A guide to understanding personality: an introduction to Moral Character

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By Gabriel Mendonça de Faria

Understanding your own personality is one of the paths to self-knowledge. The aim of this article is to explain the Big Five personality traits and their respective aspects, so that the reader can locate and understand a little about the study of personality. At the end of the text, it’s also presented the traits that possibly predict moral behavior, to facilitate the comprehension of Moral Character.

Personality will be treated here as an organization of unique characteristics of the individuals, that describes and explains their patterns of feelings, thoughts and behaviors. These characteristics are their personality traits, which represent trends in the way of thinking, feeling and acting; and are predispositions to respond to stimuli (JOHN et al., 2010).

The study of personality traits allows relationships with several variables, one of which is the moral behavior. Based on the concept of personality, Cohen and Morse (2014) define the Moral Character as the patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that are associated with moral or ethical behavior. Therefore, the character traits are the personality traits relevant to morality and ethics.

Since character traits are a subset of personality traits (COHEN et al., 2014), it is necessary to first understand what the big traits are. For this, from now on will be presented the main personality structure used by researchers in this area.

The Big Five is a model that divides personality into five dimensions: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience (JOHN et al., 2010; DE ANDRADE, 2008). These are the broader personality traits, called factors (or domains). To evaluate the some of the narrow traits, in this text, the aspects of personality discovered by DeYoung, Quilty and Peterson (2007) will be used.

Before explaining the Big Five, it’s necessary to make an observation. These traits are broad personality characteristics, therefore, do not cover all the individual characteristics of the human being. However, nowadays, it is the best way to measure personality, which in this case is the combination of scores in these five dimensions. These scores can be obtained through psychological assessment questionnaires such as the NEO-PI-R and the BFP. The explanation below is based in the Big five Aspects Scale questionnaire, which analyzes the five domains and their aspects in 100 items measured using a 5-point Likert scale (DEYOUNG; PETERSON; QUILTY, 2007).

The Big Five

Extraversion

This factor measures the amount and intensity of interpersonal interactions. Therefore, individuals who score a lot in this domain tend to enjoy interactions with other people, having a full energy approach to the social world. They are active, enthusiastic, dominant, sociable, and talkative individuals, and tend to possess cheerful characteristics (positive emotions).

People who have low scores in this factor, possess the characteristic of introversion. Introverts do not feed of interactions with people, prefer to avoid this type of situation, which can be exhausting. They tend to be more withdrawn, submissive and quiet. They may even possess social skills, but they simply prefer to avoid contact with people.

Assertiveness is an aspect of Extroversion. It indicates the idea of social dominance, as well as the influence on others. People who score a lot in this aspect tend to have strong personality, take the lead, control the situation, and put their opinions out without difficulties.

Another aspect of Extroversion is Enthusiasm that describes an energetic approach and positive emotions. The person who scores a lot in this aspect tends to make friends easily, be nice, have a lot of fun and get excited easily.

Agreeableness

Agreeableness, also known as socialization, evaluates the quality of interpersonal relationships, measuring how much the individual is oriented towards the others. The individual with high Agreeableness scores tends to have a pro-social and communitarian approach in relation to others, with a high probability of constructing pleasant relationships. Usually, people who score a lot in this factor tend to be kind, cooperative and affectionate, possessing characteristics such as altruism, tenderness, trust and modesty.

The person who has low Agreeableness tends to be cold and indelicate in relation to others, and may be cynical, rude, suspicious and non-cooperative. Moreover, also tends to be manipulative, vindictive and even dishonest.

One of the aspects of Agreeableness is Compassion, which measures emotional affiliation with others. A high score in this aspect indicates that the individual tends to be affiliated with the others emotionally. The person with high Compassion usually cares and cares about the problems and needs of others, are helpful and feel the emotions of others, that is, they have empathy.

The second aspect is Politeness, which measures respect towards others, characterizing a more rational process than Compassion. Individuals who punctuate high in Politeness tend to be educated, modest, moral and respectful to others, they also probably don’t seek and neither like conflicts. A low score here reveals signs of narcissism and the tendency to pursue their own desires on the costs of others.

Conscientiousness

This factor evaluates the degree of organization, persistence and motivation of the individual in his behavior directed towards objectives. Individuals with high Conscientiousness scores are usually organized, self-disciplined, workers, punctual, ambitious and perseverant. They tend to be able to think before they act, as well as resist the temptation of an immediate prize to get a bigger one in the future. They also have a behavior aimed at tasks and objectives. These characteristics can facilitate the execution of obligations and duties.

People with low scores in Conscientiousness usually do not have a behavior oriented towards objectives and tasks, they tend to be careless, disorganized, lazy and negligent.

One aspect of this factor is Industriousness, which measures the commitment to work. People with high scores in this aspect tend to perform the plan, do not waste time and work hard.

