Chapter 19: Costa and McCrae: Five Factor Model of Personality

Part 2: The Five-Factor Theory of Personality

Costa and McCrae acknowledged the important role that Eysenck played when he identified extraversion and neuroticism as second-order personality factors, and for developing the Maudsley Personality Inventory, the Eysenck Personality Inventory, and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (the latter test, developed with his wife Sybil, was the first to include psychoticism; see S. Eysenck, 1997) as tools for measuring these factors.  However, they disagreed with Eysenck regarding psychoticism. They initially proposed a different factor called openness.  When they discussed this issue with Eysenck, he felt that openness might be the opposite pole of psychoticism, but McCrae and Costa believed the factors were significantly different (see Costa & McCrae, 1986).  Since that time, Costa and McCrae have moved beyond the third factor of openness, and added two more second-order factors: agreeableness and conscientiousness (see Costa & McCrae, 1989; Costa & Widiger, 1994; McCrae & Allik, 2002; McCrae & Costa, 2003).  Together, Costa and McCrae developed the NEO Personality Inventory (or NEO-PI) to measure neuroticism, extraversion, and openness, and later they developed the Revised NEO-PI, or NEO-PI-R, which also measures agreeableness and conscientiousness (see McCrae & Costa, 2003).

The Five-Factor Model of Personality
Factor Low Score Description High Score Description
Neuroticism Calm, Even-tempered, Self-satisfied, Comfortable, Unemotional, Hardy Worrying, Temperamental, Self-pitying, Self-conscious, Emotional, Vulnerable
Extraversion Reserved, Loner, Quiet, Passive, Sober, Unfeeling Affectionate, Joiner, Talkative, Active, Fun-loving, Passionate
Openness to Experience Down-to-earth, Uncreative, Conventional, Prefer routine, Uncurious, Conservative Imaginative, Creative, Original, Prefer variety, Curious, Liberal
Agreeableness Ruthless, Suspicious, Stingy, Antagonistic, Critical, Irritable Softhearted, Trusting, Generous, Acquiescent, Lenient, Good-natured
Conscientiousness Negligent, Lazy, Disorganized, Late, Aimless, Quitting Conscientious, Hardworking, Well-organized, Punctual, Ambitious, Persevering
Taken from McCrae and Costa (2003)

Many psychologists believe that the total number of personality traits can be reduced to five factors, with all other personality traits fitting within these five factors. According to this model, a factor is a larger category that encompasses many smaller personality traits. The five factor model was reached independently by several different psychologists over a number of years (Boundless, n.d.).

History and Overview

Investigation into the five factor model started in 1949 when D.W. Fiske was unable to find support for Cattell’s expansive 16 factors of personality, but instead found support for only five factors. Research increased in the 1980s and 1990s, offering increasing support for the five factor model. The five factor personality traits show consistency in interviews, self-descriptions, and observations, as well as across a wide range of participants of different ages and from different cultures. It is the most widely accepted structure among trait theorists and in personality psychology today, and the most accurate approximation of the basic trait dimensions (Funder, 2001) (Boundless, n.d.).

Because this model was developed independently by different theorists, the names of each of the five factors—and what each factor measures—differ according to which theorist is referencing it. Paul Costa and Robert McCrae’s version, however, is the most well-known today and the one called to mind by most psychologists when discussing the five factor model. The acronym OCEAN is often used to recall Costa and McCrae’s five factors, or the Big Five personality traits: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (Boundless, n.d.).

Openness to Experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)

This trait includes appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects a person’s degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and preference for novelty and variety. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent; it describes a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. Those who score high in openness to experience prefer novelty, while those who score low prefer routine (Boundless, n.d.).

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Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)

This trait refers to one’s tendency toward self-discipline, dutifulness, competence, thoughtfulness, and achievement-striving (such as goal-directed behavior). It is distinct from the moral implications of “having a conscience;” instead, this trait focuses on the amount of deliberate intention and thought a person puts into his or her behavior. Individuals high in conscientiousness prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior and are often organized, hardworking, and dependable. Individuals who score low in conscientiousness take a more relaxed approach, are spontaneous, and may be disorganized. Numerous studies have found a positive correlation between conscientiousness and academic success (Boundless, n.d.).

Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)

An individual who scores high on extraversion is characterized by high energy, positive emotions, talkativeness, assertiveness, sociability, and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others. Those who score low on extraversion prefer solitude and/or smaller groups, enjoy quiet, prefer activities alone, and avoid large social situations. Not surprisingly, people who score high on both extraversion and openness are more likely to participate in adventure and risky sports due to their curious and excitement-seeking nature (Tok, 2011) (Boundless, n.d.).

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Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind)

This trait measures one’s tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of a person’s trusting and helpful nature and whether that person is generally well-tempered or not. People who score low on agreeableness tend to be described as rude and uncooperative (Boundless, n.d.).

Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)

High neuroticism is characterized by the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to an individual’s degree of emotional stability and impulse control. People high in neuroticism tend to experience emotional instability and are characterized as angry, impulsive, and hostile. Watson and Clark (1984) found that people reporting high levels of neuroticism also tend to report feeling anxious and unhappy. In contrast, people who score low in neuroticism tend to be calm and even-tempered (Boundless, n.d.).

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It is important to keep in mind that each of the five factors represents a range of possible personality types. For example, an individual is typically somewhere in between the two extremes of “extraverted” and “introverted,” and not necessarily completely defined as one or the other. Most people lie somewhere in between the two polar ends of each dimension. It’s also important to note that the Big Five traits are relatively stable over our lifespan, but there is some tendency for the traits to increase or decrease slightly. For example, researchers have found that conscientiousness increases through young adulthood into middle age, as we become better able to manage our personal relationships and careers (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008). Agreeableness also increases with age, peaking between 50 to 70 years (Terracciano, McCrae, Brant, & Costa, 2005). Neuroticism and extraversion tend to decline slightly with age (Donnellan & Lucas; Terracciano et al.) (Boundless, n.d.).

These five factors are distinct, and neither low nor high scores are necessarily better or ‘good’ or ‘bad:’

…all traits have passed the evolutionary test of survival, and from society’s point of view all kinds of people are necessary:  those who work well with others and those who can finish a task on their own; those who come up with creative new ways of doing things and those who maintain the best solutions of the past.  There are probably even advantages to found [sic] in Neuroticism, since a society of extremely easygoing individuals might not compete well with other societies of suspicious and hostile individuals.  Cultures need members fit for war as well as peace, work as well as play… (pp. 51-52; McCrae & Costa, 2003)

Criticisms of the Five Factor Model

Critics of the trait approach argue that the patterns of variability over different situations are crucial to determining personality—that averaging over such situations to find an overarching “trait” masks critical differences among individuals (Boundless, n.d.).

Critics of the Five-Factor Model, in particular, argue that the model has limitations as an explanatory or predictive theory and that it does not explain all of human personality. Some psychologists have dissented from the model because they feel it neglects other domains of personality, such as religiosity, manipulativeness/machiavellianism, honesty, sexiness/seductiveness, thriftiness, conservativeness, masculinity/femininity, snobbishness/egotism, sense of humor, and risk-taking/thrill-seeking (Boundless, n.d.).

Factor analysis, the statistical method used to identify the dimensional structure of observed variables, lacks a universally recognized basis for choosing among solutions with different numbers of factors. A five-factor solution depends, in some degree, on the interpretation of the analyst. A larger number of factors may, in fact, underlie these five factors; this has led to disputes about the “true” number of factors. Proponents of the five-factor model have responded that although other solutions may be viable in a single dataset, only the five-factor structure consistently replicates across different studies (Boundless, n.d.).

Another frequent criticism is that the Five-Factor Model is not based on any underlying theory; it is merely an empirical finding that certain descriptors cluster together under factor analysis. This means that while these five factors do exist, the underlying causes behind them are unknown (Boundless, n.d.).

As a basis for studying personality, the Five-Factor Model has proven quite comprehensive.  The five factors stand up well when measured with a variety of other tests and within other theoretical perspectives, including a thorough comparison with the list of human needs proposed by Henry Murray.  Particularly important in psychology today, the Five-Factor Model has also stood up very well when examined across cultures, a topic we will examine next.

