The Big Five Model of Personality Traits



John, O. P., Naumann, L. P., & Soto, C. J. (2008). Paradigm Shift to the Integrative Big-Five Trait Taxonomy: History, Measurement, and Conceptual Issues. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 114-158). New York, NY: Guilford Press.




(a) Conceptual and measurement contributions


Each field needs a taxonomy, or general structural model, of its subject matter. Much of my research has focused on the development of a general taxonomy of personality traits--the Big Five. As I have argued, the field of personality research has for years struggled with the question of what are the most important personality traits to study. I have been centrally involved in the effort that has now led to the tentative, but general, acceptance of the so-called Big Five Model. Previously, the field of personality was fragmented, with no generally accepted paradigm or framework, and even the experts had to follow the hundreds of instruments and concepts competing for research attention. The Big Five taxonomy conceptualizes personality traits as broad and generalized trends in the individual's mental states, affective experience, and behavioral expression, and it offers an initial descriptive taxonomy that defines, at the broadest level of abstraction, five relatively distinct domains of important individual differences. For mnemonic ease, I refer to these five domains by the acronym OCEAN: Openness to new experience; Conscientiousness; Extraversion; Agreeableness; and Neuroticism.


Benet-Martinez, V., & John, O. P. (1998).  Los Cinco Grandes across cultures and ethnic groups: Multitrait multimethod analyses of the Big Five in Spanish and English.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 729-750.

John, O. P. (1990).  The "Big Five" factor taxonomy:  Dimensions of personality in the natural language and in questionnaires.  In L. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 66-100).  New York: Guilford Press.

John, O. P., Naumann, L. P., & Soto, C. J. (2008). Paradigm Shift to the Integrative Big-Five Trait Taxonomy: History, Measurement, and Conceptual Issues. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 114-158). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin, & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 102-138). New York: Guilford.


(b) Big Five development during childhood and during adulthood


In my earlier work, I have focused on the development of the Big Five personality traits in adolescence, using personality ratings of adolescents ages 12 to 16 obtained from their parents (Measelle, John, Ablow, Cowan, & Cowan, 2005). This age range is an important period of development during which major cognitive and ecological changes have been linked to changes in self-representational capacities. Three central questions guided this work. First, do young children show a coherent sense of their own personality, and if so, when? Second, do young children's self-perceptions of their personality show any stability across time? Finally, do self-perceptions of personality in young children show some degree of external validity so that we might conclude that they could have behavioral implications for their lives?


Children's self-reports did show levels of consistency and differentiation that approached those of a college age sample. Children's personality self-reports demonstrated significant temporal stability correlations across the 1- and 2-year longitudinal intervals. Substantial and increasing convergence was found between children's self-reports of Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness and conceptually relevant behavior ratings provided by mothers, fathers, and teachers. Children's self-reports of Neuroticism were unrelated to adults' reports but did predict sadness and anxious behavior observed in the laboratory. The results provide the beginnings of an account of how the Big Five dimensions begin to be salient and emerge as coherent, stable, and valid self-perceptions in childhood.  


Measelle, J. R., John, O. P., Ablow, J. C., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2005). Can children provide coherent, stable, and valid self-reports on the Big Five dimensions? A longitudinal study from ages 5 to 7.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 90-106.


In my other work, I have focused on adult development of personality, taking a life-span perspective. One of the yet unresolved questions in the field is whether personality is fixed and immutable during adulthood or whether it can develop and change as a function of experience, so that changes may occur naturally as the adult life context evolves and take different shapes. Some researchers, like Costa and McCrae, have taken a very strong, seemingly biological, stance, arguing that personality traits are essentially fixed (or "set in plaster") by age 30. Interestingly, most of Costa and McCrae's own data involve only samples of older adults, and our literature review (see below) found that they tend to ignore data collected by others that do not use the NEO-PI-R, their own and thus preferred personality measure. Thus, to our surprise, we found that although relevant data are available, compelling tests of their age-30 hypothesis have yet to be performed.


Indeed, our literature review covered large studies of mean-level change in personality characteristics measured with broadband personality inventories, and includes both cross-sectional and cross-cohort longitudinal research. (Helson, Kwan, John, & Jones, 2002). The results show considerable generalizability across samples, cohorts, and studies. In particular, people score higher with age on characteristics such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and norm-adherence, and they score lower with age on the social vitality facets of Extraversion. These findings provide evidence that personality does change during adulthood and that these changes are non-negligible in size, systematic, not necessarily linear, and theoretically important. To account for these changes, we advance a contextual perspective that emphasizes life changes in roles, tasks, and goals (e.g., from being single in adolescence and early adulthood to child-rearing in middle adulthood).


We followed up this theoretical work and literature review with a large-scale study (Srivastava, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2003) comparing theories that make different predictions about how mean levels of personality traits change in adulthood. We were particularly interested in examining whether change on all of the Big Five dimensions stops or slows in middle adulthood, as predicted by Costa & McCrae's five-factor theory, or whether change is ongoing and differentiated, as predicted by contextualist theories.


As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness increased throughout early and middle adulthood at varying rates; Neuroticism declined among women but did not change among men. Moreover, our comparisons of age differences before and after age 30 provided no support for the view that mean level change is limited to early adulthood (i.e., the pre-30s). Moreover, the variety in patterns of change suggests that the Big Five traits are complex phenomena subject to a variety of developmental influences. Most generally, we find life-long change at least to age 60 and, on average, the direction of change is toward greater maturity. This increasing maturity facilitates the individual mastering and performing effectively normative role expectations of adulthood, such as forming a stable couple bond that permits child-birth and child-rearing, as well as providing resources for one's off-spring—ultimate human life tasks that themselves have an evolutionary basis.


Helson, R., Kwan, V. S. Y., John, O. P., & Jones, C. (2002). The growing evidence for personality change in adulthood: Findings from research with personality inventories. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 287-306.

John, O. P., Caspi, A., Robins, R., Moffitt, T. E., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1994).  The "Little Five": Exploring the nomological network of the five-factor model of personality in adolescent boys.  Child Development, 65, 160-178.

Soto, C. J., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The developmental psychometrics of Big Five self-reports: Acquiescence, factor structure, coherence, and differentiation from ages 10 to 20. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 718-737.

Srivastava, S., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1041-1053.