Category: Personality

A little discussed effect of therapy: it changes your personality

Summer girl and flowersBy Christian Jarrett

Imagine the arrival of some high-tech brain device for treating mental health problems. It’s effective for many, but there’s an important side-effect. It changes your personality. Alarm ensues as campaigners warn that users risk being altered fundamentally for years to come. Now replay this scenario but replace the neuro-gizmo with good old-fashioned psychotherapy, and realise this: we’re talking fact, not fiction. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin has looked at 207 psychotherapy and related studies published between 1959 and 2013, involving over 20,000 participants, with measures of personality taken repeatedly over time. The analysis has found that just a few weeks of therapy is associated with significant and long-lasting changes in clients’ personalities, especially reductions in the trait of Neuroticism and increases in Extraversion.

Continue reading “A little discussed effect of therapy: it changes your personality”

Find a sense of purpose and you’re more likely to get rich

Young woman with long hair staring into the cameraBy Christian Jarrett

As the dawn breaks on a new year, now might be a good time to think about what you want to get out of life over the longer-term. We already know from past research that having a greater “sense of purpose” is good for us psychologically: it’s linked with experiencing more positive emotions and generally feeling better about life. Now a study in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests there are material benefits too. Researchers followed the same sample of people over a period of about nine years, and they found that during that time, those individuals who reported a greater sense of purpose at the study start had accumulated greater wealth.  Continue reading “Find a sense of purpose and you’re more likely to get rich”

Many of the same genes that influence our personality also affect our mental health

Prototype of womenBy Christian Jarrett

We know from twin and family studies that our personality is to a large degree – probably around 40 per cent – inherited. Geneticists are busy trying to find the specific gene variants involved, but because each one on its own only exerts a modest influence, this is challenging research requiring huge samples. A new study in Nature Genetics has made a significant contribution, using the technique of Genome Wide Analysis to look for genetic variants that correlate with personality. The researchers led by Min-Tzu Lo at the University of California, San Diego have identified variations in six genetic loci that correlate with different personality trait scores, five of which were previously unknown. In a separate analysis, the researchers also showed that many of the genetic variants involved in personality overlap with those involved in the risk of developing mental health disorders.

Continue reading “Many of the same genes that influence our personality also affect our mental health”

A bigger signature correlates with social bravado and narcissism

signature-giphy-2By Christian Jarrett

When you sign your name, do you like to fill the available space with bold strokes or is your personal scribble a more modest mark?  A group of psychologists from Uruguay, the Netherlands and Curaçao say that the answer could be a sign of your personality – from analysing the traits and signatures of 192 women and 148 men (psych students in Uruguay), they found that men and women with bigger signatures tended to score higher on “social dominance” – measured by agreement with statements like “I certainly have self confidence” and “I am not shy with strangers”. Among women only, a bigger signature also correlated with narcissism – agreement with claims like “I am a special person” and “I am going to be a great person”. Signature size was not correlated with self esteem or aggressive dominance, which is more about controlling other people for self-serving reasons.

If true, these results, published recently in the Journal of Research in Personality, would appear to provide some support for the quack field of graphology – the idea that our handwriting style reveals our personality (listed as one of the 50 great myths of psychology in the book by Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues, based in part on a decisive meta-analysis of the area published by Geoffrey Dean in 2002). But the authors of the new research are careful to argue that it is signatures specifically, not handwriting more generally, that may be revealing of personality, precisely because they are such a personal form of self expression. Continue reading “A bigger signature correlates with social bravado and narcissism”

Clinton’s and Trump’s personality profiles, according to psychologists

By Christian Jarrett

Today the American people are voting to choose between two of the most unpopular Presidential candidates in history. Commentators have speculated that part of the reason for the candidates’ unpopularity is their personality profiles. Clinton and Trump would seem to agree – both have repeatedly attacked each other’s characters and temperaments. But what exactly are their personality profiles, as judged as objectively as possible by personality psychologists?

