The Big Two

April 2, 2012

I guess you’ve all heard of the ‘Big Five’ personality factors, or the five fundamental factors that help to describe most observable individual differences – namely, Openness (to experience), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You probably also know that when they are combined in various ways they help to frame all manner of other things like emotion and motivation. I suspect you also have an idea about what happens when you try to break them down into smaller units. For example, that Extraversion is composed of facets that include warmth, gregariousness and excitement-seeking. And that there’s a debate about whether, when you look at all five factors, you end up with 16 ‘bits’, or 30, or 32… But have you ever thought about what happens if you go the other way? What, if I can put it like this, happens before the Big Five?

The Big Two

It turns out there are two higher-order factors. The first brings together Emotional Stability (the opposite of Neuroticism), Agreeableness and Conscientiousness; the second Extraversion and Openness. These new groupings are called Stability and Plasticity, respectively. So what? Well, these two meta-traits capture the two basic human requirements. These are the need to maintain a stable social structure in order to get things done, and what is in some ways the flip-side, the need to be able to cope with change and the unknown (and learn from it). This is quite an elegant distinction as at various times either stability or plasticity is likely to confer a competitive advantage. It’s also useful because it ties in nicely with the action of the neurotransmitters Serotonin (stability and the generation of feelings of ‘well-being’) and Dopamine (plasticity and reward-driven learning).

From a business perspective the tension between maintaining a dependable social structure in order to ensure steady progress and being able to cope with unpredictable change also has a familiar resonance.

More information from Colin DeYoung’s website.

In defense of personality measurement

November 5, 2011

BTW if you’re ever asked to defend the use of personality questionnaires, this article by Robert Hogan is a good place to start:

You are what you do!

September 9, 2011

… And you do what you are!! I’m interested in different ways of finding out about people’s personality. That’s because personality questionnaires can only take you so far, and to be fair they rely on you having sufficient self-insight to answer the questions accurately, and of course, in being honest about yourself. What if there was a different way of doing it? What if your daily behaviour also said something about your personality? Well, it would make sense, wouldn’t it? Check out this questionnaire by James Pennebaker…

And as I’ve no doubt mentioned in a previous post, you may also like to read Sam Gosling’s intriguing book:

You’ll never think about Facebook, your website, bedroom, office, and behaviour in meetings in quite the same way again!

Investigating the personality of companies

August 24, 2011

“When we think about other people, we do so in terms that can be boiled down to five discrete personality dimensions: extraversion, introversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness and agreeableness (known as the Big Five factors). A new study suggests that a similar process is at work in our perception of companies and corporations. Google and Apple have personalities too, it seems.”

Read this post from the BPS Research Digest, Investigating the personality of companies, to discover the four fundamental dimensions…

Fairy tales and predicting good leaders

August 8, 2011

“A common phenomenon and problem in leadership practice concerns undue reliance on popular fads without sufficient consideration given to the validity of those ideas…” Click on the link below to read a very good review from Amazure Consulting for the evidence on cognitive tests, personality, situational judgement, emotional intelligence and interviews being ‘effective’ predictors of leadership ability.

Seven personality traits of top salespeople

June 28, 2011

So what distinguishes the top sales dog from the rest of the pack? It seems that high-performers are conscientious, achievement orientated, have high levels of curiosity, don’t get discouraged easily, and don’t suffer from being overly self-conscious. No surprises there then. However what’s rather more counter intuitive is that successful sales types are more modest than their pushy, in-your-face colleagues (hype and bull(dog) seem to put customers off); and, even more surprising, they are less gregarious. What’s going on here? Well it could be that being too friendly gets in the way of establishing dominance in a sales scenario – and you do need people to go into ‘obedience’ mode to get them to say ‘yes’. Anyone for walkies?

Want to know more? Read Steve Martin’s post on the Harvard Business Review blog.

