What is personality? Understanding the big five

What Is Personality? Understanding the Big Five

What do we mean when we talk about someone’s personality?

When it comes to yourself or a close friend, you probably know way more than a personality test is ever going to tell you. Nevertheless, there are certain key characteristics that we all have in common, and they can sometimes be very easy to spot, even in strangers.

Meet John

Let’s take John, for example. John likes to go clubbing. He enjoys the loud music, dancing the funky chicken, flirting with people and maybe having slightly more than he should to drink. You probably know a few people like John. You might even be John. If you are, hey, how’s it going? But the point is, this isn’t really a description of a person. At least, not a full one.

You may get what I’m hinting at about John. This is a slightly crude example of the most famous term in personality: ‘Extraversion’. Extraversion comes from the Latin for ‘to turn outward’ (extra + verte) and is one of what Psychologists call ‘The Big Five’ personality characteristics.

You might hear people talking about introverts and extraverts as if they’re distinct categories, but this isn’t really the case. The level of extraversion in your personality is better expressed as a point on a scale, which represents how extravert you are in comparison to other people – a low score suggests you’re more introverted, while a high one suggests you’re more extraverted. And this is the same for the other four personality dimensions.

Understanding the Big Five

Here’s a simple guide to the Big Five. See which ones you can spot in people, and yourself:


Openness reflects your willingness to embrace new and unusual experiences. It’s a measure of how imaginative and creative you are, as opposed to how down to-earth and conventional.


Conscientiousness deals with your organisational skills and self-discipline. People with high conscientiousness are methodical, composed and think before they act, while people with low conscientiousness tend to act on impulse (which isn’t always a bad thing).


Extraversion reflects how energetically we engage with the outside world. In other words, it determines how much we enjoy being with people and how often we experience positive emotions.


Agreeableness indicates the extent to which we value getting along with others. Agreeable people are considerate, generous and willing to compromise their interests for others. Of course at the extreme this can make you overly trusting or unwilling to make tough decisions that affect others.


Neuroticism is about we respond emotionally to events, and the intensity of those reactions. The higher the level of neuroticism, the more persistent and intense the response will be. This also relates to general levels of anxiety and self-consciousness.

It’s very easy to feel like there are positive and negative ends to these scales, but that’s a dangerous assumption.

Variation between people on these characteristics is probably what has allowed us to be such a successful species, and even within your own personality it’s healthy to have a good balance of both sides of each coin.

Recent research has shown that ambiverts (those with an average level of extraversion) are most successful in the workplace (read more here). Of course, this doesn’t mean you should feel bad about having any extreme characteristics, but it is good to be aware of what they are.

To find out more about where you lie on these scales and learn more about what that means, check out our Big Five Personality Test:

OCEAN the big five personality test

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