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.
In the UK, this has been a year of action on the gender pay gap (the, on average, lower pay for women compared with men), with cross-party MPs launching campaigns like #PayMeToo and the government taking steps to investigate and hold organisations to account on the issue. This has also attractedpushbackfrom those that argue that the gender difference in average pay has many causes, including the different interests of, and life choices taken by, men and women. Now a study published in Oxford Economic Papers has examined another complicating factor, namely whether the gender pay gap is influenced partly by an on-average difference between the genders in a trait not previously taken into account – the motivation to achieve.
For decades, personality psychologists have noticed a striking, consistent pattern: extraverts are happier more of the time than introverts. For anyone interested in promoting wellbeing, this has raised the question of whether it might be beneficial to encourage people to act more extraverted. Evidence to date has suggested it might.
For example, regardless of their usual disposition, people tend to report feeling happier and more authentic whenever they are behaving more like an extravert (that is, more sociable, active and assertive). That’s a mere correlation that could be interpreted in different ways. But lab studies have similarly found that prompting people, including introverts, to act more like an extravert makes them feel happier and truer to themselves.
Before we all start doing our best extravert impressions in pursuit of greater happiness, though, a team of researchers led by Rowan Jacques-Hamilton at the University of Melbourne urge caution, writing in their new pre-print at PsyArXiv :
“Until we have a well-rounded understanding of both the positive and negative consequences of extraverted behaviour, advocating any real-world applications of acting extraverted could be premature and potentially hazardous.”
To help, these researchers have conducted the first ever randomised-controlled trial of an “act more extraverted” intervention, and unlike in previous research, they looked beyond the lab at the positive and negative effects of such an intervention on people’s feelings in daily life.
Especially if you are in a long-term relationship your own sexual functioning is not a purely an individual matter but is bound up with your partner’s. Previous research has looked at this dynamic, finding for example that people are generally happier with their sex lives when they have the perception that they and their partner are sexually compatible. Surprisingly, however, before now the influence of your partner’s broader personality traits on your own sex life had not been studied.
A German study of nearly a thousand long-term couples (98 per cent of them heterosexual) is the first to look at this question. Among the stand-out findings is that, for women, having a more conscientious partner was associated with having better sexual functioning and a more satisfactory sex life.
Writing in The Journal of Sex Research, the researchers, led by Julia Velten at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, suggested that “men who are thorough and dutiful may feel the need to satisfy their partner sexually, which may in turn lead to better sexual function of their partners.”
In our culture we like to speculate about the effects of different parenting styles on children. A lot of this debate is wasted breath. Twin studies – that compare similarities in outcomes between genetically identical and non-identical twins raised by their biological or adopted parents – have already shown us that parental influence is far more modest than we usually assume. Now a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science goes further, using the twin approach to reveal how it is mistaken to see the parent-child dynamic as a one-way relationship. “Given the current evidence … it is more accurate to conceptualise parenting as a transactional process in which both parents and children exert simultaneous and continuous influence on each other,” write Mona Ayoub at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues.
You may think of people with high self-control as having enviable reserves of willpower, but recent findings suggest this isn’t the case. Instead it seems the strong-willed are canny folk, adept at avoidingtemptation in the first place. A new study in the journal Self and Identity builds on this picture, showing that people high in self-control tend to experience less intense visceral states, like fatigue, hunger and stress (states that are known to encourage impulsive behaviour).
The new findings make sense: after all, it is much easier to be in control of your decisions if you are organised enough to ensure your animalistic needs rarely become overpowering.
If personality traits are a genuine concept and not merely an artefact of psychologists’ imagination, then how people choose to spend their time ought to correlate with their scores on personality questionnaires, notwithstanding the constraints of life that prevent us from doing what we want. In fact, there are relatively few studies that have looked at correlations between traits and everyday behaviour, and of those that have, many relied on student volunteers (see here for an overview).
A study published earlier this year in Collabra helps plug this research gap – Julia Rohrer and Richard Lucas analysed the “Big Five” trait personality scores of over 1,300 German volunteers (part of a nationally representative sample), average age 51 years, who on three successive years completed detailed diaries of what they had been up to the day before. Specifically, they indicated whether they had spent any time, and if so how much, on nine key activities the previous day, including socialising, work, chores and watching TV.