Why scoring high on some personality traits is not always desirable.

The Big 5 personality traits emerged to describe the essential traits that serve as the building blocks of personality. They aim to simplify and explain individual differences in personalities and are often used as the basis of personality tests. These traits are: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Importantly, each personality factor represents a range between two extremes, for example Extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion, and most people lie somewhere between the polar ends of each trait (Cherry & Susman, 2021)

Are high scores good and low scores bad?

Whilst the name of each of the Big 5 describes one end of a personality trait continuum, the other end is open to opposing descriptors, and we should imagine a scale stretching between those two trait extremes with our personal demeanour pegged somewhere along that scale. When it comes to personality testing, the system and language used is crucial. Where, for example, might one place oneself on a scale between Agreeableness and Antagonism? Between Neuroticism and Emotional Stability?  Between Conscientiousness and Laziness? Where testing methods use language that assigns positive and negative behaviours to each trait descriptor there lies the possibility of allowing test candidates to skew their self-assessments towards descriptors perceived as more favourable.

Many test candidates tend to view high scores as ‘good’, and some have tendencies to amplify personality traits they consider to be more useful in a test undertaken in a particular context. However, over scoring or exaggerating traits may inadvertently undervalue some valuable personal characteristics, and candidates may unwittingly undermine their strengths in a specific context. Candidates may also undervalue what they might perceive to be weakness simply because of negative connotations in the use of language. This kind of mis-scoring within testing can have demonstrable consequences in real world situations.

Can you have too much of a good thing?

An assumption often made is that the relationship between personality traits and job performance is linear. That is, that job performance improves the higher you are on a scale e.g. the more conscientious you are the better it is for job performance. The counter-argument is that there comes a point where on the scale where performance increases but dips again at the extreme end (curvilinear). As an example, many people believe that if you are too cautious or consumed by detail you may struggle to make a decision! The largest meta-analysis study between the big-5 personality traits and a combined measure of job performance has found that the evidence for curvilinear relationships is limited, with any expected decline in performance to be minimal (Walmsey et al., 2018). The size and quality of this research suggests that caution is needed when using curvilinear relationships to develop competencies, particularly in blindly sifting candidates.  However, for development purposes there is also a duty to point out to a participant where they might find things difficult if they are at a high-end of a personality trait. Further, the research by Walmsey and colleagues only had one single measure of job performance and used the big 5 personality traits, not the more discrete facets. There is much more to explore here – what about the impact of extreme levels of focus on mental exhaustion? How does extreme cautiousness impact decision-making? Is displaying too much sympathy helpful when caring for others? This article explores some of these relationships.

Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

The ‘dark-side’ of being high on personality traits

In a day-to-day practical context, imagine a situation where an employee is extremely helpful to others. On the face of it they may be highly suitable for a job in the service-based industry. This employee generally finds it very difficult to say ‘no’ to colleagues who ask for help and will regularly sacrifice their own needs for others. After continually saying ‘yes’ to colleague’s requests, in addition to their own workload and pressures, they are eventually overwhelmed, taking days off with stress and exhaustion. ‘Selflessly Helpful’ is a descriptor that will be mentioned again later.

Consider a candidate for a medical degree who may consider and amplify conscientiousness as a good trait to possess. Conscientiousness is a good trait in relation to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in preclinical years where a methodical, self-disciplined approach is needed. However, research shows the trait to be less beneficial in the later clinical years of the degree where greater flexibility and adaptation is required to engage in clinical situations, and where the rigidity of thought associated with conscientiousness may in fact be a hinderance (Ferguson et al., 2014).

Similarly, a medical candidate may be tempted to strive for a lower score for neuroticism in order to portray low anxiety levels. However, clinical performance can have serious implications for patient safety, and medical candidates with moderate to high anxiety levels in stressful situations show higher levels of alertness, attentiveness and care. Anxiety should therefore be linked positively to clinical skills acquisition. These candidates often go on to achieve a higher degree of success in later clinical years (Ferguson et al., 2014).

Extreme personality traits may also impact those around you

Research by Ames & Flynn (200&) has looked at the impact of levels of assertiveness on the effectiveness of leaders. During 3 studies they found that leaders who were too low on assertiveness impacted goal achievement negatively. However, they also found that leaders being very high on assertiveness had a high social cost with a negative impact on relationships. They propose that it is most optimal for leaders to be in the mid-range of assertiveness and apply ‘more situationally appropriate levels of assertiveness’.