Connections Across Cultures:  The Big Five Across Cultures

In order to evaluate the cross-cultural application of the Five-Factor Model (FFM), Robert McCrae has suggested that we need to address the issue in three ways.  Transcultural analyses look for personality factors that transcend culture.  In other words, personality factors that are universal, or common to all people.  Intracultural analyses look at the specific expression of traits within a culture.  And finally, intercultural analyses compare trait characteristics between cultures (see Allik & McCrae, 2002).  In 2002, McCrae and Allik published The Five-Factor Model of Personality Across Cultures, a collection of research in which a variety of investigators examined the applicability of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) in a wide variety of cultures.  The various studies contained in this book examine personality structure, as well as the validity and generalizability of using the NEO-PI-R to measure personality, in some forty cultures spread across five continents.  McCrae and Allik acknowledge that there is much more to personality than just traits, but the traits identified in the FFM appear to offer a robust cross-cultural foundation for understanding personality worldwide.

The potential validity of translating the NEO-PI-R and studying the FFM in different cultures is based on the idea that the most important factors in human interaction would be encoded in the languages of most, if not all, cultures (see Pervin, 1999).  Given concerns regarding this lexical hypothesis and the challenges of translation, Peabody (1999) used trait descriptions with contrasting terms to help clarify matters in a study on the judgment of national character. He had judges from 12 different European countries, plus America, the Philippines, Japan, and China rate one another.  Upon examining the data from a FFM perspective, Peabody found strong support for the utility of this model in cross-cultural studies. Other investigators have had significant success using the NEO-PI-R in direct translation. Rolland (2002) collected data from studies in which the NEO-PI-R was administered to people in cultures speaking 16 different languages (including Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, Uralic, Hamito-Semitic, and Austronesian languages, and one unclassified language [Korean]).  Overall, he confirmed the generalizability of the personality structure identified by the FFM in these varied cultures. Similar favorable results pertaining to personality structure have been identified with both adults and adolescents in Czeck, Polish, and Slovak groups (Hrebickova, et al., 2002) and amongst the Shona in Zimbabwe (Piedmont, et al., 2002), as well as for the relationship between personality and emotion amongst Canadian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean subjects (Yik, et al., 2002) and the relationship between personality and cultural goals in Americans and Vietnamese (Leininger, 2002).   These studies, as well as numerous others that are not mentioned, provide substantial support for the consistency of the FFM across a wide variety of cultures, at least as far as personality structure is concerned. However, it remains unclear whether the scores obtained from two different cultural groups are equivalent (see Poortinga, Van de Vijver, & Van Hemert, 2002). In other words, if Culture A scored higher than Culture B on, say, agreeableness, it may be that the translation used for Culture A is more responsible for the result than an actual difference between Cultures A and B. Further research will be necessary in order to address issues such as this.

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Despite the numerous studies that support the cross-cultural application of the FFM, there are psychologists, generally favorable to the FFM, who nonetheless emphasize caution.  The fundamental question is whether or not trait descriptions are how people in other cultures describe another person. While it is true that using abstract trait names is common practice in American culture, in other cultures, such as India and China, it is more common to describe people in terms of context dependent actions.  To fit such data into a FFM requires some manipulation, which leaves the validity of the work open to some debate (see Pervin, 1999). However, when comparing Chinese and American students, the FFM does provide an adequate measure of each group’s stereotypes regarding one another (Zhang, et al., 1999). What is clear is the need for continued research on cross-cultural perspectives, as well as a need for cross-cultural training programs.  In that regard, Brislin (1999) has offered ways in which the FFM can be used as one basis for developing such programs, in part by telling us something about each person in a cross-cultural training program and, therefore, which type of program might work best for them (see also McCauley, Draguns, & Lee, 1999). Whether one favors the FFM or some other model of personality structure, the importance of cross-cultural studies is clear:

