Cultural Differences in the Predictive Power of Personality

Most research in personality views personality as a collection of stable traits that can be used to predict thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over time and across situations. However, many cultural psychologists believe that this stable trait-like view of personality is primarily representative of individualistic cultures. What has been found is that individualistic cultures (“me”-centered cultures like the United States and Western Europe) and collectivist cultures (“we”-centered cultures like China and Japan) vary in how much the individual personality versus situations determines behavior.

To illustrate this difference, situations can be thought of as having different “strength”. Sometimes situations are weakly structured enough to let a person’s personality shine through. At a party, an extrovert can mingle and socialize to her heart’s content while an introvert can find a quiet area or join a game that doesn’t require him to be the center of attention. But other times, situations are more strongly regulated so that individual personality is suppressed. For instance, while watching a serious movie at a theater, it is not appropriate to laugh, add commentary, or chat with a neighbor. Violating this movie theater etiquette may lead to punishment, such as a fellow audience member angrily telling you to be quiet or even getting kicked out of the movie theater. Because this situation has rules in place that govern behavior, an extroverted movie goer is indistinguishable from an introverted one.

The differences in personality between cultures can be viewed in a similar way. In collectivist cultures, people tend to see themselves as interdependent with others, place priority on group goals, and allow rules and norms to guide behavior. The group’s rules, goals, and needs create strong guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not in each situation. So, differences in personality are not as noticeable because people behave in ways that conform to what is required by the situation.

However, in individualist cultures, people see themselves as unique, independent people, place priority on their own personal goals, and let their personal attributes guide their behavior.  Because the individual is emphasized, the situation in which behavior occurs becomes weaker, allowing people to modify the situation and act in ways that are consistent with their unique personality.

There is plenty of evidence that personality traits like the Big 5 (Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Openness) do exist across cultures, but how predictive these traits are depends on the culture. Individualist cultures view their personality as stable and the situation as changeable, whereas collectivist cultures view the situation as being stable and alter their personality to fit the needs of the situation.  Those from collectivist cultures have a weaker connection between their personality and their self-concept and as a result, will experience less discomfort when behaving in a manner that is inconsistent with their personality. So, in an individualist culture, it is possible to predict how people will behave based on their personality because people tend to behave in manners consistent with their personality. But in a collectivist culture, personality does not guide behavior in the same fashion, making it more important to consider the situational context.

Church, T.A. (2000). Culture and Personality: Toward an integrated cultural trait psychology. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 651- 703.

Triandis, H.C. (2001). Individualism-collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69(9), 908-924.

Attachment Styles and Facebook Relationships

Facebook has been proven to be a highly useful tool for displaying one’s relationship status.  People can make their relationship visible by listing their partner in their relationship status, including their partner in their profile picture, and posting pictures and statuses about them. People who share their relationship on Facebook are actually perceived to have a higher quality relationship and are seen as more likeable (unless the posting is excessive or far too personal – then the person is seen as unlikeable and psychologically unhealthy; Emery, Muise, Alpert & Le, 2014). However, the amount of information that is shared differs from person to person and may be influenced by different attachment styles and motivations for sharing.

Attachment style can be determined by measuring people’s anxiety and avoidance in their relationships. Those who have low anxiety and low avoidance in a relationship are said to be securely attached while someone who scores high on either anxiety or avoidance is considered insecurely attached. People with high relationship anxiety tend to have a strong fear of rejection, view themselves as unlovable, and are strongly influenced by their partner. People with high relationship avoidance tend to dislike getting close to others, are distrusting, and desire independence.

Anxiously attached people show a greater tendency to make their relationship partner more visible on their Facebook profile than avoidantly attached people, but the underlying reasons for doing so are the same for both attachment styles. Both anxious and avoidantly attached people are similarly motivated by the thought that others may think that have a poor quality relationship. However, those with an avoidant attachment react by sharing less about their relationship while anxiously attached people make their relationship more visible. The visibility of one’s relationship on Facebook appears to serve an impression management function for insecurely attached people. Including or not including one’s partner in profile pictures, relationship statuses, and posts makes it possible to create an image that portrays an ideal identity such as being in a good, stable relationship (for the anxiously attached) or being independent (for the avoidantly attached). Creating an image of their relationship that seems most socially desirable to them provides both anxious and avoidantly attached people a boost of self-esteem and increases their perception that others think they have a good relationship.