Again, in a medical context, sympathy, empathy and compassion would appear beneficial where patient-doctor relations are seen as highly important. In one study, patients can easily distinguish between the constructs of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. While patients acknowledged considerable overlap between empathy and sympathy, they were unequivocal in identifying sympathy as a distinct and unhelpful reaction to their suffering. Sympathy was described as a superficial acknowledgment of suffering, due to its pity-based motivators and lack of utility in relieving patient suffering (Sinclair et al., 2017). In other words, patients wanted doctors to understand their emotions but to retain some objectivity and not to be overly emotional or pitying.

In a study on Pilots in the US Air Force, high levels of conscientiousness were seen as the most desirable trait to possess and has been regarded as the secret ingredient to success in aviation (Siem & Murray, 1997). However, when studies were conducted collating the data of pilots who were involved in flying incidents, those who were scored more highly on dutifulness and self-assurance were more likely to have been involved in incidents. Preliminary interpretations suggested that high levels of dutifulness may precede a lack of flexibility or inability to meet novel demands in crisis situations, and that high levels of self-assurance (often considered a sub-facet of emotional steadiness (low neuroticism)) may lead some pilots to exceed their ability (King et al., 2000).

If the purpose of testing is to assess the suitability of an individual for a particular context, it is important that personality assessments are open and honest about both the upsides and downsides of being at either end of personality scales.

What’s in a name?

Mosaic Assessments have spent 4 years developing and carefully validating a unique personality tool (measuring the big 5 personality traits and 20 sub-facets) that integrates a self-report questionnaire with objective tasks – Mosaic Personality Tasks. In order to address the issues outlined in this article the team at Mosaic have deliberately named some of their scales to reflect the associated issues with being high on the scales.  For instance, ‘Constrained by Caution’ reflects that people high on this scale may avoid making important decisions because they are just too cautious; ‘Bound by Duty’ reflects that people who are high on this scale feel compelled to follow obligations even when it is not the right thing to do; ‘Swayed by Sympathy’ reflects that those that are high on this scale may let sympathy get in the way of making objective decisions; and ‘Selflessly Helpful’ reflects those who feel obliged to help others to such a degree they often undermine their own needs.

How should this impact feeding back personality data?

There is a balance to met as the research seems to be saying that in general terms the impact on job performance at the high levels of personality traits has been found to be very slight/inconsistent/negligent. However, other studies have found there can be other unconsidered impacts of being high on certain traits (e.g. negative social effects or burnout) which may not have immediate job performance effects but can claw away and erode team spirit and long-term performance. The Mosaic Personality Tasks reports have been designed to highlight the possible pitfalls of being at the extremes of any personality trait or facet. Descriptions are given that identify potential issues and tips are given on how to handle these potential issues. The theory being that being able to identify and respond to situations where ‘toning down’ certain attributes is beneficial to self and others, is a highly useful skill to possess.

This article was written by Henry van Dijk who is in his final year of Psychology at the University of Stirling. Henry has a strong interest in Occupational Psychology and has been on a student placement at Mosaic Assessments Ltd. Please connect with him here.

You can find out more about Mosaic Personality Tasks and the reports we pffer at www.mosaictasks.com. If you are interested in reading more articles on personality as well as receiving updates on Mosaic Personality Tasks please sign up to our mailing list.

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Ames, Daniel & Flynn, Francis. (2007). What breaks a leader: The curvilinear relation between assertiveness and leadership. Journal of personality and social psychology. 92. 307-24. 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.307.

Cherry, K., & Susman, D. (2021). The big five personality traits. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422

Ferguson, E., Semper, H., Yates, J., Fitzgerald, J. E., Skatova, A., & James, D. (2014). The ‘dark side’and ‘bright side’of personality: When too much conscientiousness and too little anxiety are detrimental with respect to the acquisition of medical knowledge and skill.PloS One, 9(2), e88606. 

King, Raymond & Retzlaff, Paul & Orme, Daniel. (2000). A Comparison of US Air Force Pilot Psychological Baseline Information to Safety Outcomes. 21.

Siem, F. M., & Murray, M. W. (1997). Personality Factors Affecting Pilot Combat Performance: A Preliminary Investigation, 

Sinclair, S., Beamer, K., Hack, T. F., McClement, S., Raffin Bouchal, S., Chochinov, H. M., & Hagen, N. A. (2017). Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences.Palliative Medicine, 31(5), 437-447.

Walmsley, Philip & Sackett, Paul & Nichols, Stephen. (2018). A large sample investigation of the presence of nonlinear personality‐job performance relationships. International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 26. 145-163. 10.1111/ijsa.12223.

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