Many psychologists are interested in understanding personality – characteristics that can describe and explain how individuals think, feel, and behave across situations. Early work in the field of personality psychology sought to uncover the core dimensions on which people differ. To answer this question researchers looked to language as they believed that all of the important dimensions of personality must be described within a culture’s lexicon.
Researchers, like Gordon Allport, spent painstaking years going through the dictionary to identify traits words (those that describe personality) in the English language. Many of the words they identified were synonyms, however. For example, we can describe someone as gregarious or extraverted. Effectively these mean the same thing.
To deal with this overlap issue, researchers had participants rate themselves on all of the different trait words identified. Then they submitted participants’ responses to a fancy statistical procedure called factor analysis. This method identifies groups of words that hang together. For example, someone who scored high on extraversion would likely score high on gregariousness as well. Using this technique, researchers learned that there are five basic dimensions that underlie personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Supporters of this Big-Five Theory of Personality have since created personality questionnaires to measure where people fall on each of these dimensions. Now for the fun part. Want to know more about your own personality? Click here to take a Big-Five Personality questionnaire.