Anxious attachment predicts greater relationship visibility and avoidant attachment predicts less, but secure attachment does not predict relationship visibility. People with secure attachment may make their partner more or less visible on Facebook, but it comes from a different motivation. Those with a secure attachment style do not have to rely on managing their relationship impressions for self-esteem and approval from others as much as insecurely attached people do. So, the information shared about a relationship may be simply a description of the relationship rather than a way to prove to others how great the relationship is. People could also be comfortable not sharing information on Facebook because they know their relationship is good regardless of what other people think.

Emery, L.F., Muise, A., Dix, E.L., & Le, B. (2014). Can you tell that I’m in a relationship? Attachment and relationship visibility on Facebook. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1466-1479.

Emery, L.F., Muise, A., Alpert, E., & Le, B. (2014) Do we look happy? Perceptions of romantic relationship quality on Facebook. Personal Relationships, 22(1), 1-7.

Green with Different Forms of Envy

We all know that envy is a terrible thing. Envy is what sometimes happens when people compare themselves to others who are in some way superior to them. The envied person might make more money, have more friends, drive a nicer car, be better at a task, etc. Envy arises when the envious person feels frustrated with the difference between themselves and the envied person and wishes to have what the other person has. This is seen as a dispositional trait, meaning that people can vary in how much envy they feel, even when they are in the same situation. For instance some can look at their neighbor’s much larger house and not care, while to others the larger house may be a constant source of discontentment. In most research, envy is looked at in terms of either being envious or not. However, there are actually two types of envy, each with distinct motivational processes and outcomes.

The first type is most consistent with the traditional view of envy. Malicious enviers want what the other person has and attempt to get it by trying to tear the other person down to their level. They may engage in hostile or resentful behavior toward the envied person, try to undermine the envied person’s accomplishments, and revel in the envied persons mishaps and misfortunes. Malicious envy is most common when the envied person is perceived to have unfairly gained their superiority, when the envier feels a lack of control over personal success, and the envier fears failure. In other words, this form of envy occurs when the envied person sets a standard of excellence that the envious person believes is impossible to attain. Thus, the only way to reduce the frustration of being below a standard is to try to drag the standard down.

The second type of envy is known as benign envy. Rather than tearing the envied person down, benign enviers work harder to attain what the envied person has. This form of envy is most common when the envied person is believed to have deserved their advantage, when the envier feels a high sense of control over personal outcomes, and when the envier hopes for success. Essentially, the envious person adopts the superior standard of excellence and strives to achieve it. However, benign envy still carries the same frustration and negative emotions as malicious envy which is why it is considered different than more positive motivations like admiration and role modelling.

This benign envy is clearly the more functional of the two forms. Lange & Crusius (2015) found that among full and half marathon runners who compared themselves to faster runners, those who displayed benign envy were more likely to set a time goal for the race and set faster time goals as well. Presumably due to their faster set goals, on average benign enviers actually had faster times than the malicious enviers. Although it would be much more healthy to admire rather than envy the faster runners (or more successful people in general), benign envy does have motivational function that produces better outcomes.

Lange, J., & Crusius, J. (2015). Dispositional envy revisited: Unraveling the motivational dynamics of benign and malicious envy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 284-294.

The Placebo Effect and You

The placebo effect is a well know phenomenon in which a fake treatment still leads to improvement in the illness. However, for some people, these placebo treatments work, and for others, they do not. This difference in responsiveness has lead researchers to search for a “placebo personality” – stable individual characteristics that could predict a person’s responsiveness to a placebo treatment. Years of research found multiple different characteristics related to the placebo effect, but the overall finding was that a single personality trait would not predict placebo responsiveness. Rather, a much more nuanced view was needed.

To begin, there is an overall conceptual framework into which the personality characteristics related to placebo responsiveness can be organized. This framework breaks people into two different categories: inward orientation and outward orientation. Inward orientation is characterized by a tendency to focus on internal states and outward orientation by a desire to interact with the environment and attain positive, external goals and rewards. Inwardly oriented people who are compliant, suggestible (both perceptually and hypnotically), and absorbed in their own inner world, and outwardly oriented people who are extraverted, optimistic, reward seeking, and ego-resilient tend to be the most responsive to placebos.

