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McCrae and Costa’s Five-Factor Trait Theory

Courtesy Robert R. McCrae, PhD

Courtesy Paul T. Costa Jr., PhD

◆ Overview of Trait and Factor Theories

◆ The Pioneering Work of Raymond B. Cattell

◆ Basics of Factor Analysis

◆ The Big Five: Taxonomy or Theory?

◆ Biographies of Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr.

◆ In Search of the Big Five

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Five Factors FoundDescription of the Five Factors

◆ Evolution of the Five-Factor Theory

Units of the Five-Factor TheoryBasic Postulates

◆ Related Research

Consistency and Change of Personality over the LifetimeMeasuring the Big Five with Our Digital Footprints

◆ Critique of Trait and Factor Theories

◆ Concept of Humanity

◆ Key Terms and Concepts

◆ References


homas was at a local bar with a few long-time friends, but one of them—Samuel—said something thatreally upset Thomas, who had one too many to drink. Thomas stood up, pushed Samuel, and started a fightthen and there. Clarisse, a friend of Samuel’s, pulled Thomas off before anyone got seriously hurt. Clarisse

didn’t know Thomas well but was absolutely convinced that he was an aggressive, impulsive jerk and toldThomas as much as the three went storming out of the bar. Samuel, surprisingly, came to Thomas’s defense andsaid “You know, Thomas is really a good guy. That wasn’t like him—he must have been having a rough day. Givehim a break.”

Is Thomas an aggressive jerk or just having a rough day? Can we say Thomas is aggressive and impulsivewithout knowing anything else about Thomas’s personality? Is this the way he normally is? What about when heis not drunk? Does he act aggressively and impulsively in other situations? Does the situation (rough day) explainbest how Thomas acted or is it more accurate to explain his actions by his personality (aggressive jerk)?

These are the kinds of questions that psychologists ask. Social psychologists are likely to explain Thomas’sbehavior by the situation (rough day). Personality psychologists are more likely to attribute Thomas’s behavior toenduring traits. A trait, as you recall from the opening chapter, makes people unique and contributes to theconsistency of how they behave in different situations and over time. Traits are the focus of study of manypersonality psychologists, but historically different psychologists had their own particular list of personality traitsthey focused on and there was little consensus as to what the major dimensions of personality were. This wasat least the case until the 1980s when the field converged on an answer: there are five major dimensions ofpersonality, namely extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.These are the so-called “Big Five” traits of personality and their widespread adoption and acceptance owesmuch to the research and theory of Robert McCrae and Paul Costa.

Overview of Trait and Factor TheoriesHow can personality best be measured? By standardized tests? Clinical observation? Judgments of friends andacquaintances? Factor theorists have used all these methods and more. A second question is: How many traitsor personal dispositions does a single person possess? Two or three? Half a dozen? A couple of hundred? Morethan a thousand? During the past 25–45 years, several individuals (Cattell, 1973, 1983; Eysenck, 1981, 1997a)and several teams of researchers (Costa & McCrae, 1992; McCrae & Costa, 2003; Tupes & Christal, 1961) havetaken a factor analytic approach to answering these questions. Presently, most researchers who studypersonality traits agree that five, and only five, and no fewer than five dominant traits continue to emerge fromfactor analytic techniques—mathematical procedures capable of sifting personality traits from mountains of testdata.

Whereas many contemporary theorists believe that five is the magic number, earlier theorists such asRaymond B. Cattell found many more personality traits, and Hans J. Eysenck insisted that only three majorfactors can be discerned by a factor analytic approach. In addition, we have seen that Gordon Allport’s (see

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Chapter 12) commonsense approach yielded 5–10 traits that are central to each person’s life. However, Allport’smajor contribution to trait theory may have been his identification of nearly 18,000 trait names in an unabridgedEnglish language dictionary. These trait names were the basis for Cattell’s original work, and they continue toprovide the foundation for recent factor analytic studies.

The Five-Factor Theory (often called the Big Five) includes neuroticism and extraversion; but it addsopenness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These terms differ slightly from research teamto research team, but the underlying traits are quite similar.

The Pioneering Work of Raymond B. CattellAn important figure in the early years of psychometrics was Raymond B. Cattell (1905–1998), who was born inEngland but who spent most of his career in the United States. Cattell had only an indirect influence on McCraeand Costa. They did, however, share techniques and ideas, even if their approaches also had some realdifferences. Because some familiarity with Cattell’s trait theory enhances the understanding of McCrae andCosta’s five-factor theory, we briefly discuss Cattell’s work and compare and contrast it with that of McCrae andCosta.

