Is there anything special about the Five-Factor Model?

I recently put up a clip-job list of all the ideas I’ve been too busy or lazy to flesh out into real posts in the last month. One of the items was about a recent Psych Inquiry commentary I wrote in response to a piece by Jack Block. Tal actually read the commentary (thanks, Tal!) and commented:

…What I couldn’t really get a sense of from your paper is whether you actually believe there’s anything special about the FFM as distinct from any number of other models, or if you view it as just a matter of convenience that the FFM happens to be the most widely adopted model. I suspect Block would have said that even if you think the FFM is all in the eyes of the beholder, there’s still no good reason to think that it’s the right structure, and that with only slightly different assumptions and a slightly different historical trajectory, we could all have been working with a six or seven-factor model. So I guess my question would be: should one read the title of your paper as saying that the FFM is the model that describes the structure of social perceptions, or are you making a more general point about all psychometric models based on semantically-mediated observations?

That’s a great question.

As I think I make clear in the paper, I think it’s highly unlikely that the FFM is isomorphic with some underlying, extra-perceptual reality of bodies or behavior. In other words, I don’t expect we’ll find five brain systems whose functioning maps one-to-one onto the five factors. I could be wrong, but I have seen exactly zero evidence that makes me think that’s the case.

But since I argue in the paper that the FFM is a model of the social concerns of ordinary social perceivers, I think it’s fair to ask whether it’s isomorphic with something else. Like maybe there are five basic, universal social concerns that all humans share, or something like that. And my answer is… no, I don’t think so.

For one thing, I don’t think the cross-cultural evidence is strong enough to support that conclusion. (Being in the same department as Gerard Saucier has helped me see that.) McCrae and Costa have done a very good job of showing that the FFM can be exported to other cultures — if we give people the FFM as a meaning system, they’ll use it in roughly the way we expect. But emic studies have been a lot more varied.

I also am not convinced that factor analysis — a method that derives independent factors from between-person covariance structures — is the “true” way to model person perception and social meaning. Useful? As a way of deriving a descriptive/taxonomic model, absolutely. Orthogonal factor analysis has some very useful properties, like mapping a multidimensional space very efficiently. And there’s a consistent something behind that useful model, in the sense that something is causing that five-factor structure to replicate (conditional on the item selection procedures, samples from certain cultures, statistical assumptions, etc.).

But there’s no reason to think that that means the five-factor structure has a simple, one-to-one relationship to whatever reality it’s grounded in — whether the reality of target persons’ behavior or of perceivers’ concerns. Why would social concerns be orthogonal (and by implication, causally unrelated to one another)? Why, if these are major themes in human social concerns, don’t we have good words for them at the five-factor level of abstraction? (“Agreeableness”? Blech. Worst factor label ever.) Why do they emerge in the between-person covariance structure but not in experimental methods that probe social representation at the individual level (ala Dabady, Bell, & Kihlstrom, 1999)?

As to Tal’s last question (“are you making a more general point about all psychometric models based on semantically-mediated observations?”): I think I say this in the paper, but I don’t think there is, or ever will be, any structural model of personality that isn’t pivotally dependent on human perception and judgment. (Ouch, double negative. Put more straightforwardly: all models of personality depend on human interpretations of personality.) I have a footnote where I comment that the Q sort can be seen as a model of what Jack Block wants to know about persons. I’ll even extend that to models that use biological constructs as their units rather than linguistic ones, but maybe I’ll save that argument for another day…