Monday, July 12, 2010

The Big Five Personality Traits

I think of it as the Turkmenbashi phenomenon: something I was previously unaware of suddenly presents itself at all turns. A dozen or so years ago, I saw a passing reference to the leader of Turkmenistan, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. His name was Saparmurat Niyazov, and he had led the Turkmen Communist Party for six years before becoming President of the new state.

In the space of a week or so, although no major news was coming out of Turkmenistan, I started to see and hear mentions of Turkmenbashi everywhere. Magazines mentioned him. There was something on "MacNeil/Lehrer." I had lunch with a friend, a government economist, who told me she'd just read a report on his wacky infrastructure projects. (This was years before 2004, when he commissioned a giant ice palace. It was never built; Turkmenistan is a hot desert.)

Jung wrote about this kind of synchronicity, which he said was not about causality but about the meaning we assign to these coincidences. That is, the universe wasn't telling me to pay attention to Turkmenbashi — unless I thought it was, which would be my own added meaning. What mattered was that I was noticing it, and what personal meaning that signified.

Anyway, over the past several days I've seen half a dozen mentions of the Big Five personality traits, a list I was previously unaware of. For most of the 1990s I worked for men who believed in theories of management and organizational behavior the way I believe in the communion of saints. My colleagues and I all got tested and evaluated and labeled according to the strengths and weaknesses of our personality traits, but we used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC program. (If you care, I am an ENFP — though just barely E — and an almost perfectly-balanced strong D/strong I. Click through the links to take the tests for yourself.)

The Big Five theory of personality traits, developed by University of Chicago psychologist Donald W. Fiske is similar to these other systems, but adds one delightful factor that I wish my colleagues and I had been tested on while I was still working in an office. It would have explained so much! The traits are these:

1. Openness. Curious and adventurous, or cautious and conservative?

2. Conscientiousness. Neat, orderly and goal-oriented, or undisciplined, haphazard, and feckless? (I do love that word "feckless." I wish it meant something better, and that I didn't have to feel guilty about applying it to myself.)

3. Extraversion. Jung and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator don't use this word in the way we commonly understand it; it refers to where people get their energy, not to how people appear to others. Among the Big Five, though, "extraversion" does refer to the outward appearance of sociability, talkativeness, engagement with others and emotional connection.

4. Agreeableness. Are you helpful, kind, compassionate, or do you compete and conflict with others?

5. Neuroticism. How vulnerable are you to negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and despair?

It's probably best that my co-workers were never able to put a numerical value on the extent of my neuroticism, and I'm sure they didn't need a test to notify them of it. But I sure would have loved to see this number for some of them.

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