Once we move beyond the traits of extroversion and neuroticism, the third most important trait is agreeableness, which involves the degree to which people generally have a positive or negative orientation toward other people.
This is the fourth article in a series about the big five personality types. You might prefer to start with the first post: The Science Behind the Five Major Personality Types
From Antagonistic to Sympathetic—the Agreeableness Continuum
Like most traits, agreeableness is normally distributed, so most of us fall in the middle-we can be very nice at times, but we can also be somewhat disagreeable.
At the low end of the agreeableness continuum, we have people who simply aren’t very nice. They are often unpleasant, even to the point of being antagonistic and hostile at times, and they tend to be inconsiderate and critical, even callous.
And at the high end of the agreeableness continuum, we have people who tend to be pleasant, kind, sympathetic, and helpful. Like most traits, agreeableness is normally distributed, so most of us fall in the middle with a mixture of positive and negative interpersonal characteristics. We can be very nice at times, but we can also be somewhat disagreeable.
This is a transcript from the video series Why You are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Let me describe just a few ways in which people’s standing on the agreeableness trait is related to their behavior beyond the fact that agreeable people are simply friendlier and nicer than less agreeable people are.
Learn more about the concept of “proportion-of-variability in personality
High and Low Agreeableness Behavior Traits
First, agreeable people tend to have a more positive and optimistic view of human nature. They tend to believe that most people are basically honest and decent, so they trust other people more. People low in agreeableness have less positive views of other people, and so they’re less trusting.
Second, when they experience conflicts with other people—as we all do—highly agreeable people try to resolve the conflict in ways that are acceptable to everyone involved. So, agreeable people value negotiation more highly, and they are averse to using power or force to get other people to do what they want. Along the same lines, agreeable people are generally more cooperative and less competitive in their dealings with other people.
These differences between low and high agreeableness can be seen in early adolescence, if not sooner. One study showed that middle school students who were higher in agreeableness used more constructive tactics to resolve conflicts with their peers than less agreeable students did.
Agreeable people are more helpful than less agreeable people are, whether we are talking about helping family members, friends, or complete strangers. Highly agreeable people are even more likely to donate their money and time when other people are in need.
On the other hand, people low in agreeableness tend to be more prejudiced. They’re not only more prejudiced toward traditional targets of prejudice, such as certain races, ethnic groups, and homosexuals, but also toward members of other stigmatized groups, such as people who are overweight.
Agreeable people place a higher value on their relationships with others and they experience more distress when other people are suffering.
Two characteristics seem to tie all of this together. First, agreeable people place a higher value on their relationships with other people.
They’re more motivated to have pleasant, close relationships, so they’re more willing to do things that maintain those relationships. For example, they make a greater effort to tolerate frustrations caused by other people rather than getting angry or lashing out.
In addition, research suggests that agreeable people are more empathic. They’re more likely to see the world through other people’s eyes, and they experience greater distress when other people are suffering. So, more agreeable people are more likely to treat other people nicely and to be kind and altruistic. That doesn’t mean that less agreeable people never have empathy for others. But they don’t automatically empathize with other people as easily as highly agreeable people do.
Learn more about five key traits that best help us understand a person’s behavior
Agreeable People Usually Have Smoother Social Interactions
As I’ve described prototypical people who are low versus high in agreeableness, I suspect that you liked the highly agreeable person more—probably a lot more. Research shows that people who are higher in agreeableness are regarded as nice people, they’re liked more, and they’re more popular within their social groups. And, you won’t be surprised to learn that they have more satisfying friendships and romantic relationships, including more successful marriages. In part, that’s because they simply get along better with other people. And they also bring out better behavior in other people. Their agreeable style elicits more pleasant and agreeable behavior from the people they interact with.
Think about how differently you react in interactions with a warm, agreeable person than with a hostile, disagreeable one. Highly agreeable people create different social environments than less agreeable people do, and their agreeableness affects the behavior of other people.
Learn more about a sixth personality trait that’s starting to get attention
This is a downstream consequence of personality traits that many people don’t consider. Traits not only lead people to behave in certain ways, but in doing so, a person’s traits can influence the behavior of other people. Then those other people’s reactions feedback to influence the first person’s behavior. Agreeable people behave in ways that lead others to be agreeable, which helps to sustain their own agreeable behavior. And, disagreeable people behave in ways that elicit negative reactions from others that make the disagreeable person behave even more disagreeably.
The fourth member of the big five personality traits, which I will discuss in the next post in this series, is the trait of conscientiousness.