Skip to main content

Are SLOAN and OCEAN different systems?

Primary Argument

Some PDB users have made the claim that SLOAN is actually a distinct system, which uses different definitions from the standard big 5 traits. Furthermore, they claim that because PDB opted to implement SLOAN into its voting engine, PDB users ought to rely on SLOAN definitions when voting and commenting and dismiss other big 5 resources as irrelevant. This page will examine both of these claims and assess their validity.

Firstly it should be clarified that the personality system referred to on Similar Minds is called "Global 5", not SLOAN. Flynn writes: "In my own research I have attempted to create a more coherent version of [The Big 5] to avoid the confusion and obfuscation that tends to afflict personality theories. This will be referred to as the Global 5 model, global because these personality elements are cross cultural. The structure of the Global 5 model will feature two personality types or archetypes per element (10 personality archetypes total). Each type will represent the opposite ends of the spectrum for each element." This passage is one of the few passages anywhere on the website which clarifies that he does regard his system as being distinct from the conventional big 5 theory. Most of the time he refers to the Global 5 or the Big 5 or to his big 5 tests he fails to clarify which specific versions of the big 5 he is referring to.

He does not refer to SLOAN as a personality system but as "The SLOAN notation system". In this sense it is clear that SLOAN and OCEAN are indeed two separate systems but that SLOAN and the Global 5 are also two separate systems. SLOAN is a notation or coding system. The Global 5 and Big 5 are personality systems. PDB has implemented SLOAN as its coding system for the Big 5. Indeed, "Big 5 (SLOAN)" is the title for the Big 5 voting section on PDB. If the argument for referring exclusively to Tim Flynn's definitions when voting or commenting is dependent on the fact that "SLOAN" is written beside the votes, then that argument actually supports referring to Big 5 definitions, not Global 5 definitions because "Big 5" is what is written beside the votes, not "Global 5". SLOAN was implemented as a convenient way to include the Big 5 in the PDB voting engine. It is unfortunate that the originator of the SLOAN notation system has also invented a variant of the big 5 because it makes it difficult to recognise that these are not one and the same system. But this is the correct way to understand this issue. SLOAN and the Global 5 are two separate systems. The global 5 is a variant of the big 5. SLOAN is a key for representing the big 5. SLOAN is not a personality system.

Extended Argument

The underlying issue has been addressed. SLOAN is not a personality system but a coding system for big 5 scores so there is no expectation that PDB users ought to refer to any specific version of the big 5 in making their votes and comments. But we can still examine this position a little further. What if someone is still convinced that the SLOAN system mandates an adherence to Global 5 definitions when using PDB? How viable would it be to use Tim Flynn's definitions as the basis for typological arguments?

Results vs Definitions

The first problem we encounter is that the definitions on Similar Minds are not actually definitions. For an example of what these definitions consist of, here are the first few items from the definition for "Reserved": "outsider, does not fit in most places, does not mind going days without speaking to people, does not like night life and crowds, not self expressive..." At the end of every description we find this note: "the descriptions listed here are made up of personality items. people who scored high on this type scored higher on the above items compared to the average." In other words these items are not the items used to identify given personality traits, rather they are the results of personality tests. They are items that received higher scores from Reserved types than from other types. This does not answer the question of what metrics were used to identify test takers as Reserved types in the first place. These items cannot be the primary definition for Reserved types because how could this list of items be generated unless there was some prior definition, which was used to generate them?

It is also worth noting that these definitions are not referring to Reserved vs Social types, i.e. those who scored below vs those who scored above 50%. The site states that 6.1% of women are "Reserved" and 16.1% of women are "Social". You may ask, "What of the other 77.8% of women?" The fact is that these descriptions were generated by examining the data from "Primary" social and "Primary" reserved types, that is, test takers whose most extreme score (furthest from 50%) was for Social or Reserved. This is why the majority of the population are not represented by this site's definitions for Extraversion, or any of the other definitions. The definitions are not fit for purpose as a definition of high scorers vs low scorers because they are simply a summary of the most overrepresented answers given by extremely high/low scorers. The definition for Social provides an impression of what traits to expect in extremely high scorers but are not tailored to the characteristics of those who score above 50% for Extraversion as a generalised group. The descriptions define hyper Extraversion or hyper Introversion but they do not define Extraversion and Introversion in a general sense.

