The Science of Personality: from Hannibal Lecter to Peter Parker

Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk |
Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk |

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines personality as, “the set of emotional qualities, ways of behaving, etc., that makes a person different from other people.” As a social species, early humans relied on the ability to accurately assess personality for survival. An explicit demand, effective with a more balanced neighbor, may have spelled trouble when directed towards an aggressive one. Accurate personality assessment is no less important in the modern world of business in which social interactions often affect monetary reward. And yet, in spite of the important role of personality assessment in our day-to-day life, most of us would have difficulty providing a taxonomic description of the personalities that surround us.

There is clear value in developing an ability to accurately and consistently describe the personality structures of our social contacts. The inherent knowledge of personality that we all possess can be greatly enhanced by an objective and intentional study of the topic. As such, today we will discuss a leading model of personality structure and then consider the implications and potential applications contained therein.

The Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality traits is arguably the most widely accepted model used to study human personality.1 The five components of the FFM, also known as the “Big Five,” are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.2 Students trying to learn the FFM often recall the five factors using the mnemonic: “OCEAN.”

Photo by Stefanus Martanto |
Photo by Stefanus Martanto |

Dr. William McDougall was a British psychologist who held positions at Oxford, Harvard, and Duke universities throughout his career. In a 1932 article, Dr. McDougall became the first scientist to describe human personality in terms of five domains.3 Although Dr. McDougall’s five domains differ from the present version, the domains served as a foundation for the work of personality researchers that followed, including Dr. Warren T. Norman who in the 1960s developed the FFM as it is used today.4

The most commonly used test for evaluating an individual’s FFM personality profile is the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness to Experience Personality Inventory, or the NEO PI-3. The NEO PI-3 was developed by Drs. McCrae and Costa in the 1970s. The first version did not include measures for conscientiousness and agreeableness, but by the time these dimensions were added the test was widely known as the “NEO” and the acronym wasn’t updated.5

The NEO PI-3 takes about 40 minutes to complete and examines six components of each of the five personality domains.6 The NEO PI-3 demonstrates a high degree of reliability and validity, measures that roughly correspond with the consistency of test results and the generalizability of findings, respectively.7 There are other tools that scientists use to measure personality, but for the purposes of our current discussion a knowledge of the NEO PI-3 will suffice.

Returning to our OCEAN mnemonic, let’s examine each of the five FFM domains in mnemonic order (we will attempt to maintain this order throughout the article to aid in recall). In the interest of clarity, we may simplify the FFM at times. Additionally, we will consider only a binary “high” or “low” score on each of the FFM domains. One should be aware that the domains are, in fact, dimensional and that individuals fall along a continuum rather than on one or the other end of an extreme. For additional details and clarifications, we would direct the interested reader to our citations and recommend a perusal of the source material. And now, without further verbiage, let’s begin.

Individuals who score highly on the openness to experience domain seek out novelty and crave variety. People who have low scores on the openness to experience domain tend to be fulfilled by perseverance on singular tasks.1,8,9

A high score in the conscientiousness domain reflects an individual’s proficiency at holding impulsive behavior in check while indicating a strength in timely and diligent task completion. Those individuals who have low scores in the conscientiousness domain are more flexible, but are also more impulsive and have difficultly following through with tasks. 1,8,9

High scores on measures of extraversion correlate with dominance, talkativeness, and positive emotionality. Low extraversion scores correspond with a more contemplative or reserved individual.1,8,9

Individuals who score highly on agreeableness tend to exhibit a high degree of altruism, cooperativeness, and trust. Individuals with low scores on agreeableness are more antagonistic, indifferent to others, and suspicious.1,8,9

Finally, a high score on a measure of neuroticism correlates with a high degree of chronic negative emotionality, emotional instability, and anger. Those who have low neuroticism scores tend to be more emotionally stable and calm.1,8,9

Now that we have completed our voyage across the OCEAN, let’s take two fictional characters from cinematic history and venture a guess as to their FFM profiles so that we might gather experience using the FFM.