First, Cattell and McCrae and Costa both used an inductive method of gathering data; that is, they began withno preconceived bias concerning the number or name of traits or types. Other factor theorists, however, haveused the deductive method, that is, they have preconceived hypotheses in mind before they begin to collect data.

Second, Cattell used three different media of observation to examine people from as many angles aspossible. The three sources of data included a person’s life record (L data) derived from observations made byother people; self-reports (Q data) obtained from questionnaires and other techniques designed to allow peopleto make subjective descriptions of themselves; and objective tests (T data), which measure performance suchas intelligence, speed of responding, and other such activities designed to challenge people’s maximumperformance. In contrast, each of McCrae and Costa’s five bipolar factors is limited to responses onquestionnaires. These self-reports confine McCrae and Costa’s procedures to personality factors.

Third, Cattell divided traits into common traits (shared by many) and unique traits (peculiar to one individual).He also distinguished source traits from trait indicators, or surface traits. Cattell further classified traits intotemperament, motivation, and ability. Traits of temperament are concerned with how a person behaves,motivation deals with why one behaves, and ability refers to how far or how fast one can perform.

Fourth, Cattell’s multifaceted approach yielded 35 primary, or first-order, traits, which measure mostly thetemperament dimension of personality. Of these factors, 23 characterize the normal population and 12 measurethe pathological dimension. The largest and most frequently studied of the normal traits are the 16 personalityfactors found on Cattell’s (1949) Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16 PF Scale). By comparison, theNEO Personality Inventory of Costa and McCrae yields scores on only five personality factors.


Basics of Factor AnalysisA comprehensive knowledge of the mathematical operations involved in factor analysis is not essential to anunderstanding of trait and factor theories of personality, but a general description of this technique should behelpful.

To use factor analysis, one begins by making specific observations of many individuals. These observationsare then quantified in some manner; for example, height is measured in inches; weight in pounds; aptitude in testscores; job performance by rating scales; and so on. Assume that we have 1,000 such measures on 5,000people. Our next step is to determine which of these variables (scores) are related to which other variables and towhat extent. To do this, we calculate the correlation coefficient between each variable and each of the other 999scores. (A correlation coefficient is a mathematical procedure for expressing the degree of correspondencebetween two sets of scores.) To correlate 1,000 variables with the other 999 scores would involve 499,500individual correlations (1,000 multiplied by 999 divided by 2). Results of these calculations would require a tableof intercorrelations, or a matrix, with 1,000 rows and 1,000 columns. Some of these correlations would be highand positive, some near zero, and some would be negative. For example, we might observe a high positivecorrelation between leg length and height, because one is partially a measure of the other. We may also find a

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positive correlation between a measure of leadership ability and ratings on social poise. This relationship mightexist because they are each part of a more basic underlying trait—self-confidence.

With 1,000 separate variables, our table of intercorrelations would be quite cumbersome. At this point, we turnto factor analysis, which can account for a large number of variables with a smaller number of more basicdimensions. These more basic dimensions can be called traits, that is, factors that represent a cluster of closelyrelated variables. For example, we may find high positive intercorrelations among test scores in algebra,geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. We have now identified a cluster of scores that we might call Factor M,which represents mathematical ability. In similar fashion, we can identify a number of other factors, or units ofpersonality derived through factor analysis. The number of factors, of course, will be smaller than the originalnumber of observations.

Our next step is to determine the extent to which each individual score contributes to the various factors.Correlations of scores with factors are called factor loadings. For example, if scores for algebra, geometry,trigonometry, and calculus contribute highly to Factor M but not to other factors, they will have high factorloadings on M. Factor loadings give us an indication of the purity of the various factors and enable us to interprettheir meanings.

Traits generated through factor analysis may be either unipolar or bipolar. Unipolar traits are scaled from zeroto some large amount. Height, weight, and intellectual ability are examples of unipolar traits. In contrast, bipolartraits extend from one pole to an opposite pole, with zero representing a midpoint. Introversion versusextraversion, liberalism versus conservatism, and social ascendancy versus timidity are examples of bipolartraits.

In order for mathematically derived factors to have psychological meaning, the axes on which the scores areplotted are usually turned or rotated into a specific mathematical relationship with each other. This rotation canbe either orthogonal or oblique, but advocates of the Five-Factor Theory favor the orthogonal rotation. Figure 13.1shows that orthogonally rotated axes are at right angles to each other. As scores on the x variable increase,scores on the y axis may have any value; that is, they are completely unrelated to scores on the x axis.