Trait Independence

The descriptions also do not attempt to define independent personality traits. They are merely summaries of high scoring items from individuals whose Primary type is the one being described. No attempt was made to separate out items which really belong to other traits. We see this issue in action when the same items are listed for two or three different traits. Here are a few of the many examples of items that occur in two or three separate Global 5 descriptions:

Pro-tattoo: Limbic + Unstructured
Anti-tattoo: Reserved + Organised
Impulsive: Reserved + Unstructured
Can't do anything when they don't feel good: Reserved + Limbic + Unstructured
Suspicious: Reserved + Limbic + Egocentric
Optimistic: Social + Calm
Motivated: Social + Calm + Organised

Typing someone with these non-independent descriptions would be difficult because of the complex interactions between traits. In the six facet model of the big five, motivation would typically be associated with Conscientiousness, especially the achievement striving facet. Typing someone highly motivated would mean thinking "He's highly motivated so that suggests high Conscientiousness". Typing someone highly motivated with the Global 5 definitions would mean thinking "He's highly motivated, which suggests high Extraversion AND low Neuroticism AND High Conscientiousness". The system would also be very tricky to remember. For example, being unmotivated is only attributed to Reserved types, so as well as having to remember the three traits that are associated with being motivated you would also need to remember that the opposite characteristic, being unmotivated, only affects the Extraversion score and has no bearing on the scores for Neuroticism or Conscientiousness. Internalising the Global 5 descriptions means committing to counter-intuitive dynamics, like that a personality characteristic influences 3 traits but that the inverse of that characteristic only influences 1 of those 3 traits.

Flynn's introduction to his big 5 test says this: "The bulk of academic research points to five purely independent personality elements... "Independent" in the sense that what you score on one independent element says nothing about what you will score on another independent element. Most personality traits are dependent meaning what you score on one element will predict, to some degree, how you will score on certain other traits. This is why personality systems with dependent traits are not very efficient. The Global 5 personality system is based on the five proven independent elements."

Flynn clearly posits systems with independent traits as superior to systems with dependent traits. But if we make his descriptions the basis of our typology we are committing the error of utilising a system with dependent traits. How can it be a correct application of his Global 5 personality system if we rely on obviously dependent trait descriptions? If he defines independence between traits as "what you score on one [trait] says nothing about what you will score on another [trait]" then a system which uses the same descriptive items across 2 or 3 traits clearly does not fit this definition. Relying on Flynn's "descriptions" of the Global 5 traits violates the very principle that he praises in his introduction to his own Global 5 test.

Counter-Intuitive, Too Specific or Not Specific Enough

This method of generating descriptions leads to another similar problem. As well as having the same item used to describe several traits, Flynn's descriptions also feature many instances of counter-intuitive items, that is items that occur within the description for one trait but would make more sense in the description for a different trait. Here are some examples:

Item: Not Traditional
Used to describe: Reserved & Egocentric & Unstructured
Would typically be used to describe: High Openness (Inquisitive)

Item: Prefers to stick with things they know
Used to describe: Limbic and Reserved
Would typically be used to describe: Low Openness (Non-Curious)

Item: Not a Loner
Used to describe: Non-Curious
Would typically be used to describe: High Extraversion (Social)

Another problem with the descriptions is that of items that are overly specific, which make it seem like there is a strong correlation between a trait and an item when the correlation is actually very weak because highly specific items are dependent on many different factors. Here are some examples of excessively specific items that do not belong on a checklist of general personality traits:

Any reference to being for or against having tattoos (highly dependent on environment). Good at building/fixing things. Goes/does not go to concerts frequently (highly dependent on life situation and interests). Prefers non fiction to fiction. Not big on art house movies.

