Interactionism in the Big 5 Traits

05.11.2019 |

Episode #9 of the course Introduction to personality psychology: The Big 5 traits by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the previous five lectures, we examined each of the Big 5 traits separately; however, in reality, these traits do not exist in isolation. In this lecture, I am going to focus on how these traits interact with each other to guide our behavior.

The Big 5 traits each have a separate influence on us, but traits also have a combined or interaction effect. When you think about it, there are many possible combinations of the Big 5. For example, one person could score low on openness, average on conscientiousness, low on extraversion, high on agreeableness, and low on neuroticism. In contrast, someone else could have a completely different constellation of scores on these traits. So, an important question in personality psychology is this: What do combinations of traits predict?

In reality, focusing only on the direct influence of single traits is too simplistic and doesn’t truly capture the nuances of the Big 5 model. Human personality is complex, and personality psychologists now emphasize the importance of “interactivity” between traits. In other words, the interaction between two or more of the Big 5 traits provides a more realistic picture of how personality can influence behavior.

Let’s take a look at a few of these interactions across life situations that have been identified through research.

In romantic relationships, research has found that partners with high levels of both conscientiousness and agreeableness are more successful in their relationships. This is not entirely surprising, given that both traits are independently linked with healthy relationships. However, the combination of these two traits, along with having low scores on neuroticism, is the best predictor of relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, low scores on agreeableness and conscientiousness are also associated with an increased chance of infidelity.

For educational success, studies have found that the ideal combination of traits is having high conscientiousness and low neuroticism. People who are highly conscientious are often persistent and put a great deal of effort into studying. When paired with low neuroticism, these individuals are also emotionally stable, which keeps them on track.

In the workplace, a similar pattern exists. Employees with high neuroticism have lower job satisfaction generally. People with a combination of high openness, high conscientiousness, and low neuroticism tend to earn more money and enjoy their work more. However, when it comes to careers in particular, the personality-job fit must also be taken into account. That is, careers that are well aligned with personality traits are more predictive of success. For instance, someone with high openness and high conscientiousness may not succeed in sales if they are low on extraversion, given the importance of social skills in that line of work. So, in many cases, “job fit” is a crucial factor.

Lastly, combinations of Big 5 traits are also quite useful for predicting mental health problems, substance use, and addiction. In particular, the pattern of high neuroticism and low conscientiousness is commonly seen across several addictions. In addition, high extraversion is also often implicated in binge drinking and other alcohol problems.

Interestingly, other research has found that being highly conscientious and highly extraverted can help buffer against mental health problems in people who also have neuroticism. As you can see, the outcomes of combinations of traits are multifaceted.

Finally, an added layer of complexity is the interaction between traits and the situation. Much like the personality-job fit example described above, situations can influence people and vice versa. For instance, introverts may avoid certain kinds of crowds (e.g., dances) but not others (e.g., comic book conventions). In this case, people low on extraversion could actually enjoy being part of a larger group.

Today’s Task: At this point, you have had many opportunities to reflect on your scores on individual traits. Now, given what you have just learned about the interaction between traits, take the time to reflect on how each of these separate traits come together to form your personality. Do these combinations sound like you? For fun, ask someone who knows you really well if they do. You may be surprised to see the similarities/differences in how you see your personality and how others perceive it.

That brings today’s lesson to a close. Tomorrow will be the final lesson in this Highbrow course, where I’ll discuss the latest research on personality change. See you then!


Recommended book

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre


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