There Are Some Important Differences In What Lay People And Psychologists Think The Main Personality Traits Mean

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By Christian Jarrett

Most personality research is today conducted in the context of the Big Five model that describes personality according to people’s scores along five trait dimensions: Openness-to-Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. While these trait terms have very specific (though not necessarily completely settled) meanings in personality science, they also have their own meaning in everyday talk, which raises the question of whether, when a lay person says someone is extraverted, or conscientious, or whatever, they mean the same thing that psychologists mean when they measure and investigate those traits.

To find out, Judith Hall at Northeastern University and her colleagues compared lay volunteers’ conceptions of the Big Five traits with the way they are represented in four of the formal Big Five personality questionnaires that are used widely by researchers. Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality, Hall and her team said that their findings “not only provide a rich descriptive overview on laypeople’s understanding of the labels of some of the key constructs in personality science but also provided a relevant background for the application and development of assessment tools.”

In one study, Hall’s team provided nearly 250 online American participants (average age 35) with the following instruction: “If you would label someone you meet or know as [one of the Big Five traits was inserted here], what behaviours or personality characteristics would you think about in order to reach such a conclusion? List FIVE such behaviours or personality characteristics.” They were specifically asked not to consult a dictionary or any other reference.

Screenshot 2019-01-24 at 10.06.31.pngIn another study, nearly 350 more online participants with a wider range of ages (average 48) were asked to recall a specific time in the last three months when they had judged someone as being extraverted, conscientiousness (or one of the other Big Five traits), and then “in a few sentences, briefly describe the behaviours and cues you used to judge this person’s extraversion [or whatever trait they had chosen for their example]”.

The researchers and separate teams of assistants then sifted repeatedly through all the behaviours and other characteristics that the participants in both studies cited for each Big Five trait and placed them into broader, superordinate categories (such as a “friendly/kind/compassionate” category or a “determined/hardworking/motivated” category and so on). For each main trait, they also looked to see if traits falling under certain categories of behaviour/characteristics were mentioned more often than others, which would be a sign that these categories were seen by lay people as more central or fundamental to the trait than others.

There was a high degree of consistency across the two online studies. And lay people’s conception of the Big Five traits overlapped with the scientific conception in some ways, but not in others. Some main points of difference highlighted by the researchers include:

  • whereas the scientific conception of agreeableness includes being trusting, this was not mentioned by the lay participants.
  • the participants frequently described extraverted and conscientious people in terms of their kindness and compassion, but in the scientific personality questionnaires these attributes are not relevant to these traits.
  • personality science sees impulsivity and self-consciousness as features of high neuroticism, but these attributes were not mentioned by lay participants
  • conversely, lay participants referred to the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of highly neurotic people, which is at odds with the formal personality measures

These differences could be problematic whenever researchers, to save time or for other reasons, opt to ask lay participants about their own or other people’s personalities using only the Big Five trait terms (rather than using more detailed questionnaire items), such as by asking them to score themselves on the five traits – clearly the participants might interpret the meaning of the traits somewhat differently than the researchers.

Screenshot 2019-01-24 at 10.06.16.pngAnother interesting point of difference was that participants often offered descriptions that hinted at the disadvantage of having too much of a given trait, such as being attention-seeking (in the context of extraversion), careful-cautious, timid, or overly concerned what other people think (conscientiousness), or being a push-over (agreeableness) – negative aspects of the Big Five traits not tapped by the formal scientific personality questionnaires. “Lay people may have a more realistic understanding of the less than optimal extremes of personality traits, lending support to calls for standard scales to be designed so that they can detect potentially curvilinear relations with desirable inter- and interpersonal outcomes,” the researchers said.

This feeds into another of the paper’s main take-aways – Hall and her colleagues say that apart from the simple intellectual value of their exercise, their findings could help inform the development of scientific questionnaires for measuring personality. For instance, test-developers could take into consideration lay people’s perception of the centrality of different behaviours to the main traits and then give extra weight to questionnaire items tapping those central categories of behaviour (to take one example, participants saw being outgoing and sociable as more central to extraversion than being talkative, or happy and funny). “It will be an empirical question how well such scales perform,” the researchers said.

What Laypeople Think the Big Five Trait Labels Mean

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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