Big 5 versus MBTI

There are two major players in the world of personality these days: the Big 5 (aka OCEAN, the Five Factor Model, etcetera) and MBTI, better known as Myers-Briggs.

A lot of people view it as one versus the other, but I feel like that is the impulsive approach born of not understanding fully how they work.  MBTI is a type theory of personality with stark black and white answers.  OCEAN, however, is a trait theory which places people on a continuum rather than simply on one side of a line.

I like both of these theories, and I see no reason they can’t just play nice and get along.  They are practically cousins.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look.

Yes, I’m a nerd. A huge nerd. For the record: I’m Remus Lupin AND Draco Malfoy!

MBTI / Myers-Briggs

Extroversion versus Introversion- Do I really need to explain this one?  Loud versus quiet, active versus contemplative, outgoing versus reserved, etcetera.

Sensing versus iNtuition- Old school versus innovation, tradition versus novelty, details versus big picture, conservative versus liberal, etcetera.

Thinking versus Feeling- Logical versus people-focused, analysis versus impressions, cold and rational versus warm and emotional, IQ versus EQ, etcetera

Judging versus Perceiving- Organized versus free-form, scheduled versus spontaneous, long-term versus short-term, planner versus doer, etcetera.

One thing I want to make very clear: There is no right or wrong!  One simply is what they are (I’m sure you’ve seen that on a fortune cookie before).  Feelers are not better than thinkers, although they are better suited to situations requiring, or aided by, empathy.  Extroverts are not better than introverts, but they are better at social situations.  Personality traits are inclinations and skills, they are only good or bad when put into context.  Even then, I hesitate to say good or bad.  It is more accurate to say that each trait represents certain advantages and disadvantages a given person has in different situations.

The Good

People love the MBTI!  Businesses use it frequently and almost everyone has heard of it, even if they can’t remember their letters.  The guidance can help people who are not sure of the ideal career path for themselves or who want to understand themselves, their partner, their coworkers, etcetera.  Long story short: It is useful and applicable even by the layman (or woman).

The Bad

Everyone has the same objection when taking a MBTI inventory: “It depends on the situation.”  Yes, yes it does!  Still, you should answer with what your natural and normal response is, your most comfortable response.  It does have the unfortunate habit of shoehorning people into one category or the other.  Even if you do shell out the money for the MBTI step II, that just give you more detail as to how you got shoehorned.  Take me for example.  I always came up an INTJ for the longest time then, after I turned 20 or so, I started coming up as an INFJ.  This is because (I say as someone who did shell out for the step II) I have the logical thought processes of a T, but the empathy of an F.  This is one of the most common criticisms.
A less common criticism would be how MBTI blends intelligence with personality.  Someone identified as a T is someone who is very strong in Howard Gardner’s “Logical/Mathematical” intelligence.  Someone identified as an F is not necessarily someone who is weak in that same intelligence.  More on that later.

The Ugly

The consequence of MBTI being popular and dichotomous is that it encourages those who use it to view their fellow humans as fitting into one of the predetermined 16 spots.  To be completely fair, 16 possible personality types is not bad (better than the 9 of astrology at least).  Even if you don’t fit perfectly into one of them, I can pretty much promise at least one or two is very close.  That said, it enforces a black and white view of the world which is simply false.  Dichotomies pretty much never work, we all fall on a continuum.  Even sexual orientation (to use something topical) is a continuum of preferences from gay, bisexual, straight, and even including asexual.  To rely on a tool that can not handle ambiguity is to remove our ability to handle ambiguity.  When you’re a power drill, everything looks like a screw, even if you do have 16 different heads.  That is why we then turn to the Big 5.

The Big 5 / OCEAN / Five Factor Model

Each trait is a continuum with neither end being better than the other.

O: Openness to experience / Originality, depending on who you ask.  Either way, this measures someone’s preference for the novel to the traditional.  Someone low in this trait is going to prefer tradition and the way things currently are to the way that they could be.  Nothing wrong with that (as much as some may argue otherwise), just a different viewpoint than those high in the trait who are willing to take risks for the sake of innovation.

C: Conscientiousness is not a measure of kindness, but rather of organization.  A highly conscientious person is highly organized, focused, and timely.  These are the people who live by plans, schedules, and deadlines.  Those low in conscientiousness are those who tend to prefer not having a plan or a set schedule.  They are usually more spontaneous and free-spirited.

