What makes a noble personality

Big Five model: The big five character traits

Everyone has their own character: one may be curious and open, another shy and narrow-minded, a third chaotic and informal. But why do we all have an individual being - and how does it develop in the course of life? Psychologists and neuroscientists try to use the Big Five model to unravel the riddle of personality

In 1936, two US psychologists named Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert devised a study that at first seemed downright ridiculous: They picked up the most extensive linguistic dictionary available on the market and wrote down all the terms that describe human characteristics.

The researchers wanted to find out how many different facets of personality there are, how many characteristics human beings can have - and they assumed that character characteristics are inevitably reflected in language: that is, for all characteristics that are meaningful, interesting or are useful, have developed special words over time. And the more important an individual characteristic is - so the two scientists considered - the more likely it seemed that a word for it existed.

With the help of the collection of terms, all relevant human characteristics should therefore be covered. In fact, at the end of the lexical analysis, exactly 17,953 terms were on the list of researchers. Many of these definitions described practically the same character trait - for example the words "hot-headed" and "irascible", "sociable" and "sociable".

The researchers therefore gradually reduced the number of terms; they summarized all those characterizations that mean similar things, and also set up properties in groups that are interdependent, i.e. mostly occur together in people.

Statistical analyzes have shown that people who are considered conscientious are often also responsible, reliable, organized and careful. And those who are often afraid are usually brooding, sensitive, nervous and despondent. And finally: a compassionate contemporary is often also helpful, warm-hearted, friendly and generous.

Categorization according to the Big Five model

In this way, the psychologists were able to condense the almost 18,000 descriptions into five basic properties. It was initially a purely linguistic approach. But most experts today agree that the many facets of the human personality can actually be reduced to these five characteristics - the "Big Five" - ​​which are differently pronounced in each person and which each of us in their respective combinations individually shape.

Many psychologists use the Big Five model - with the factors openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, tolerance, neuroticism - to describe the character of people:

  • Openness. It is a characteristic of people who are ready for new experiences, curious, interested in foreign cultures, imaginative and inventive. You are looking for excitement and variety. In contrast, people who do not have this characteristic value conventions, are interested in one side only, cautious, down-to-earth, and rely on the tried and tested. And like to leave everything as it is.
  • Conscientiousness. Those who have this quality to a large extent are well organized, reliable, plan ahead, work in a structured manner, have discipline and perseverance. In addition, such people show ambition and strive for good performance. Those who lack conscientiousness, on the other hand, avoid responsibility, often botch, are carefree, careless, careless and forgetful, reckless and erratic.
  • Extraversion. Extraverts seek contact with others, are talkative, energetic, can inspire and are active. You love fun, act spontaneously - and show a good assertiveness. All those who have little developed this characteristic tend to withdraw, tend to be calm, like to be alone and prefer to work independently. Due to their silence, they often make a reserved impression and are very busy with their inner world of experience.
  • Compatibility. Those who have this quality to a large extent are considered friendly, cooperative, warm-hearted, compassionate, helpful, generous, in need of harmony and well suited for teamwork. Compatible people are apparently also particularly receptive to moments of happiness. The opposite pole to this is formed by people who are perceived as cold and sometimes argumentative, ungrateful, aggressive in competition, suspicious, unresponsive and harsh in tone.
  • Neuroticism. This term characterizes how emotionally stable someone is and how they can deal with negative experiences. If this factor is very pronounced, it is a question of anxious, nervous, unstable people who also often worry, are quickly offended, have feelings of guilt and like to feel sorry for themselves. Severely neurotic people are at increased risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. On the other hand, because of their susceptibility to the emotional pain of others, they are often good therapists. In contrast, less neurotic people tend to be relaxed, emotionally stable, content, easygoing, and self-confident. And hardly to be disturbed.

According to the Big Five model (in its classic form described here), each of these five basic factors exists independently of the others and is sometimes more, sometimes less developed, depending on the character. That is why psychologists also speak of “personality axes” with five levels between two poles: between “strong” and “weak”.

Each person can be assigned one of five positions on each of the five personality axes.

The following description would then apply to a person in whom all characteristics were strongly pronounced: They would be enthusiastic about new, unusual experiences, very reliable, like to be in company, able to work in a team, but also fearful, with a tendency to worry about the future do.

In fact, however, it is quite possible that the characteristics of a person can be found on the various axes at different ends. So you can be spontaneous, chaotic and rude at the same time. Or always nervous, creative and talkative.

Since each of the five factors can be combined with the others in any of its five manifestations, mathematically a large number of personality variants results: exactly 3125.