FIGURE 13.1 Orthogonal Axes.

The oblique method, which was advocated by Cattell, assumes some positive or negative correlation andrefers to an angle of less than or more than 90°. Figure 13.2 depicts a scattergram of scores in which x and y arepositively correlated with one another; that is, as scores on the x variable increase, scores on the y axis also havea tendency to increase. Note that the correlation is not perfect; some people may score high on the x variable butrelatively low on y and vice versa. A perfect correlation (r = 1.00) would result in x and y occupying the same line.Psychologically, orthogonal rotation usually results in only a few meaningful traits, whereas oblique methodsordinarily produce a larger number.

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FIGURE 13.2 Oblique Axes.

The Big Five: Taxonomy or Theory?In Chapter 1, we defined a taxonomy as a classification of things according to their natural relationships. We alsosuggested that taxonomies are an essential starting point for the advance of science, but that they are nottheories. Whereas theories generate research, taxonomies merely supply a classification system.

In the following discussion of McCrae and Costa’s Five-Factor Model (FFM), we will see that their work beganas an attempt to identify basic personality traits as revealed by factor analysis. This work soon evolved into ataxonomy and the Five-Factor Model. After much additional work, this model became a theory, one that can bothpredict and explain behavior.

Biographies of Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr.Robert Roger McCrae was born on April 28, 1949 in Maryville, Missouri, a town of 13,000 people located about100 miles north of Kansas City. Maryville is home to Northwest Missouri State, the town’s largest employer.McCrae, the youngest of three children born to Andrew McCrae and Eloise Elaine McCrae, grew up with an avidinterest in science and mathematics. By the time he entered Michigan State University, he had decided to studyphilosophy. A National Merit Scholar, he nevertheless was not completely happy with the open-ended and non-empirical nature of philosophy. After completing his undergraduate degree, he entered graduate school at BostonUniversity with a major in psychology. Given his inclination and talent for math and science, McCrae foundhimself intrigued by the psychometric work of Raymond Cattell. In particular, he became curious about usingfactor analysis to search for a simple method for identifying the structural traits found in the dictionary. At BostonUniversity, McCrae’s major professor was Henry Weinberg, a clinical psychologist with only a peripheral interestin personality traits. Hence, McCrae’s interest in traits had to be nourished more internally than externally.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Mischel (see Chapter 18) was questioning the notion that personalitytraits are consistent, claiming that the situation is more important than any personality trait. Although Mischel hassince revised his stance on the consistency of personality, his views were accepted by many psychologistsduring those years. In a personal communication dated May 4, 1999, McCrae wrote: “I attended graduate schoolin the years after Mischel’s (1968) critique of trait psychology. Many psychologists at the time were prepared tobelieve that traits were nothing but response sets, stereotypes, or cognitive fictions. That never made any senseto me, and my early research experience showing remarkable stability in longitudinal studies encouraged thebelief that traits were real and enduring.” Nevertheless, McCrae’s work on traits while in graduate school was arelatively lonely enterprise, being conducted quietly and without much fanfare. As it turns out, this quiet approachwas well-suited to his own relatively quiet and introverted personality.

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In 1975, 4 years into his PhD program, McCrae’s destiny was about to change. He was sent by his advisor towork as a research assistant with James Fozard, an adult developmental psychologist at the Normative AgingStudy at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Boston. It was Fozard who referred McCrae to anotherBoston-based personality psychologist, Paul T. Costa Jr., who was on the faculty at University of Massachusettsat Boston.

After McCrae completed his PhD in 1976, Costa hired him as project director and co-principal investigator forhis Smoking and Personality Grant. McCrae and Costa worked together on this project for 2 years, until they bothwere hired by the National Institute on Aging’s Gerontology Research Center, a division of the National Institutesof Health (NIH) housed in Baltimore. Costa was hired as the chief of the section on stress and coping, whereasMcCrae took the position as senior staff fellow. Because the Gerontology Research Center already had large,well-established datasets of adults, it was an ideal place for Costa and McCrae to investigate the question ofhow personality is structured. During the 1970s, with the shadow of Mischel’s influence still hanging heavily overthe study of personality and with the concept of traits being nearly a taboo subject, Costa and McCrae conductedwork on traits that ensured them a prominent role in the 40-year history of analyzing the structure of personality.

