Did you watch the BBC’s Child of Our Time Special – The Big Personality Test? Here’s an update from our director of psychology, Anne Ellis:

The Five Factors

Factors or traits are dimensions not types and people generally will be consistent in these factors from young adulthood onwards, however they are a moveable feast and can be used to a greater or lesser degree depending on a whole host of other factors.

Who would have thought what an exciting project the application of these five factors has turned out to be? Having been involved in the study of personality for thirty years it has been encouraging and exciting to see how this programme has captured the imagination of so many people. In the early days of type theory it was difficult to get even psychologists to take this branch of psychology seriously. In the last twenty years, more and more psychologists have embraced the use of personality profiling in a whole variety of circumstances. They now see it  as a useful tool when dealing with and relating to people.

What was particularly encouraging about the programme was the willingness of the participants, whether children or adults, to take part. This did go to prove that people are fascinated by self and are more than willing to learn what makes them tick. The five factors provides a framework of traits, yet these traits do not work in isolation and it was not until the last minutes of the programme that this fact was brought out.

As someone whose work life revolves around personality profiling, I find trait theory useful, yet prefer using type identification as a better way to understand a person and their likely reponse to their environment. Not much was made of the influences of environmental factors, nor the influence of parents on these children. This was especially obvious when the children were asked their ambitions as these came out as more aspirations their parents may have expressed from time to time. It was interesting that more than  one wanted a mansion!

Not much as made of genetics or the heritable aspects of personality yet it was easy to see this in the personality of William, the young aspiring tennis player. His mother was very anxious that he succeed and that people thought well of him, as was William. His father was proud that William stick to his course of action and get a result. This was a combination of her Neuroticism, or to use a better description emotional stability. In either case it describes someone who is tense, moody and anxious. His father , on the other hand, displayed the trait conscientiousness as he was so pleased William stayed with the task and got a result. The child himself would have inherited a combination of his two parents and will have some traits that are particular to him.

Traits do form some part of personality, yet there are very many more than five traits. What about other factors such as biological, motivation, emotions, self concepts. As with all personality measures these traits are pointing to behaviour that is probabilistic and exceptions are possible.

The circumstances of the children were explored and it could be seen that their ambition was framed by the home environment. The programme touched on ethnicity and gender but didn’t take this concept very far, although this would have an influence on the personalities being formed in such young children.

The five factors were used to assess success in the workplace and to achieve this a firm of highly paid solicitors were put to the test. Several of the factors were assessed and this was the closest the programme came to bringing together more than one factor to assess each person’s personality. With this firm overall it was decided, based on this small experiment, that those low in agreeableness, high in Openness and medium extraversion, had the best chance of success.

It is almost a certainty that within such a firm a very high number of solicitors will measure high in ‘neuroticism/emotional stability’, however it is unlikely that any of these would have volunteered to take part in this experiment. Volunteers generally come from those with a more extraverted personality. Those whose over riding factor is Neuroticism will generally be more introverted than extraverted, which is another reason they are unliklely to volunteer, They will also be vey sceptical of this sort of study.


Personality is made up of a characteristic set of our behaviours, interests and motives. It also embraces the way we feel about the world and how we relate to others. There are many different theories of personality. Some measure traits such as in the Five Factor model used in “Child of our time”, and others identify personality type. The key difference is that type theories tend to look for similarities between people and trait theory looks for differences. Eysenck combined both trait and type in his approach to personality theory. He started with extroversion/introversion as did Carl Jung, who labelled them extraversion/Introversion.Jung was not interested in how much of a trait one used it was the combination of Extraversion/Introversion, Thinking/Feeling, Sensing/Intuition that interested him. These were labelled at either end of a bipolar scale. Jung claimed that people moved along this scale depending in a variety of factors. Most people would reside quite close to the centre on these scales, and it can be difficult to identify their type from observation. Those more extreme personalities will be closer to the outer ends of some scales and their behaviour will be easier to observe.

Jung’s types would correspond to the Five Factors as follows:- Extraversion/Introversion  –  Extraversion : Thinking/Feeling  –  Agreeableness: Sensing/Intuition:  –  Openness. Conscientiousness is closest to Judging and perception and no comparison is made against Neuroticism although it could be a mix of Introversion and Thinking.

Personality is complex and although Jung claimed that we came from the womb with our  temperament in place, he also advocated that it should be our lifetime work to get in touch with all aspects of out personality. Most people use a combination of either Extraversion or Introversion which Jung Labelled Attitudes, combined with a rational preference for Thinking or Feeling and an irrational preference of Sensing or Intuition. We all have this mix within us and will depend on one combination more than the other most of the time. If we are extreme in any of the bi-polar scales it is unlikley that we will cross over to use the opposite end of the scale very often but the point about all of this is that we can. For those closest to the centre of the scales it is easier to move from one side to the other although we’d never be extreme in either.

Jung believed that personality was a moveable feast. Yes we have opur core personality however with understanding and effort we can develop our lesser preferences to become fully individuated personalities.

Child of our time

It will be interesting to follow this fascinating programme and see how these children do actually develop, however we would do well to remember that they are not predominately one trait. They may have that trait in excess, however the other traits must also be accounted for. How much they use of that trait will not be the deciding factor in analysing their personality – it will be one of a great many contributing factors.


Further Reading

You may also enjoy reading about how we made a Personality Test  that is easy to use.

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