Hidden Agenda:
What do personality trait assessments really assess?
Posted in March 2005

by Nick Yee

Modern personality measures are based on trait theory - the idea that a small set of dispositions are largely responsible for the majority of our behaviors. Although trait theory appeared in the mid-thirties (Allport & Odbert, 1936) and was researched throughout the intervening decades, it did not gain acceptance until the early 80's. This was largely due to the prevailing behavioral paradigm that assumed that most human behaviors (including language) could be explained by rewards and reinforcements. There was also resistance from personality psychologists who believed that behaviors were more influenced by context and situation rather than underlying traits (Mischel, 1968). Most contemporary personality psychologists believe that traits and situation interact to produce the spectrum of observable behavior in individuals. But of course, situations are far harder to study and quantify compared with traits, which can be assessed using questionnaires. Thus, even though personality psychology currently assumes an interactionist model, most research focuses on traits.

The current standard for traits is known as the Big 5 - a group of five factors that are thought to encompass the majority of variation in personality. The model used for isolating these factors is described briefly here. It is assumed that languages encode most or all facets of human personality. After all, we believe that different personalities can be described, and description must occur through words, and therefore to a large extent the trait-descriptive words in a language must encompass the spectrum of personality. This is known as the lexical assumption. Once we have a large list of these words, we can ask people to rate how accurately a word describes them. Data from a large group of people would then allow us to find correlations between words such that clusters of related words (and thus traits) would appear.

The first list of trait-descriptive words in the English language was compiled in 1936 by Allport and Odbert, but computers did not exist then to perform the calculations necessary to find the underlying clusters and connections between the 4,500 words they aggregated through English texts and dictionaries. The computing power necessary for performing a factor analysis on the data first became available in the late-forties. Five factors emerged and have gradually replaced other traits as the standard. They are typically referred to as Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness.

Here are some example inventory items used to assess the Big 5:


Make friends easily.
Have little to say.
Feel comfortable around people.


Insult people.
Take time out for others.
Make people feel at ease.


Try to follow the rules.
Believe laws should be strictly enforced.
Jump into things without thinking.


Get stressed out easily.
Am easily disturbed.
Have frequent mood swings.


Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.
Have a vivid imagination.
Am full of ideas.

Browse through a 50-item Big-5 assessment.

There are two main critiques of the Big 5. One focuses on the lexical assumption. How certain are we that our lexicon encompasses our personality? After all, the internal workings of the human mind are difficult to put into words and some have argued that the Big 5 merely maps out the lexicon of personality rather than personality itself. Others have pointed out that the high degree of inter-correlation among the Big 5 factors is problematic. In other words, the Big 5 factors are largely dependent on each other. In particular, all factors correlate positively with each other except for Neuroticism. So someone who scores high on Extraversion is likely to score high on Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness and then low on Neuroticism.

This high degree of inter-correlation suggests that the Big 5 is inherently measuring something else that is common to all 5 factors. In fact, there is very good reason that it should. After all, languages are not arbitrary codes that evolve independent of a culture, but instead are interwoven with cultural assumptions and worldviews. It is naïve to assume that languages are objective and impartial codes that describe the world around us independent of the culture they are a part of. The way we describe other people is laden with assumptions of what is good or bad behavior. It is better to be "friendly" rather than "aloof", better to be "organized" rather than "messy", and the Big 5 begins to appear to be one big survey with just one question - are you a good or bad person?

And if the Big 5 is a test to see how sociable, nice, orderly, level-headed and cultured you are, then that's the same thing as saying that the Big 5 is a test to see how anti-social, rude, lazy, neurotic and dumb you are. And if that's the case, why don't they just call it the "Good Citizen Assessment"?

The recent addition of the Negative Valence factor to the Big 5 reinforces this pro-social agenda:

Negative Valence:

Demand attention.
Interfere in other people's business.
Copy others.

Instead of being descriptive, traits seem to have become normative. And in fact, the reports from the Big 5 come across as outright prescriptive:

David likes to be alone and is aloof when in social settings. He has a cynical and skeptical outlook on life and often appears guarded and reluctant to work with others. David is unorganized and casual about obligations. More over, he gets angry easily, and has difficulty coping with stress and resisting temptations. David is also narrow-minded, conservative and dogmatic about values.

Big 5 reports read like report cards on how well-behaved you are. In David's case, you can almost read between the lines to see the subtext - "You're a bad person. "

The Openness trait has always felt out of place, and the difficulty that researchers have had in labeling that construct reflects this uncertainty. Other labels have been "Intellectual Curiosity", "Imagination", "Liberal Thinking", and so on. Compared with the other traits, the Openness statements are incredibly specific about certain things:

Is sophisticated in art, music, literature.
Enjoy going to art museums.
Tend to vote for liberal political candidates.

What's conspicuously absent are statements relating to other kinds of activities that one might imagine would show up just as frequently in English texts, such as:

Enjoy carpentry or other technical crafts.
Enjoy hiking and being outdoors.

The Openness trait items seem to describe exactly how a cultured, intellectual academic should be, including the liberal-leaning values. In that light, the Openness trait seems like a self-serving attempt by academic researchers to validate and enshrine their own personality and the values they hold dear. Moreover, it is an arrogant attempt to literally score others based on agreement with their values. After all, it would be hard to convince me that "going to the museum" is the only kind of activity that appears in English texts. It does begin to make one wonder how impartial researchers were when selecting these trait-descriptive words. And perhaps the reason why psychologists have had trouble labeling this trait is because they would like to call it "the intellectual academic trait", but people outside of academia might not like that.

Societies are sustained by regulating pro-social behavior through the mechanisms of language, beliefs, values and practices. The statements used in the Big 5 are laden with assumptions of pro-social behavior. Most children would be able to tell you whether a particular statement in the Big 5 is a good or bad thing to do. Is the Big 5 a personality assessment or is it really an assessment of how well-behaved you are? And what does it mean to ask people to self-report on pro-social behaviors? Cultural theorists have always critiqued the social sciences as being value-driven and value-laden. The Big 5 is one very clear example of how the social sciences perpetuate unquestioned cultural values and assumptions in the name of objective research. Has personality psychology become a glorified way of deciding who does and doesn't fit in society? And if personality is merely a measure of how well-behaved I am, then I think I'll pass on having a "personality".


Allport, G.W., & Odbert, H.S. (1936). Trait names: a psycho-lexical study. Psychological Monographs, 47 (211).

Fiske, D.W. (1949). Consistency of the factorial structures of personality ratings from different sources. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 44, 329-344.

Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and Assessment. New York : Wiley.