The Myers-Briggs personality typing system and the Big Five trait model are major entrants in the personality evaluation field. Those seeking an assessment system that can untangle and interpret the various layers of their complex and dynamic personality profiles cannot go wrong with either.

Like the proverbial snowflakes, no two personality testing systems are exactly the same. While there is some overlap between the Myers-Briggs and Big Five personality tests, the differences are apparent upon a closer examination.

Personality types vs. personality traits

The primary difference between the Myers-Briggs and Big Five systems is that the latter does not identify you as belonging to a specific personality category. It measures dimensions or domains of your personality (five of them, as the name suggests), and it does so with an acknowledgment that all humans possess these dimensions and that they are key psychological determinants of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. 

The differences between people within this analytical framework aren’t absolute but relative, because all five dimensions—Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Neuroticism—are facets of each individual’s psyche. Measurements are made along a spectrum or continuum for each of the five defining personality traits, and you’ll be given a percentage grade depending on how you answer the questions on the Big Five test.

Like the Big Five model, the Myers-Briggs system also defines people according to the fundamental personality characteristics they possess. These fall on one side or the other of four opposite pairs (Introversion vs. Extraversion, Intuition vs Sensing, Feeling vs Thinking and Perceiving vs Judging).

The Myers-Briggs model also makes limited use of the spectrum concept, to explain how traits like ‘Introvert’ or ‘Judging’ describe preferences rather than absolute, universal characteristics. Your preference for ‘Feeling’ or ‘Intuition’ doesn’t preclude you from demonstrating ‘Thinking’ or ‘Sensing’ functions in some special circumstances. It’s just that you’ll prefer to indulge your ‘Feeling’ and ‘Intuition’ inclinations more often and will do so more instinctively.  

Nevertheless, in the end four letters will be designated and the combination of four you’re assigned will determine which of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types describes you.  Nothing like this occurs with the Big Five system, where everyone demonstrates either a high, low or average amount of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism, in a mixture that reveals who you are without attaching you to some specific personality type. 

What does self-improvement mean in the Big Five and Myers-Briggs contexts?

Another interesting difference is the Big Five framework isn’t quite as naturally optimistic or positive about human nature as the Myers-Briggs system.

So what do we mean by this?

In the Myers-Briggs sets of opposite pairs, one trait isn’t better than any other, just different. An INFJ isn’t more whole or healthy or well-adjusted than an ESTP, or vice versa. You aren’t considered fortunate to be any particular type, since there is no judgment involved in the Myers-Briggs style of evaluation.

The same cannot be said of the Big Five model. In four out of the five dimensions of personality (the exception will be discussed below), it is better to be either higher or lower on the rating scale. The reasons for this become clear when we describe what the five domains measure:

  • Openness. People with high levels of Openness are drawn to new experiences and ideas, and tend to be both adventurous and creative.
  • Conscientiousness. People with high levels of Conscientiousness are focused and organized when pursuing goals, and refuse to allow themselves to be deflected off the right path by short-term temptations.
  • Extraversion. People with high levels of Extraversion are always looking to make productive connections with other people, seeking friendship, admiration, praise, acknowledgement and other forms of stimulating social engagement.
  • Agreeableness. People with high levels of Agreeableness are empathic and compassionate and generally put the concerns of other people before their own.
  • Neuroticism. People with high levels of neuroticism experience negative or disabling emotions (guilt, shame, frustration, anger, depression, anxiety, existential angst, etc.) more often and more intensely than those with low or average levels.

In most of these dimensions, it is preferable to be at one end of the scale rather than the other (Extraversion is the one notable exception, as people are capable of thriving as either Extraverts or Introverts). Few would disagree, for example, that it is better to be open and agreeable and to have negative emotions under control than it is to be self-centered, resistant to new ideas and prone to outbursts of intense anger or frustration. 

This shows that the Big Five personality model is designed to measure healthy or unhealthy levels of adjustment. In contrast, Myers-Briggs personality typing provides you with data that you can use to more effectively manage your emotions and customize your life to maximize happiness and productivity.