Big Five model: the basis of modern personality research

Psychologists have thus created a model with which the enormous diversity of characters can be systematically recorded - and which can also be studied scientifically in order to answer questions such as: Which combinations of essential characteristics are most common? How do the values ​​on the personality axes change in the course of life? How do they influence whether someone is successful in their job, how easily they gain life satisfaction or how high the probability is that they eat healthily or become a criminal, for example?

As with any psychological model, there are critical voices that doubt, for example, that the five personality factors actually do not overlap. Nevertheless, the Big Five scheme is the most proven basis of modern personality research to this day. Psychologists have used it in thousands of studies.

But how does each personality develop? What can be traced back to our genetic heritage, what to the respective socialization of a person? Are there certain processes in our organism that shape the character regardless of genetic heritage and childhood memories, for example before we are born? And can the development of certain characteristics change in the course of a lifetime?

The Big Five Model and Brain Research

In order to answer such questions, psychologists can fall back on the support of another scientific discipline. Neuroscientists are trying to reconcile the Big Five model with the findings of brain research.

Above all, they want to find out whether there is a connection between the respective personality traits and certain biochemical messenger substances in the brain. For neurobiologists it is clear that the brain metabolism differs a little from person to person - and could therefore be responsible for the development of different character traits.

One such messenger is the hormone cortisol. The level of its level significantly regulates how we react when we experience physical stress or when we come under psychological pressure or feel stress.

In some people, this substance is released in greater quantities under stress than in others, which can be due to the individual genetic make-up, but also to damaging influences in the womb or negative experiences in early childhood. If they also have a rather inhibited temperament by nature, they perceive their environment more quickly as threatening and react more quickly with fear in stressful situations - a personality trait that is characterized by the factor neuroticism in the Big Five model.

The substance dopamine, in turn, which plays a central role in the body's own reward system, promotes the extraversion trait, makes people more sociable, more talkative and more open. The "cuddle hormone" oxytocin, which arouses a sense of wellbeing in the vicinity of others and thus strengthens interpersonal bonds, also influences the character. Those who have a lot of it in their blood are more sensitive to their fellow human beings and generally more tolerable and trustworthy.

The connections with another important messenger substance for emotional regulation, serotonin, seem to be less clear. For example, a low level of the substance in men leads to a tendency to reckless and aggressive behavior, while the deficiency in women manifests itself more in fear and susceptibility to depression. And the substance apparently does not influence one big five characteristic, but almost all of them.

Nevertheless, the findings of the neuroscientists so far are very promising. Because with their help, it is increasingly possible to better understand what forms the personality - and how it develops in the course of a lifetime.

Half of the personality traits are inherited

Researchers now know that the influence of genes is far more serious than long thought. Around half of personality traits are apparently passed on from parents to their children.

And there are already examples of how individual hereditary factors influence character traits and contribute to the differences between people. It is no coincidence that these are primarily genes that regulate the activity of the messenger substances dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin via complex mechanisms and thus control how empathic, fearful and social we are.

For example, there is a gene that influences how quickly released serotonin is transported away again after its effects have developed. In a variant of this gene, the duration of action of the messenger substance is limited more than usual in this way. The result: those who notice this genetic factor from both parents react more sensitively than others to their environment. If such a child grows up in a problematic environment, it is later - according to one hypothesis - very cautious, wait-and-see, and often anxious when stressed.

It is also important whether the unborn child's brain develops optimally while it is growing in the womb. According to the Bremen brain researcher Gerhard Roth, genes and brain development together make up around 40 to 50 percent of a person's later personality.

But there are other factors. For example, severe stress on the mother during pregnancy can modify the effect of genes and messenger substances for the entire life of the unborn child. And in the first few years of life, a lot depends on how lovingly the mother or other caregivers look after them and what bonding experiences a child has.

Personality usually develops in a positive direction

All of these early factors together determine a further 30 percent of the respective characteristics of the Big Five, according to Gerhard Roth. Experiences in later childhood and puberty then shape the remaining 20 percent of personality (up to adulthood).

Nevertheless, psychologists and life course researchers today assume that our being can change into old age - at least to a certain extent, gradually and slowly. Anyone who is dissatisfied with their character and feels the desire to change their personality is able to change at least some aspects of their personality subtly in the second half of life, if not in the core, at least within certain individual limits.

In addition, studies show that we ourselves change slightly over the years without any effort of will or doggedness, and usually in a positive direction: In the course of life, people mature - in all cultures. According to some surveys, they often become a little more conscientious, more stable in dealing with emotions, and also more agreeable and sociable.

Perhaps this is the most hopeful finding of modern life course research: We can take a more relaxed look at ourselves, because our personality obviously tends to gradually develop a little in the direction that most of us want.

But above all: All of this takes place without us having to bend too much.