A far more serious problem is the inverse problem, that of including descriptive items that are vague, meaningless, difficult to quantify or generalised enough to apply to most people. These are commonly referred to as Barnum Statements. When reading the following examples of Barnum Statements (from the Global 5 descriptions) compare them to the facet descriptions in the "Six Facet Model" chapter and consider how much more vague, non-specific and unquantifiable these items are. If you find that a lot of these items seem to describe you surprisingly well then bear in mind that this is the nature of Barnum Statements:

have more desire than fear. wants to be famous. desires security and support. thinks the world is a dangerous place. more past than future. more feeling than doing. wants to feel loved. fears being unwanted or unworthy of love. wants to enhance their self esteem. believes in choice more than fate. believes the benefits of freedom outweigh the benefits of attachment. more logical than abstract. fears being corrupt, evil, or defective. more artistic than articulate. does not use ideas and tools to transform understanding. weak connection to mind. feels both special and defective.

Average vs Above Average

Another problem with using these lists of personality items as a trait definition is that the items are generated from above average scores and give no indication as to what the average is nor how high above the average the item scored. So for example, if 10% of people agree with a given statement but the percentage of Egocentrics who agree is 20%, that means that "Egocentric" has scored significantly "above average" for this item. But that still only means that 20% of Egocentric individuals agree with that item, so the item cannot reasonably be used as a descriptor for a primary type if it only applies to a small proportion of that primary type. If only 20% of Egocentrics agree with an item, that item should not be used to indicate whether or not someone is Egocentric.


We have so far identified several issues with the "Global 5 Primary Type" descriptions, but there are also "Global 5 Type Descriptions". These are descriptions of the 32 2-point SLOAN types, which use the same methodology as the "Primary Type" descriptions and so suffer from a lot of the same issues. But they also suffer from one or two additional issues.

Firstly the big 5 is not a typological system. The primary type descriptions in essence are not so different from generic Big 5 descriptions, as the big 5 traits are often defined by comparing high and low scorers. The 32 SLOAN type descriptions however analyse individuals in a typological manner and thus take the big 5 theory into territory that is not appropriate or sympathetic to the underlying theory. Unlike other systems, big 5 theory does not claim that there are a set number of underlying types. Flynn himself makes this same claim:

"Not everyone will fall into the following 32 profiles. That’s not the goal. There are not 5, 9, 16, 32, or even 1000 profiles of people in the world, there is an endless number"

So although he acknowledges that his Type descriptions will fail to accurately describe everyone, the fact still remains that this typological method of trying to fit everyone into one of 32 types is still a contradiction of the underlying big 5 theory and fails to capture the nuance and ambiguity that is allowed by the big 5's non-typological approach. Other personality systems at least make the claim that there are a set number of personality types. To use the 32 SLOAN descriptions for typological purposes would directly contradict the theory from which those descriptions are derived. These are type descriptions, which come with the disclaimer that they will not accurately describe the majority of people. If it is expressly stated that we cannot rely on these descriptions to be comprehensive or accurate then why should we bother to use them at all? Why not simply rely on the traits from which these descriptions are generated, which do not suffer the same issue of inaccuracy?

Excessively Biased Descriptions

A second issue with these descriptions is the issue of clear bias. Many PDB users have been permanently discouraged from using the big 5 at all after reading the SLOAN descriptions, which have only positive things to say about some types and only negative things about other types. To some degree it is correct to say that the big 5 does not claim that people with certain scores are inherently "equal" to people with other scores. But a description surely cannot be accurate if every single item is positive or every single item is negative. Such an approach would reduce typology to cataloguing individuals purely on the basis of how many negative traits they possess. To characterise one type as being all good or all bad runs contrary to our most basic intuitions about the complex way in which different personalities interact with different situations. The world is a varied and multi-faceted place where traits that are an asset in one situation can be a liability in another situation. An all-bad description will fail to capture the undeniable advantages that a given personality will bestow in a given situation and the inverse is true with an all-good description. As an illustration of the excessive bias in the SLOAN descriptions, here are a few of the top items from the two most extreme examples:

RLUEN: overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings frequently, feels unattractive to others, lonely, not well read, socially unskilled, easily confused, discontent, attracted to things associated with sadness, socially uncomfortable, avoidant, depressed, pessimistic, feels defective, withdrawn, feels ordinary, easily offended, lower energy level, impatient, not usually happy, not well informed