Paul T. Costa, Jr. was born on September 16, 1942 in Franklin, New Hampshire, the son of Paul T. Costa, Sr.and Esther Vasil Costa. He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology at Clark University in 1964 and bothhis master’s (1968) and PhD (1970) in human development from the University of Chicago. His longstandinginterests in individual differences and the nature of personality increased greatly in the stimulating intellectualenvironment at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, he worked with Salvatore R. Maddi, with whom hepublished a book on humanistic personality theory (Maddi & Costa, 1972). After receiving his PhD, he taught for 2years at Harvard and then from 1973 to 1978 at University of Massachusetts–Boston. In 1978, he began workingat the National Institute of Aging’s Gerontology Research Center, becoming the chief for the Section on Stressand Coping and then in 1985 chief for the Laboratory of Personality & Cognition. That same year, 1985, hebecame president of Division 20 (Adult Development and Aging) of the American Psychological Association.Among his other list of accomplishments are fellow of American Psychological Association in 1977 andpresident of International Society for the Study of Individual Differences in 1995. Costa and his wife, KarolSandra Costa, have three children, Nina, Lora, and Nicholas.

The collaboration between Costa and McCrae has been unusually fruitful, with well over 200 co-authoredresearch articles and chapters, and several books, including Emerging Lives, Enduring Dispositions (McCrae &Costa, 1984), Personality in Adulthood: A Five-Factor Theory Perspective, 2nd ed. (McCrae & Costa, 2003), andRevised NEO Personality Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1992).

In Search of the Big FiveThe study of traits was first begun by Allport and Odbert in the 1930s and continued by Cattell in the 1940s and byTupes, Christal, and Norman in the 1960s (see John & Srivastava, 1999, for a historical review of the Five-FactorModel, or the Big-Five).


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Costa and McCrae, like most other factor researchers, were buildingelaborate taxonomies of personality traits, but they were not using these classifications to generate testablehypotheses. Instead, they were simply using factor analytic techniques to examine the stability and structure ofpersonality. During this time, Costa and McCrae focused initially on the two main dimensions of neuroticism andextraversion.

Almost immediately after they discovered N and E, Costa and McCrae found a third factor, which they calledopenness to experience. Most of Costa and McCrae’s early work remained focused on these three dimensions(see, e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1976; Costa, Fozard, McCrae, & Bosse, 1976). Although Lewis Goldberg had first usedthe term “Big Five” in 1981 to describe the consistent findings of factor analyses of personality traits, Costa andMcCrae continued their work on the three factors.

Five Factors Found

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As late as 1983, McCrae and Costa were arguing for a three-factor model of personality. Not until 1985 did theybegin to report work on the five factors of personality. This work culminated in their new five-factor personalityinventory: the NEO-PI (Costa & McCrae, 1985). The NEO-PI was a revision of an earlier unpublished personalityinventory that measured only the first three dimensions: N, E, and O. In the 1985 inventory, the last twodimensions—agreeableness and conscientiousness—were still the least well-developed scales, having nosubscales associated with them. Costa and McCrae (1992) did not fully develop the A and C scales until theRevised NEO-PI appeared in 1992.

Throughout the 1980s, McCrae and Costa (1985, 1989) continued their work of factor analyzing almost everyother major personality inventory, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1962) and the EysenckPersonality Inventory (H. Eysenck & S. Eysenck, 1975, 1993). For instance, in a direct comparison of their modelwith Eysenck’s inventory, Costa and McCrae reported that Eysenck’s first two factors (N and E) are completelyconsistent with their first two factors. Eysenck’s measure of psychoticism mapped onto the low ends ofagreeableness and conscientiousness but did not tap into openness (Costa and McCrae, 1985).

At that time, there were two major and related questions in personality research. First, with the dozens ofdifferent personality inventories and hundreds of different scales, how was a common language to emerge?Everyone had his or her own somewhat idiosyncratic set of personality variables, making comparisons betweenstudies and cumulative progress difficult. Indeed, as Eysenck (1991a) wrote:

Where we have literally hundreds of inventories incorporating thousands of traits, largely overlapping but alsocontaining specific variance, each empirical finding is strictly speaking only relevant to a specific trait. This isnot the way to build a unified scientific discipline. (p. 786)

Second, what is the structure of personality? Cattell argued for 16 factors, Eysenck for three, and manyothers were starting to argue for five. The major accomplishment of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) has been toprovide answers to both these questions.