Human nature cannot be independent of culture.  Neither can human personality. Human beings do share certain social norms or rules within their cultural groups.  More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle held that man is by nature a social animal. Similarly, Xun Kuang (298-238 B.C.), a Chinese philosopher, pointed out that humans in social groups cannot function without shared guidance or rules.  Therefore, each culture or cultural group establishes its own norms. Constantly, these norms and rules are connected with the behavior and personality of members within a culture and society. (pg. vii; Lee, McCauley, & Draguns, 1999)

In proposing a Five-Factor Theory of personality, McCrae and Costa addressed the nature of personality theories themselves:

A theory of personality is a way of accounting for what people are like and how they act; a good theory explains a wide range of observations and points researchers in the right direction for future research.  Freudian theory pointed researchers toward the study of dreams, but decades of research have yielded very little by way of supportive evidence…Trait theory pointed researchers toward general styles of thinking, feeling, and acting, and has resulted in thousands of interesting and useful findings.  That is why most personality psychologists today prefer trait theory to psychoanalysis…But…there is more to human personality than traits. (pp 184-185; McCrae & Costa, 2003)

They propose that there are three central components to personality: basic tendencies (which are the five personality factors), characteristic adaptations, and self-concept (a highly adapted and extensively studied form of characteristic adaptation).  The basic tendencies interact with three peripheral components that mark the interface with systems outside personality.  There are the biological inputs to the basic tendencies, the external environment, and objective biography (all that a person does and experiences).  Connecting all of these components are dynamic processes, such as perception, coping, role playing, reasoning, etc.  Although this theory is newer, it does account for one of the most important issues challenging trait theories in general: how does one account for the general consistency of traits, yet the potential for, and occasional observation of, change in personality?  Simply, the basic tendencies are consistent, whereas the characteristic adaptations are subject to change, both as a result of dramatic environmental influences and due to changes associated with aging (McCrae & Costa, 2003).

Consistency Across the Lifespan

In over 25 years of teaching, it has been my experience that most college students want to believe that adult personality can readily change.  Likewise, most psychologists, particularly clinical psychologists helping people to change their dysfunctional lives, want to believe that personality can change.  However, trait theorists have repeatedly shown that traits are highly resistant to change once adulthood has been reached (see, e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1989; McCrae & Costa, 2003).  This is particularly true for Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness, for both men and women, and for Blacks and Whites. While Costa and McCrae acknowledge that individuals sometimes change dramatically, as a general rule, consistency is clearly more important.  They also suggest that this should be an opportunity for optimism. As individuals age, they should not fear becoming a different person, such as someone isolated or depressed. If, however, an individual of younger age is isolated, depressed, or suffers from some other psychological malady, they should also realize that time or aging alone is not likely to change them, but rather, psychotherapy may be a desirable and effective course of action.  Once again, Costa & McCrae emphasize the newness of these theories, and suggest the need for systematic prospective studies of the Five-Factor Theory over the entire adult lifespan. Fortunately, the NEO-PI-R provides the tool necessary to evaluate the Five-Factor Theory throughout life and in different cultures. Given the steady increase in life expectancy in Western societies, and the growing percentage of elderly people within our society, this research is likely to become a priority in the field of personality.

Supplemental Materials

The Five Factor Model or Big Five

This video [5:50] reviews the five main dimensions of personality as described by McCrae and Costa.  The NEO-PI-R assessment is also briefly discussed in the video.



The Five-Factor Model of Personality Traits aka “The Big Five”

This video [11:48] describes the five-factor model of personality traits, which is also known as “The Big Five” model of personality.  The video explains and explores each of the five personality traits identified in the model.



The Big 5 OCEAN Traits Explained

This video [6:23] reviews each of the 5 personality traits identified in McCrae and Costa’s Big-Five Model.



Text:   Boundless. (n.d.) The Five-Factor Model.  Retrieved from  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

PsychExamReview.  (2017, August 8). The five factor model or big five (Intro psych tutorial #138).  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License. 

Dr. Todd Grande.  (2017, November 21).  The five-factor model of personality traits aka “The Big Five.”  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Practical Psychology.  (2019, May 7). The big 5 OCEAN traits explained-Personality quizzes.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.