Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?
In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.
There are some common-sense reasons for thinking that being raised without siblings will have meaningful psychological consequences – after all, “only children” are likely to get more attention from their parents than kids with sibs, but at the same time they miss out on the social experience that comes from sharing, playing and competing with brothers or sisters.
The latest study to look into this, published recently in Brain Imaging and Behavior, comes from China where the government’s one-child family planning programme has led to a huge increase in the numbers of only children. Junyi Yang and his colleagues scanned the brains of hundreds university students, about half of whom were only children and also tested their personality, creativity and intelligence. The only children outperformed the participants with siblings on creativity, but they scored lower on trait agreeableness – psychological differences that appeared to coincide with relevant structural differences in their brains.
Psychologists studying how our expectations change over time have observed that our hopes tend to dip the nearer we get to receiving some feedback, be that an exam result, sports score or health test outcome. They call this “bracing” and there’s evidence we do it more in some situations than others, for example the more severe the potential outcome and the more personally relevant, the more we brace. But do some of us brace more than others, and specifically, do optimists brace as much as pessimists? According to a series of nine studies published recently in the Journal of Personality, the answer is yes.
There are lots of stereotypes about the kind of people in different professions. Lawyers and business people are often caricatured as ruthless and self-interested, especially when compared to the kind of folk who enter professions usually seen as caring, such as nursing or psychology. To test the truth of these stereotypes, a new study in Personality and Individual Differences surveyed the “Dark Triad” and “Big Five” traits of hundreds of Danish students enrolled to begin studying either psychology, politics, business/economics or law.
The rationale was that by testing students’ personalities after they’d chosen their subject, but before they’d begun their studies, or careers, the researchers would uncover evidence for whether people with certain kinds of personalities are drawn to particular professions, as opposed to, or as well as, those professions shaping their personalities.
Anna Vedel and her colleagues found that psychology students scored “substantially” lower on Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) than business and law students. Business/economics students scored the highest of all on the Dark Triad. Law and politics students’ scores were very similar to each other: lower than business but higher than psychology. In terms of the Big Five personality traits, psychology students scored “much higher” than the other student groups of Agreeableness and Openness and Neuroticism (replicating a study published last year). These subject differences remained even when comparing just male students, or just female.
“The choice of academic major and career is a complex decision involving many different factors, but the present study suggests that personality traits are at least part of this decision process,” the researchers said.
Psychology is overly dependent on student samples, but on the plus side, you might assume that one advantage of comparing across student samples is that you can rule out the influence of complicating background factors, such as differences in average personality profile. In fact, writing in the Journal of Personality, a team of US researchers led by Katherine Corker at Kenyon College has challenged this assumption: their findings suggest that if you test a group of students at one university, it’s not safe to assume that their average personality profile will match that of a sample of students from a university elsewhere in the same country.
Biologists have their fruit flies and rats, psychologists have students. An overwhelming amount of behavioral science is conducted with young people at universities on the assumption that it’s safe to generalise from this species of human to people more generally. There are some common-sense reasons for thinking this might be a problem and also some more specific issues, which we’ve documented before, such as that burnt out students could be skewing the findings.
Now a recent study in PLOS One shows that the ways students differ from the public is different depending on which country you’re in, meaning it’s extra complicated to figure out if and when it’s appropriate to extrapolate student-based findings to people as a whole.
True gender equality may be a work in progress, but since the Women’s Liberation Movement beginning in the 1950s and 60s, there has been a lot of positive change, at least in most industrialised nations: a shift towards women having more control over whether and when to have children, for example, and increased opportunities in education and careers, and less tolerance of sexism (though of course it hasn’t gone away). How might these cultural and social changes have influenced women, in terms of how much they act in stereotypically “feminine” ways?
A new study by Constance Jones and her colleagues at California State and San Francisco State Universities in the Journal of Adult Development tried to find out by comparing two cohorts of women, one born in the 1920s and the other featuring “Baby Boomers” born in the 1950s. The findings support past work that’s shown how women tend to change through their lives, and they provide evidence for a generation effect: over time, at least in California, women seem to be becoming less stereotypically feminine – that is, less deferential, and more confident and ambitious.
When you get a great piece of news, who do you tell? Do you get on the phone to your best friend? Launch the news onto Facebook to sail the sea of Likes? Do you congratulate yourself in front of someone you know doesn’t enjoy the same fortune or ability? Or do you keep it to yourself? Let me share some good news with you: according to research published recently in the Journal of Individual Differences, your answers to these questions may say something about you.
Imagine you’ve reached the fine age of 77 and you hear news of a school reunion. You’re going to have the chance to meet up with several of your former classmates who you haven’t seen since you were fourteen-years-old. They’ll look a lot different, of course, but what about their personality? Will they be broadly the same as they were back then?
Past research that’s looked at trait changes from adolescence to mid-life has shown there tends to be a moderate amount of stability, so too research that’s looked at changes from mid-life into old age. Put these two sets of data together and you might expect to see at least some personality stability across an entire lifespan. Your classmates probably won’t have changed completely.
Yet that’s not what a recent open-access study in Psychology and Aging has found: the first – to the authors’ knowledge – to measure personality in the same people in their adolescence and then again in old age. By covering a period of 63 years, this in a sense is the longest ever personality study. But contrary to what we might expect based on previous findings, Matthew Harris and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh failed to find a significant correlation between their participants’ personality scores at age 14 and their scores on the same items at the age of 77. “Personality in older age may be quite different from personality in childhood,” they said.
Many of us get the sense that our elected politicians are out of touch, that they are somehow different from the everyman or woman on the street. A new study in Personality and Individual Differences offers at least part of an explanation. Richard Hanania at the University of California, Los Angeles, emailed a personality questionnaire to thousands of US state politicians. Two hundred and seventy-eight of them sent their answers back and Hanania compared their average scores with the averages recorded by 2586 members of the US public, matched with the politicians for age, and who’d completed the same questionnaire online. Continue reading “US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits”→