Fitability is now part of    more...
Author: Dr. Randall H. Lucius, Ph.D.


A trait is any distinguishable, relatively enduring way in which one individual varies from another (Guilford, 1959). Currently the most popular approach among psychologists for studying personality traits is the Five-Factor model or Big Five dimensions of personality. The five factors were derived from analyses of a large number of self- and peer reports on personality-relevant adjectives and questionnaire items.

The following are some of the important characteristics of the five factors (Howard & Howard, 2000). First, the factors are dimensions, not types, so people vary continuously on them, with most people falling in between the extremes. Second, the factors are stable over a 45-year period beginning in young adulthood. Third, the factors and their specific facets are heritable (i.e., genetic), at least in part. Fourth, the factors are considered universal, having been recovered in languages as diverse as German and Chinese (McCrae & Costa, 1996).


For three decades, the HR community has generally followed the assumptions of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers & McCaulley, 1985). These assumptions included:
  • a four-dimension model,
  • bimodal distribution of scores on each dimension,
  • sixteen independent types,
  • the concept of a primary function determined by Judger/Perceiver preference,

  • a grounding in the personality theory of Carl Jung (1971).

The emerging new paradigm is not a radical departure from the MBTI, but rather more of an evolution from it (Howard & Howard, 2000). But, the new paradigm is sufficiently different from the old one to require a significant shift in thinking. For example, the new paradigm involves:
  • five dimensions of personality,
  • a normal distribution of scores on these dimensions,
  • an emphasis on individual personality traits (the type concept is gone),
  • preferences indicated by strength of score,
  • a model based on experience, not theory.

Most theories of personality, and the assessment tools that have resulted from them, rely on a particular psychologist’s theory and opinions about human nature. The MBTI is a good example. Based on the theory of Carl Jung, the MBTI categorizes someone into one of 16 possible types. While Dr. Jung certainly based his theory on his own observations of human behavior, the theory is primarily his and his alone.

What separates the Five Factor model of personality from all others is that it is not based on the theory of any one particular psychologist, but rather on language, and the “natural” system that people use to understand one another. Language itself provides the structure with which we frame and understand the world around us, so it seems a natural place to start. The traditional paradigm for research with the five factor model has been to ask subjects to rate themselves or someone else using lists of trait adjectives that can be used to describe personality. Statistics are then used to uncover the “factors” or categories to which the adjectives seem to belong.

For example, if someone using a list of traits checked-off the term “outgoing” to describe themselves, they usually also checked off terms such as “social,” “gregarious,” “lively,” “talkative” and other similar words. These terms have all been found to group together statistically into the factor known as Extraversion.

Louis Thurstone, in 1933, noted that a list of 60 adjectives on a assessment he developed could be reduced to five meaningful factors. Yet amazingly, little work was done by Thurstone himself or others to follow up and replicate this finding. Allport and Odbert (1936) combed through the English language and found over 4,500 adjectives that are used to describe personality, and formed the primary starting point for Raymond Cattell, renown psychologist and creator of the 16PF assessment.

As the name implies, Cattell found 16 personality factors that accounted for the majority of trait terms used to describe personality. Recent findings have found several flaws in Cattell’s work, centering primarily around his statistical calculations and interpretations (Digman, 1996). Fiske (1949) was the first to discover that five, not sixteen, factors accounted for the variance in personality trait descriptors. Yet little was made of the discovery.

Building on Cattell and Fiske, Tupes and Christal (1961) thoroughly established the five factors we know today. Sadly, they published their results in an obscure Air Force publication that was not read by many in the psychology or academic communities.

Warren Norman, however, did learn of Tupes and Christal's work. Norman (1963) replicated the Tupes and Christal study and confirmed the five-factor structure for trait taxonomy. For bringing this discovery into the mainstream academic psychology community, it became known, understandably but inappropriately, as "Norman's Big Five." Rightly, it should be Tupes and Christal's Big Five. A flurry of other personality researchers confirmed Norman's findings (Howard & Howard, 2000).

During the 1960's and 1970's traits were out of favor--only behaviors and situational responses were allowed. However, radical behaviorism began to fall from its pedestal in the early 1980's with the rise of cognitive science. Cognitive scientists proclaimed that there was more to the human mind than stimulus and response (Howard, 1994).

