How your mood changes your personality

Participants scored higher on neuroticism & lower on extraversion when they were sad

Except in extreme cases of illness or trauma, we usually expect each other’s personalities to remain stable through life. Indeed, central to the definition of personality is that it describes pervasive tendencies in a person’s behaviour and ways of relating to the world. However, a new study highlights the reality – your personality is swayed by your current mood, especially when you’re feeling down.

Jan Querengässer and Sebastian Schindler twice measured the personality of 98 participants (average age 22; 67 per cent female), with a month between each assessment. Before one of the assessments, the participants either watched a ten-minute video designed to make them feel sad, or to make them feel happy. The sad clip was from the film Philadelphia and Barber’s Adagio for Strings was also added into the mix. The happy video showed families reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall, together with Mozart’s Eine klieine Nachtmusik. Before their other personality assessment, the participants watched a neutral video about people with extreme skills.

When participants answered questions about their personality in a sad state, they scored “considerably” higher on trait neuroticism, and “moderately” lower on extraversion and agreeableness, as compared with when they completed the questionnaire in a neutral mood state. There was also a trend for participants to score higher on extraversion when in a happy mood, but this didn’t reach statistical significance. The weaker effect of happy mood on personality may be because people’s supposed baseline mood (after the neutral video) was already happy. Alternatively, perhaps sad mood really does have a stronger effect on personality scores than happiness. This would make sense from a survival perspective, the researchers said, because sadness is usually seen as a state to be avoided, while happiness is a state to be maintained. “Change is more urgent than maintenance,” they explained.

These results complement previous research suggesting that a person’s personality traits are associated with more frequent experience of particular emotions. For example, there’s evidence that high scorers on extraversion experience more happiness than lower scorers. However, the new data highlight how the relationship can work both ways – with current emotional state also influencing personality (or the measurement of personality, at least). We are familiar with this in our everyday lives – even our most vivacious friends can seem less friendly and sociable when they’re down. With strangers though, it’s easy to forget these effects and assume that their behaviour derives from fixed personality rather than temporary mood.

Although this research appears to challenge the notion of personality as fixed, the results, if heeded, could actually help us drill down to a person’s underlying long-term traits. As Querengässer and Schindler explained, “becoming aware of participants’ emotional state and paying attention to the possible implications on testing could lead to a notable increase in the stability of assessed personality traits.”

Querengässer, J., & Schindler, S. (2014). Sad but true? – How induced emotional states differentially bias self-rated Big Five personality traits BMC Psychology, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2050-7283-2-14

–further reading–
Why are extraverts happier?
Situations shape personality, just as personality shapes situations

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “How your mood changes your personality”

  1. and how sun changes the mood 🌞 sunny weather sunny flowers sunny disposition!

  2. This is such a good article and it sort of gave me a strange sort of a relief. Although it was written 3 years ago and there probably won’t be much of discussion anymore, but since I already wrote it all out, here goes…

    Every time I have been doing any of those super serious personality tests, I got extremely different results. And I found there to be two problems with these tests – one was, as mentioned in this article – MOOD. And the other problem I find there to be is the interpretation of the questions.

    By which I mean there are quite a number of questions which can have different answers depending on whether the question asks about your stance at work, home, with friends, on your own etc. As at work under pressure I resolve issues in a very different manner than I would at home relaxing, enjoying what I do.

    Also – how can some people answer some of these questions even… “Do you prefer going out or staying home on your own” – as many people might not even have the perspective – maybe they don’t even know whether they could enjoy staying home on their own more than hanging out, because they have sort of… Learned to hang out all the time (and who knows, maybe they keep going out because they have people-pleasing-issues or suffer the fear of missing out – and rationalize to themselves that they go because they enjou it). Or what about people who don’t go out because they don’t have anyone to go out with much – maybe they would enjoy going if the company was pleasant etc – and in turn they would also rationalize or assume that they stay on their own because they enjoy it.

    Same goes for e.g following orders. Do I have to like following orders which I can already see from afar that will not be a good idea (someone proposing a short-sighted strategy and unwilling to hear out or consider my input, per se). These tests don’t seem to question those things. I can’t tell whether the tests means to ask me if I’m willing to blindly follow orders or am I capable of finding the balance via questioning the quality of the order regarding many aspects to it…

    Also, same thing, do people enjoy leading. Doesn’t that also depend on a whole sum of variables – who are you leading, why are you leading, what is the goal, how stressed is the project etc. Leading can mean so many things, and yet again the test asks it as if you can choose whether you are with the whip or getting whipped.

    With all that I said above, these tests seem too unreliable, and in that sense even very dangerous as a lot of employers seem to be using them in order to help them assess the people they are employing etc. Would be a useful tool to make assessments easier, of course – but isn’t that even worse if there is evidence that the results these tests give can be inaccurate to a very deep degree… : /

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