Under threat of violence, we have a natural instinct to stick together. Researchers say this basic urge explains their seemingly odd observation that feeling threatened, rather than making people bristle, can actually increase their agreeableness.
Andrew White and his colleagues conducted five studies in all. First off, they analysed data from 54 nations around the world showing that the higher a country’s spend on their military (a proxy for feeling threatened), the higher their citizens’ average score on the personality dimension of agreeableness. The association held even after controlling for a host of potential confounds including a nation’s wealth and population density.
Second, White’s team surveyed 54 undergrads and found that those who generally felt more threatened in life also tended to report being more agreeable and extravert (scores on conscientiousness, openness to experience and neuroticism were not associated with feeling threatened).
Next, the researchers prompted some of a new group of participants to feel threatened by having them read a story about an intruder entering their house. The remaining participants acted as controls and read a story about losing keys. The threatened participants scored higher in agreeableness (not other traits), but only when they thought about their personality in the context of how they act with people they know well. Moreover, this apparent effect of threat on agreeableness was larger for people who’d grown up in a big family.
Taken together these initial findings support the idea that we have an evolved adaptive response to threat of violence that leads us to affiliate to family and friends, especially if we grow up in a context where this would be useful. This idea complements previous research that suggests we have an evolved instinct to avoid other people when we’re under threat of contamination.
A fourth study took things further by testing real-world behaviour. Two kinds of poster were pinned up around campus – one was a threatening reminder about the issue of guns on campus and it featured a pistol pointing out at the reader; the other was about construction on campus. Next to these posters were one of two fund-raising requests, either framed as being for local students or for an out-group of Ethiopian students. The fund-raising notices had pull-off tabs for people to take contact details away. The result here – the gun poster increased students’ interest in helping their fellow students, but not outsiders.
Finally, the researchers returned to international data and found that countries that spent more on their military tended to have citizens who score more highly in trusting their family and neighbours, and lower in trusting members of other religions.
“These findings help develop a deeper understanding of one of the ways in which humans respond to threats of violence from others,” the researchers said. “Although disagreeableness and mistrust may often seem to arise from violence, it is not always the case. Sometimes nasty breeds nice.”
White, A., Kenrick, D., Li, Y., Mortensen, C., Neuberg, S., and Cohen, A. (2012). When nasty breeds nice: Threats of violence amplify agreeableness at national, individual, and situational levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103 (4), 622-634 DOI: 10.1037/a0029140
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