Big Five Cross-Cultural Validity Issues

Cross-Cultural Big 5 FFM

What are some Big Five cross-cultural validity issues?

The Big Five, FFM (Five-Factor Model), NEO-PI-R, CANOE and OCEAN model are all synonymous to the five primary traits most cited in personality psychology research:

  • Openness (O)
  • Conscientiousness (C)
  • Extraversion (E)
  • Agreeableness (A)
  • Neuroticism (N)

Big Five’s cross-cultural validity issues can be an ostensibly tricky field to navigate as its embedded emphasis on universality may be an obstacle to further developments towards greater validity and reliability. Since its official release in 1990, the FFM has earned its spot as one of the most scientifically accepted inventories of personality.

Higher and lower scores of the five dimensions can be attributed to other traits and terms:

Big 5 TraitHigh Score TraitsLow Score Traits
Imaginative, Independent*, Creative, Outwordly, UnorthodoxDown-to-earth, Conforming, Routinely, Predictable
Organized, Disciplined, Goal-Oriented, Tenacious, ScheduledCareless, Weak-willed, Lazy, Procrastinating
Sociable, Fun-loving, Affectionate, Expressive, InitiatingReserved, Sober, Quiet, Withdrawing, Shy*
Warm, Caring, AffableCold, Uncaring, Selfish
Worried, Insecure, Self-defeating, Anxious, Restless, FidgetyCalm, Self-satisfied, Balanced, Stable, Controlled

*Commonly cited erroneous sub-trait (secondary, tertiary) example

Embedded Biases Within the Five-Factor Model

With the exception of Openness (O), the other four personality traits have very pronounced biases when it comes to cultural preferences in North American countries, where research involving the Big Five model of personality is predominantly based.

Tenaciousness, sociability, affability, and emotional stability are all highly-prized facets of a supposedly universal “good” or “morally correct” character. Individuals who strongly possessed these traits reported higher incomes, happiness levels, and better health.

During hiring assessments, potential candidates may select choices on personality tests based on interpretations of overarching societal expectations of valued traits in the professional (and personal) domains. Using practice assessments may further perpetuate the tendency to “game” the onboarding process.

It would be fair to say these individuals would most likely not bypass the interviewing stage. However, competent candidates may be ruled out by failing to fit the mould of the “ideal hire,” complete with maxed-out trait statistics and dimensions designed for optimization.

Cross-Cultural Inconsistencies: Examples by Geography & Groups

Administering the Big Five questionnaire to culturally and ethnically diverse groups outside of North America (involving different levels of development) poses many challenges, with its strong etic (i.e. extending to all corners of the world) implications and limitations.


Culturally-specific personality frameworks such as the CPAI (Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory) have been more indigenously accurate models for countries in eastern Asia, with citizens who primarily speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

The concepts of face and harmony have been found to correlate positively with Big Five traits Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C), with a particularly negative correlation on Openness (O). The collective and higher-context communication culture (e.g. through body language)

Eastern Asian culture also favors high-context communication and spiritual beliefs closely tied to nature. Religions and faiths often emphasize the importance of maintaining a balance in the mind, body and soul—and focus on accumulating positive energy.

South America

In the Bolivian lowlands, a small group of hunter-gathers known as the Tsimane tribe scored results that were inconsistent with the interpretations of the Big Five. Two clusters out of a possible 40 were found to be correlative on a factor analysis:

  1. Prosocial tendency; and
  2. Industriousness


The European Union (EU) has its own journal, the European Journal of Psychological Assessment (EJPA), which is sponsored by the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP).

The Swedish Universities Scales of Personality (SUSP) is a derivation from the Karolinska Scales of Personality (KSP), an older European model of personality. The SUSP contains 91 items, and 13 scales in total:

  1. Adventure seeking
  2. Detachment
  3. Embitterment
  4. Impulsiveness
  5. Lack of assertiveness
  6. Mistrust
  7. Physical trait aggression
  8. Psychic trait anxiety
  9. Social desirability
  10. Somatic trait anxiety
  11. Stress susceptibility
  12. Trait irritability
  13. Verbal trait aggression


Religion and the extended family play a central part in the highly collectivist African culture. Environmental harmony and group expression are of paramount importance, with an emphasis on the collective health and harmony.

The South African Personality Inventory (SAPI) was established in 2014 and accounts for the 11 official languages spoken in the region, specifically:

  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • Ndebele
  • Sepedi (Sesotho sa Leboa)
  • Sesotho
  • Setswana
  • Swati
  • Tshivenda
  • Xhosa
  • Xitsonga
  • Zulu

Friction of Big Five with Psychiatry

The boom of abnormal psychology and psychiatry has been established upon the base of a deviation from the norm. The powerful belief that something is inherently “wrong” or “sick” about the patient, and that they must be treated and “fixed” in order to better fit the model of normalcy.

In the case of active psychiatric guidelines, the DSM-V and ICD-10 have been criticized for validity and reliability issues. The long-term effects of taking medication for an incorrect condition remains largely unknown and challenging to investigate, as the genetic makeup of each individual is complex and unique. Thus, current research must be approach on a case-by-case basis.

Reworkings of the Big Five: Revision Proposals

Personality psychology researchers have already begun suggesting new components to add to (and perhaps subtract from) the Big Five. Many proposals see significant overlap, and the future of a universal primary base set of traits is yet to be established.

HEXACO, an alternative to the Big Five with growing popularity, suggests a sixth factor: Honesty-Humility (H).

  • Honesty-Humility (H)
  • Emotionality (E)
  • Extraversion (X)
  • Agreeableness (A)
  • Conscientiousness (C); and
  • Openness to Experience (O)

The common assumption that Agreeableness (A) directly correlates with Honesty-Humility (H) sees challenges as the two can be mutually exclusive from each other. For example: a direct and firm manager, or a charismatic and calculating conman.

Final Thoughts: Big Five Cross-Cultural Validity Issues

The Big Five factor model of personality has its fair share of strengths and limitations, with numerous proposals to make changes—whether by adding additional primary- or secondary-level traits. Or, perhaps even reducing the number of traits or factors.

Different languages may not have exact equivalents for certain terms, leading to potential differences in interpretation and measurement of the traits. Cultural nuances and idiomatic expressions may affect the accuracy of personality assessments.

The salience and importance of specific personality traits can differ across cultures. For example, individualistic cultures may emphasize traits related to independence and self-expression, while collectivistic cultures may prioritize traits related to harmony, social obligations, and conformity.

With psychiatric, emic, and etic considerations in place, the Big Five (FFM) can better encompass the universality of the human condition. Perhaps additional factors can be incorporated into the model, or reworkings of the Big Five terms of Openness (O), Conscientiousness (C), Extraversion (E), Agreeableness (A), and Neuroticism (N).

Ensuring measurement equivalence across cultures is crucial for meaningful cross-cultural comparisons. Researchers strive to establish measurement invariance, which means that the measurement tools used to assess the traits are reliable and valid across different cultural groups.

However, achieving full measurement invariance can be challenging due to linguistic, cultural, and conceptual differences.


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