A recent paper introduces the Enactivist Big-5 Theory (EB5T) of personality, a framework that posits personality traits predispose individuals to an “optimal grip” of the world they inhabit. This research was published in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.
Consider an activity as mundane as reading a book; one must hold the book not too close, and not too far, but rather at an optimal distance from one’s face so that reading the text becomes possible. Such dynamic engagement between an organism and its environment is the basis of human cognition from the enactivist perspective.
“I’ve always had a strong tendency to look for the bigger picture when it comes to understanding things. It’s been no different when trying to understand the human condition, one of the most familiar yet least understood phenomena known to us,” said Garri Hovhannisyan (@GarriHovha), a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Duquesne University.
“I believe the Big-5 theory of personality gives us tangible and plausible ways of seeing the big picture when it comes to how human beings experience themselves, others, and the world. This is because what the theory describes through the five traits are arguably the broadest domains of human behavior that appear to be universally shared by all members of our species.”
The Big-5 traits encompass openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. This theoretical account of personality outlines a broad structure of human personality that is applicable to all adults.
“One of the main theoretical challenges facing the Big-5 since its inception, however, has been the general lack of an understanding of the adaptive functions of the traits and an explanation of how the traits fulfil their respective adaptive functions. Our research sought to ameliorate this gap in a novel way by placing existing work in personality theory in dialogue with recent advances in cognitive science to produce an EB5T of personality.”
“In our article, we follow suit with Colin DeYoung (2015) by defining traits as adaptations to broad classes of stimuli that have existed in human culture across evolutionary stretches of time. However, with EB5T, we extend this definition into the realm of phenomenology by conceptualizing individual differences as differences in styles of how we come to perceive, make sense of, and participate in the worlds we are in. The implications of defining traits in this way are twofold,” Hovhannisyan explained.
“First, we notice that evolution seems to have brought about individual differences in traits because this gives our species an important biological advantage. It gives our species a kind of fittedness to the world that individuals wouldn’t be able to attain on their own, thus maximizing our problem-solving potential on the whole. Rather than making every person a ‘jack of all trades,’ thereby losing a lot of the adaptivity that comes from being a specialist, the existence of individual differences within a group makes it possible for the group as a whole to become a ‘master of all trades’ by allowing the members to (1) become specialists in terms of their own distinct trait configurations and (2) to complement each other’s differences through means of cooperation and distributed cognition. As far as I know, this is a point that has not been sufficiently considered or discussed elsewhere in the literature, and thus constitutes an important and novel avenue for research.”
“This leads us to the second main takeaway, namely what we conceptualize as the ‘grip’ that is afforded between a person and their situation vis-à-vis their traits. In our article, we claim that no personality type is going to be wholly adaptive or wholly maladaptive, but only partially and in relation to the context a person is in. We think this point is crucial for inviting a greater sense of empathy for those who are different from us along the major trait dimensions.”
“For example, an extravert who has a strong need to be around others will come to feel lonely when a demanding work schedule does not permit much time for socialization. In a similar situation, the introverted counterpart will remain relatively unphased by the fewer opportunities to socialize and will go about business as usual. Conversely, when feeling lonely, the extravert will be more willing to seek out opportunities to socialize, thereby potentially ameliorating their state of loneliness through their own initiative, while the introvert might be less likely to initiate and might instead choose to endure the loneliness until something in the environment has changed.”
“In other words, every personality type is going to come with its own set of advantages and disadvantages that will make it ‘adaptive’ in some contexts but not in others—an important implication of our theoretical contribution that has clinical significance in the assessment of personality-related disorders.”
The author highlighted recent work in which the utility of EB5T in the context of psychological assessments was demonstrated through a clinical case study.
“This research departs from existing work on the Big-5 and psychopathology in two significant ways. First, the Big-5 is a measure of what we call normal (as opposed to ‘abnormal’) personality, and thus it is not typically used for the purposes of diagnosing psychopathology. And second, existing research on the intersection of the Big-5 and psychopathology has either been strictly descriptive rather than explanatory, or else theoretical rather than applied. The clinical case study in the above mentioned article demonstrated a way in which both of these limitations could be circumvented by adopting EB5T’s conceptualization of trait functionality as grip and its account of psychopathology as implicating a significant breakdown in trait-situation fit,” he told PsyPost.
“Future work should focus on (1) elaborating the approach found in the 2023 article into a more formal and standardized method of personality assessment while (2) developing a proper means of empirically studying the relationship outlined in EB5T between individual differences in traits and stylistic differences in how we come to perceive, make sense of, and participate in the very worlds which we experience.”
Hovhannisyan noted that this research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The paper, “Enactivist Big Five Theory”, was authored by Garri Hovhannisyan and John Vervaeke.