The Big Five model of personality traits was established by researchers following decades of studies that utilized factor analysis to outline and define human behaviors. To understand the role played by neuroscience in the formation or manifestation of these traits, it is important to understand them individually and in relation to one another.
Here are the Big Five traits usually used to describe the human personality and psyche, as well as a peek into the neuroscience that operates behind them:
Neuroticism is the tendency to have negative thoughts and feelings related to threats and punishment, such as anxiety and depression.
According to Gray and McNaughton (2000), this trait is related to susceptibilities to BIS (behavior inhibitory system) and FFFS (fight-flight-free system). In BIS, there is a disagreement between two objectives arising from one behavior, such as wanting to open a business but fearing failure; in FFFS, there is an upfront threat or punishment that must only be avoided, if not confronted and overcome.
Neurotic reactions occur in several parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate (Deckersbach et al., 2006; Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Satpute,2005; Etkin et al., 2004; Cools et al., 2005; Haas, Omura, Constable, & Canli, 2007a; Keightley et al., 2003; Reuter et al., 2004); the medial prefrontal cortex (Haas, Constable, & Canli, 2008; Williams et al., 2006); and the right frontal lobe (Shackman, McMenamin, Maxwell, Greischar, & Davidson, 2009; Zuckerman, 2005).
Extraversion is a trait characterized by an outgoing and socially pleasant attitude. A person who scores high in this trait on a personality test is someone who likes to be with people, attends a lot of social gatherings, and is often brimming with energy.
It is also a type of personality where the person subconsciously expects a reward for behaving the way he does (Depue & Collins, 1999). Dopamine, a crucial element of the BAS (behavioral activation system), plays a major role in the formation of such a desire for reward, and in the person being more interested to receive the reward than to benefit from it.
Each characteristic that forms part of agreeableness reflects altruism and cooperation in contrast to abusive or immoral behavior. According to an MRI study, agreeableness is affected by increased brain volume in the superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus (DeYoung et al., 2010) and other regions associated with social information processing. It is also suggested that agreeableness comes with an ability to control socially disturbing emotions (Meier, Robinson, & Wilkowski, 2006) and anticipate emotion-centric activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Haas, Omura, Constable, & Canli, 2007b). Since anger is a usual trigger for aggression, it is also associated with agreeableness and is occasionally considered contributory to low agreeableness (Saucier, 2009).
Conscientiousness, the ability to develop self-discipline and self-organization, is found to be directly proportional to academic and career achievement and to behavior that leads to a long and healthy life (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006). Such a trait is linked to activities in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in planning and abiding by complex rules (Bunge & Zelazo, 2006; Miller &Cohen, 2001). Conscientiousness is also associated with increased middle frontal gyri in the lateral prefrontal cortex (DeYoung et al., 2010), which retains information required for the achievement of goals and the performance of intended actions according to abstract rules (Bunge & Zelazo, 2006).
Openness/intellect refers to the abstract or intellectual experience as well as sensory or aesthetic engagement. Both are related to attention and the ability to work with complex information. Openness/intellect is the lone personality trait of the so-called Big Five that is always positively associated with intelligence and working memory capacity (DeYoung, Shamosh, Green, Braver, & Gray, 2009; DeYoung et al., 2005). It has been shown that the trait is influenced by the action of dopamine on the prefrontal cortex.
The Big Five personality traits may be considered as the cornerstones of human behavior: neuroticism is related to punishment and negative mental disposition, and extraversion to reward and positive mental disposition; agreeableness reflects altruism versus abusive behavior; conscientiousness refers to control of behavior and urges, and openness⁄intellect is the ability to process abstract and sensory information. While many have attempted to understand the relationship between neuroscience and human behavior, it is only by understanding each of these traits that a valid and meaningful connection between the two can be seen.
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