|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