How to Work out Your Personality Type with the Big 5 (OCEAN) Model

Big 5 OCEAN personality traits
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio:

Why understanding personality traits is important for individuals and teams and how the Big 5 (OCEAN) model can help

Do you have the right personality type for the job you are doing?

This is a potentially controversial question. Popular culture tends to support the idea that we can do anything we want to if we put our minds to it. However, psychological research suggests that we can be better suited to specific roles. And this is an insight that many individuals and organisations put to good use.

For example, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) use the science of personality types to help select astronauts for specific missions.  NASA use questionnaires to understand the psychological profiles of potential team members and have done extensive research into which personality types are best suited to different sorts of assignment. 

The questionnaires NASA employ use the Big 5 personality traits. The Big 5 (also known as the OCEAN model) includes measuring opennessconscientiousnessextraversionagreeableness and neuroticism(more on these later). 

Space age psychology for today’s challenges – why we need to understand personality

So, what about life and work beyond space exploration? Is personality important? We might not be aspiring astronauts, but the evidence suggests that the psychology of personality types is important no matter what we do.

I am a great believer in self-discovery as foundational to fulfilment in life. And once again I am not alone in this. From Socrates to Stephen R. Covey, the history of personal development emphasises the importance of self-awareness.

Whether you are an individual, trying to find your vocation, or a manager, wanting to find the right person for a role, this means that the subject of personality type is an important one.

Many people have taken personality tests of one sort or another and there are other popular tools out there. The best-known is probably the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) and this was the first such test I took. But, due to my experience with these tests – and the weight of scientific evidence – I don’t recommend MBTI. You can find out why in my article Much Too Jung (The Problem with Myers-Briggs Personality Tests)

I have utilised many psychometric tests in my work, and I now prefer using the Big 5 (OCEAN) model. The Big 5 is the preferred standard test of most psychologists and has been adopted by many employers (such as NASA). The OCEAN model emphasises personality traits rather than types.

Is personality more about traits or types?

The difference between traits and types reflects the distinction between analogue and digital. Traits are analogue as they measure aspects of character on a spectrum. For example, we might be more or less of a team player. The Big 5 (OCEAN) model uses this approach to understanding personality. 

Personality type theory is more digital, saying that some either is or isn’t of a certain sort. For example, a test using the ‘type’ approach will say you are either extroverted or introverted. It does not illustrate to what degree you are either introverted, or extroverted, and the same with other traits. In other words, it is less nuanced. The Myers-Briggs test uses this more binary approach of typology. 

One downside with type theory is that you can start to identify as a fixed kind of character and, even worse, start to think of that type as either positive or negative. This is unhelpful. Personality traits are about preferences and these preferences are not necessarily good or bad, they are not ethical judgements. Also, personality, traits and preferences are not fixed. They can change situationally and over time. For example, I have grown more confident over the years; that element of my personality is not fixed. 

Therefore, in my experience, there is no one ‘right’ personality type, but different people thrive in different situations. And the science backs me up on this. That is why the psychological study of personality and the science of identifying personality types has grown in scope and importance. 

What is the right type of personality for your organisation?

Here it is also worth noting that businesses can fall into a trap, thinking they need to broadly recruit people with a specific personality type. This is harmful, at the macro level, as businesses (and society as a whole) benefit from having a healthy mix of personality types. Diverse personalities provide cognitive diversity and people who can thrive in the diverse roles that every team or tribe needs. 

For example, NASA, at the organisational level, will employ a wide range of people, not dependent on personality type. Even astronauts are diverse in character. Personality is taken into account for specific missions but that is not the only selection criteria (by a long way!) And remember, the astronauts are not the only part of the operational team; it’s just that the larger part of the team is stuck on Earth. 

So, be careful when using personality profiling to help pick a team. But to see how it can help us, let’s take a closer look at the psychological model that NASA uses.

YouTube Video: How to define you personality with the Big 5 (OCEAN) test

What are the Big 5 personality types and what does OCEAN stand for?

