Researchers asked these British mothers which personality traits they would most wish for their babies – extraversion came out on top

GettyImages-587877026.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Ambitious and self-disciplined or affable and fun-loving? If you could choose the personality profile for your children, what would you prioritise? Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, put this question to 142 British mothers with a baby aged 0 to 12 months. Reporting their findings in Personality and Individual Differences, Rachel Latham and Sophie von Stumm say there was a clear preference among the mothers for most of all wanting their infants to grow up to be extraverted, especially friendly and cheerful, more so than conscientious or intelligent, even though these latter attributes are more likely to contribute to a healthy, successful life. To the researchers’ knowledge this is the first time mothers’ wishes for their children’s personalities has been studied.

Latham and von Stumm told the mothers (average age 33) the six personality facets that make up each of the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience). For each trait, the mothers were asked to say which facet they would most like their child to have. See the results below, showing how often each facet was chosen as the most preferred for each trait:

 

Screenshot 2017-09-06 11.01.48.png
From Latham and von Stumm, 2017.

After this, the mothers were asked to place their chosen five facets (one from each trait) in order of most to least important for their child to have, and to also place intelligence in its appropriate place in this list.

More than half the mothers chose a facet of Extraversion as the most important overall, followed by 20 per cent choosing a facet of Agreeableness, such as being moral or trustworthy, as most important. An Openness facet was chosen as most important by just under 10 per cent of mothers, with intelligence or a facet of Conscientiousness, such as achievement-striving, not far behind at 9 to 10 per cent. Mothers’ choices didn’t vary with the sex of their child.

Latham and von Stumm point out that the high priority that mothers placed on Extraversion and the relatively low priority given to Conscientiousness and Intelligence contrasts sharply with the research literature on which traits are most important to positive and negative life outcomes. For instance, people who are more intelligent and Conscientious tend to live longer, healthier lives and do better in their careers and relationships. By contrast, although Extraversion correlates with being happier, it is also associated with negative outcomes such as drink and drug problems.

Unfortunately, the research doesn’t speak to why mothers prioritised the traits that they did. “It is possible that mothers’ preference for extraversion is the result of a cohort effect, whereby the current zeitgeist, rather than the mothers themselves, values and encourages extraversion,” Latham and von Stumm speculated.

It will be interesting to see follow-up research on this question – for instance, how might mothers’ wishes for their children vary cross-culturally. And what about fathers’ wishes? The researchers speculated that perhaps fathers would place a higher value on traits that promote achievement.

The study contains an odd anomaly. Four of the five Big Five personality traits were presented in such a way that having more of any of the related facets would be an obviously welcome thing – such as being more friendly (a facet of Extraversion), having more imagination (Openness), being more self-disciplined (Conscientious). However, in terms of a person’s emotionality, the researchers presented the relevant trait as a negative: as Neuroticism rather than as Emotional Stability, its positive polar opposite.

It’s little wonder then than zero mothers chose a facet of Neuroticism (such as self-consciousness or vulnerability) as the facet they would most like their child to have. Of course, if this trait had been framed as Emotional Stability (with positive facets, such as relaxed and not easily embarrassed), it’s possible many mothers would have placed a high priority on this trait. In fact, past research has shown that when young adults around the world are asked how they would most like to change their personality, most of them say that increasing their Emotional Stability (or reducing Neuroticism) is the change they would most like to make.

One last, related point. Introverts may notice that the facets of Extraversion were all worded in a way biased in favour of the extroverted end of this personality dimension. It’s easy to imagine the results would have been different with some word changes to make the introverted end of this trait more appealing, such as listing “is content to spend time alone” and “happy to take it easy” as facets of Introversion.

Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and his next book Personology (due 2019) is on the science of personality change. 

5 thoughts on “Researchers asked these British mothers which personality traits they would most wish for their babies – extraversion came out on top”

  1. Undoubtedly, how the questions were framed will have affected the rating of the responses and I can see why all Western mothers, (me included) might value ‘happiness’ or ‘contentment’ above other qualities, since the pursuit of happiness, freedom from strife and pain or a sate of ‘nirvana’ before or after death is universally sought after. I have issues about how these Big Five qualities of ‘character’ are defined and measured, their cultural universality, stability and contextual variation. Since the ‘self’ is now regarded as a fluid (constantly changing) illusory concept, the stability and permanence of any personality ‘trait’ is also open to question. For me,the notion of ‘Personality’ is as illusory a belief system as the belief in horoscope/ birth characteristics is, having absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever.

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  2. I also agree that the framing of the questions will have affected rater responses, and I see this as a wider issue in Psychology generally, not just in this study. I have a particular ‘issue’ with the Extroversion/Introversion dimension because they are usually spoken about as Introversion being the ‘opposite’ of Extroversion, and by default therefore it is often couched in negative language. The link between Extroversion and ‘happiness’ is one example – happiness is often confused with contentment, but that not-withstanding, measures of happiness often use qualities associated with how extroverts may express it, or with what makes an extrovert happy – which is quite different to what makes an introvert happy. Extroverts will respond positively to a question about how they’d feel about being at a lively party with lots of part-goers, and an introverts expressed dislike of this is often taken to mean that they are not sociable, and they are less happy as people, but that’s nonsense. I disagree with the idea that personality is an illusory belief system: I think there are aspects of our personalities that are quite fluid and that can change as we go through life, and as we age and gain more experience and more self-awareness, and that may adapt to cultural ‘norms’. However, I think there are some aspects of our ‘character’, our temperament, that is much more hard wired and that has basis in our Evolution – and I would include in this category, Introversion/Extroversion and the traits of High Sensitivity (Sensory Processing Sensitivity as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron) and High Sensation Seeking. I say this because there are many studies which show similar differences within animal populations, because studies in neuro-science show differences in brain wiring between individuals with these different character traits, and because these traits tend not to show much variance across our life-span (I differentiate here between your natural tendency and outward behaviour, as these can be quite different) This has implications culturally and for society, because we do tend to reflexively covet the qualities of Extroverts, and fail to value the qualities of Introverts and Highly Sensitive People. This has knock-on effects for how people are nurtured (or not) in our institutions and how well they are able to function as they are naturally ‘programmed’ to in our schools and workplaces. A huge food for thought for education, organisations and for psychologists who study personality and behaviour – in terms of understanding just how extensive this unconscious bias is, and to what extent we as scientists and practitioners may be inadvertently perpetuating this skew.

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