The Big Five: Supertraits

Drew D’Agostino has a nice series on the Big Five personality traits: Are personality differences real? An introduction to personality neuroscience.. In Personality Neuroscience #4: The Big Five personality traits, DDA worked from Metatraits of the Big Five differentially predict engagement and restraint of behavior. – PubMed – NCBI and noted that the Big Five are not completely independent, but instead fall into two clusters: stability and plasticity. Each one is associated with its own neurotransmitter,

  • Stability – “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is known to stabilize information, disrupt impulses, and allow you to focus on goals.”
    • Neuroticism: (-) emotional stability
    • Conscientiousness: motivational stability
    • Agreeableness: social stability
  • Plasticity – “Dopamine is a different neurotransmitter that facilitates exploration, learning, and cognitive flexibility. It controls your sensitivity to rewards and potential rewards.”
    • Extroversion
    • Openness

Though the Big Five traits are partially heritable, there is some evidence that they change with age. In particular, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness increase with age and Neuroticism decreases with age, meaning that Stability increases with age.

Some of the Big Five traits are very old. From Personality Dimensions in Nonhuman Animals: A Cross-Species Review (1999), one can infer that Extroversion and Neuroticism date back to the common ancestor of bony vertebrates and octopuses. That was the urbilaterian, the ancestor of the bilaterian animals. This means that the urbilaterian had both supertraits and presumably both associated neurotransmitters. Searches for genes for neurotransmitter transporter proteins reveals that the urbilaterian had transporters for both dopamine and serotonin (Ancestry of neuronal monoamine transporters in the Metazoa). Thus, the urbilaterian had both personality supertraits, complete with their neurotransmitters.

In posts following #4, DDA discussed the biological basis of each of the five traits.

  • Openness
    • + Working Memory
    • +? Dopamine
    • – Latent inhibition (getting accustomed to common stimuli)
  • Conscientiousness
    • + Connections between (cognitive control network) and (salience network: about paying attention)
    • + Prefrontal Cortex (brain part) volume
  • Extroversion
    • (Assertiveness) + Dopamine system (pursuit of rewards, though not enjoyment of them)
    • (Enthusiasm) + Opiate system (enjoyment of rewards)
  • Agreeableness
    • (Politeness) + Serotonin
    • (Politeness) – Testosterone
    • (Compassion) + Empathy-system connections and activity (mirror neurons)
  • Neuroticism
    • + Fight-flight-freeze system (FFFS) (quick responses to danger)
    • + Behavioral-inhibition system (BIS) (responds to threats of punishment, confusion, and anger)
    • + HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis (regulates response to stress)

Thus associating them with different parts of our brains.

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