The Big Five Personality Traits … and My Characters

I’ve posted before about the “Big Five” personality traits. Though I like personality typologies such as the MBTI, almost all of them come from a pre-existing theory the researchers have and then seek to impose on the data. The Big Five are the closest thing we have to traits that emerged from almost pure data … that is, from casting a very wide net (in this case over adjectives used to describe people), and then seeing if those adjectives “clumped” around certain traits, and then eventually finding biochemical analogues to these traits in the brain. So says Jordan Peterson.

Since the Daily Wire made all of Jordan Peterson’s old materials available on their web site, I’ve been watching my way through a psychology class he taught about the Big Five. His lectures are always so rich and insightful, even if they do get a bit Jung-y, that they never fail to fire my imagination. And the traits never fail to remind us of people who know who are particularly low or high in each of them. Today, I thought it would be fun to name a character from my series who exemplifies each of these traits. All the technical information about these traits in the paragraphs below comes from my recent viewing of Peterson’s lectures.

Extraversion

Extraversion, according to Peterson’s lectures, basically means the person has a very active incentive/reward system in the brain. The basic impulse of extraversion is “There’s a good thing … I’m going to go and get it.”

Nimri (later, Nirri), the main character in The Long Guest, is high in extraversion. Though paraplegic and living basically as a prisoner of people he can’t communicate with, he remains as active as he can, doing arm exercises, keeping a journal, and continually seeking to expand his sphere of activity and influence as much as possible.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is the technical term for “high sensitivity to negative emotion.” In Peterson’s evolutionary terms, this is the brain system that keeps prey animals alert and hence alive. Statistically, women tend to be higher than men in neuroticism. There are obvious reasons for this: they need to be hair-trigger sensitive to the distress of their babies, and in fact, the world is a more dangerous place for a woman, especially if she is caring for an infant.

However, in my books, Exhibit A for neuroticism is a man. Enmer is 30 years old when an apocalypse hits his society. His father is killed, and Enmer becomes the new head of the family. He feels the burden of keeping them safe very keenly, and when subsequent disasters hit the family, Enmer enters a deep depression with which he will struggle for years.

Enmer is also high in conscientiousness, but we have another character to exemplify that for us.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is made up of two sub-traits: industriousness and orderliness. Industrious people feel bad if they are not working on some task. The evolutionary (or design) usefulness of this trait to the community is obvious. Orderly people like things to be in neat, known categories. This plays on the fear system in the brain, where the unknown or chaotic constitutes a threat.

Though it might seem that being very conscientious would be a miserable experience, under normal circumstances conscientious people have lower levels of anxiety than less conscientious people. Peterson’s theory is that this is because conscientious people tend to order their environment well, which reduces levels of anxiety compared to people who live in a disordered environment (even if they think they like it). Conscientiousness is also a good predictor of overall life success.

Hur is a very conscientious character. He is small, fair-haired, and not very prepossessing, and he starts the series as a slave in Enmer’s household. But he has all kinds of skills, including being a good shot with a bow and knowing how to make bows and arrows. He takes advantage of the apocalypse to demand his freedom and soon becomes the tribe’s go-to guy for both hunting and security. Eventually, he becomes tribal cheif.

Agreeableness

Agreeable people like to please other people and keep relationships good. In any given situation, they will not necessarily ask themselves what they want (or even, in some cases, be aware of it), but will just do what other people want them to do. Statistically, women tend to be higher than men in agreeableness. Being very agreeable is a necessity when you are caring for an infant, as the infant’s needs must always take priority over your own. It does not, Peterson points out, prepare you well to function in an out-of-the-home work environment. You tend to get taken advantage of.

Sari, one of the main characters in The Strange Land, is an agreeable wife and mother. She spends years living with an abusive husband, trying to keep the household running and to mother her children as best she can. When a crisis hits, she does not know how to ask for help and does not want to inconvenience others.

Openness (to new experiences)

Open people are adaptable. If there is a major crisis, you want some people who are high in openness around, as they will handle it better than someone who is very high, for example, in orderliness. Openness plus fluid intelligence is a good predictor of a person’s creative output.