Photo by Phillip Swinburne |
Photo by Phillip Swinburne |

First, let’s consider Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the famous psychopathic psychiatrist from The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Lecter would likely score highly on openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion while demonstrating low scores on agreeableness and neuroticism.

The hypothetical high score on openness to experience is supported by Dr. Lecter’s high degree of novelty seeking as demonstrated by his insatiable and violent pursuit of the next gustatory sensation. The high degree of conscientiousness corresponds with Dr. Lecter’s ability to hold his impulsivity in check while he meticulously plans his violent acts. Importantly, this FFM domain does not refer to the more common moral usage of the term “conscientious.” The high score on extraversion reflects Dr. Lecter’s domineering, gregarious, and superficially positive social performance when entertaining his lavish parties.

Dr. Lecter’s low score on agreeableness corresponds with his utter lack of altruistic behavior. The low neuroticism score reflects Dr. Lecter’s cold-blooded emotional baseline.

Photo by Michael Podger |
Photo by Michael Podger |

Now let’s turn to Peter Parker prior to his becoming Parker’s superhero alter ego Spiderman. Parker would likely score highly on agreeableness and neuroticism while demonstrating a low score on openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion. The astute reader will note that this profile is the direct opposite of Dr. Lecter’s.

The hypothetical lofty scores in agreeableness reflect Parker’s altruistic and trusting nature, while his anxiety and personal insecurity generate a high neuroticism score.

Parker’s satisfaction with lab work and lack of novelty-seeking behavior are reflected in a low score on openness to experience. Parker’s low score on measures of conscientiousness corresponds with his inability to follow through with tasks and to maintain a job. Finally, Parker’s low extraversion score reveals his quiet and reserved nature.

Hopefully, generating a mental picture of how the FFM might be mapped onto these two fictional characters has helped bring the abstractions of the FFM into clearer focus.

Before we venture into the numerous areas of study of the FFM, let’s examine the criticisms of the model so that we might have a more balanced view moving forward. 

The primary criticisms of the model include its atheoretical nature, limits of consensus agreement on factor definitions, and the non-inclusion of personality components not contained within the FFM.

The atheoretical critique stems from the fact that the FFM was developed using factor analysis and an objective study of the data rather than following the more typical developmental course of hypothesis generation, experimentation, and subsequent explanatory modeling. The claim of lack of consensus on factor definitions refers to a long history of debate over the exact meaning of each of the domains. And finally, the non-inclusion of supernumerary personality components derives from the absence of religiosity, sexuality, and other domains of personality various researchers feel are vital in the consideration of human personality.10

We will not spend much time considering the various critiques of the FFM, but they are not without merit. As with any tool of measurement, the FFM of personality pales in comparison to the intricacies of the object that it purports to measure.

So we’ve psychoanalyzed Dr. Lecter and Peter Parker. Is there anything else that the FFM has to say about the human mind?

Photo by Hannah Morgan |
Photo by Hannah Morgan |

The nature versus nurture debate has raged for centuries despite the false dichotomy contained within an all too often either/or argument. As with most things, the answer to nature versus nurture falls somewhere in the middle rather than at one pole or the other.

Genes account for slightly more than 50% of the variability in personality among individuals.1,2 This may not seem like a very significant genetic influence, but consider that the approximate heritability is 40% for male pattern baldness,11 25% for longevity,12 and 50% for body mass index.13

So it seems that nature has an impressive amount to say about personality. What about nurture? As it turns out, parenting seems to account for just 10% of the variability in personality.14

Okay, so the FFM domains appear to be significantly influenced by our genes, but when do the domains first appear? And are they stable over an individual’s life?

