Temperament: Does the Big One have a Special Purpose?

The previous blog (Temperament and the Big Five, Big Six, and wups-the Big One!) introduced the idea of a “general factor of personality” or gfp.  Just as the many individual tests that go into an intelligence test like the WISK or the Stanford-Binet, seem to have a common factor running through them that is referred to as the general g, so researchers believe that over a very wide variety of personality tests you can find the gfp.  There is a lot of convincing evidence for this, but that leaves the person reading about this thinking“ and so?”

 Well, backing up to IQ, a major value of the general g concept is that it suggests that a person high in g will be efficient, able, competent (substitute your word for intelligent) in a wide variety of situations.  It has also been possible, over the years to show a high level of heritability for g with figures ranging from 50% to 80%.

 Researchers working with the gfp factor are now claiming a similar thing—both that gfp is a factor that will appear in a wide number social and interpersonal situations for the person who is high in gfp, but also that it is meaningfully heritable.  A review published in 2011 reported that “several cross-national twin studies have found that 50% of the GFP variance is due to genetic influence…”*The researchers go on to say that the GFP is largely a genetic factor, that is, individuals who are genetically disposed to have high scores on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability are genetically disposed to have high scores on openness, sociability, self-esteem and so on.”   What is not genetic (the other 50%) is considered to be almost entirely from the non-shared environment.   That is, identical twins who differ on gfp do so largely because of events that occurred with one twin and not the other–some life experience outside the home that one twin had and not the other, a severe illness in one twin and not the other, and so forth.  However mysterious this seems, the non-shared environment idea has been around for a long time.

So, following along with this, most of the qualities that we would consider to be admirable in a friend, a child, or other family member, appear to travel together in some genetic fashion, frequently giving us dutiful, agreeable, stable, open and sociable people in one grand gfp package, and/or varying degrees of disagreeable, irresponsible, unstable, closed minded and unsociable people in other packages.

On a practical level there have been some findings of correlations between gfp scores and employers’ performance ratings, and peers’ ratings of likeability.  Whether that will prove to be more useful than individual Big Five Scores remains to be seen.

What really has researchers in a state of excitement, however, is the broader idea that the genetically based gfp factor may have evolved purposefully.  As far back as 1871, Darwin had suggested that humans, compared with all of the non-human primates, were more cooperative and peaceable.  He suggested that these traits evolved in order to provide greater fitness for living together in communities.* Today, that is exactly what researchers suggest.    All of these socially desirable traits for agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, etc. are seen as allowing people to cooperate within larger groups, and work together more peaceably.  The genetic selection argument is that people high on the gfp factor were (and are) preferred as fellow workers and leaders, but also as mates, and thus have propagated the gfp package more widely.  In spite of a human world that seems forever on the brink of blowing itself up, these researchers see natural selection as working doggedly to produce what might be called a more humane humanity through the gfp factor.


*Rushton, J. Philippe & Irwing, Paul (2011).  The General Factor of Personality:  Normal and Abnormal.  (This is taken from The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences, First Edition) but was found online under this title).


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3 Responses to Temperament: Does the Big One have a Special Purpose?

  1. INTJ says:

    I think this is very much worth worrying about. The psychiatrists and psychologists that are revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual–the only accepted guide to what is and is not mental illness–have already decided that all patients should take the Five Factor Neo-PI. This bothers me precisely because the good person on this is always Agreeable, Conscientious, and Open Minded. That sounds nice, but it is definitely a personality type that excludes a lot of other possibilities, including being principled, determined and willing to be disagreeable for a worthwhile cause.

    Anyhow, it wouldn’t be a huge further step to say that all patients should also be evaluated with the new one-factor solution.

    • Lars says:

      Yes, some employers also use Big Five tests in candidate selection. The good-bad distinction is an elementary problem of the Big Five. It is often stated the traits are not supposed to be good/bad, but their direction is clearly visible. Would be good to see some future research or papers concentrating on “the good side of the bad sides”.

  2. Lars says:

    Hm, this one-factor solution seems also a bit scary. I imagine employers testing candidates for desireabilty of personality. This is especially problematic if much of this factor its genetic and therefore people can only to some degree influence them.

    It also contradicts the idea that we need people of diverse personalites for a functioning society. The one factor theory would lead to more conformity.

    But gladly this is only used in the field of science today. Lets see what they make of it and if it shows to have any relevance.

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