Next, the relationship between the patient and the environment must be considered. The responsiveness to the placebo treatment may be most likely to occur when there is a match between the patient’s personality characteristics and the context in which the patient receives the treatment. So inwardly oriented people might be most responsive to a placebo when the treatment is given in an authoritative manner, in a non-threatening environment, and where they are instructed to focus on how they feel internally. Outwardly oriented people however, might be more responsive when they receive the treatment from a friendly or empathetic practitioner, or in an exciting or novel way.

Now, not everyone is convinced that the “placebo personality” is a valid thing, and certainly more research needs to be done in the area. But, there is definitely reason to keep looking into it. Being able to predict a patient’s responsiveness to a placebo treatment could be helpful in making decisions for treatment and dosage amount. Additionally, this knowledge would be useful for treating patients with psychosomatic complaints (complaints about physical issues that are caused or worsened by mental factors) and illnesses without medical explanations. Especially for illnesses that have no known biological source, being able to identify or create conditions in which a placebo treatment would be effective would be able to save time, money, and possible harm to the patient due to side effects of real drugs.

Darragh, M., Booth, R.J., & Consedine, N.S. (2015). Who responds to placebos? Considering the “placebo personality” via the transactional model. Psychology, Health, and Medicine, 20(3), 287-295.

Personality and Persuasion

We are exposed to so many advertisements and other persuasive messages every day that it is impossible to attend to every single one. Because of this, there is a large amount of research dedicated to identifying ways to make these messages more effective. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to tailor the message specifically to the intended audience. Messages that align with a person’s motivation (e.g. gaining a reward, preventing loss) tend be seen and interpreted more easily and rated more positively.

Motivation is usually examined from a goal achievement standpoint, but different personality traits are also accompanied by different values and motivation. Extraverted people like social attention and rewards, agreeable people tend to value community and interpersonal harmony, conscientious people want order and efficiency, people who are open to experience desire creativity and intellectual stimulation, and neurotic people need safety and stability. Hirsh, Kang, & Bodenhausen (2012) believe that targeting each of these personality based motivations can increase the effectiveness of an ad.

To test this theory, the researchers created an ad for the “XPhone” and manipulated the contents so that it reflected the motivational concerns of the five major personality traits. For extraversion, they emphasized the phone’s ability to help find excitement and make the owner the life of the party. The agreeable ad focused on the phone’s ability to bring people to together and help people stay in touch, and the conscientious ad showed that the phone was able to help keep the owner organized and would increase productivity. For the openness to experience ad, they said the phone would keep the owner’s mind active and inspired and help the owner discover the world, and for the neuroticism ad, they demonstrated how phone was designed to keep the owner safe in a stressful and uncertain life.

Participants then rated each ad on several questions that were averaged together for a total effectiveness score for the ad. The researchers found that the effectiveness scores for each of the ads were significantly correlated with its corresponding personality trait, but there was no correlation between effectiveness scores and non-corresponding traits. This means that specifically tailoring an ad to the audience’s personality driven motivations increased the ad’s effectiveness. So, if you need to persuade someone, if possible, emphasize aspects of the message that align with his or her personality.

Hirsh, J.B., Kang, S.K., & Bodenhausen, G.V. (2012). Personalized persuasion: Tailoring persuasive appeals to the recipient’s personality traits. Psychological Science, 23(6), 578-581.

Perfectionism and Procrastination

Written by Michelle

Nearly everyone has probably had some experience with procrastination. Maybe it was waiting until the night before a paper was due to start writing or putting off a work project until right before the deadline. When thinking about why people procrastinate, there is a tendency to attribute the procrastination to some pretty negative personal characteristics: laziness, poor self-control, inability to delay gratification, etc. However, research has shown that there is another reason why people might procrastinate: perfectionism.

This doesn’t seem to make sense. Procrastination often causes missed deadlines and shoddy work, both of which don’t seem like something a perfectionist would tolerate. However, research has found is that procrastination is often found in certain types of perfectionists. There are three main categories of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists tend to set impossibly high standards for themselves, other-oriented perfectionists hold others to unrealistic standards, and socially prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold them to high standards and are constantly evaluating them.