Zillah, who is a main character throughout my entire series, is high in openness. She is the one who encourages the family to take in the injured foreigner Nimri when they stumble upon him as they are fleeing the Tower of Babel apocalypse. She adjusts to the new reality and accepts it far more quickly than Enmer, who never really comes to terms with it.

Though Zillah is not a “creative” person in the sense of producing visual art and music, she shows a great deal of creativity in the way she cares for her extended family, responding to crises, delivering babies, and bearing the brunt of caring for Nimri, including learning to speak with him. She becomes the tribe’s medicine woman and builds up a store of medical knowledge, and she is always on the lookout for someone who needs help.

7 thoughts on “The Big Five Personality Traits … and My Characters

  1. Are any of the Big Five traits inherently in tension or opposition? It seems like they’re pretty independent and you could have almost any combination, though of course some will be more rare. To me Extraversion and Neuroticism seem like the least likely pair. Conscientiousness and Openness maybe a little as well, but it’s not hard to think of people who are high in both of those (perhaps myself included).

    This whole framework reminds me of something I read once saying that the “science” of psychology is essentially just labeling various phenomena, without necessarily understanding much about them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, it’s not a hard science for sure. That said, there are more and less scientific ways to go about it. In his class lectures, Peterson talks about how when someone “discovers” a new trait, most of the time they don’t try to falsify it. The way to falsify it would be to make predictions about what types of things will correlate with the trait, and then correct for other traits that we can measure, such as IQ. They don’t try to falsify it, of course, because if they did manage to falsify it, they would no longer have a new discovery and then they couldn’t publish. According to him, most other systems can be reduced to the Big Five if you correct for Big Five traits.

      But I definitely think a ton of damage has been done by the approach that tries to treat psychology as a hard science rather than as a branch of the humanities. It’s coming out right now that the “serotonin imbalance causes depression” theory is not correct after all, and maybe you can’t fix depression with just a pill. I’ve also seen studies where, when someone scores slightly differently on a questionnaire, a tenth of a point worth of difference in score is taken to be as significant as a similar difference would be in, say, biochemistry (where it would be YUGE). “Tests” have been designed that “prove” that people have unconscious bias, and you can’t gainsay the test because it’s Scientific! But anyway, I’ve ranted about this before. I think the best psychological studies are longitudinal studies (which follow the subject over many years) and case histories. And where do we find the collected wisdom of longitudinal studies and case histories? Why, in history and literature respectively. That’s one reason I appreciate Peterson’s approach. He doesn’t come at all this from a strict materialist perspective, and he freely references stories both from literature and homely examples from people’s personal lives.

      You would think that Extraversion and Neuroticism would rarely occur together, because one relies on the reward system and one relies on the threat/inhibition system in the brain. But as you say, you often find people who are high in both. Like, imagine a mom who is super outgoing and always working on projects, but is also easily panicked by threats to her children. Apparently, the brain and mind are super complex and can run multiple systems at the same time. The same could be said for Conscientiousness and Openness. It would actually benefit a person to be high in both, because they would seek out new experiences, but would do so in an orderly way. Such a person would be a force to reckoned with.

      This comment is getting really long, so now I’ve got to post it so I can see it all at once, then edit.

      Edit: I guess it’s OK.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Chris Schallert, Idea Engine

      This is a good examination of traits and how you wrote them. Did you write your characters first, or learn the 5 Traits first and model your characters on those?

      Also, I agree with your opening paragraph. Much of the time, we tend to explain the world using our own terms. Some folks take that to an extreme and think our day that the world is exactly like them. I tend to view different personality theories less as diagnoses and more as a lens that someone else designed that actually makes clear sense. It’s not gospel truth, but it is a way to understand a facet of humanity a little better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wrote my characters first. I don’t remember when I learned about the Big 5, but I think it was after drafting my first two books. However, I was aware of the MBTI and loved it, but I still don’t use it when initially developing characters.

        When getting started with a character, I am able to get to know that person based upon how they respond to events in the plot. Once things get going, their personality and choices and character growth can feed back in to the plot, but I can’t just start with a pure personality floating in the ether. They need a situation to react to.

        I like your approach to personality typologies. It’s like I was saying to Benjamin, these studies can offer valuable insight, but not if we treat them as mathematical categories that determine how we treat people. People are so much more complicated than that.

        Liked by 1 person

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