SCOAI: happy, level emotions, not easily discouraged, optimistic, fearless, self confident, non-hostile, trusting, rarely sad, social, content, positive, knows where life is going, socially skilled, not quiet around strangers, acts comfortably with others, takes on responsibilities, likes public speaking, not prone to worrying, not apprehensive about new encounters, flexible, adapts easily to new situations, not afraid to draw attention to self, likes to lead, not bored while working, likes others, hard to annoy, calm in crisis, does not second guess self, not embarrassed easily, high energy level, easy to understand, thinks before acting, strong sense of purpose

Relying on such extremely partisan descriptions for typological assessments will feed into the typist's natural prejudices, preferring more flattering SLOAN types when self-typing and preferring to choose more positive or more negative types for others depending on their own personal feelings towards those individuals. In short, descriptions so heavily loaded with unambiguous value judgments will make it much less likely that those descriptions will be used in an accurate and objective manner.

Flynn himself states that he thinks most personality systems are too eager to present every trait or type as "equal". He writes: "Informing someone they are great when they are troubled is a good way to make money as a personality consultant or author, but I really don't see any other benefit to it long term... Introversion as it's defined by the MBTI, Big 5, and most personality systems and authors is more pathological than healthy". Although the big 5 does not insist that everyone is "equal" most common big 5 trait descriptions are eager to at least mention some of the advantages of the less desirable traits, e.g. High Neuroticism. Flynn's eagerness to present various personality traits as "pathological" leads us to another and much more dubious issue with his research, that of a conflict of interest.

A Conflict of Interests

As well as suggesting that his "Global 5" system is in some vaguely defined way an improvement on the big 5, Flynn also dedicates much of his site to the promotion of his own MOTIVES system. Although he includes information and tests related to various typology systems, the system that is most well represented on his site is the system that he himself has invented. His site includes articles, which list the shortcomings of other systems (including the big 5) and argue that his MOTIVES system has solved these issues. It is implicit in these articles that Flynn is convinced that his system is the best personality system to date and ought to supersede the big 5 as the dominant personality model in the field of psychology. When someone is trying to promote their own invention as the superior alternative to a pre-existing invention (the big 5) it is clear that this person will have an incentive to represent their invention in a favourable light and the pre-existing invention in an unfavourable light. When we consider that Flynn is clearly using his site to promote his model as a superior alternative to the big 5, it should not surprise us that his site offers one of the least compelling versions of the big 5 that can be found anywhere on the internet. When an individual wants us to use his new product in lieu of an old product, it would be naïve of us to expect that his representation of the older product would be the most truthful and accurate summary available. Relying on Flynn's account of the big 5 is like relying on a hard-line communist to offer a fair and balanced summary of Capitalism.

Big 5 vs Global 5

Perhaps there are still some readers who have reached this point in the article and remain convinced that SLOAN is Mr. Flynn's system and so we are obligated to rely on Flynn's Global 5 descriptions. My question to such people would be "What is the underlying reason to prefer Flynn's work to the work of multitudes of other researchers?" The only argument for preferring Flynn's descriptions seems to be authenticity, that is, he is the originator of this system so his definitions are authoritative. The argument for using other definitions however are multiple. As well as all the many issues with these descriptions (mentioned above) the fact remains that Flynn is one obscure individual with apparently no qualifications or affiliations. Flynn-chauvinists may present him as the foremost authority, but the authority on what? The authority on a poorly defined and utterly non-notable variant of a vastly more significant and scientifically influential system. The main reason to use the big 5 is that it is the most scientifically validated of all the personality systems. Amongst psychologists it is easily regarded as the dominant personality model. So why should we prefer an obscure variant of this model by a man who appears to be a complete nonentity in the field? Simply because he came up with some convenient letter codes? Is it really worth preferring the deeply problematic and motivationally compromised definitions of this man to the definitions which have the approval of the broader scientific community and which are used in countless research projects and papers? Preferring Flynn's "global 5" descriptions to the more established big 5 descriptions is like preferring the conclusions of the 3% of climate change denialist scientists simply because "they are the authorities in why climate change is not man made". When we consider this final point perhaps the reader will realise that there really is no reason to refer to these dubious "Global 5" descriptions. The big 5 (OCEAN) is the most scientifically approved personality model that there has ever been. Why not use it?

Written and maintained by PDB users for PDB users.