variety of different personality traits that have been proposed could be well summarized by five broad factors, categories, or traits,” Wiernik explains.
The five categories in this model include extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability (also known as neuroticism). And instead of limiting people by placing them into inflexible types, the Big Five model of thinking is much more concerned with these traits, which are viewed on a spectrum. These traits are not seen as either/or things for people. Instead they’re considered in light of how high or how low each trait is displayed in a certain person.
Although the Big Five is not a test, there are hundreds of tests designed to measure the five traits. For those looking for a free, online version, Wiernik suggests a short one available at The Sapa Project.
Why the Big Five?
When it comes measuring personality, the Big Five is advantageous for a few reasons. For starters, the Big Five provides an accurate understanding of strengths and weaknesses. Wiernik tells HealthyWay this approach can be incredibly helpful for making decisions or lifestyle adjustments.
“Understanding your personality involves considering what traits you are high and low on and what that means for your personal strengths and weakness, the things you might excel at versus the risk factors you should watch out for, etc. ...Each person’s pattern of low and high traits is unique,” he explains.
He gives the example of someone who is low on emotional stability but wants to go into nursing. According to Wiernik, it would be important for this person to consider how they will to respond to the stressors of the job. They may even benefit from participating in a slower paced segment of the profession like working in a family practice instead of emergency medicine.
Additionally, the Big Five has a strength that sets it apart from other models of measuring personality—none of the traits it considers are seen as inflexible or innate. Instead, the Big Five is about measuring a person’s tendencies in certain situations.
“Personality traits aren’t fixed. They develop and change over time based on people’s experiences. For example, people tend to become more conscientiousness (specifically more responsible, dependable, organized) as they age and take on more life responsibilities, such as becoming parents,” Wiernik explains.
The Big Five doesn’t put people in a box. It provides helpful information about strengths and weaknesses that can then inform them in the opportunities they pursue. This means that people who want to make some adjustments to their lifestyle aren't lured into saying, “This is just who I am.”
Instead, we can consider the changes we can make work thanks to certain strengths while supporting ourselves in addressing our weaknesses. For instance, if I really want to start exercising regularly, I’m probably going to need to embrace the fact that I rate high on openness and start exploring new hiking trails and trying new, fun forms of exercise instead of expecting myself to stick with walking the same trail four or five times a week.
Everyday Habits and the Big Five
When I took the SAPA Project test, I could clearly see how my results are playing out in my life. One 2017 study published in Personality and Individual Differences actually found small and seemingly insignificant habits were predictors of where people found themselves on the spectrum of each of the Big Five traits. Here is what your common daily habits reveal about your personality.
Those who are on the high end of agreeableness are those who are empathetic and place a high value on cooperative behavior, according to The Big 5 Trait Taxonomy. So people on the high end of this trait are likely to avoid conflict. Agreeableness is also associated with engaging in acts of altruism.
And when it comes to their common daily habits, these people display some interesting behaviors, according to the study. For instance, those who rated high on agreeableness were more likely to sing in the shower and play with children when given the opportunity. They are more diligent about ironing their clothes and keeping their dishes clean and are less likely to become intoxicated when presented with the opportunity to do so.
The second trait measured by the Big Five is openness, which is largely concerned with how people think and feel about new experiences, according to Wiernik. Openness is also referred to as intellect by some Big Five scholars and resources.
“The trait of openness...captures the degree to which a person is curious about new ideas and experiences. Some people really like to try new things, they are always reading about new ideas, trying new foods and activities, and going to new places. These high-openness folks also tend to think very creatively and flexibly, to like art and culture,” he explains.
In comparison, those who are low on openness love routine. They are more likely to eat the same foods, watch the same shows, and do the same things day in and day out because they are bothered by change. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes.
When it comes to their daily habits, people who were high in openness are more likely smoke marijuana, hang around the house without clothes on, and speak in a language other than English.
The emotional stability scale (sometimes referred to as its opposite, the neuroticism scale) measures how a person experiences emotions. Those who rate high on emotional stability experience fewer negative emotions, according to Wiernik, and are more likely to respond to stressful or upsetting situations calmly. In comparison, those who are low on emotional stability tend to experience strong negative reactions to the same experiences.
When it comes to the everyday habits of those who rate high on emotional stability, it seems to be more about what they don’t do each day. More emotionally stable people don’t diet to lose weight, don’t use alcohol as a way to cope with negative emotions, and avoid swearing in front of others.
Measuring high on this trait is associated with orderliness and being driven to achieve, Wiernik shares. If you’re the type of person people can depend on to follow up on the things you promise to do, you probably measure high on conscientiousness.
Comparatively, people who are low on conscientious are unorganized to the point that it can cause problems in their professional and personal lives. Wiernik uses his own life as an example:
“I don’t naturally keep things organized, and that can be a real problem sometimes. So, to compensate, I’ve outsourced a lot of that organization to computerized systems so I don’t have to manage it. For example, I’ve trained myself to put things on a task list immediately and have it give me reminders. I put keywords into my computer file names so that I can find them by searching rather than having to remember where I stored something.”
Those who measure high on conscientiousness tend to avoid daydreaming and would never wait until the last minute to get to work on a project with a deadline. They also typically don’t have library fines because they return their books before they’re due.
Lastly, the trait of extraversion is pretty much what it sounds like: Those who are on the high end of the extraversion spectrum are very social, high-energy people. They tend to have an easier time connecting with new people, according to Wiernik, and experience more happiness and excitement than those who are on the low end of the scale and can be understood as more introverted.
Like all of the Big Five traits, extraversion is scored on a spectrum. This model of thinking understands you’re not either an extravert or introvert; you are somewhere in between those two proverbial poles.
Those on the high end of extraversion are more likely to talk on their phone while driving, cheer during sporting events, and get a tan. They’re also more likely to engage in gambling or drinking in bars, and are willing to talk about intimate topics with male or female friends.
Ultimately, understanding yourself using the Big Five model of thinking can be an empowering experience that might help you make lasting improvements in your life.
For instance, it might mean you do something as simple as creating systems like Wiernik’s to help manage your disorganization. For others, like those who are low on emotional stability, it might mean making bigger changes, like seeing a therapist to learn coping skills you can use in stressful situations.