E: Again, extroversion versus introversion.  Since this is a scale representing how extroverted someone is, introverts are at the low end and extroverts on the high end.  Again, no value judgement, just differences of approach and energy levels.

A: Agreeableness is, much of what it sounds like, how agreeable someone is to the attitudes of others.  Those who are highly agreeable are those who naturally adapt and incorporate the needs of others into their lives.  They are altruistic, giving, and largely selfless.  Those low in agreeableness are more egocentric.  These are ‘tough love’ kind of people for whom the emotions of others do not matter as much as the reality or facts of the situation at hand.

N: Neuroticism describes how stable a person’s emotions are.  The low extreme is a person so resilient nothing seems to faze them, good or bad, ever.  On the high extreme is someone who is very emotionally responsive.  Neither of these is better than the other, there are times where it is good to be resilient and others to be responsive.  This simply describes where a person falls on average.

The Good

The Five Factor model is incredibly useful and accurate.  By accurate I mean that it produces consistent results on the same person when retested.  When I say it is useful I mean that it can be used to predict someone’s behavior.  For example:  I know someone who is very low in agreeableness, low neuroticism, moderately high extroversion, high conscientiousness, and middle openness.  I can predict with almost disturbing accuracy how this person will react to a situation, to the point that they often remarked on how I seem to be psychic.  This person is very difficult to disrupt emotionally and not very skilled at handling the emotions of others, but is highly reliable and will always come through for someone (see high conscientiousness).  Although they have their traditions that they will not sacrifice, they are also open to change and take it in stride (middle openness).  I know that, when interacting with this person, my best approach is not to appeal to the emotions of others, but to their own sense of logic.  It is possible to predict someone’s political leanings based almost exclusively on Conscientiousness and Openness, but Agreeableness is not irrelevant.

Oh, and if you care about these things (like me), each one of the five factors is linked to physical brain activity.  What does that mean?  It means that the Five Factor is not just a construct, but rather explains quantifiable differences in brain chemistry and how those differences impact cognition, personality, and behavior.

The Bad

This is complicated!  Any reliable method of discussing human personality would be, but this in particular is difficult to wield if you are not intimately familiar with it.  There are 5 dimensions, each of which with a wide range of grey in between.  It takes a diagram to quickly describe someone’s personality using this method and even that would be tricky to read.  It is also very easy to assume a high score is inherently a good score.  We tend to assume that a high score means something is good and a low score is something that is bad.  In this case, however, it is all based on circumstances.

The Ugly

The Big 5, is mostly a theoretical classification of behaviors rather than an explanatory tool.  It describes and predicts, but does not really explain personality.  Whereas the ugly of the MBTI is pretty straightforward, the Big 5’s shortcomings are actually very abstract.  Long story short: it works well, but does not fit all the criteria that psychologists might want.

Unifying the Theories

So what is so great about the MBTI?  Its apparent simplicity.  What is so great about the Big 5?  Its flexibility.

Think these two don’t get along?  Then check this out:


They describe the same things!  There are only two points where they are not equivalent.

T/F is not an exact match for agreeableness because of how it conflates personality and intelligence.  Logical/Mathematical is an intelligence described by Howard Gardner’s MI theory describing logical and analytical thinking.  Someone can be highly agreeable and still highly logical, there is nothing inherently contradictory about that.  The two do not tend to go together, but that does not mean that they can’t.  If, however, you extract the logical thinking from T/F, you get agreeableness.

What about neuroticism, what do we do with that?  It has no correlate within MBTI.  What neuroticism does is modify how all the other traits manifest themselves.  A highly neurotic person tends to display the more negative aspects of a given factor more easily.  A highly neurotic person with a low extroversion score, for example, would respond more negatively to social situations than someone with the same extroversion score but a lower neuroticism score.

If we combine them, we get something much greater and more useful than either one on their own.  This is especially true if we use the shades of grey permitted by the Big 5.

What is the big thing to take away from this?  Besides a quick overview on personality (yes, this is a quick overview), what is the lesson?

There is often value in comparing different perspectives to see how they are similar instead of how they are different.


4 thoughts on “Big 5 versus MBTI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s