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, most personality psychologists have opted for the Five-Factor Model(Digman, 1990; John & Srivastava, 1999). The five factors have been found across a variety of cultures, using aplethora of languages (McCrae & Allik, 2002). In addition, the five factors show some permanence with age; thatis, adults—in the absence of catastrophic illness such as Alzheimer’s—tend to maintain the same personalitystructure as they grow older (McCrae & Costa, 2003). These findings prompted McCrae and Costa (1996) to writethat “the facts about personality are beginning to fall into place” (p. 78). Or as McCrae and Oliver John (1992)insisted, the existence of five factors “is an empirical fact, like the fact that there are seven continents or eightAmerican presidents from Virginia” (p. 194). (Incidentally, it is not an empirical fact that this earth has sevencontinents: Most geographers count only six.)

Description of the Five FactorsMcCrae and Costa agreed with Eysenck that personality traits are bipolar and follow a bell-shaped distribution.That is, most people score near the middle of each trait, with only a few people scoring at the extremes. How canpeople at the extremes be described?

Neuroticism (N) and extraversion (E) are the two strongest and most ubiquitous personality traits, and Costaand McCrae conceptualize in much the same way as Eysenck defined them. People who score high onneuroticism tend to be anxious, temperamental, self-pitying, self-conscious, emotional, and vulnerable to stress-related disorders. Those who score low on N are usually calm, even-tempered, self-satisfied, and unemotional.

People who score high on extraversion tend to be affectionate, jovial, talkative, joiners, and fun-loving. Incontrast, low E scorers are likely to be reserved, quiet, loners, passive, and lacking the ability to express strongemotion (see Table 13.1).


Table 13.1

Costa and McCrae’s Five-Factor Model of Personality

Extraversion High Scores Low Scores

affectionate reserved

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joinertalkativefun lovingactivepassionateoutgoing


Neuroticism anxioustemperamentalself-pityingself-consciousemotionalvulnerablesensitivenervous


Openness imaginativecreativeoriginalprefers varietycuriousliberalinventive

down-to-earthuncreativeconventionalprefers routinecautiousconservativeconsistent

Agreeableness softheartedtrustinggenerousacquiescentlenientgood-naturedfriendlycompassionate


Conscientiousness conscientioushardworkingwell-organizedpunctualambitiousperseveringefficient


Source: Table adapted from John, Nauman, & Soto, 2008.

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People high in openness to experience can be creative and prefer activities that are socially uncommon.Liam Bailey/Image Source


Openness to experience distinguishes people who prefer variety from those who have a need for closure andwho gain comfort in their association with familiar people and things. People who consistently seek out differentand varied experiences would score high on openness to experience. For example, they enjoy trying new menuitems at a restaurant or they like searching for new and exciting restaurants. In contrast, people who are not opento experiences will stick with a familiar item, one they know they will enjoy. People high on openness also tend toquestion traditional values, whereas those low on openness tend to support traditional values and to preserve afixed style of living. In summary, people high on openness are generally creative, imaginative, curious, and liberaland have a preference for variety. By contrast, those who score low on openness to experience are typicallyconventional, down-to-earth, conservative, and lacking in curiosity.

The Agreeableness Scale distinguishes soft hearted people from ruthless ones. People who score in thedirection of agreeableness tend to be trusting, generous, yielding, acceptant, and good-natured. Those who scorein the other direction are generally suspicious, stingy, unfriendly, irritable, and critical of other people.

The fifth factor—conscientiousness—describes people who are ordered, controlled, organized, ambitious,achievement focused, and self-disciplined. In general, people who score high on C are hardworking,conscientious, punctual, and persevering. In contrast, people who score low on conscientiousness tend to bedisorganized, negligent, lazy, and aimless and are likely to give up when a project becomes difficult. Togetherthese dimensions make up the personality traits of the five-factor model, often referred to as the “Big Five”(Goldberg, 1981).

Evolution of the Five-Factor TheoryOriginally, the five factors constituted nothing more than a taxonomy, a classification of basic personality traits.By the late 1980s, Costa and McCrae became confident that they and other researchers had found a stablestructure of personality. That is, they had answered the first central question of personality: What is the structureof personality? This advance was an important milestone for personality traits. The field now had a commonlyagreed-on language for describing personality, and it was in five dimensions. Describing personality traits,however, is not the same as explaining them. For explanation, scientists need theory, and that was the nextproject for McCrae and Costa.

