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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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”.
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.
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.
Debate about how much a person’s character can and can’t change have occupied psychologists for decades, but a growing consensus is beginning to emerge. While our traits are relatively stable, they are not fixed.
Change is often passive – that is, experience leaves its mark on personality. But excitingly, initial findings suggest that we can also change ourselves.
What prior research has so far not addressed, however, is whether simply desiring to change is enough (perhaps by triggering automatic, subtle shifts in our identity and behaviour), or whether we must take deliberate, active steps to change. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this question. The results show once again that wilful personality change is possible, but they also indicate that the mere desire to change is not sufficient. In fact, failing to support one’s goals with concrete action appears to backfire, leading to personality drift in the opposite direction to what was desired.
Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.
It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).
In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.
Part of the strength of the widely endorsed Big Five model of personality is its efficient explanatory power – in the traits of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, it removes the redundancy of more fine-grained approaches and manages to capture the most meaningful variance in our habits of thought and behaviour.
So what to make then of the popular proposal that what marks out high achievers from the rest is that they rank highly on another trait labelled as “Grit”?
Is the recognition of Grit, and the development of a scale to measure it, a breakthrough in our understanding of the psychology of success? Or is it a reinvention of the wheel, a redundant addition to the taxonomy of personality psychology?
In 2016, the US-based authors of a meta-analysis on the topic concluded “that Grit as currently measured is simply a repackaging of Conscientiousness”. Now a different research team, based in Germany and Switzerland, has taken a more intricate look at the links between Grit and Conscientiousness, this time including a focus on their respective facets (or sub-traits). Writing in the European Journal of Personality, Fabian Schmidt and his colleagues conclude that “Grit represents yet another contribution to the common problem of redundant labelling of constructs in personality psychology.”
Why do some people go to great lengths to have the chance to spend time by themselves, while others find solitude painful and forever crave company? The most obvious answer would seem to be that it relates to differences in social aspects of personality, and specifically that extraverts will find solitude painful while introverts will enjoy their own company more than anyone else’s. However, a new paper, published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv (not yet peer-reviewed), and involving three diary studies with hundreds of undergrad volunteers, suggests the truth is more complicated.
In fact, there was no evidence that introverts enjoyed solitude more than extraverts. Rather, the most important trait related to liking one’s own company was having strong “dispositional autonomy”. This is a concept from self-determination theory and the researchers, led by Thuy-vy T. Nguyen at the University of Rochester, said that people strong in this trait have alignment between their behaviour, values and interests, are “resistant to pressure from others”, and “are interested in learning more about their personal experiences and emotions”. High scorers in autonomy enjoyed solitude more than others and sought it out for its own sake.