Is There a Single, Higher-Order Factor in Personality?

A study of forager-farmers in the Bolivian Amazon suggests there is.

Posted Jan 31, 2019

Psychology Today readers are familiar with the Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. According to most textbooks, an individual's personality can be described in terms of just these five dimensions.

Some psychologists claim these five traits are statistically independent of each other: Knowing a person's score on one dimension doesn't help you predict their score on any other dimension. Recent studies, however, have challenged this claim. In the past 10-15 years, several studies have found that scores on the Big Five are correlated with each other in non-trivial ways. Individuals who score high on agreeableness, for example, tend to also score relatively high on conscientiousness but relatively low on neuroticism.

These intercorrelations among the Big Five suggest the existence of a single, higher-order construct—a general factor of personality (GFP) that represents "social effectiveness." Individuals who score high on this factor are said to (1) know how to behave in socially desirable ways and (2) be motivated to behave in socially desirable ways. They want to be cheerful, reliable, and helpful—and they know how to do it.

While many studies have found evidence for a GFP, the studies have used WEIRD participants—that is, people from Western, educated, industrialized, and rich democracies. Can a GFP also be identified in non-WEIRD societies?

Dutch psychologist Dimitri van der Linden and his team of international researchers sought to find out. They reanalyzed the Big Five scores of more than 600 Tsimane individuals who had been studied years earlier by anthropologist Michael Gurven and his team.

The Tsimane are foragers and farmers who live in small villages in Bolivia's Amazon river basin. Although many Tsimane have access to public schooling, the literacy rate among adults is still low. Just 25% of adults can read and write.

Gurven's team had administered a translated version of the 44-item Big Five Inventory to 632 Tsimane adults. As part of the same study, a native interviewer observed and rated each individual's social behavior in terms of talkativeness, shyness, and smiling.

Using Gurven's data, Van der Linden and his team investigated three related questions.

  1. Among the Tsimane, were scores on the Big Five correlated with each other?  Yes. In fact, the scores were more strongly correlated than is typically seen in Western samples.
  2. Did a single, higher-order personality factor emerge that reflected the shared variance of Big Five scores? Yes, a GFP was easily identified in the data. As expected, the factor represented a mix of socially desirable traits, just as others have found in Western samples.
  3. Did the GFP scores of Tsimane individuals coincide with the interviewer's ratings of social engagement? Yes, the two variables were very strongly related to each other (r = .88). Tsimane who scored high on the GFP were typically more talkative, less shy, and smiled more.

In further analyses, Van der Linden and his team discovered that Tsimane men who scored high on social effectiveness (the GFP) also fathered more children. Among women, however, there was no relationship between GFP scores and fertility.

In evolutionary accounts, high-investing females are the choosers when it comes to sexual pairings, so it makes sense they would prefer mates who are socially engaged and effective. The picture is different for men. Men certainly don't prefer to be around women who have unpleasant personalities, but men can't afford (in an evolutionary sense) to be too picky, so they're more likely to tolerate disagreeableness and unreliability in a potential mate.

In sum, each of the Big Five traits has facets (components) that are more desirable or less desirable socially. Therefore, we should expect to see intercorrelations among the Big Five and a single, higher-order GFP that reflects social effectiveness. This is, in fact, what researchers have observed, in complex industrialized societies like the United States but also in small-scale tribal societies like Tsimane villages in the Bolivian Amazon. If similar patterns can be observed in other non-WEIRD societies, psychologists will have good reason to believe the GFP is a human universal.

References

Van der Linden, D., Dunkel, C., Figueredo, A. J., Gurven, M., von Rueden, C., & Woodley of Menie, M. (2018). How universal is the general factor in personality? An analysis of the Big Five in forager farmers of the Bolivian Amazon. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(7), 1081-1097.

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