Year of Discovery (Week 43: The Big 5 of Personality and Stress in Learning)

Audrey Cheng
4 min readFeb 2, 2022

An unbridled hope emerged after yesterday’s light rain and warm weather (above 0 degrees) melted the snow away. Just as quickly, an overnight snowstorm overtook Chicago’s grey skies and I woke up this morning to see a white blanket covering the buildings and sidewalks and a flurry of small dots rushing to find a home on the first surface they came in contact with.

As my first snowed-in day in Chicago, I’ll be finding comfort and warmth from blankets, hot cocoa and cats. Any other suggestions for how people find comfort in snow days?

Today, I’m writing a reflection on the Big 5 of personality and stress in learning.

The Big 5 of Personality

As shared in a previous post, psychologists break down our personality into 3 layers. The first layer is our traits. While there have been attempts to break down traits in various ways, the most scientifically valid and reliable is the Big 5. The following descriptors define what being ‘high’ in each of these traits would look like:

  1. (O)penness to Experience: Fantastical, Creative, Focused on tackling new challenges
  2. (C)onscientiousness: Hardworking, Persevering, Self-disciplined, Organized, Systematic approach to tasks, Tend to be on time / meet deadlines
  3. (E)xtraversion: Excitement seeking, High-activity seeking, Assertive, Gregarious, Positive emotionality
  4. (A)greeableness: Warm, Patient, Altruistic, Honest, Ethical, Committed to social good
  5. (N)euroticism: Anxious, Angry/hostile, Depressed, Self-conscious, Impulsive

What’s interesting to me is that each of these traits is orthogonal, meaning that they are independent of one another. Just because someone is high in extraversion doesn’t mean that they are also high in agreeableness. The combination of low, medium, and high in each of these traits signals our individual uniqueness. Some personality tests are based on the Big 5, but many have strayed beyond science, so checking the methodology and reliability behind these tests is important before we use them to understand ourselves.

As I explore the US-born Big 5 test, one major challenge I’ve found is that while the Big 5 has found relevance in WEIRD countries, an acronym that stands for “Western Educated Industrialized Rich Developed”, it has not held up in developing countries. Tests in non-WEIRD countries were found to be less reliable. For example, in Kenya, more than 900 farmers took the test two times. The results were unreliable, inconsistent and changed often depending on the setting.

This only highlights the lack of representation in where knowledge comes from, who it tests and how knowledge is spread throughout the world.

“Ninety-six percent of psychology studies are in Western populations, which is something like 12% of the world population,Ara Norenzayan, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia

Question to reflect on: What would it take to build out a new data set from the ground up to break down personality traits among individuals in non-WEIRD countries? (like a 54Gene for personality)

Stress in Learning

Being back in an educational environment, I find myself approaching learning with a much lower-stakes mentality than in my early 20s. This is aligned to a myth I’ve often heard that “stress is bad for learning”. At Moringa, we explored the optimal stress level in learning as our model was focused on accelerating an individual’s learning journey to acquire a key set of skills to move them forward in their careers. This week, I was curious to continue thinking about what an appropriate amount of stress would look like to optimize my own learning.

Joy R. Rudland, Clinton Golding, and Tim J. Wilkinson published an article titled ‘The stress paradox: how stress can be good for learning’ in 2019.

In their study, key definitions include:

  • Distress = a negative affect as a result of stress.
  • Eustress = a positive affect as a result of stress.

The term “stress” was initially used in the contexts of metallurgy, physics and mathematics, or as a verb meaning “to give particular emphasis”. By contrast, the term “distress” was used more frequently to describe biological manifestations such as respiratory and cardiac distress or digestive disorders. The concept of individuals being in distress, as opposed to biological systems, became evident in the 1950s with reference to, for example, people in distress, the distress of schoolchildren, and the distressed student. In health professional education today, the words “stress” and “distress” have come to be casually equated.

Rudland, Golding and Wilkinson‘s conclusion rejected the myth that stress is bad for learning. What they proposed was to break down the learning process by using ‘stressors’ as an opportunity to clarify learning expectations from individuals and to understand the learner’s interpretation of the stressor, which can create a positive or negative experience. How a stressor is used and perceived is considerably influential on the outcomes of learning.

My big takeaway from this study is that stress is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. It’s more about an individual needing to define his or her relationship with the ‘stressor’ and creating a healthier story around it that enables him or her to have positive learning experiences. An educational experience is a combination of the stressor’s role to clarify learning expectations and a learner’s role to contribute to an enabling environment through self-awareness and perspective. Learning environments are living organisms and framing stress positively and ramping up my stress levels may actually be more helpful as I continue my learning journey.

How do you think about your optimal stress levels and your relationship with your stressors?

What I Listened to This Week: Interview with an Icon

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Audrey Cheng

Taiwanese American. Curious about ideas and solutions that support human flourishing.