Temperament: “Big Ones” and related issues

Today, I would like to visit two more thoughts on the Big One

I. The first concerns both the recent “Big One”–the discovery of a single factor within the Big Five Personality factors–and the other “big one”–Effortful Control.  Are these two conflicting ideas?  Compatible ideas?  The same idea in different labels?

My reading of it is that they are separate ideas, not necessarily conflicting, and perhaps compatible in ways that might be surprising.  The Big-One, as noted in an earlier blog, was found through factor analysis of the Big Five factors.  High scorers on the One do well on what might be thought of as the positive side of all five Big Five factors.  That is, they rate high as extraverted, conscientious, agreeable, open-minded and emotionally stable, and this is believed to go together as a general factor of personality or gfp.  The gfp, in turn, is believed to predict that employers will rate performance more highly in those with a high gfp, and peers will rate them as more likeable.  (So far, there doesn’t seem to be a term for those who rate as introverted, unconscientious, disagreeable, closed-minded and emotionally unstable,  but “loser” doesn’t sound too far off!)

The point is, high gfp defines fairly specific behaviors–actions that the owner could be predicted to display in most circumstances. Effortful control–also a single factor and thus a “big one”, is trickier.  Let me repeat a definition from an earlier blog.  “Effortful control as a temperamental dimension in itself…refers to superordinate self-regulatory systems that can assert control over…other temperament systems, so that an analogy to “effort” or “will” is appropriate.”.  In the factor analysis that produced effortful control as a single factor, there were two other factors, one related to extraversion and the other to a generally negative state including fear, anger and sadness.  Effortful control was seen as exerting control over the other two factors, rather than blending with them.  You can imagine someone with high effortful control, but also high fear, anger, etc. learning to get some control over being driven by these emotions, or at at least the expression of them, where someone with low effortful control might just be a blobby mess in this area.

So, how does this relate to the Big Five and the Big One?  As far as I know, no one has examined this, so we are left to our imaginations.  Certainly nothing in the Big Five and therefore the Big One suggests a role for will power.  We might guess that someone high in conscientiousness, might be exerting effortful control to maintain this, but then again, if it is virtually a natural, unlearned behavior–if it just feels good to be conscientious–then perhaps effort is irrelevant.

But, lets try an opposite extreme.  Might a highly successful serial killer have our basic loser profile–low in all parts of the Big Five/Big One (except perhaps conscientiousness), certainly not agreeable, probably not truly extraverted or open-minded or (by the standards most of us use–emotionally stable) and yet be high in effortful control?  Even in granting conscientiousness, it would be in the sense of being methodical about planning and details.  If you are a fan of legal/police/CSI/whodunit stories, you know that some serial killers are described as highly organized and meticulous, and successful, as well, for long periods of time.

The general findings about high effortful control are that it predicts, from early childhood onward, positive development and stability, but if it is truly an independent factor, it seems possible that it could occasionally be found in persons lacking most of the other civilizing factors–and therefore, that serial murderers and the Adolf Hitlers of the world, might be surprisingly high on this factor.  (Your comments would be very welcome here!)

II.  With respect to the Big Five/Big One, a recent comment from Lars, on the Big-One raised interesting points.  He noted “Hm, this one-factor solution seems also a bit scary. I imagine employers testing candidates for desirability 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 personalities for a functioning society. The one factor theory would lead to more conformity.”

Interestingly, a blogger at www.nickyee.com/ponder/big5.html commented in 2005 (before the Big-One was disseminated), that there was a high degree of intercorrelation between each of the Big Five factors, suggesting that “the Big Five is inherently measuring something else that is common to all five factors.”  We now know that this is so, given the findings on the Big-One.  However this author has his own explanation for this.  Given that the Big Five was built by looking at the many thousands of descriptive words for humans, as given in our dictionaries, he suggests that “the way we describe other people is laden with (cultural) assumptions of what is good or bad behavior.  It is better to be “friendly” than “aloof”, better to be”organized” rather than “messy” and the Big Five begins to appear to be one big survey with just one question–are  you a good or bad person?” He asks “Has personality psychology become a glorified way of deciding who does and doesn’t fit in society?”

It is certainly true that the Big-Five/Big-One expects the best people to be Extraverted, Conscientious, Agreeable, Open-Minded and Emotionally Stable.  That  casts a serious shadow on preferences in the MBTI for Introverson, Sensing, Thinking and Perceiving.  While there may be good reasons in a particular position for ruling out any one of these preferences, it really is alarming to think of a world in which, for example, there is no room for the sometimes stubborn, sometimes disagreeable –but sometimes absolutely right–T.

Finally the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (the fifth edition and a 10 year work in progress) will debut in June of 2013, and in its current form is proposing to use* a “series of six personality “trait domains” that are based on the widely used Five Factor Model of  Personality”, as one part of the process of diagnosing Personality Disorders.  Whether this will really happen, and how closely the trait domains will really resemble the Big Five remains to be seen, but it could become one more cultural tool to shape the “good person” model.


* http://www.psychologytoday,com/blog/the-shrink-tank/201002/dsm-v

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3 Responses to Temperament: “Big Ones” and related issues

  1. Alok says:

    I never watch what I eat until now I’m a mom of two school-age kids, I do want them to have a good start in the mornnig. Our schooldays breakfast menus include:- hot steel cut oatmeal w/ flaxseed meal & drizzled w/ raw honey- multigrain toast drizzled w/ raw honey- “made from scratch” blueberries pancake w/ flaxseed meal- 1/2 avocado sprinkled w/ course salt & lime juice- bran flax or plain multigrain cheeriosOne of the above plus the following to complete one breakfast:- 1/2 hard boiled egg- low fat milk- 1 serving of fruitI hope this is a dietician-approved menu but certainly moms-approved :). Keep rotating these every weekdays I do feel like I’m running out of ideas!Enjoy your blog very much, particularly like your portion control. Keep up the good work!

  2. INTJ says:

    Wow! I think I did a bad job of trying to make my point. I didn’t mean to imply that a bad outcome was likely with high effortful control–only that it sounds like an independent factor that could lead wherever the rest of your personality factors took you. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

    Regarding point two, I agree that language is what we have to work with, but it seems to me that certain aspects of our language are pretty much missing in the Big Five and other similar instruments. How about determination? Being resolute? Courageous? Independent? Unwavering? I think that is the point about these tests being tailored to certain cultural values and downplaying others.

  3. Lars says:

    About point 1:
    I don’t see a correlation between effortful control and serial killers and the likes. I think its quite otherwise: if they had high effortful control, they would be able to change to the good.
    I rather think effortful control would be found in highly multitalented persons, who can do many things very good. It might be also something that good actors use, to control their personality on stage.

    About point 2:
    The problem lies in our language. So many words have either good or bad meanings. Since the Big Five builds on language, its only natural that the Big Five traits have leanings to good and bad sides.
    However i see no option to avoid this. When not using language, what else to describe personality? Even if we use purely observation, we need to describe the observation, and therfore we need words. The other possibility would be to make a personality model based not on statistics, but on theory, on ideas. Like MBTI and the likes. But then we have the problem that there is many interpretation and speculation going on, which leads to unscientific and unprooved results.
    The third solution might be biological, but we are still far away from this.

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