It’s the socially prescribed perfectionists that tend to be procrastinators due to their fear of failure and negative evaluation (Onwuegbuzie, 2000). For these people, procrastination serves as a means of self-protection. First, procrastination can serve as a self-handicap and an excuse for failure. If it so happens that a perfectionist receives a negative evaluation, the perfectionist can then attribute the reason for failure to the procrastination rather than a personal characteristic like low intelligence or inadequacy. Second, the fear of being negatively evaluated and the worry about ability to do a good enough job to meet others’ standards makes doing a task highly aversive. By avoiding the task until absolutely necessary, a perfectionist can put off the anxiety and unpleasantness, and delay the future evaluation.

Other research agrees with this, finding that socially prescribed perfectionists, especially ones who were prone to feeling ashamed, were more likely to procrastinate (Fee & Tangey, 2000). It appears that these perfectionists are not only motivated to protect themselves from failure and negative evaluations, they also want to avoid the accompanying feelings of shame.   Furthermore, this study suggests that perfectionists are primarily motivated to avoid that anticipated feeling of shame that would accompany failure rather than the actual behavioral consequence itself (e.g. getting an F on a paper, getting kicked out of grad school, etc.)

Perfectionism isn’t something people usually associate with procrastination, but it’s something to be considered. People who procrastinate because they dislike the project they are working on are going to require different strategies to overcome procrastinating tendencies than people who procrastinate due to perfectionism. So, it’s good to think about why you procrastinate and tailor a strategy to overcome this tendency specifically for you. If you realize that perfectionism is at the root of your procrastination, you can focus on reducing your anxiety of evaluation.

Lee, R.L., & Tangney, J.P. (2000). Procrastination: A means of avoiding shame of guilt? Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 103-109.

Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2000). Academic procrastinators and perfectionistic tendencies among graduate students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 103-109. 

Love, Work, and Personality

Personality is a set of characteristics that vary from person to person and tend to predict a set pattern of behavior across different situations. Researchers usually break personality down into five major categories: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.

  • Agreeable people tend to be nice, cooperative, sympathetic, trustworthy, and friendly.
  • Extraverts tend to be people who are sociable, talkative, positive, who have high energy and like to engage with others.
  • Neurotic people tend to be anxious, fearful, moody, jealous, lonely, and worried.
  • People who are open to experience tend to be curious, imaginative, appreciate art and beauty, and need variety in life.
  • Conscientious people tend to be organized, reliable, efficient, self-disciplined, and hard-working.

Personality is a fairly stable characteristic, but there is evidence that personality can change over the course of life. Most researchers will agree that in childhood and young adulthood, personality is more flexible and can be influenced by life experience. Most say that personality becomes more stable after the age of thirty, but there is research showing that normal aging is related to decreases in neuroticism, and increases in agreeableness and conscientiousness (Srivastava, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2003).

One possible reason why personality might change is social roles. A person may need certain characteristics to succeed in certain roles –  for instance, one might need to be sociable and engage with customers to succeed in a sales job, or might need to exhibit emotional stability in order to make a romantic relationship work. Throughout the course of people’s lives, they may eventually come to take on the qualities of a particular role, so that the salesperson eventually becomes more extraverted, and the person in the stable relationship becomes less neurotic.

A study by Scollon & Diener (2006) attempted to look at model by testing if changes in satisfaction with work and relationships were related to changes in personality. Through looking at changes in satisfaction within each individual, they eliminated the possibility that extraverted people take socially oriented jobs or that neurotic people tend not to have as satisfying relationships. They focused mainly on the personality traits of extraversion and neuroticism through a longitudinal study of 1,130 people over the course of eight years, re-measuring the variables every two years, for a total of five times. They found that increases in an individual’s work and relationship satisfaction predicted decreased neuroticism. Increases in work satisfaction predicted increase in an individual’s extraversion, and increase in relationship satisfaction also showed increases in extraversion, but this finding was only marginally significant. More interestingly, these results were found across all age groups, not just in people under 30.

Now, this does not mean that the person who enjoys being alone will change into the life of the party, rather, all it means is that a person slightly shifts to being more extroverted. However, even small changes can make a huge difference, especially with neuroticism which predicts many negative health outcomes. So, while personality is relatively stable, it is nice to know that it is not necessarily set in stone.

Scollon, C.N., Diender, E., (2006). Love, work, and changes in extraversion and neuroticism over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(6), 1152-1165.

Srivastava, S., John, O.P., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1041-1053.