If there’s one quality you absolutely want in a leader, it’s surely charisma. Celebrated leaders are invariably associated with this magic word, and evidence suggests charismatic people inspire more trust, commitment, and results from their followers. But across a number of other supposedly virtuous traits, such as political ability or assertiveness (pdf), researchers are starting to realise that it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing.” Could charisma fall in that category? That’s the suggestion of new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Why do we sometimes stay friends with ex-partners? There may be many reasons, but according to a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences they fall into seven main categories – and men and women don’t quite see eye-to-eye on them. The research also found that certain personality traits were related to motivations for staying friends after a break-up.
Your personality describes your behavioural tendencies, your habits of thought and ways of relating to the world. For instance, some of us find it a lot harder to keep our negative emotions in check, which is measured by the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism (or “emotional instability”). It seems logical that people with this kind of disposition might be more prone to developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression, and indeed many studies suggest this to be the case.
From a scientific perspective, however, it’s not clear which comes first: perhaps mental health problems contribute to a more neurotic personality, or maybe living through adversity contributes to a neurotic personality and mental health difficulties.
An important new study in European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience helps clarify the picture because it is the first, to the researchers’ knowledge, to look simultaneously at people’s personality, life events and mental health problems as they unfold over time. Though they come with important caveats, the findings suggest that some people have a personality profile that predisposes them to mental health problems, to more serious mental health problems when they occur, and even to more adverse life events.
Openness to Experience is one of the so-called Big Five personality traits and, among other things, it’s associated with being more creative, curious and appreciative of the arts. Like all the traits, where you score has important implications – for instance, there’s recent evidence that being more Open is associated with having more “cognitive reserve”, which gives you protection from the harmful effects of dementia.
Openness correlates with, but is distinct from, intelligence, and psychologists are trying to find out more about what the basis of Openness is at a cognitive and neural level. A new paper in Journal of Research in Personality shows that the trait runs deep, even affecting a very basic aspect of visual perception. It seems Open people literally see the world differently.
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.