The Big 5, which stands for five personality traits (also known by the acronym OCEAN) was developed by a series of researchers but is most closely associated with the work of Paul Costa and Robert McCrae. The 5 traits of the OCEAN model are:

O – Openness

C – Conscientiousness 

E – Extroversion 

A – Agreeableness

N – Neuroticism 

The traits are generally measured by the use of psychometric tests (questionnaires that indicate preferences) and the scores are expressed on a scale or spectrum. There are many tests available, some even for free. But, whether paid or not, make sure whatever test you use comes from a recognised provider with proven credentials if you want to trust the results. 

One free resource I often use is where you can find a variety of tests including the Big 5 model.

The Big 5 (OCEAN) personality traits explained

Here is an explanation of each of the Big 5 traits:


Openness is the degree to which people are open to new experiences and ideas, being creative, having imagination and creativity. Less ‘open’ people prefer routine and deep, specialist knowledge.


The more conscientious a person is, the more organised, disciplined, and hardworking they tend to be. Less conscientious people tend to be more impulsive and disorganised. 


Extroverts get more of their energy from external stimuli. They tend to be gregarious, outgoing, positive, enthusiastic, and assertive. Introverts get their energy more internally. They tend to think more before speaking, prefer fewer (but deeper) relationships and retreat from others to recharge.


A more agreeable person is more likeable, cooperative, and trusting. They tend to be warm and good-natured. Less agreeable people are less trusting, more critical, and often prefer to work alone. 


The higher a person is on the neuroticism scale, the more they worry. They tend towards negativity and are more prone to depression and anxiety. Less neurotic people are calm, even-tempered, and more secure in themselves. 

Applying the Big 5 personality traits – an example

By way of an example (and to show any given trait is not good or bad) we can once again consider NASA astronaut selection for different missions. Let’s take one trait, that of agreeableness in this instance. 

For a mission of a long duration, with people stuck in close confines such as a trip to Mars, you want people higher on the agreeableness spectrum. That is because they are more likely to work well as a team (and not rub each other up the wrong way!) This is similar to the type of person selected to serve for long durations in Antarctic research stations

By contrast, someone completing a solo mission might be better off having a lower agreeableness rating as they will need to be happy working on their own, with no company, for long periods.

So here we can see it is not that agreeableness is good or bad. Where someone lands on the spectrum just indicates tasks or roles they are better suited to, but this is situational and just one factor to take into consideration.

Example of the Big 5 Personality Traits for selecting team roles

I put this knowledge to good use when working with a team fulfilling a security contract there were two main roles that team members needed to play. 

The first was surveillance. This was generally done by small teams who often had to stay together, in a confined space, doing monotonous work for extended times. Here the preference was for characters that showed high conscientiousness, as they tended to be more disciplined and enjoyed routine. They also had high levels of agreeableness, meaning that they were less likely to rub people up the wrong way when stuck together for long periods. The best operators tended to be slightly more introverted as well. 

The second role was speaking to people to gather information. Here the preference was for more extroverted characters with high openness scores. These sorts of team members enjoyed the outgoing role and the new experiences created by meeting lots of people. By contrast to the surveillance specialists, these operatives had lower conscientiousness ratings – meaning they were more impulsive – and did not need to have the same high agreeableness scores.

How the Big 5 (and other personality tests) can help or hinder us

As we have seen, the study of personality types has become important for NASA, especially as they try to answer the tricky question: who are the right sorts of people to send on a mission to Mars? But how about us? Why should we bother trying to quantify our personality?

Taking a personality test, especially one using the preferred Big 5 (OCEAN) model, can be beneficial in aiding self-awareness. Traits show preferences and help us to identify our strengths and weaknesses. It can help inform us of roles that we might prefer and excel in (and others where we might struggle).

But personality is not fixed. Therefore, we must be careful not to identify too closely with personality types as this can get us into an unhealthy fixed mindset. This is why we focus on traits. Each trait sits on a spectrum that can change with circumstance and time. We also need to be careful not to think of our personality as good or bad. And, if we feel our personality has room for improvement, then the evidence shows that we can change.

People change and teams need to be diverse. Therefore, we need to be very careful when using personality tests to select people in an organisation. Most organisations require various personalities to thrive, and personality is just one factor – among many – to consider in individual and team performance. But you can use personality profiles, to work with individuals, to make sure they are in the best role for them – a place where they can thrive and contribute using all of their strengths. 

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