Why the Big Five will never catch on in pop culture

So, everybody’s heard of the Myers-Briggs personality test, right? (Right?) Everybody’s either taken it for fun or because their employer or guidance counselor wanted them to, right?

You know, it’s not supposed to be all that accurate, really. The one which is supposed to be more accurate is the Big Five Personality Traits test, which breaks down personality along five axes:


And you know what? Only a bunch of connotation-blind people could come up with those labels and then expect their test to take off and unseat the Myers-Briggs test as king of the hill. What, are you going to tell people they are close-minded, disagreeable and neurotic? Who wants to hear that? (Even if it is true.) (Especially if it is true.)

Besides that, the designers of the Big Five type of test did not come up with any way to encapsulate the results in a memorable letter code of delineated “Types”. That’s a dealbreaker right there, but even worse, because they did not designate types, they could not come up with horoscope-like descriptions of types. You do the Big Five test and it tells you . . . what, exactly? Not much that you can actually use, and nothing at all that you can have fun with.

I mean, the Myers-Briggs test lends itself to fun. Here’s the one which tells you which superhero you are according to your Myers-Briggs type. I get, let’s see, Mr Fantastic and Emma Frost. They have multiple choices for each type. Oh, yeah, I see, one for guys and one for ladies. Well, I don’t know much about Mr Fantastic and I don’t remember ever even hearing of Emma Frost, so that doesn’t tell me all that much.

And here’s the one which tells you who you are in The Lord of the Rings. This time I get Elrond. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Elrond — I’d rather be Aragorn — but hey, whatever. The way Elrond is described in this post, I’m happy to be him.

Okay, and here’s my favorite, the one that tells you what kind of evil genius you are. The descriptions are longer, funny, and right on target:

INTJ: The outside contractor

INTJs are solid, competent personalities who may seem aloof and even arrogant, but who are typically highly skilled in any field which interests them. INTJs are confident in their skills and knowledge, self-assured, and imaginative; their exceptional problem-solving skills make them ideal architects, auto mechanics, and tools of the evil empire. While it requires the driving will to conquer of an ENTJ to imagine the Death Star and the evil genius of an ENTP to invent its devastating weapons systems, the skill and technical prowess of the INTJ is what makes the whole thing work.

The INTJ sees life as a problem to be solved. For that reason, the INTJ is the person a company brings in from the outside to streamline production processes and identify redundant assets for termination. The INTJ’s combination of analyticial problem-solving skills and complete and utter disregard for the morality or consequences of his actions also make him ideal for the job of hatchet man, CIA operative, and helpdesk operator.

RECREATION: INTJs are often baffled by the strange and incomprehensible recreational rituals of other people, such as going to parties, watching television, and having sex. Instead, they prefer to spend their leisure time installing twin missile launchers in their cars to deter tailgaters and playing chess with megalomaniac CEOs of the Tyrell corporation.

COMPATIBILITY: Silly person, INTJs don’t have relationships! They may, however build their own friends.

See? Somebody did a really good job putting that one together.

Now, who could do that with the Big Five? Say you score this way:

Openness: high
Concientiousness: very high
Extroversion: medium low
Agreeableness: medium
Neuroticism: low

What does that actually tell you? And how would you summarize it as a “type”? You can’t, of course. There’s no way, not when you have five different axes all broken into very low, low, medium low, medium, medium high, high, and very high scores. I mean . . . how many different combinations is that? I don’t plan to work it out, but at a rough estimate, lots and lots.

Also, although the Big Five is supposed to be more reliable than Myers-Briggs, I have to say that: a) I always, always score INTJ on any version of the Myers-Briggs type of test. For years now. Before that I was INTP. And, b) my scores on the Big Five are not strikingly consistent. The scores I gave above are kind of rough averages for me, because while thinking about personality tests and then writing this post, I took six different online versions of the Big Five test, scattered over several weeks, and I scored like this:

Openness: high, medium-high, very high, very high, medium, medium

Conscientiousness: very high, medium high, very high, very high, very high, high

Extroversion: medium low, medium, medium, medium, medium, low, medium low

Agreeableness: very low, medium, medium, medium, medium, medium

Neuroticism: low, medium low, very low, very low, low, low

As you see, while there is some consistency, several axes are surprisingly variable. Some are more believable than others. I bet no one who is not high or very high in Conscientiousness has ever finished writing a novel, for example.

Now, if it were me and I wanted to unseat Myers-Briggs as the favorite go-to personality test, I would get somebody who’s good with language and words and has a sense of humor, and I’d say: Give every axis a nice-sounding name, nothing like Openness versus Close-Mindedness and for heaven’s sake don’t call anything “Neuroticism”. Divide each of these dimensions into High versus Low and give everything a letter. Then organize all these axes into “types” and write a horoscope for each “type.” Make it sound positive and friendly! Tie it into practical advice! Explain what kinds of jobs each “type” might prefer and specify what other “types” would make the best marriage partners and friends. Figure out which celebrities and famous historical people illustrate each type. Make it fun!

Because unless you’re a psychiatrist, it probably doesn’t matter if the Big Five is in some sense truer than the Myers-Briggs types. What matters is what you can *do* with it and especially how easy it is to ask: According to the Big Five, what kind of evil genius are you?

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8 thoughts on “Why the Big Five will never catch on in pop culture”

  1. Yeah, even with the horoscopy Myers-Briggs types, I don’t know what they were thinking with that. (Or a lot of them, really.)

    Coincidentally, I just saw this on a friend’s Facebook Feed: The Definition of Hell For Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type

    I’m on the borderline between:

    “You are eternally condemned to researching an extremely vapid topic using wildly inaccurate methods, mostly involving interviewing people who have no idea what they’re talking about.”


    “Every time you open your mouth to say something intelligent, something entirely idiotic comes out instead.”

    (I sometimes fear that last one actually be the case. :-) )

  2. All of those hells sound pretty unpleasant, though I have to say it’s a good thing I’m not an extrovert:

    “ENTJ – Somebody is wrong, and they’re directing a large group of people! You can’t do anything about it and will have to obey whatever inefficient policies they decide to implement.”

    To which my response is, welcome to my world. Really, isn’t that *most* large bureaucracies?

  3. That’s a good one Mike. Mine is:

    “You are expected to complete a highly esteemed project with absolutely no guidance as to what’s expected of you.”

    And they’re right – that is my idea of a nightmare!

  4. Mike, that is a wonderful link! Some of those “hells” sound SO AWFUL. Actually for me the one that would strike hardest is:

    INFP – Your deepest thoughts and feelings are exposed to a large audience and everyone thinks that you’re pathetic and unoriginal.

    That must be a tremendous nightmare for any writer! But it’s a tough pick because a lot of them sound dire.

  5. Nice article. You can derive someone’s MBTI type from Big Five scores, but not the other way around, since Big Five has more data (a number rating versus a binary one and scores for different sub-facets), and a fifth character dimension not in MBTI. The personality test at 16 personalities actually adds a letter to the classic four letter scheme to stand in for Neuroticism.

    Say we have the following score:
    Extroversion: Low
    Neuroticism: High
    Openness: High
    Agreeableness: Low
    Conscientiousness: Low

    This would be INTP-T in the nomenclature used at 16 personalities, T standing in for high Neuroticism. I admit there is a weaker correspondence between thinking versus feeling and High and Low Agreeableness but it is there. It’s not as straightforward as the read off of the other facets.

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