If personality traits are a genuine concept and not merely an artefact of psychologists’ imagination, then how people choose to spend their time ought to correlate with their scores on personality questionnaires, notwithstanding the constraints of life that prevent us from doing what we want. In fact, there are relatively few studies that have looked at correlations between traits and everyday behaviour, and of those that have, many relied on student volunteers (see here for an overview).
A study published earlier this year in Collabra helps plug this research gap – Julia Rohrer and Richard Lucas analysed the “Big Five” trait personality scores of over 1,300 German volunteers (part of a nationally representative sample), average age 51 years, who on three successive years completed detailed diaries of what they had been up to the day before. Specifically, they indicated whether they had spent any time, and if so how much, on nine key activities the previous day, including socialising, work, chores and watching TV.
The findings, controlling for age and gender, will mostly make comfortable reading for personality psychologists. For instance, consistent with trait theory, high scorers on conscientiousness spent more time working and studying, whether they were full-time employed or not. Similarly, strong extraverts, the highly agreeable and open-minded were more likely to report socialising.
A few other findings are more nuanced and intriguing. For instance, the highly conscientiousness were no more or less likely to report watching TV the previous day, but they reported watching it for less time. Meanwhile, extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness all went together with less time spent reading. In contrast, openness to experience was correlated with reading, and a trend toward reading for longer. Openness also correlated with time spent playing sports. Cultural activities, which typically correlate with openness, were not assessed in this study.
The most intriguing findings concerned chores – against trait theory, the highly conscientiousness were no more likely to say they’d spent time on chores (even though orderliness is a key facet of conscientiousness), perhaps because they had everything in order already, whereas the highly neurotic (i.e. people with low emotional stability who typically experience more low moods) were more likely to say they’d done some chores the previous day, and for longer. Again it’s speculation, but perhaps this is because the emotionally unstable find disorder and clutter more upsetting, while at the same time not necessarily being particularly adept at keeping order.
There was also a trend toward agreeableness correlating with doing chores. This chimes with a previous study that found, more specifically, that agreeableness correlated with spending more time ironing and washing up. The likely explanation in both cases is that highly agreeable people are more concerned with doing things that benefit others.
The approach of asking people whether they’d performed an activity at all, and if so, for how long, also threw up some interesting contradictions. For instance, high scorers on openness were more likely to report socialising, yet at the same time, they tended to report doing so for less time than low scorers, perhaps because they had so many other competing demands on their time.
The main weakness of this new data is its reliance (as in so much personality research) on people’s self-reports of their traits and behaviour, and the memory challenge for them of recalling what they’d been doing the previous day and for how long. Nonetheless, the findings serve to complement similar efforts using different approaches. “Our study suggests that even under the constraints of everyday life, personality shows modest [effect sizes were in the range of .1 to .2] but meaningful associations with daily patterns,” Rohrer and Lucas concluded. “Personality therefore qualifies as a real-world phenomenon, exerting its influence beyond the context of the research laboratory and allowing for strong descriptions of human life.”