Photo credit: Maggie Smith/

How to change your whole personality

June 6, 2011

Have you noticed there’s a Wiki for practically everything, including the highly informative WikiHow. However I think they may have gone too far this time… in this article they tell you how to change your whole personality! Although to be fair, in the final step, they do mention that you may be better off with your old self . Take a look:

It reminds me of those old Monty Python sketches. Want to learn to play the flute? Pick up a flute and whilst blowing across the opening move your fingers over the keys. Next week: how to create nuclear fission using some everyday chemicals you’ll find under your sink.

Brains and a ‘winning’ personality? Now that would be dangerous!

November 23, 2010

If you were only allowed to look for one thing in a prospective manager, what would it be? Business psychology tells us that it should be ‘brains’, or rather general intelligence, or if you want to be precise, the ‘fluid’ bit of general intelligence. That’s the sort of intelligence that helps you to solve problems you haven’t come across before. Why? Of all the things we could assess, general intelligence – or having sufficient brain power – is the most predictive of work performance. Now if you could pick a second thing (this is getting a bit like the three wishes granted by a genie, I admit), what would that be? Again if we go with what’s most predictive we would have select ‘conscientiousness’ – the personality attribute that’s associated with self-organisation, discipline, thoroughness and a need to achieve. It also happens to be the best predictor across all types of work. And if a third choice was available? Then it would have to be emotional stability: being positive, calm and relaxed and able to take what comes your way.

Do I need to pick anything else? Obviously knowledge and previous experience come into the frame, and it might also be useful to have a sociable (extrovert) manager, and maybe one who was open to new ideas, who was concerned for others, and honest, with a touch of insight… Stop. Actually we’ve already got the top three and we’ve known what they are for at least the last 20 years.

However it’s not quite that simple. Here’s the thing: whilst general intelligence and conscientiousness are both predictive of success at work, they do not correlate with each other; indeed some people have found a negative relationship between the two. What’s going on?  As you can probably imagine this has been the subject of much debate. One of the ideas is that a negative relationship is due to fluid intelligence affecting the development of conscientiousness. This has the snappy title of ‘intelligence compensation theory’ and it goes like this: fluid intelligence, being innate, is the most likely to influence a growing personality; and to cut to the chase, what then happens is that those with less intelligence compensate by developing higher levels of conscientiousness – and vice versa for those with higher intelligence. Well, it ties in with the statistics, but as you can imagine it’s rather controversial. Mind you it does help to explain the bright individual who flies by the seat of their pants (low conscientiousness) and who nevertheless tends to get away with it.

But getting back to our prospective manager, perhaps there’s a less esoteric explanation. Conscientiousness is a mix of different attributes, which usually include dutifulness and deliberation on the one hand, and achievement orientation and competence on the other. Thus it’s likely that the dutiful plodder aspects of this personality factor are negatively associated with intelligence; and the achieving, competent, striving bits are positively associated. So could it just be that we’ve been looking at personality at the wrong level?

So here’s the punch line –  looking for general intelligence, consciousness and emotional stability is still good advice, but don’t be surprised if those with brains can look like riskier bets because they sometimes get lower overall conscientiousness scores. You’re going to have to dig deeper to find out who you’re really dealing with!

Note: If you’re worried about the other bit of general intelligence, the learnt or ‘crystallised’ aspect, there’s an ongoing argument about whether that is or isn’t related to conscientiousness, and in what combination (or not) with fluid intelligence. Let alone those that think intelligence is part of personality. I expect you get the idea.

Barrick, M.R. & Mount, M.K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1-26.

Moutafi, J., Furnham, A. & Paltiel, L. (2004). Why is conscientiousness negatively correlated with intelligence? Personality and Individual Differences, 37(5), 1013-1022.

Schmidt, F.L. & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings.  Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-274.

Photo credit: Francesco Marino/

Free personality tests…

November 18, 2010

If you want some reputable, free and easy-to-use personality tests here are a few links:

You will also find many more links to free tests and questionnaires on my website at:

PS: Strictly speaking personality tests aren’t ‘tests’, it would be more accurate to describe them as questionnaires, inventories or indicators – one of the reasons being that unlike tests there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to the questions.

Photo credit: Ambro/

Can introverts lead?

November 18, 2010

Watch this video interview. The expert is Francesca Gino who is an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School.

Can introverts lead?

It lasts just over 9 minutes.


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