For a paper published online at Personality and Individual Differences – and spotted by psychology writer Rolf Degan – 10 experts in the HEXACO method of measuring personality (7 men, 3 women, all avid followers of the election) completed a 100-item profile of each candidate. Distilling the findings, Beth Visser and her colleagues conclude that voters effectively have a choice between a bold and narcissistic, antisocial leader willing to make dramatic changes, and a Machiavellian but highly conscientious leader with a steady hand – Trump or Clinton. “Ultimately, this is a decision that voters, and not academics, will have to decide,” they write.  Continue reading “Clinton’s and Trump’s personality profiles, according to psychologists”

Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower

By Christian Jarrett

Those people with their gym-toned bodies and high-flying careers. Somehow they always seem to make different choices than the rest of us – fruit over chocolate, work over TV. It’s as if they are capable of super-human willpower, but a new study that’s currently in press at Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests it’s not so. Achieving your work and fitness goals is not about exercising self-control, the findings imply, rather it’s about avoiding temptation in the first place.  Continue reading “Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower”

Wisdom is more of a state than a trait


By Christian Jarrett

We all know the kind of person who did really well at school and uni but can’t seem to help themselves from forever making bad mistakes in real life. And then there are those characters who might not be surgeons or rocket scientists but have this uncanny ability to deal calmly and sagely with all the slings and arrows of life. We might say that the first kind of person, while intelligent, lacks wisdom; the second kind of character, by contrast, has wisdom in abundance. The assumption in both cases is that wisdom is a stable trait – how much someone has is an essential part of their psychological profile and remains constant through their life.

But a new study says this way of viewing wisdom is mistaken. The research in Social Psychological and Personality Science used a diary approach to gauge people’s wisdom in response to everyday problems, and the results showed that there is more variation in one person’s wisdom from one situation to the next, than there is variation in the average wisdom between people. Wisdom, it seems, is more of a state than a trait. Continue reading “Wisdom is more of a state than a trait”

There are three kinds of pedestrian – which are you?

You know that situation where you’re walking across a train station concourse or a park and there’s another person walking on a different trajectory that means if you both hold your course and speed, you’re going to collide? Are you the kind of person who assumes the other guy will give way, or are you the polite one who slows down and lets the other person cross your path?

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance recreated this scenario by pairing up 20 participants – a mix of young men and women – and having one person in each pair walk diagonally from one corner of the room to the other, while the other person walked the other diagonal (see schematic below). On each of many trials, both participants in each pair began walking on a starting signal and they were asked to make sure they didn’t collide, all without communication with each other. The participants also filled out personality questionnaires and the researchers recorded their heights, weight and age.

The participants tended to show a consistent pattern of behaviour across trials: roughly a quarter were more inclined to give way to avoid colliding; a quarter usually crossed the potential interception point first, making the other person give way; while the others showed a mixture of behaviours. But crucially, neither personality traits, gender, age, height or weight were related to what kind of collision avoidance strategy the participants tended to use. So it seems some of us are dominant in this situation, some more timid, others ambivalent, but the kind of pedestrian we are is not related to major traits such as extraversion nor to our physical size.

From Knorr et al 2016

Alexander Knorr and his team performed a second study in a bigger room with more participants and this showed that the decision about who will give way tends to be made very early. The more dominant person actually tends to make a slight adjustment to heading and speed first, but this isn’t sufficient to avoid a collision. The second person who ultimately gives way seems to detect these early signals, then waits and makes their own adjustments thus avoiding the collision.

What this research doesn’t address, sadly, is that other pedestrian problem of when you’re heading straight towards another person, and you both dodge out of each other’s way in the same direction, then the other, so you end up virtually colliding and uttering embarrassed apologies – or is that just a British thing?

Influence of Person- and Situation-Specific Characteristics on Collision Avoidance Behavior in Human Locomotion

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

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

Beneath their sneering veneer, people prone to contempt are psychologically fragile

Contemptuousness is a distinct personality trait that you can measure with a simple questionnaire. That’s according to Roberta Schriber and her colleagues who’ve devised such a test and described the character of typical contemptuous person – someone quick to judge when another individual (or a social group) has failed to live up to certain expectations – either morally or in terms of competence – and who responds by looking down on this person or group, with the aim of distancing themselves from them, and/or derogating them.

The dispositional contempt scale
From Schriber et al 2016.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the researchers describe how they tried out different items for measuring trait contempt on hundreds of students and members of the public recruited online at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website. They eventually settled on a 10-item test that they said best captures one’s proneness to expressing and feeling contempt (see box, right). The participants were asked to score each item from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) and items 4,5 and 7 were reverse scored because in these cases stronger agreement was a mark of low contemptuousness.