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McCrae and Costa (1996) objected to earlier theories as relying too heavily on clinical experiences and onarmchair speculation. By the 1980s, the rift between classical theories and modern research-based theories hadbecome quite pronounced. It had become clear to them that “the old theories cannot simply be abandoned: Theymust be replaced by a new generation of theories that grow out of the conceptual insights of the past and theempirical findings of contemporary research” (p. 53). Indeed, this tension between the old and new was one ofthe driving forces behind Costa and McCrae’s development of an alternative theory, one that went beyond the five-factor taxonomy.

What then is the alternative? What could a modern trait theory do that was missing from the classic theories?According to McCrae and Costa, first and foremost, a new theory should be able to incorporate the change andgrowth of the field that has occurred over the last 25 years as well as be grounded in the current empiricalprinciples that have emerged from research.

For 25 years, Costa and McCrae had been at the forefront of contemporary personality research, developingand elaborating on the Five-Factor Model. According to McCrae and Costa (1999), “neither the model itself nor thebody of research findings with which it is associated constitutes a theory of personality. A theory organizesfindings to tell a coherent story, to bring into focus those issues and phenomena that can and should beexplained” (pp. 139–140). Earlier, McCrae and Costa (1996, p. 78) had stated that “the facts about personality arebeginning to fall into place. Now is the time to begin to make sense of them.” In other words, it was time to turnthe Five-Factor Model (taxonomy) into a Five-Factor Theory (FFT).

Units of the Five-Factor TheoryIn the personality theory of McCrae and Costa (1996, 1999, 2003; McCrae & Sutin, 2018), behavior is predicted byan understanding of two central or core components and three peripheral ones. The two core components(rectangles) are basic tendencies and characteristic adaptations (including self-concept). The three peripheralunits (ellipses) of the model are biological bases, objective biography, and external influences.

Core Components of PersonalityIn Figure 13.3, the central or core components are represented by rectangles, whereas the peripheralcomponents are represented by ellipses. The arrows represent dynamic processes and indicate the direction ofcausal influence. For example, objective biography (life experiences) is the outcome of characteristicadaptations as well as external influences. Also, biological bases are the sole cause of basic tendencies(personality traits). The personality system can be interpreted either cross-sectionally (how the system operatesat any given point in time) or longitudinally (how we develop over the lifetime). Moreover, each causal influence isdynamic, meaning that it changes over time.

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FIGURE 13.3 Operation of the Personality System According to FFT. Arrows Indicate the Direction of CausalInfluences, Which Operate Through Dynamic Processes.Source: From McCrae and Costa (1996).

Basic Tendencies As defined by McCrae and Costa (1996), basic tendencies are one of the centralcomponents of personality, along with characteristic adaptations, self-concept, biological bases, objectivebiography, and external influences. McCrae and Costa defined basic tendencies as

the universal raw material of personality capacities and dispositions that are generally inferred rather thanobserved. Basic tendencies may be inherited, imprinted by early experience or modified by disease orpsychological intervention, but at any given period in an individual’s life, they define the individual’s potentialand direction. (pp. 66, 68)

In earlier versions of their theory, McCrae and Costa (1996) made it clear that many different elements make upbasic tendencies. In addition to the five stable personality traits, these basic tendencies include cognitiveabilities, artistic talent, sexual orientation, and the psychological processes underlying acquisition of language.


In most of their later publications, McCrae and Costa (1999, 2003) focused almost exclusively on thepersonality traits: more specifically, the five dimensions (N, E, O, A, and C) described in detail above (see Table13.1). The essence of basic tendencies is their basis in biology and their stability over time and situation.

Characteristic Adaptations  Core components of Five-Factor Theory include the characteristic adaptations,that is, acquired personality structures that develop as people adapt to their environment and include habits,skills, and beliefs (McCrae & Sutin, 2018). The principal difference between basic tendencies and characteristicadaptations is their flexibility. Whereas basic tendencies are quite stable, characteristic adaptations can beinfluenced by external influences, such as acquired skills, habits, attitudes, and relationships that result from theinteraction of individuals with their environment. McCrae and Costa (2003) explained the relationship betweenbasic tendencies and characteristic adaptations, saying that the heart of their theory “is the distinction betweenbasic tendencies and characteristic adaptations, precisely the distinction that we need to explain the stability ofpersonality” (p. 187).

All acquired and specific skills, such as the English language or statistics, are characteristic adaptations.How quickly we learn (talent, intelligence, aptitude) is a

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