The second aspect is Orderliness, which measures the need to put things in order, organizing things, tasks and behaviors. The individual who scores a lot here tends to follow routines and see that rules are being observed. Moreover, perfectionism is also a characteristic of this aspect.

Neuroticism

This is the dimension of negative emotions. Neuroticism evaluates the emotional instability of individuals, identifying propensity for disorders. People with high Neuroticism usually have characteristics such as anxiety, nervousness, sadness and tension, configuring emotional instability. They can also be highly sensitive and concerned.

A low score in neuroticism indicates emotional stability. Emotionally stable individuals are usually calm, relaxed, not emotive and satisfied with themselves.

Volatility is an aspect of this factor. It measures emotional instability through irritability and difficulty in controlling emotional impulses. Therefore, a high score indicates a difficulty in controlling emotions, propensity to mood swings and high irritability.

Another aspect of Neuroticism is Withdrawal (solitude, isolation) that measures how much the individual is susceptible to negative effects. While Volatility was characterized by the externalization of problems, Withdrawal is characterized by internalization. Individuals with high scores in this aspect tend to feel negative emotions and save them for themselves.

Openness to Experience

Openness to Experience assesses the dimension of imagination and intellect, measuring the proactivity and appreciation of experience. Individuals who score a lot here are usually curious, creative, original, imaginative and unconventional. They also have an open mind and artistic traits.

A low score in this factor predicts a conventional individual, who has limited interests, with few artistic traits and almost a non-analytical approach.

Above, are mentioned traits related to openness, however, this factor also predicts reflection and reasoning ability. From this, the two aspects were traced: Openness itself, and Intellect.

Intellect is the aspect of this factor that measures interest in ideas. People who score a lot here tend to understand complex ideas and like abstract discussions.

Another aspect is Openness itself, which assesses the dimension of imagination and fantasy. Individuals who score a lot in this aspect tend to be creative and enjoy new experiences.

Final considerations and character traits

From the comprehension of the Big Five, the following question is asked: What are the personality traits that compose the Moral Character? Many studies have been made in this sense, seeking specific relationships with the Big Five. The results obtained do not guarantee a consistency between the traits and moral behavior, however, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness stand out as predictors of moral behavior.

The relationship with Opening to Experience may be due to the ability of reasoning that can be measured by the Intellect aspect. Researchers such as Cawley, Martin and Johnson (2000) and of Lonky and his colleagues (1984) found that moral reasoning is associated with openness to experience.

As for Agreeableness, some relationship can be made with moral behavior, since this factor encompasses the trait of Honesty-Humility, which characterizes the interest of maintaining positive social relations (COHEN et al., 2014).

Conscientiousness may also be related to moral behavior. Russell (1997) found a strong relationship between Conscientiousness and moral development. The author justifies this finding by the fact that people with high Conscientiousness scores tend to strictly fulfill their social and civic duties.

However, this doesn’t mean that people with high Extroversion or high Neuroticism are immoral. As these two factors don’t have any consistent relationship with moral behavior, it’s not possible to assert something like that. The studies cited above only show possible relationships, not an absolute condition.

For deeper research into Moral Character, I suggest reading the work of Taya R. Cohen, exposed in the references, and the handbookedited by Oliver P. John – a classic of personality studies.

References:

CAWLEY III, Michael J.; MARTIN, James E.; JOHNSON, John A. A virtues approach to personality. Personality and Individual Differences, v. 28, N. 5, p. 997-1013, 2000.

COHEN, Taya R. et al. Moral character in the workplace. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 107, N. 5, p. 943, 2014.

COHN, R.; MORSE, Lily. Moral character: What it is and what it does. Research in organizational Behavior, v. 34, p. 43-61, 2014.

DAY, Russell WC. Relations between moral reasoning, personality traits, and justice-decisions on hypothetical and real-life moral dilemmas. 1997. Doctoral thesis. Theses (Dept. of Psychology)/Simon Fraser University.

DEYOUNG, Colin G.; CH’I, Lena C.; PETERSON, Jordan B. Between Facets and domains: 10 aspects of the Big Five. Journal of personality and social Psychology, v. 93, N. 5, p. 880, 2007.

DE ANDRADE, Josemberg Moura. Evidências de validade do inventário dos cinco grandes fatores de personalidade para o Brasil. 2008. Tese de Doutorado. Ph. D. thesis, Universidade de Brasília.

JOHN, Oliver P. et al. Handbook of Personality: Theory and research. Guilford, 2010.

LONKY, Edward; KAUS, Cheryl R.; ROODIN, Paul A. Life experience and mode of coping: Relation to moral judgment in adulthood. Developmental Psychology, v. 20, N. 6, p. 1159, 1984.