The Lexical Hypothesis and Factor Models

In 1936 two American psychologists Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert began to focus on finding the most efficacious way to describe differences between people’s personalities. They suggested that the individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people’s lives would eventually become encoded into their language; the more important such a difference, the more likely is it to become expressed as a single word. This becomes known as the Lexical Hypothesis. It suggested that by sampling language, it would be possible to derive a comprehensive taxonomy of human personality traits. Allport and Odbert thus worked through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available at the time, and extracted 18,000 personality-describing words. From this gigantic list they extracted 4500 adjectives describing non physical differences which could be considered to describe observable and relatively permanent traits.

Lexical Hypothesis: The individual differences that are most salient and socially relevant in people’s lives become encoded into their language

In 1946 Raymond Cattell used the emerging technology of computers to analyse the Allport-Odbert list. He organised the list into 181 clusters and asked subjects to rate people whom they knew by the adjectives on the list. Using factor analysis and further research Cattell generated a sixteen factor framework which included a wide range of individual factors including intelligence.

With these sixteen factors as a basis, Cattell went on to construct the 16PF Personality Questionnaire, which remains in use today. Although subsequent research has failed to validate some of the factors he identified, his methodology of factor analysis and the first list of factors he produced has stood the test of time. Despite his revered place in psychometric history Cattell’s factor model undoubtedly retained too many factors.

The Big 5
In 1961, two Air Force researchers, Tupes and Christal analysed personality data from eight large samples. Using Cattell’s trait measures, they found five recurring factors. This work was replicated by Norman shortly afterwards. He found that five major factors were sufficient to account for a large set of personality data. Norman named these factors Surgency, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Culture. At a 1981 symposium in Honolulu, four prominent researchers, Lewis Goldberg, Naomi Takemoto-Chock, Andrew Comrey, and John M. Digman, reviewed the available personality tests of the day. They concluded that the tests which held the most promise measured a subset of five common factors, just as Norman had discovered in 1963. This event was followed by widespread acceptance of the five factor model among personality researchers during the 1980s, as well as the publication of the NEO PI-R five-factor personality inventory by Costa and McCrae in 1985. The Big 5 has thus become widely accepted as the most robust model of personality. Research shows that 80% of personality variance can be expressed in these five broad dimensions. The Big Five are now viewed as the first and only scientific consensus in personality psychology. The Big 5 dimensions are:

Open to Experience V Practical
» Openness: Artistic, Intellectual, Adventurous, Experimenting, Curious.
» Practical: Conventional, Narrow Interests, Avoiding the unfamiliar, Inartistic, Down to earth.

Conscientious V Spontaneous:
» Conscientiousness: Cautious, Disciplined, Planful, Neat, High on need for structure
» Spontaneousness: Flexible, Spontaneous, Low on attention to detail, Less structured

Extraversion V Introversion:
» Extraversion: Talkative, Optimistic, Sociable, Assertive, High in need for stimulation
» Introversion: Self sufficient, Quiet, Less assertive, Reserved

Agreeableness V Independence:
» Agreeableness: Compassionate, Trusting, Compliant, Modest, Sensitive
» Independent: Dominant, Critical, Demanding, Detached.

EmotioNal V Composed:
» High on emotioNal: Self critical, Anxious, Worrying, Emotional, Restless
» Low on emotioNal: Relaxed, Calm, Secure, Unemotional, Even-tempered

One of the most significant advances of the five-factor model was the establishment of a common framework that demonstrates order in a previously scattered and disorganised field. The “Big Five” has provided psychologists with a common basis for researching personality variances in a consistent and systematic manner. What separates the five-factor model of personality from all others is that it is not based on the theory of any one particular psychologist, but rather on language, the natural system that people use to communicate their understanding of one another.

The Big 5 are now accepted by most personality researchers as providing a definition of human personality at the highest level of organization (Goldberg 1993). They bring order to the ever widening array of specific lower-level personality concepts proposed by diverse theorists and assessment designers. A multitude of personality assessment tools can now be easily be mapped to the “Big Five”.

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