Having a specific personality type is never a bad thing, since it is meant to function exclusively as a guide for self-improvement.

However, the difference between the two systems in this regard is not quite as clear cut as it would seem at first glance. The Myers-Briggs system does recognize that each of the 16 personality types has both strengths and weaknesses, and the latter may sometimes prevail over the former.

As an illustration of this dynamic, we can use the ESTJ as an example.

The strengths of the ESTJ include integrity, dedication and commitment, excellent organizational skills and a desire to take responsibility for the orderly and efficient functioning of their families, the organizations that employ them and society as a whole.

But things are not always so easy. The ESTJ’s belief in the importance of preserving traditional rules and standards can sometimes render them rigid, inflexible and judgmental. Their sense of dedication to their life missions can morph into obsessiveness and workaholism. ESTJs can also be emotionally repressed, as they become so concerned with structure and efficiency that they lose sight of the human part of the equation.

A lack of emotional balance can conceivably be an issue for every Myers-Briggs personality type, just as it can be an issue for those being judged by Big Five standards.

When the Big Five might be the better choice

Taking any personality test can be both fascinating and enlightening. In some circumstances, however, one test might represent a better choice than some others.

If you’ve yet to take either the Myers-Briggs or Big Five personality test, here are some situations where the Big Five might be the superior choice:

  • You’re seeking a more broad-based evaluation of your personality, and the personality of your friends or family members. The Big Five categories apply to everyone, while the Myers-Briggs personality typing system divides people into 16 categories with different frames of reference. This means that if you take the Big Five test along with others in your family or peer group, you’ll be able to compare results directly and really get a handle on how you are all different and how you are alike.
  • You want a more nuanced analysis of your personality traits. The Myers-Briggs system identifies clear preferences, allowing you to be categorized according to an ‘either/or’ format. In contrast, the Big Five personality model grades you strictly on a continuum, grading you on a percentage for each formative personality trait. Nuance is built directly into the Big Five system, which is one reason why personality researchers have such a high level of trust in its results.
  • You want to know which areas of your life you need to work on, either on your own or in therapy. The differences between where you’d like to rank on the five personality trait spectrums and where you actually rank will show you exactly what issues you need to address to become a healthier and more self-actualized person.
  • You’re skeptical of the validity of personality typing. While systems like Myers-Briggs produce results based on psychological theories about how the human mind functions, the Big Five test is based exclusively on data accumulated during personality testing. You won’t be given a personality type if you take the Big Five, but you’ll emerge from the experience with a precise and accurate idea about how much or how little of a particular personality trait you possess.
  • You want to use the test results to help you obtain a job. Because it is considered more scientifically valid than most other personality testing systems, human resource professionals and recruiters frequently rely on Big Five test results to place new employees or evaluate their qualifications for open positions. You can get ahead of the game by taking the Big Five test on your own and offering your results as a source of information that could conceivably help you land a coveted position. 

How unity emerges from difference: the surprising Myers-Briggs/Big Five correlation

With the exception of introversion vs. extraversion, which is present in both systems, the categorical distinctions of the Myers-Briggs system and the personality dimensions of the Big Five model do not directly overlap.

Nevertheless, there is an intriguing correlation between the two. To reveal this, let’s use the INTJ as an example.

Studies have shown that a significant majority (over 90 percent) of INTJs who take the Big Five test will register above-average scores on Openness and Conscientiousness but below-average scores on Agreeableness and Extraversion. So if you were shown the profile of someone who’d taken the Big Five test and it featured these measurements, your guess that this person was an INTJ might very well be proven true.

This fascinating relationship would hold true regardless of which set of Big Five personality trait scores were being evaluated, and what this illustrates is that despite their differences, the two personality evaluation systems actually complement each other quite well. If you choose to take both tests instead of just one, you’ll be served a two-course meal of fresh insights that can help you get closer to the truth about who you really are and what your existence is all about.

Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.