In the 1980s, personality psychologists agreed on the Big Five as a broad framework to describe and measure personality; that is, variation in psychological attributes across individuals.
You can think about the Big Five as a five-dimensional map. Like the two-dimensional map (or a three-dimensional globe), the Big Five are independent dimensions that create a space with coordinates that can be used to describe the vast number of psychological attributes that distinguish one person from another. One area of research in personality psychology is to correlate measures of personality attributes with Big Five measures to pinpoint their coordinates.
One important and frequently studied personality attribute is self-esteem, and dozens of studies have correlated self-esteem measures with Big Five measures. Robins, Tracy, and Trzesniewski (2001) reviewed some of these studies.
The results are robust and there is no worry about the replicability of these results. The strongest predictor of self-esteem is neuroticism vs. emotional stability. Self-esteem is located at the high end of neuroticism. The second predictor is extraversion vs. introversion. Self-esteem is located at the higher end of extraversion. The third predictor is conscientiousness which shows a slight positive location on the conscientious vs. careless dimension. Openness vs. closeness also shows a slight tendency towards openness. Finally, the results for agreeableness are more variable and show at least one negative correlation, but most correlations tend to be positive.
Psychologists have a naive view of the validity of their measures. Although they sometimes compute reliability and examine convergent validity in methodological articles that are published in obscure journals like “Psychological Assessment,” they treat measures as perfectly valid in substantive articles that are published in journals like “Journal of Personality” or “Journal of Research in Personality.” Unfortunately, measurement problems can distort effect sizes and occasionally they can change the sign of a correlation.
Anusic et al. (2009) developed a measurement model for the Big Five that separates valid variance in the Big Five dimensions from rating biases. Rating biases can be content free (acquiescence) or respond to the desirability of items (halo, evaluative bias). They showed that evaluative bias can obscure the location of self-esteem in the Big Five space. Here, I revisit this question with better data that measure the Big Five with a measurement model fitted to the 44-items of the Big Five Inventory (Schimmack, 2019a).
I used the same data, which is the Canadian subsample of Gosling and colleagues large internet study that collects data from visitors who receive feedback about their personality. I simply added the single-item self-esteem measure to the dataset. I then fitted three different models. One model regressed the self-esteem item only on the Big Five dimensions. This model essentially replicates analyses with scale scores. I then added the method factors to the set of predictors.
Results for the first model reproduce previous findings (see Table 1). However, results changed when the method factors were added. Most important, self-esteem is now placed on the negative side of agreeableness towards being more assertive. This makes sense given the selfless and other-focused nature of agreeableness. Agreeable people are less like to think about themselves and may subordinate their own needs to the needs of others. In contrast, people with high self-esteem are more likely to focus on themselves. Even though this is not a strong relationship, it is noteworthy that the relationship is negative rather than positive.
The other noteworthy finding is that evaluative bias is the strongest predictor of self-esteem. There are two interpretations of this finding and it is not clear which explanation accounts for this finding.
One interpretation is that self-esteem is rooted in a trait to see everything related to the self in an overly positive way. This interpretation implies that responses to personality items are driven by the desirability of items and individuals with high self-esteem see themselves as possessing all kinds of desirable attributes that they do not have (or have to a lesser degree). They think that they are kinder, smarter, funnier, and prettier than others, when they are actually not. In this way, the evaluative bias in personality ratings is an indirect measure of self-esteem.
The other interpretation is that evaluative bias is a rating bias that influences self-ratings, which includes self-ratings. Thus, the loading of the self-esteem item on the evaluative bias factor shows simply that self-esteem ratings are influenced by evaluative bias because self-esteem is a desirable attribute.
Disentangling these two interpretations requires the use of a multi-method approach. If evaluative bias is merely a rating bias, it should not correlated with actual life-outcomes. However, if evaluative bias reflects actual self-evaluations, it should be correlated with outcomes of high self-esteem.
Hopefully, this blog-post will create some awareness that personality psychology needs to move beyond the use of self-ratings in mapping the location of personality attributes in the Big Five space.
The blog post also has important implications for theories of personality development that assign value to personality dimensions (Dweck, 2008). Accordingly, the goal of personality development is to become more agreeable and conscientious and less neurotic among other things. However, I question that personality traits have intrinsic value. That is, agreeableness is not intrinsically good and low conscientiousness is not intrinsically bad. The presence of evaluative bias in personality items shows only that personality psychologists assign value to some traits and do not include items like “I am a clean-freak” in their questionnaires. Without a clear evaluation, there is no direction to personality change. Becoming more conscientious is no longer a sign of personal growth and maturation, but rather a change that may have positive or negative consequences for individuals. Although these issues can be debated, it is problematic that current models of personality development do not even question the evaluation of personality traits and treat the positive nature of some traits as a fundamental assumption that cannot be questioned. I suggest it is worthwhile to think about personality like sexual orientation or attractiveness. Although society has created strong evaluations that are hard to change, the goal should be to change these evaluations, not to change individuals to conform to these norms.