Evidence has emerged that the FFM personality domains are measurable in young children.15 Furthermore, the FFM domains are remarkably stable throughout one’s life.16 In fact, FFM retest correlation coefficients approach reliability values for the actual tests,17 meaning that the longitudinal stability of the FFM domains are almost as robust as the tests of the FFM themselves. Moreover, the FFM appears to be accurate across the variety of cultures studied thus far.14

The notion that personality develops at such an early age, remains relatively constant throughout life, and takes about five times more cues from genetics than from parenting may be a bit disheartening for the parents among us, but we see it differently. To us, the strong genetic influence tells us that the FFM taps into some foundational aspects of our neurobehavioral programming. And far from discounting the strength of parenting, we view even the fractional impact of parenting on nature’s foundational programming as an unbelievable testament to the power of nurture.

If the FFM does in fact identify core neurobiological programming, then we would expect to find a similar set of behavioral archetypes in our evolutionary cousins as well. In fact, scientists have found just such evidence in primates.

Using an adjusted version of the FFM assessment, researchers demonstrated that conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness are stable, persistent, and measurable personality domains in chimpanzees.18 Interestingly, openness to experience and neuroticism were not identified consistently across studies. Perhaps the absence of the latter two domains represents a scientific loss in translation between species, or maybe openness to experience and neuroticism traits require a greater depth of emotional and social cognition than chimpanzees possess.

Photo by Jose Martin |
Photo by Jose Martin |

The FFM has also provided insights into the world of business. 

A large meta-analysis demonstrated that high scores on openness to experience correlated with rapid and proficient on the job learning, but not with job performance. High conscientiousness predicted both training and job proficiency as well as salary and promotion frequency.4

This same meta-analysis showed that high extraversion scores correlated with employees in management and sales, but not with professionals, police, or skilled/semi-skilled employees (the other categories studied).4

Another study of career success and personality yielded similar results. Individuals who scored highly on extraversion generally received higher salaries and more promotions. Individuals with lower levels of agreeableness and openness to experience also tended to have higher salaries. And unsurprisingly, individuals with higher neuroticism scores had lower rates of career satisfaction.19

These studies reveal that while the gregarious domain of extraversion tends to be universally rewarded, the prosocial domain of agreeableness seems to lack any meaningful correlation with workplace reward. In light of the aforementioned observations, we may be able to develop some hypotheses regarding the corporate personalities involved in recent financial calamities.

Furthermore, the knowledge that extraversion predicts salary while conscientiousness predicts performance might be used by the astute manager to promote the less gregarious but more diligent worker rather than being distracted by the outward charm of the more extraverted but less conscientious individual.

Enough about business, how does the FFM inform the world of psychiatry? 

Personality disorders are chronic, inflexible patterns of cognition, affectivity, interpersonal functioning, and/or impulse control.20 There are ten personality disorders, but today we will examine only one: borderline personality disorder (BPD). Despite the absence of the remaining nine personality disorders, the reader should be aware that all of the personality disorders map remarkably well onto the FFM.21,22

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines BPD as, “a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”20 These patient’s deal with severe behavioral and interpersonal challenges as a result of their personality disorder. So how does BPD map on to the FFM?

BPD patients have low scores in conscientiousness and agreeableness and high scores in neuroticism reflecting their impulsivity, frequent antagonistic interpersonal style, and emotional instability, respectively.21 Insights into the biologic and enduring nature of personality may help clinicians fill their well of empathy when working with these challenging patients.

What about the other mental disorders, namely depressive disorders, anxiety, and substance use disorders? As it turns out, high neuroticism and low conscientiousness scores correlate with a significantly increased risk of being diagnosed with one of the aforementioned disorders.23,24 In fact, low scores on conscientiousness have been associated with increased mortality in general!25

As we have seen, the study of personality informs a variety of different subjects. It should come as no surprise that a descriptive method for delineating such an enduring and central component of the human mind as personality has a wide range of implications. From the primordial encampment where a predictive model of your neighbor’s behavior might mean the difference between life and death to the modern workplace where knowledge of the FFM can help clarify promotional decisions, it is clear that an awareness of the science behind personality is a timeless and valuable tool.


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