Through several studies, the researchers then asked hundreds more participants to complete the new contemptuousness scale alongside other established tests of other personality constructs. From this they found that high scores on the “dispositional contempt scale” correlated with several other measures, suggesting that contemptuousness is not the same as, but tends to go hand in hand with: low trait agreeableness (no surprise there), hubristic pride (when successes are attributed to one’s ability, not effort), proneness to envy, narcissism (especially the covert variety), a preoccupation with social status and hierarchy (as measured by trait Machiavellianism), an anxious attachment style, loneliness, perfectionism (in judging others, and in terms of fearing being judged by perfectionist standards by others), racism, and with low self esteem. In short, beneath their sneering veneer, contempt-prone people are needy and psychologically fragile.

To test whether the contemptuousness scale is really measuring what it’s supposed to be measuring, the researchers also had hundreds more participants complete the scale before giving their reaction to video clips featuring instances of people showing low competence or moral violations, such as a beauty queen exhibiting ignorance or a soldier showing cruelty to a boy. High trait contempt scorers were especially likely to shown scornful reactions to incompetence, and to a lesser extent to moral violations, and they rarely responded with compassion, providing some support for the validity of the scale.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether trait contempt was stable over a month, and how it was related to the way that people view their relationships. They found the trait did show stability and that it was associated with perceiving one’s relationship as dysfunctional, even after factoring out the part played by the broader trait of being unfriendly (“disagreeable” in personality jargon).

Intriguingly, the researchers also asked participants to rate their partner’s contempt and they found that perceiving one’s partner as contemptuous was associated much more strongly with the perception of being in a poor relationship, than was being contemptuous oneself. Seeing one’s partner as being high in contempt “implies a partner does not appear to care about or get along with others, may be a threat to one’s own self-esteem and sense of belonging, and might just be unpleasant to be around,” the researchers surmised.

Schriber and her team said that it would be interesting for future research to examine what leads some people to become more contemptuous by nature than others – their results point only to correlations with other traits and don’t tell us anything about causal pathways. Also, they said it would be useful to look at whether contemptuousness can be reduced through training, such as through loving-kindness meditation or compassion training. “Processes that decrease contempt may, according to our research, promote mental and behavioural flexibility; boost self-esteem; expand one’s social network; lower loneliness and depression; cement romantic relationships; and overall generate more caring members of humanity,” they said.

Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person

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

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

We all differ in how much insight we have into our own body language

When you’re deep in conversation, how aware are you of your body language? All those nods, smiles, and gesticulations – you do know you do that, right? According to a new study in Personality and Individual Differences, how much insight we have into our body language is a kind of trait that can be measured from person to person. And what’s more, if you do remember your body language in detail, this may say something about the kind of person you are – specifically, you’re more likely to be anxious and neurotic in temperament.

Nora Murphy and her colleagues filmed dozens of undergrads as they had a five-minute chat with a stranger about any topic of their choosing. Afterwards, the students completed various psychological measures and they rated how much they thought they had engaged in various non-verbal behaviours during the chat, including nods, smiles, gestures and eye-contact. Meanwhile trained coders watched back footage of the chats and counted all instances of the students’ non-verbal behaviours. The researchers then simply compared the students’ estimates of their body language with the objective counts.

Overall, the students’ estimates of their different non-verbal behaviours correlated with the objective counts more than if they’d just been guessing, which suggests that most of us do have some insight into our own body language (zooming in on individual behaviours, nodding was the only movement where this insight seemed to be lacking).

But some students were better at remembering their body language than others, and the researchers found that this greater awareness correlated with a number of other personality measures. Summing up these patterns, Murphy and her team said “the results paint a portrait of a person with high non-verbal self-accuracy as an anxious, highly self-aware of his/her own mannerisms individual who is less willing to express positive emotions and sensitive to detecting anger in others.” This last point suggests people with more awareness of their own body language may be “especially sensitive to interpersonal cues of disapproval,” they said.

Nonverbal self-accuracy: Individual differences in knowing one’s own social interaction behavior

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

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!