Limitations of the Big 5

I talk a lot about the Big 5 personality factors, and how useful they are. So now it is time to discuss the problems with the Big 5. As in so many things, I am indebted to Steve Sailer for bringing these up first.

Problem 1 is cheating. A person who knows how these traits work can present any personality they wish on a personality test, which is really more of a self-guided assessment. This limits their use for school and work purposes. I have to watch for this myself when I take the tests now, because I know what each question is getting at. In some ways, the best assessment is the first one.

Problem 2 is cross-cultural validity. Unlike IQ tests, where the psychometricians have long since figured out how to take cultural-bias out of tests, Big 5 tests ask about behavioral responses, which vary a lot between different groups. Big 5 tests seem to not even work very well comparing different states to each other in the USA, much less to other countries. This is less of a problem if the group is self-selected, like med students say, then the comparisons are likely to be much more fruitful. I think this is one reason why the Big 5 is so much less directive about career than the MBTI has been. There just aren't meaningful correlations between the usefulness of conscientiousness for both doctors and sales clerks.

People who bust ass almost always do well

I was emailed an article a while by back by a friend, all about the big 5 factors of personality and success in med school. That spurred quite a discussion about the relative values of smarts and hard work, and the kinds of personalities that do well in various professions, but the winning quote my friend selected was: "people who bust ass almost always do well, all other things being equal."

As if on cue, here is an article from Brett McKay at the Art of Manliness about his own experiences in law school, using hard work to be successful. This is pretty much exactly what my friend and I were talking about, but it is always good to hear another perspective on the same problem. McKay claims to be average in intelligence, and to have succeeded in law school by dint of hard work, but honestly I have my doubts that he is that average. Probably what he means is that he is not in the intellectual elite defined as the top 1% or 5%, but is clearly close enough to be able to do what he does. The article is quite good, and realistic, McKay states that hustle won't turn an average basketball player into Michael Jordan, but it sure will make you better than you are.

First Impressions

A fun open access paper about personality judgments based on seeing just a picture of someone. One of the authors is Samuel Gosling, whose work lies behind the online Big 5 personality test I recommend to the curious. You can learn a lot just by looking at someone, and in this paper they break down how different things strike observers. Hairstyle, manner of dress, posture, expression, there are many visual cues that tell us something about personality.

There are a number of other studies referenced in the paper that demonstrate the additive value of seeing someone in person or on video. There are many other cues that are dynamic, and thus harder to see in a picture. However, you don't need much time to form pretty accurate judgments in this fashion, although unsurprisingly the accuracy goes up with more exposure.

h/t Dienekes' Anthropology Blog