Category: Personality

To Boost Your Self-esteem, Write About Chapters Of Your Life

GettyImages-643844240.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

Alongside your chosen values and goals in life, and your personality traits – how sociable you are, how much of a worrier and so on – your life story as you tell it makes up the final part of what in 2015 the personality psychologist Dan P McAdams at Northwestern University in Illinois called the “personological trinity”.

Of course, some of us tell these stories more explicitly than others – one person’s narrative identity might be a barely formed story at the edge of their consciousness, whereas another person might literally write out their past and future in a diary or memoir.

Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called “life review therapy” – could be psychologically beneficial. However, most of this work has been on older adults and people with pre-existing problems such as depression or chronic physical illnesses. It remains to be established through careful experimentation whether prompting otherwise healthy people to reflect on their lives will have any immediate benefits.

A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater “self-concept clarity” (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, Kristina L Steiner at Denison University in Ohio and her colleagues looked into these questions and reported that writing about chapters in your life does indeed lead to a modest, temporary self-esteem boost, and that in fact this benefit arises regardless of how positive your stories are. However, there were no effects on self-concept clarity, and many questions on this topic remain for future study.

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Trait Neuroticism As “Mental Noise” – Neurotic People Have Noisier, More Chaotic Minds, Say Researchers

GettyImages-478669562.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Of the main personality traits, Neuroticism (characterised by emotional instability and lack of resilience) is probably the one with the least going for it. High scorers on this trait are impulsive, tend to worry a lot, and they struggle with low moods and short tempers. Thanks to personality research, we know a lot about what lies in store for people who score high on Neuroticism, such as increased risk of mental health problems and relationship turmoil. But as Robert Klein and Michael Robinson note in their new paper in Journal of Personality we know a lot less about the psychological processes that underlie the trait. From an emotional perspective, neurotic people are said to be more sensitive to threat and punishment, but what about the cognitive side? Across four studies, Klein and Robinson present evidence consistent with what they call the mental noise hypothesis – “neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic mental control systems”, they write.

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Psychopaths And Narcissists Have Hogged The Limelight, Now It’s Time To Explore The Saintlier Side Of Human Personality, Say Researchers, As They Announce A Test of The “Light Triad” Traits

By Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have devoted much time over the last two decades documenting the dark side of human nature as encapsulated by the so-called Dark Triad of traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. People who score highly in these traits, who break the normal social rules around modesty, fairness and consideration for others, seem to fascinate as much as they appall. But what about those individuals who are at the other extreme, who through their compassion and selflessness are exemplars of the best of human nature? There is no catchy name for their personality traits, and while researchers have studied altruism, forgiveness, gratitude and other jewels in our behavioural repertoire, the light side of human personality has arguably not benefited from the same level of attention consumed by the dark side.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team led by US psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman at Barnard College, Columbia University says it is high time we redressed this imbalance. “Too much focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of the other misrepresents the full capacities of humanity,” they write. Through four studies featuring more than 1,500 online participants, Kaufman and his team have created a new questionnaire that taps what they are calling the Light Triad (see example items below, and you can take the test online). They’ve also provided preliminary evidence for the kind of personal characteristics and psychological outcomes that are associated with being a high scorer on the light side of personality – or what they call an “everyday saint”.

Continue reading “Psychopaths And Narcissists Have Hogged The Limelight, Now It’s Time To Explore The Saintlier Side Of Human Personality, Say Researchers, As They Announce A Test of The “Light Triad” Traits”

First Study To Explore What It’s Like To Live With Avoidant Personality Disorder: “Safe When Alone, Yet Lost In Their Aloneness”

By Christian Jarrett

In the first study of its kind, researchers have asked people to describe in their own words what it’s like to live with Avoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) – a diagnosis defined by psychiatrists as “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation”. Like all personality disorder diagnoses, AVPD is controversial, with some critics questioning whether it is anything other than an extreme form of social phobia.

To shed new light on the issue, lead author Kristine D. Sørensen, a psychologist, twice interviewed 15 people receiving outpatient treatment for AVPD: 9 women, 6 men, with an average age of 33, and none of them in work. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Sørensen and her colleagues said the overarching theme to emerge from the in-depth interviews was the participants’ struggle to be a person. “They felt safe when alone yet lost in their aloneness,” the researchers said. They “longed to connect with others yet feared to get close.” In the researchers’ opinion, the participants’ profound difficulties with their “core self” and in their dealings with others do indeed correspond to “a personality disorder diagnosis”.

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There’s Another Area Of Psychology Where Most Of The Results Do Replicate – Personality Research

By Christian Jarrett

While psychology has been mired in a “replication crisis” recently – based on the failure of contemporary researchers to recreate some of its most cherished findings – there have been pockets of good news for certain sub-disciplines in the field. For instance, some replication efforts in cognitive psychology and experimental philosophy or X-phi have been more successful, suggesting that results in these areas are more robust.

To this more optimistic list we may now add personality psychology, or at least the specific area of research linking the Big Five personality trait scores with various personal and life outcomes, such as higher Neuroticism being associated with poorer mental health and reduced relationship satisfaction; higher trait Conscientiousness being associated with less risk of substance abuse; and stronger Extraversion correlating with leadership roles.

