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The History of Personality Psychology and the Development of the Big Five Model

Decoding Personality Models

The world of personality models and tests resembles a bustling marketplace, brimming with numerous options. However, not all of these options are worth their weight in gold when it comes to research and accuracy. Selecting the right personality test is no easy feat – it requires some psychometric savvy. It all boils down to examining the theory behind the test and the level of endorsement it receives from experts. Skipping this vital step could result in obtaining results that may not truly reflect your personality, but rather just your values. Therefore, let us now delve into the intriguing history of the study of personality, and the Big Five personality model, which happens to be one of the most extensively studied models of all time.

What is personality?

Personality is a set of thoughts and emotional reactions that guide an individual’s behaviour and adaptation in different environments. It is shaped and changed in adolescence, but does not change much in adulthood (apart from a few age- or environment-related changes). Personality is not just a theoretical concept; personality differences are clearly linked to brain function and genetic inheritance. Already in the mid-19th century, the ‘Phineas Gage case’ showed that brain function influences personality. One day, an iron rod passed through the head of ironworker Phineas Gage, causing the calm, agreeable and warm young man to suddenly become a quick-tempered and impatient person who does not make long-term plans or take others into account. Today, various brain imaging techniques have made it possible to identify more precisely how brain activity is linked to different personality traits, while twin and adoption studies have shown that the heritability of personality is around 40-60%.

History of personality assessment

Personality assessments have a long and fascinating history, dating back to as early as 370 BC. At that time, Hippocrates theorized that humans could be divided into four character types based on the predominant fluid in their bodies: blood, mucus, yellow bile, or black bile. According to this theory, individuals with slimy characteristics were considered cold and rational, those with blood were seen as happy, optimistic, open-minded, and self-confident. Those with yellow bile were described as passionate, energetic, and temperamental, while individuals with black bile were believed to be sad, artistic, and easily depressed. Although this theory did not gain scientific support, it eventually influenced the categorization of people into different types, a concept that is still present in some personality measures today.

In the 20th century, there was a significant shift from type measures to dimensional measures in personality research. Nowadays, personality researchers overwhelmingly agree that assessing personality traits dimensionally is more accurate and nuanced than using categorical classifications. In dimensional measures, personality traits are evaluated along a continuum, allowing for a more precise understanding of an individual’s personality. This approach avoids unnecessary stereotyping, stigmatization, and the loss of valuable information that occurs when individuals are divided into broad categories like extroverts and introverts. Instead, it considers the varying degrees of traits, such as someone being highly extroverted, more extroverted than 70% of people, or even ambiverted.

The study of personality gained momentum in the late 19th century when Sir Francis Galton, a renowned scientist, inventor, statistician, and psychometrician, proposed that language could provide insights into key personality traits and other characteristics. Subsequently, researchers began to analyze personality through language. What emerged were different researchers, independently of each other, developing similar five-factor personality models based on psychometric analyses. After numerous studies, this collective effort led to the establishment of the Five-Factor Model, commonly known as the Big Five. Today, the Big Five is considered the “gold standard” for personality measurement and is widely used and studied by psychologists and researchers.

Here is a brief timeline of the development of personality models:

Here’s a concise overview highlighting the reasons why the Big Five personality model is a strong choice:

  • The Big Five is a scientifically developed personality model based on factor analysis and other psychometric data analyses.
  • The WorkPlace Big Five is a dimensional measure that provides an accurate assessment of personality without oversimplifying people into a few types.
  • The neurochemical explanations for the personality traits in the Big Five have been researched for several decades, and the traits’ persistence and predictive value have been studied as well.
  • The Big Five is widely regarded as the gold standard in personality research, with numerous academic studies and respected researchers supporting its use.
  • The Big Five models are more comprehensive than other personality models and cover the personality trait dimensions identified in people better; for instance, the WorkPlace Big Five measure has 23 sub-dimensions and 5 top dimensions compared to many other measures with only 2-4 dimensions.

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