The Hidden Nature of Personality

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Introduction: Constellations of traits

Most of us have experienced being approached by someone we have neither seen nor spoken to in years. That person`s name might seem impossible to recollect, and he/she looks allot different from what you seem to remember. Nonetheless, that persons personality still shines through, making you recognize that person as that good friend you had back in e.g. primary school: more specifically, there is a constellation of certain traits that you recognize.

These kinds of constellations are still only partially understood, and harsh critics could argue that personality research share more similarities with astrology than it does with astronomy. I aim to show that there are real possibilities of a science of personality eventually emerging. Raymond Cattell`s 16 personality factors (16 PF) and The Big Five (five factor model) are the two personality taxonomies that will be compared and contrasted throughout this, and the 16 PF and NEO-PI questionnaires respectively.

Body: What are we really talking about?

“Trait” signifies a certain way you are disposed to act, like being disposed to being a bit shy when meeting unfamiliar people. Another person might, on the other hand, find meeting unfamiliar people especially invigorating. Cattell used an astounding number of approximately 4,500 different stable traits that could characterize any given person (Larsen & Buss, p.78, 2010), from the self-proclaimed Satanist Aleister Crowley to Mother Teresa. Various psychologists have risen to this great challenge, and have tried to make models where the most significant of these traits are categorized through factor analysis. Factor analysis groups similar traits under overarching factors, with corresponding facets under these.

So, 16 or 5 factors? Some quick mental calculation shows that there are over three times more factors in the former than the latter. This difference is partly caused by Raymond Cattell, father of 16 PF, living in a time where computers where not powerful enough to break down the input data into fewer factors. The Big Five is the result of breaking it all down to 5 factors, by using computers that can calculate very advanced mathematics. In other words, 16 PF and the Big Five are actually evolutionarily connected, the latter evolving from the same ancestor as the former. None of these “species” have gone extinct, though the Big Five currently is quite a bit more competitive than 16 PF and they share the same environment; make of that what you want.

These models conceptualize and identify traits by way of the lexical hypothesis. Languages contain word symbols for things we want to express, so the notion is that the most frequent and important personality traits are presumably encoded in language (Larsen & Buss, p.63, 2010). One challenge here, is that some languages have much richer or simply different vocabulary than others. Even so, the trait-descriptive adjectives under the primary factors are thought to be pretty universal, though cultures vary on which traits they personally find desirable. Where 16 PF and the Big Five primarily differ is on which factors a given trait belongs to.

A great problem for 16 PF is that researchers have not been able to replicate Cattell`s work and end up with the 16 factors that he found.(Eysenck, p.5, 1991). This problem can have many explanations. Cattell`s methods and procedures where pioneering and hence also immature, so his intentions might have been more ahead of its time than his results. A more general explanation has to do with the philosophic strive for simplicity in science, use no more variables than needed. 16 PF might be hard to replicate simply because there are too many factors and details, hence more things can go wrong in the lexical and statistical analyses.

It’s not really true that 16 PF simply has three times the factors the Big Five model has, because the fifth edition of 16 PF recognizes 5 global factors umbrellaing the other 16; Extraversion, Anxiety, Tough-Mindedness, Independence and Self-Control (Cattell, Cattell, Cattell p.1, 2002). Those five are not worlds apart from Normans labeling of the Big Five; Extraversion or Surgency, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional stability, Culture-Intellect or Openness (Larson & Buss, p.79,2010). The fifth factor in the Big Five is hard to label, though openness is generally accepted. Research from cross-cultural studies suggests that Big Five is not big enough, and that there should be a sixth factor meaning approximately honesty-humility. This means that we are not simply looking at a narrow versus broad taxonomic approach, it`s allot more complicated. One could also raise the question of whether it’s taxonomically better to bulk a myriad of traits under 5 or 16 umbrellas. What about a noun based taxonomy? Well, would not such taxonomies be inherently stereotypical and prejudiced?

Body: Scientific Progress

16 PF and the Big Five are both used to effectively categorize traits and hence people, and they both have thus shown themselves to be good examples of applied science. Problem is that applied science is supposed to be based on fundamental science. By way of observational methodology and self-report measures, researchers have found approximately 40% heritability of the Big Five personality traits (Larsen & Buss, p.172, 2010); findings that strengthens Big Fives position greatly. The Big Five also seem to have an evolutionary basis (Larsen & Buss, p.257, 2010). We are by nature the evolutionary result of our ancestors, so being e.g. extroverted and conscientious seems to be selected as beneficial for adaptability and hence survival.

Body: Measuring Personality

Though there is one 16 PF questionnaire, there are two ways to measure the Big Five. You have single-word trait adjective based self-rating or sentence item self-ratings like NEO-PI; NEO-PI will be representing Big Five here. Questionnaires are intended to give an idea about people’s personality, and hence to an extent predict how they would be disposed to act in the future. Obvious weakness with all kinds of psychological questionnaires is the phenomenon of social desirability, i.e. that people will portray themselves as e.g. more joyful and cooperative than they really are. As an example, someone who really wants to become an air fighter pilot might fabricate his responses in order to be accepted.

Another limit with questionnaires like 16 PF and NEO-PI is that they can be a bit shallow, especially when you self-report. Even though there is a general agreement about the denotation of words, they have very different connotations among people. “Out-going” might be associated with partygirl among some people, while others will associate “out-going” with a person that is very active in the local community. “Aggressive” might be associated with “standing up for justice” among some, while it’s associated with “evil” among others.

There is also the issue of to what degree personality questionnaires measures your current or general state of mind, i.e. state congruence; this problem can however be alleviated by taking the test at different times. Another thing about your state of mind is that you may not be consciously aware of how you actually are perceived by others. You might think about yourself as a humble person, while others might label you as a first class douche bag.


It’s true that the Big Five has more supporters than 16 PF. One should not however forget the evolutionary link between 16 PF and the Big Five, so the backbone of 16 PF is still supporting the weight of itself and the Big Five.


Music: “Perspectives” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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Cattell, Raymond B., Cattell, Karen,. Cattell, Heather (2002): 16 Personality Factor

Questionnaire (B) – 16PF (5th Edition) Questionnaire.


Digman, John, M. (1997): Higher-Order Factors of the Big Five. Journal of Personality and Social       Psychology. Vol. 73, No. 6, 1246-1256

Eysenck, H. J. (14.1.1991): Dimensions of Personality: 16, 5 or 3? – Criteria for a Taxonomic     Paradigm. Person. individ. Diff. Vol. 12, No. 8, pp. 773-790

Furnham, Adrian (14.9.1989): The Fakeability of the 16 PF, Myers-Briggs and Firo-B Personality     Measures. Person. individ. Diff. Vol. 11, No. 7, pp. 711-716

Larsen, Randy J., Buss, Davis M. (2010): Personality Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill


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