The Enneagram and the Big 5 Model

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Anyone who’s read this blog before knows that I’m a fan of the Enneagram – so much so that I got certified as a Riso-Hudson Certified Enneagram Teacher and wrote a book in which this personality model figures prominently. But I know that it’s not THE answer. It explains a lot, but it doesn’t explain everything.

So, I like to look at other personality models or paradigms, as well. These help fill in some of the gaps, though human minds are so complex that no group of models will ever fully capture that complexity. In my studies, I’ve found that the Big Five Model is particularly helpful in my understanding of not just myself but of the probable biological roots that make use who we are. And that’s important, because if we’ll let it, this changes our assumptions about why we believe and act as we do – a trait Big Five shares with the Enneagram. And, as with the Enneagram, this new understanding opens the door to greater compassion.

The Big Five Model of personality looks at what some researchers believe to be the five primary personality traits that all humans share. They are actually five broad categories of traits, and each category is a continuum. Openness, for instance, represents a range of possibilities from extreme openness toward experience and knowledge to extreme lack of curiosity. Most people fall somewhere between the extremes.

Researchers have looked at more than 50 cultures and found these five traits to be universal. This has led many psychologists to believe that the traits have biological origins. One psychologist believes there is an evolutionary explanation for these personality traits. That suggests all these traits – including the dubiously named Neuroticism – have a legitimate purpose in keeping people alive and flourishing.

It’s believed that these traits are hard-wired into our brains. You could think of them as states of being that have certain emotions attached to them. Each has its own set of neural pathways that cannot be easily changed. Keep this in mind as we look at the individual traits.

OCEAN (or the less-common but more fun CANOE) is the mnemonic device used to remember these traits:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Here’s a brief look at each of these five traits.


This quality embodies innovation and imagination. High-openness individuals also frequently have diverse interests. They are enthused to learn new things and relish new experiences because they have curiosity about the world and about others. Those high in openness frequently exhibit greater creativity and a strong sense of adventure. Low-openness individuals tend to be much more traditional and may have trouble thinking abstractly.


High degrees of goal-directed behaviors, thoughtfulness and strong impulse control are typical characteristics of this trait. People who score high in conscientious are usually well-organized and detail-oriented. They are considerate of others’ feelings and deadline-conscious, so they tend to plan ahead.


Friendliness, gregariousness, assertiveness and a high level of emotional expressiveness are traits of extraversion. Extraverted individuals get energized and enthusiastic when they are around others in a social setting.


Affection, trust, altruism and other help-oriented tendencies are aspects of this personality trait. Higher agreeableness tends to make people more cooperative, while lower agreeableness makes people more aggressive and even possibly manipulative.


This trait comprises melancholy, moodiness. High levels of this trait are associated with mood changes, anxiety and impatience. People who score lower for neuroticism tend to be more emotionally stable and resilient.

Where do the Big Five traits come from?

Psychologists have long recognized that a person’s personality is shaped by a combination of biological and environmental variables. The author of Jesus & Personality Theory takes it a step further: “One of the most surprising findings in recent decades is that a significant influence on personality traits comes through a genetic influence as opposed to an environmental impact of our surroundings.”

Researchers can get a better understanding of the degree to which qualities are inherited by studying twins. Some researchers studied 250 twin pairs, and what they found “suggested that the heritability of each trait was 53% for extraversion, 41% for agreeableness, 44% for conscientiousness, 41% for neuroticism, and 61% for openness.” 

In other words, these traits are likely to be inherited. This is important to keep in mind because there is a large extent to which we don’t get to pick what we’re like. We get used to what we’re like, and because it’s familiar to us and makes at least some sense to us, we assume it’s the right way to be. We may even adopt a bit of moral superiority about what we’re like, assuming that we chose to be open or agreeable or ______ and that other people should, too. But research shows us that this position can’t be justified. A bit of humble pie is in order.

It’s also difficult to change these traits. We may be able to move the needle a little – maybe by force of will become a bit more conscientious or open, for instance – but these traits are wired into our brains and don’t change that much. Of our own free will, anyway. There have been long-term studies that suggest the Big 5 traits usually stay the same throughout adulthood. But as people get older, the traits tend to shift – but all along the same lines. “As people age, they tend to become less extraverted, less neurotic, and less open to the experience. Agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tend to increase as people grow older.” 

The idea that we need all of these traits in some combination points to the reality that we as a species do best in community, where we are able to share the traits that we collectively need to not just survive but thrive. We offer our contribution and hear from those who have a different perspective and, ideally, this rounds out the collective perspective.

If you’re interested in finding out where you are on the continuum of Big Five traits, there are tests to be found on the web. This will be helpful for you personally, as it will fill in some of those gaps that the Enneagram doesn’t address.

But the larger point is that you have a set of traits you didn’t ask for, as does every human being. You can try to change them, but you’re likely to only budge them a small bit. Self-acceptance is one result; compassion for yourself and others is another. That’s ultimately – at least, in my book – what all this knowledge is for.

If you’d like to enhance your knowledge of the Enneagram – or just have a handy reminder for reference – click here to get my Enneagram Quick Reference Chart.



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