If you were to describe the ideal friend, what would you say about them? Likely, you would talk about the personality of that friend. Maybe you would describe them as trusting, empathetic, or just generally agreeable to be around. On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t seek out a friend who was selfish, manipulative, or callous.
Every person - friend, colleague, or romantic partner - falls along a spectrum between two extremes. At least, that’s what personality psychologists believe. Let's define what it means to be agreeable, how it fits into personality psychology, and address ways that you may become a more agreeable person.
What is Agreeableness?
Agreeableness is a personality trait that describes a person’s ability to be kind and considerate with others. Although this trait does often dictate social behavior, a person’s agreeableness starts with how they treat themselves. Agreeableness is one of The Big Five Personality Traits accepted by today’s psychologists.
About the Big Five
To start, it’s important to understand the context of this and the other Big Five Traits. Personality psychology has attempted to answer big questions about personality for centuries. What personality traits do all humans have in common? Can these traits change over time? Where do we develop our personalities, and how does that influence our behaviors?
At one point, psychologists worked off of a theory that shared over 4,000 different personality traits that humans can have. This list, while comprehensive, was certainly exhausting to know and use in personality research. Later, psychologists went the other direction, identifying as little as three traits that could sum up the foundation of our personalities. But three wasn’t enough.
Around the 1980s, personality psychologists landed on the Big Five Personality Theory. This theory takes a look at five personality traits that are present, to some degree, in every person:
- Openness to experience
The acronyms OCEAN or CANOE are a good way to remember these five traits.
These traits, like agreeableness, all make up a spectrum where every person can find themselves. On each side of the spectrum are two extremes. Someone with low agreeableness still has a personality!
One personality trait may stand out more than the other five. Or, these traits could all be present equally. There is so much variation in humanity and these traits that you can probably see a lot of your friends or family members at every part of the spectrum. That’s just how this personality theory works!
A person with high agreeableness is likely to display most or all of these six traits, as identified by personality psychologists:
A person with high agreeableness trusts others and is trusted by others. Their trust is gained straight away. They are honest, compassionate, and make decisions with the other person in mind. This selflessness may influence the careers that they pursue, the sacrifices they make for the people that they love, or even just how they approach a tough conversation.
Don’t confuse all of these traits for being sensitive or a push-over. Being “tender-minded” is not necessarily an insult. This just means that an agreeable person considers another’s perspective when making decisions. They act with sympathy and empathy rather than focusing solely on their interests or looking to put people down.
A person with low agreeableness doesn’t always display these warm and fuzzy actions. They aren’t going to offer up their seat on the bus to someone who is elderly. They aren’t going to spend much time worrying about how their friends, family members, or colleagues will feel based on their actions. They are more concerned with themselves. People with low agreeableness tend to be very competitive, very selfish, and not very empathetic.
Is Agreeableness A Good Thing?
Yes! In fact, while low conscientiousness or low openness to experience is not necessarily a “bad” thing, a person with low agreeableness should probably be avoided. On the opposite side of this spectrum (low agreeableness) is a person who likely fits the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
What is the Dark Triad?
The Dark Triad theory is separate from the Big Five Personality Theory, but as you’ll see, it speaks to the extreme personality and behaviors that may be present when a person is not very agreeable. A person who scores high on Dark Triad assessments is likely to score very low when it comes to agreeableness.
- Narcissism is the absence of empathy, or the inability to see beyond a person’s ego.
- Machiavellianism is the presence of callousness and characterized by a tendency to be manipulative.
- Psychopathy describes someone who is selfish, impulsive, and remorseless.
At best, someone who possesses all three of these traits is unpleasant to work with. At worst, they are a dangerous person to be around.
Remember, agreeableness exists on a spectrum. If someone isn’t very agreeable, it doesn’t mean they are a full-blown psychopath. They may just be very competitive or fail to put others before themselves. They might just not go out of their way to be empathetic because they don’t think they have to be.
We all (probably) would like to see ourselves as agreeable people. But we are all somewhere on the spectrum of agreeableness. Ask yourself these ten questions. Do you agree with them?
- I trust people easily.
- It’s important for me to be honest with the people I love.
- Before I make a decision, I think about the impact it will have on others.
- I am a generally patient person.
- I don’t like to start drama or be involved in conflicts.
- There is a lot that other people can teach me.
- I tend not to question the motives or intentions of others.
- I don’t get annoyed easily.
- People would describe me as “gentle.”
- I forgive people easily.
If you agree with at least five of these statements, you’re pretty agreeable!
Are These Personality Traits Fixed?
Maybe you find that you don’t always display the behaviors of an agreeable person. People tell you that you need to be more empathetic or trusting of others. But can you do that? Are people able to become more or less agreeable, more or less neurotic, or more or less open to experiences?
The answer has stumped psychologists for centuries. They go back and forth on whether nature or nurture determines who is an agreeable person and who embodies the Dark Triad. Could we have stopped violent killers if we only saw the “signs” or determined the genetic makeup that makes someone a psychopath?
Where Does Agreeableness Come From?
Today, psychologists believe that a combination of both genetics and the environment can contribute to a person’s personality, although genetics influences agreeableness less than it influences the rest of the Big Five personality traits.
Trauma a person endured throughout their life, the education they received, and the culture they grew up in may all shape their personality and behaviors. Studies show that agreeableness does tend to change over time. A person tends to become more agreeable as they get older. Women, for example, tend to score higher on agreeableness (as well as conscientiousness and neuroticism) than men. Firstborn children tend to be less agreeable than middle children or the “babies” of the family. There is a lot that plays into whether a person is agreeable or not. The conscious choice to be more or less agreeable due to circumstance, preference, or beliefs will also influence how a person’s personality changes (or doesn’t) over the course of their life.
How to Become More Agreeable
So what does this mean for you? If you are a person who wants to be more agreeable, you can! This process certainly doesn’t happen overnight, although it may start with making one or two decisions about how you socialize with and treat other people.
Be around agreeable people
Spending time with people who are highly compassionate, patient, and selfless can “rub off” on you. When you find someone who always puts others first, keep them in your circle. Ask them questions about how and why they consider others. Ask them about what they have gained from being such an agreeable person. As you watch, observe, and be around them, you may find yourself mirroring their activities and personality.
Work with others
Spending time with other people may force you to make agreeable decisions. Don’t avoid group projects. Don’t shy away from collaboration at work or in your community. Sign up to volunteer with people experiencing homelessness or people in underprivileged neighborhoods. All of these opportunities will give you a chance to practice agreeableness. As you start to notice the benefits of being selfless, patient, or empathetic, you will gravitate toward these behaviors in the future.
Practice loving-kindness meditation
This Buddhist meditation practice involves practicing compassion for yourself and the people around you. Engaging in this practice for just 10 minutes every day may be the key to practicing compassion in other areas of your life.
Practice inner work
Trust and forgiveness are action words. People who score low in agreeableness are often making the choice to withhold their trust, forgiveness, or patience. Why do you think you might be doing this? Where can you consciously give people the trust, forgiveness, or compassion that they may need? Working through these questions may open the door to other agreeable practices or other ways to help you become more agreeable in your everyday life.