Criticism of the five-factor (big five) model of personality

The goal of a theory is to explain past and current phenomena, to predict the future, and also to make generalizations. Theories in ‘hard’ sciences, such as the theory of relativity and quantum theory, are useful and supported by tests. My criticism is directed at the five-factor (big five) model of personality, which is an attempt to create a theory that reduces human personality to a combination of five traits/factors. In the past few years, thanks in large part to the popularity of Jordan Peterson, attempts have been made to make the ‘big five’ isomorphic to politics, too. According to the modified theory, liberals are low in conscientiousness, high in openness to experience, and high in compassion; conservatives are the opposite.

From Wiki, which has more info about the subject than anyone could ever want, here are the five factors:

Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. High openness can be perceived as unpredictability or lack of focus, and more likely to engage in risky behavior or drug taking. Moreover, individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences. Conversely, those with low openness seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret and contextualize the openness factor.

Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubbornness and obsession. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

–Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, urgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. High extraversion is often perceived as attention-seeking, and domineering. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed.[5]

Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentativeness or untrustworthiness.

–Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control and is sometimes referred to by its low pole, “emotional stability”. A high need for stability manifests itself as a stable and calm personality, but can be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned. A low need for stability causes a reactive and excitable personality, often very dynamic individuals, but they can be perceived as unstable or insecure.

The terms that get the most discussion online, I put in boldface. The factors Extraversion and Neuroticism are often ignored in such videos, possibly because they are easier to define, are closer to psychopathology than personality assessment, and don’t as readily lend themselves to a political interpretation.

However, the are many problems it the ‘big five’ which is why I have dubbed it the ‘big five bs’:

On a big five test, it’s trivially easy to choose answers that correspond to whatever desired personality you want, such as for a job application or interview choosing answers that would most likely lead to getting a job (hint: choose answers that are ‘high’ in conscientiousness and ‘low’ in neuroticism). IQ tests and IQ-proxies, such as Wonderlic test, the SAT and the GRE, cannot be gamed in such a manner. If you want a sales job, you better be extroverted. With some practice, it’s also possible to ‘fake’ (in real life) your personality.

Some say that you cannot cheat on a ‘big five’ test [because self-reported assessments differ from employer assessments], but it happens a lot, and here is a sample test that shows how easy it is. Just by reading up on the Wikipedia summary, you can know which questions correspond to which factor. The item “I believe in the importance of art” is testing for openness. The item “I often feel blue” is testing for neuroticism. The statement “I avoid taking on a lot of responsibility” is testing for conscientiousness. And so on. But even if employees are unable to fool employers by inflating their big five score, what is the purpose of the test then? A good test should be able to screen such applicants before you hire them, not reveal its limitations after.

A theory is valid if the results predicted by the model agree with the empirical evidence. Just as we know the position of Mercury now, we can predict its position a billion years from now with high certainty, but the ‘big five’ fails to produce stable results that adhere to the model. Individual personality traits change dramatically over one’s lifetime. IQ, on the other hand, tends to remain stable throughout life, but also one’s IQ percentile-rank ordering is also stable.

This time, aged 77 years old, the participants rated themselves on the six personality traits, and also nominated a close friend or relative to do the same. Overall, there was not much overlap from the questionnaires taken 63 years earlier. “Correlations suggested no significant stability of any of the 6 characteristics or their underlying factor, dependability, over the 63-year interval,” wrote the researchers. “We hypothesized that we would find evidence of personality stability over an even longer period of 63 years, but our correlations did not support this hypothesis,” they later added.

There are no factors for ethics, virtue, and morals. It’s possible to have a ‘good’ personality but still be an unethical person.

Such traits may not be intrinsic to the individual, but rather the circumstance. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘conscientious person’, an ‘open-minded person’, or a ‘compassionate person’, but rather people are conscientious, open-minded, and compassionate about things and people they care about. A person who scores low on ‘compassion’ may show a lot of compassion if his family is threatened. A liberal-voting artist may be much more conscientious about painting or writing than doing his taxes. A person who enjoys hiking may be really opened-minded about finding new trails to explore, but less so about finding new TV shows. A car mechanic may be really conscientious about auto repair, but less so about fixing his home.

I’m still not sold on the idea that the ‘big five’ is science, although many try to dress it up as one.