In his new paper that is in press at Psychological Science (and available as a preprint at the Open Science Framework), Christopher Soto at Colby College speculates that perhaps it is the tendency for researchers in personality to use large samples of participants, numbering in the hundreds or thousands, and to use reliable, standardised tests, that is to some extent responsible for the relatively robust results in this area. The new findings “leave us cautiously optimistic about the current state and future prospects of the personality-outcome literature,” Soto writes.

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Study Compares Trump’s Personality With Other Populist Leaders And Finds He Is An “Outlier Among The Outliers”

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Via Nai et al, 2019

By Christian Jarrett

Talk of personality in politics is often dismissed as idle gossip, but politicians’ personalities inform their policy choices, shape their campaigning style and predict their chances of electoral success.

In fact, there has been much speculation that personality may be key to understanding perhaps the biggest electoral shock ever – Donald Trump’s triumph in the 2016 US Presidential election. Many commentators have highlighted Trump’s unusually brash, extraverted and narcissistic personality and proposed that it may partly explain his appeal among some voters. However, before now, there has been little systematic evidence to support this claim.

A new open-access paper in Presidential Studies Quarterly addressed this lack of evidence, surveying  875 international experts about the personality traits of 103 political leaders, including Trump and 20 other populists, who took part in 47 elections in 40 countries around the world between 2015 and 2016. Alessandro Nai and his colleagues found that Trump’s traits were rated at the extremes even in comparison to other populist leaders, suggesting a “truly unique and off-the-charts public persona”.

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There Are Some Important Differences In What Lay People And Psychologists Think The Main Personality Traits Mean

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By Christian Jarrett

Most personality research is today conducted in the context of the Big Five model that describes personality according to people’s scores along five trait dimensions: Openness-to-Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. While these trait terms have very specific (though not necessarily completely settled) meanings in personality science, they also have their own meaning in everyday talk, which raises the question of whether, when a lay person says someone is extraverted, or conscientious, or whatever, they mean the same thing that psychologists mean when they measure and investigate those traits.

To find out, Judith Hall at Northeastern University and her colleagues compared lay volunteers’ conceptions of the Big Five traits with the way they are represented in four of the formal Big Five personality questionnaires that are used widely by researchers. Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality, Hall and her team said that their findings “not only provide a rich descriptive overview on laypeople’s understanding of the labels of some of the key constructs in personality science but also provided a relevant background for the application and development of assessment tools.”

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Study Identifies The Most Effective Mental Strategies That People Use To Get Through Aversive Challenges

By Christian Jarrett

What strategies do you use to push through a tough challenge, be it a run on a treadmill or a stressful phone call with your boss? Perhaps you remind yourself of what you have to gain from completing the task, or you use distraction, or you think about the bad things that will happen if you give in? For a paper in the European Journal of Personality, a team led by Marie Hennecke at the University of Zurich has conducted what they say is the first ever investigation of these strategies, and others, that people use spontaneously in their everyday lives to “regulate their persistence during aversive activities”.

The researchers’ main interest was to see whether people with strong self-control differ from flakier types by virtue of their use of more effective strategies. In fact, this was not the case – yes, some strategies were more effective than others (offering hope to those of us with weaker willpower that we might benefit from adopting such strategies), but greater use of effective strategies did not explain the persistence of the grittier types, thus suggesting, as the researchers put it, that “… trait self-control and self-regulatory strategies represent separate routes to good self-regulation”.

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People With Advantageous Personality Traits Have More Nerve-Fibre Insulation (Myelination) In Key Brain Areas

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(a) A post-mortem map of average myelination intensity in the brain created over a century ago (red areas show greater myelin). (b) new estimates of average myelin distribution using brain scan technology (independent of personality, red shows greatest myelination, blue the least). From Toschi and Passamonti, 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Researchers are getting closer to understanding the neurological basis of personality. For a new paper in the Journal of Personality, Nicola Toschi and Luca Passamonti took advantage of a recent technological breakthrough that makes it possible to use scans to estimate levels of myelination in different brain areas (until fairly recently this could only be done at postmortem).

Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates nerve fibres and speeds up information processing in the brain – it tends to be thicker in parts of the cortex involved in movement and perception, while it is lighter in brain regions that evolved later and that are involved in more abstract thought and decision making.

The new findings, though preliminary, suggest that people with “healthier”, more advantageous, personality traits, such as more emotional stability and greater conscientiousness, may benefit during development from more enhanced myelination in key areas of the brain where the myelination process is particularly prolonged in humans, continuing through adolescence and into the twenties.

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Have you got a “self-actualised” personality? A new test brings Maslow’s ideas into the 21st century

By Christian Jarrett

Writing in the last century, Abraham Maslow (pictured left), one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, proposed that the path to self-transcendence, and ultimately a greater compassion for all of humanity, requires “self-actualisation” – that is, fulfilling your true potential and becoming your authentic self.

Now Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, believes it is time to revive the concept and link it with contemporary psychological theory. “We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,” Kaufman wrote recently in Scientific American in a blog post introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation may be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for. To this end, he’s used modern statistical methods to create a test of self-actualisation, or more specifically, of the 10 characteristics exhibited by self-actualised people, and it’s published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

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