The Big Five Personality Traits

When psychologists conducted personality surveys they noticed repeating patterns in the words people used to describe themselves, or others. Decades of research narrowed these patterns down to five groups: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion (also spelled extraversion), Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (or OCEAN for short). The “Big five personality traits” theory is currently the most popular and most comprehensive way to categorise personality traits. While people display all these traits to a certain degree, usually one trait dominates the others. To see how the different dominant traits may affect our behaviour, let’s see what happens when a group gets stranded on a desert island.

The full story
big 5 personality traits

The theory of the Big Five personality traits claims that we can describe ourselves with five main characteristics: open, conscientious, extrovert, agreeable, neurotic. Each of us varies in how much of each trait is shown in our personality. In order to understand what each trait really means let’s look at these five characters and how they cope after they wreck their boat and are stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean. 


Open Odelia is excited and interested in exploring this beautiful island. The exotic nature inspires her. She has collected stones, shells and blossoms to decorate the entrance of the bamboo hut that she built for everyone. She feels this is an opportunity to learn so many new things! 


Claire is conscientious. She is not excited. Quite the contrary! She is concerned about the seriousness of the situation. Good thing she saved the survival kit from their ship. As usual, she is prepared and starts the crucial tasks right away. She feels that it is her duty to organize everyone and make sure that they will start looking for the things they need for survival: freshwater and food. 


Extroverted Emile is thrilled because they all survived! He feels a strong need to talk and share his happiness. He gathers everyone to celebrate their survival and to tell them about his plan to explore the island together!


Agreeable Albert is kind by nature and despite being tired and thirsty, his main concern is Nora. He offers her a drink from his coconut. The others know that he usually agrees to everything and are not shy to ask for his help. 


Nora is neurotic and easily stressed. She has a total breakdown. She sits down on the beach and cries: how are they ever going to get away from this island? To her the ocean around them looks endless, nature looks dark and dangerous. She feels completely lost. 

the big 5

After eight weeks, two ships appear on the horizon. Everyone gets excited. Emile has the idea to make a fire. He calls the others to help. Claire immediately starts to work, Albert brings more wood, Odelia is holding up her beautifully arranged SOS sign while Nora screams desperately for help. Little do they know who is sailing on these ships…

ocean model

The first ship carries a group of psychologists who have been travelling the oceans since the 1980s. They are investigating the big five personality traits, which is also known as the five-factor or ocean model. 

lewis goldberg

The captain, Lewis Goldberg, coined the term “big five”. He is thrilled when he sees the five friends at the beach, each one matching exactly one trait: open, conscientious, extrovert, agreeable, neurotic. Though he decides not to stop the boat, as a scientist he prefers to watch from afar. 


On the other ship are five pirates, all possessing the exact opposite traits of our friends. Let’s see if you can recognize them? Pirate one is emotionally stable and very relaxed. When she sees the survivors on the beach she says: “we could help them!”. Pirate two immediately gets angry with her. He is not listening to anyone and is not willing to change his plans in order to help some strangers on an island! Pirate three thinks this is a complex situation. He thinks that all possible outcomes need to be considered. He feels the need to be alone and think. Pirate four doesn’t care. He’s busy looking for the keys to his treasure chest which is lost again. The captain is not open to any new experiences. He ends all discussions when he says our boat won’t stop!

“This is great! I was having trouble with remembering all the concepts of the theory and this has made it so much easier. Thank you!”

– Lakshmi González Florentino


Dig deeper!

If you enjoyed learning about the big five personality traits, why not explore another popular theory of personality types – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI):

Or look further into some classic views on personality:

Classroom exercise


Discuss with your class:

  • What do you and your students think about the big five? Are the descriptions of the five traits really structured in a way that they fit all people? Or do you think this theory is flawed as we cannot describe an entire personality with just five traits?
  • Then ask your students which hero of our story do they identify with the most? You may turn this into a pair or group activity. Many of us are bad at describing ourselves so an outside perspective is often helpful. 
  • To take it to the next level, try to analyse the protagonists of the book you are reading for your English class, or act out the different traits in a different, less dramatic situation! What would a neurotic painting look like? Whatever you do, make sure to let us know in the comments below 🙂

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