Raymond Cattell & the Big Five Factors

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Raymond Cattell was an important contributor in the development of our understanding of essential personality traits. Cattell asked the question, "How do we figure out which personality traits are most important in understanding people?" This is the question asked by many personality psychologists taking the "Essential trait approach." Cattell was one of the pioneers of the essential trait approach. He thought that one useful source of this kind of information was in human language. Every language in the world has evolved over thousands of years and includes words that describe every personality quality that we as humans can think about. In addition, it is common to find many words in a single language that describe similar personality traits. Cattell thought that the importance of a trait is reflected by how many words there are to describe it. A personality trait that is described by many words is likely to be more important than one described by just a few. After all, if there are many words to describe a certain human quality, it must be something that we think and talk about quite often. This principle is called the lexical criterion of importance.

In line with this approach, Cattell (1947, 1965) took a set of 4500 words that describe personality traits and systematically cut the list down to 171 trait names so that we don't have words that most people do not know or use. He asked people to rate themselves on these words on a scale (e.g., How kind are you on a scale of 1 to 10?) and the used factor analysis to examine them. Factor analysis is a statistical technique that many personality trait psychologists use. The basic idea behind it is simple. If two or more characteristics correlate (or covary) when examined across a large number of people, we suspect that they reflect a basic underlying personality trait. So in this case we would ask a large number of people, "Compared to most people around you, how honest are you, how kind are you, how arrogant are you?" and so on with 171 personality traits, and the people would rate themselves on all of these personality traits. Then we calculate the correlations among these traits (click here for an explanation of correlations). For example, do people who rate themselves high in kindness also rate themselves high in friendliness? If they do, they correlate positively which suggests that there is an underlying personality trait that connects them. On the other hand, if people who rate themselves high in kindness tend to rate themselves low in hostility, the two traits correlate negatively. When two traits correlate negatively, they may be opposites of one underlying personality trait dimension. With factor analysis we can find how various correlating items go together to form clusters. These clusters are called factors (click here for a more detailed explanation of factor analysis). Cattell conducted a factor analysis on 171 trait names and the resulting factors became the personality traits that he believed are most important in understanding people. In the beginning, Cattell used self-ratings, but many researchers have used many other methods to figure out what the basic underlying personality traits are, such as observer rating and objective behavioral data among others. As a result of much of this work, Cattell concluded that there are sixteen basic personality trait dimensions. Because some of the clusters were very difficult to label, he used terms that most people do not understand to describe many of the sixteen personality traits. Therefore, instead of listing Cattell's original trait names, below is a list of the sixteen personality traits described using the closest words in English that most people are familiar with.

Trait Description Description of Opposing Extremes
1 Abstractedness imaginative versus practical
2 Apprehension insecure versus complacent
3 Dominance aggressive versus passive
4 Emotional Stability calm versus high-strung
5 Liveliness enthusiastic versus serious
6 Openness to Change liberal versus traditional
7 Perfectionism compulsive versus indifferent
8 Privateness pretentious versus unpretentious
9 Reasoning abstract versus concrete
10 Rule Consciousness moralistic versus free-thinking
11 Self-Reliance leader versus follower
12 Sensitivity sensitive versus tough-minded
13 Social Boldness uninhibited versus timid
14 Tension driven versus easy going
15 Vigilance suspicious versus accepting
16 Warmth warmhearted versus aloof

As you may have guessed, there is a personality test that measures people on these sixteen dimensions. It is called the 16 PF (16 Personality Factors: Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970).

Among the many theories in the essential trait approach, the one that has attracted the most attention is the Big Five Theory. Empirical evidence for support for this five factor model of personality has been accumulating for over many decades and it is presently the most commonly discussed theory in the essential trait approach. Very early evidence of the five factor model came from D. W. Fiske in 1949. He reported that he could not reproduce the sixteen factor structure suggested by Cattell. Instead of a sixteen factor solution, he found a five factor solution. Although this finding did not attract much attention right away, many researchers slowly began reporting similar results over the next few decades. These researchers addressed the same research question with different instruments and they all reached a five factor solution instead of Cattell's sixteen factors (e.g., Botwin & Buss, 1989; Digman & Inouye, 1986; Digman & Takemoto-Chock, 1981; Goldberg, 1993: McCrae & Costa, 1987, 1997; Norman, 1963; Borgatta 1964; Paunonen, Jackson, Trzebinski, & Forsterling, 1992). This was how the Big Five Theory evolved.

Given the impressive consistency of the five factor solution, it was surprising to find that there was a fair amount of disagreement as to what exactly the five factors are. There seemed to be two main reasons for this disagreement. The first reason is the following. One of the most difficult steps in factor analysis is naming the factors. We do this by looking at the items that are contained in that factor and try to characterize the commonality underlying these items. This can be very difficult sometimes. Words have multiple meanings and give different people different impressions. It may be difficult to find a single name for a factor that everyone can agree on. In other words, the interpretations of these clusters of terms are somewhat subjective. The second reason is the following. Exactly what a factor looks like depends on what measures were included in the study. If a quality of behaviour is left out or is not well represented in the data that was collected, its involvement in a trait dimension will be missed. Thus different analyses with different measures can lead to different conclusions about the meaning of factors, even when there is agreement about the number of factors. Presently, the most commonly used names for the five factors are the following labels created by McCrae and Costa (1987).

The first factor is referred to as extraversion. The other end of the continuum is referred to as introversion. It is basically about how outgoing, assertive, or sociable a person may be.

The second factor is called agreeableness. The other end of the continuum is called antagonism. It reflects qualities such as social warmth, likability, nurturance, and emotional supportiveness.

The third factor is labeled conscientiousness. It reflects qualities such as being responsible and organized. It also contains elements such as persistence and purposeful striving toward goals. There is no name for the other end of this continuum. It is commonly just referred to as "low conscientiousness."

The fourth factor is referred to as neuroticism. It is sometimes also called "emotional stability" which refers to the other end of the continuum. It reflects qualities of being emotionally unstable and experiencing high levels of anxiety.

The fifth factor is labeled openness which is an abbreviation of "openness to experience." This factor is about willingness to try and learn new things, consider new ideas, and having an open mind in general. Although other researchers called this factor intellect or intelligence, McCrae and Costa (1985) disagreed with them and argued that intelligence may be a result of high levels of openness. There is no name for the other end of this continuum. It is simply referred to as "low openness."

Again, as you may have guessed, there is a personality test that measures people on these five trait dimensions. It is called the NEO-PI-R (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness-Personality Inventory Revised: Costa & McCrae, 1992).

Although you might think that the reduction from Cattell's sixteen personality traits to only five is quite radical, the big five factors are considered to be superordinate traits that consist of more specific traits within them. For example, the NEO-PI-R includes measures of six specific traits included in each of the big five personality traits. Therefore, the NEO-PI-R consists of 30 (6 x 5) specific traits embedded within five superordinate traits. When the scores for the big five are calculated, the scores of the six specific traits are combined into one score for that particular superordinate personality trait.


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