Throughout the 1980's and continuing through the present, a plethora of personality researchers have established the Five-Factor Model as the basic paradigm for personality research. Four excellent summaries of this research tradition are Goldberg (1993), Digman (1996), John, Angleitner, & Ostendorf (1988), and McCrae (1992).


How does the person approach tasks and responsibilities? Easygoing individuals are free spirits who are likely to be laid-back, flexible and casual, with less emphasis on achievement. Industrious people are responsible, and conscientious. They are likely to be well organized and achievement-oriented.

How does the person express himself/herself and interact with others?
Private persons prefer solitude and space, either physical or mental. They tend to pursue activies such as quiet walks, reading, meditating or sharing time with a few friends. Outgoing people are sociable, talkative and assertive. They tend to be energetic, and need to be around others. They gain their energy by talking, socializing, and working with others.

How important are others' opinions and feelings to the person? Critical individuals are independent, skeptical, competitive, and frank. Some tend to be focused more upon their own needs than the needs of others. Agreeable people tend to want to reach out and help others. They are harmonious, good-natured, optimistic, and care about what others think of them.

How does the person respond to adversity or pressure? Resilient individuals are unflappable, calm, and confident. They usually keep their composure, even in stressful situations. Reactive persons are sensitive and emotional. They are prone to be tense, insecure, and moody. They may react to circumstances with strong feelings.

How open is the individual to various interests and ideas? Practical persons are pragmatic, conventional, and no-nonsense. They will feel most comfortable with traditional and well-established methods and topics. Inquisitive persons are open to new experiences and tend to have broad interests. They may also be curious, creative, original, and imaginative.


In the last 15 years there have been numerous studies which demonstrate that personality, as assessed through standardized instruments that tap into the Five Factor model, has a predictive relationship with job performance. Recent research has demonstrated that personality assessment contributes unique information to the prediction of job performance, over and above that offered by methods such as cognitive ability testing and managerial assessment centers (Sackett, Schmitt, Ellingson & Kabin, 2001; Goffin, Rothstein, & Johnston, 1996). Two widely cited meta-analyses (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Tett, Jackson, & Rothstein, 1991) present evidence from over 200 studies examining the personality-job performance link and conclude that, at the broadest level, conscientiousness is positively related to job performance across a majority of job types. Only in creatively demanding "jobs" such as artist and musician was this not the case, where high levels of conscientiousness can be detrimental to performance (Kierstead, 1998).

The predictive utility of personality assessment is enhanced when the personality profile for a specific job is studied, either based on the findings of previous research, rational analysis, or a thorough personality oriented job analysis (Raymark, Schmit, & Guion, 1997). Even more ideal is to study the personality profiles of high and low performers within a specific job, and create a custom norm. Different jobs demand different personality profiles (Hogan, 1996). For example, studies have shown that for sales jobs, extraversion and agreeableness are highly predictive of performance. For blue-collar workers conscientiousness and agreeableness show a positive relationship to job performance while extraversion and openness to experience are shown to be unrelated or in some cases negatively related to performance(Kierstead, 1998).

Companies seeking to have a diverse workforce without compromising the integrity of their selection policies may also find comfort in using personality assessments as a part of their process. Research has shown that non-cognitive based measures, in addition to, or in lieu of, g-based (cognitive) measures can significantly improve the prediction of whether or not someone will be effective, while at the same time reducing adverse impact. This is because there are much smaller differences observed between races on measures of personality than g-based measures. By measuring qualities like personality and previous experiences, and using good interviewing practices, employers can get a better idea of whether or not someone is the right fit for the job – much more so than just using g-based tests alone, as is so often the case in many personnel departments and recruiting firms (particularly for IT positions).

This does not suggest that g-based tests should no longer be used, for that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But what it does suggest is that companies using g-based tests alone, which include traditional tests of knowledge, skills and abilities, are putting themselves at risk. They are likely to make a less accurate decision than they could have made had they used the test results in conjunction with other assessment tools. Furthermore, they are more likely to unfairly filter out minority applicants who may have been equally qualified for the position, which in turn could lead to costly legal problems.


Clearly, personality can greatly assist in the accurate prediction of future performance from job applicants. The history of the five factor model has shown that it is a robust model that can accurately describe an individual’s personality, and is the model of choice above all others. Furthermore, alongside a good interview and/or other assessment tools, employers can have the best of both worlds: a highly productive workforce that is ethnically diverse.

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