When I was younger I thought that having a ‘strong personality’ was something to be proud of. I was eager to learn what ‘type’ of person I was according to the many personality profiling instruments that were around. I then began to realise that by implicitly promoting personality theories and assessment measures psychology can lead us down the wrong road.
In this blog series on Do Something Different I have been discussing the many ways in which it pays to expand and develop personality rather than live with the constraints of your natural tendencies. Now research is revealing more and more benefits of being able to ‘Flex’ personality.
Having a ‘personality’ (or being inflexible) has in-built future failure. It seems that we are often too wedded to our natural animalistic tendencies and don’t notice (or don’t admit to) opportunities that an inflexible personality cause us to miss.
So, it was with great pleasure that I recently read a journal article that puts a monetary value on changing personality traits over time. A key aim of Do Something Different is to get people to break their personality habits and to try new ways of behaving. This new research puts an economic value on changing personality in everyday life. Let me tell you something about the study.
Three researchers - Chris Boyce, Alex Wood and Nattavudh Powdthavee1 - studied 8625 Australians, 46% males and 54% females, with an average age of 46.5 years. Their data comes from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. In completing the HILDA survey, each person completed measures of the common Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience), age, education, annual household income, marital and employment status, and life satisfaction. These measures were taken in 2005 and 2009, which enabled the researchers to look at changes over that period and to do statistical modelling to identify what really influenced life satisfaction.
The researchers looked to see what predicted life satisfaction scores over the 4 year period – in particular which of the various changes in the measures predicted the ups and downs of life satisfaction.
What they found was dramatic. As expected, changes in household income did predict life satisfaction changes – having more money coming in provided a modest boost to satisfaction. Also, becoming unemployed had a negative effect.
The effects of people changing their personality over the same time, however, were much bigger and better predictors of life satisfaction changes than anything else.
Not only were there quite large changes in personality variables. These changes also had a very positive impact on life satisfaction.
In their paper Boyce and colleagues went on to put a monetary value on changes in each of the Big Five personality traits. Their results showed that every standard unit increase in personality change was equivalent to an increase of between $92,000 and $314,000 in annual household income (US dollars). To put this another way, people needed an increase of between $91,000 and $309,00 in annual income to achieve the same increase in life satisfaction produced by a unit change in personality.
Change in the different personality traits were associated with different monetary values, with change in neuroticism being worth $314k, extraversion $225k, agreeableness $149k, conscientiousness was worth $91k and openness to experience $62k. If we bear in mind that the average annual household income was around $88,000/year it seems to pay really well to Flex!
The researchers also concluded that the personality changes over the 4 years may explain both income increases and life satisfaction increases. I have suggested in previous blogs that breaking personality habits can have many benefits but it is good to think that Flex can help to boost income too.
In this study the authors did not consider what the changes in personality were linked to - they simply looked at the changes- so we can only speculate the reasons and influences that promoted the changes. My guess is that some people are more willing and able to change their personality habits as the life demands on them change and it is these people – those who are more behaviourally flexible – who reap the benefits. Many people’s personalities remain fairly constant from childhood; they do not change their habits with their needs. Do Something Different provides people with the tools to increase their flexibility, since it is clear that many people cannot change without a little help. This research would encourage me in my beliefs about the widespread benefits for people over their lifespan.
In my own lab, one of my PhD students, Jamie Churchyard, is looking in detail at how much personality varies, the reasons for personality changes and the benefits that go with it. I will write in more detail about this work in a later blog, but preliminary data reveals some important things. First, people do vary a great deal moment-by-moment in their personality. Second, some people vary more than others – it seems that personality traits are more tightly defined for some and these people tend to have quite fixed ways of behaving whatever the context. Third, Jamie has found that people who can flex their personality to a greater extent are less likely to be depressed or anxious, and have more positive experiences generally. Such individuals are also more in control of themselves and are less affected by the demands others put on them. Perhaps personality traits should be considered more negatively than they generally are – personality can be a personal prison for some with all sorts of negative consequences.
So, to conclude, it may be that money can buy happiness to a degree but not to the same extent that developing a well-adjusted and flexible personality can. People who can break their habits when they need to are more likely to be able to change unhelpful behaviours to build a more satisfying life. It may even pay!
Boyce, C. J., Wood, A. M., & Powdthavee, N. (2012). Is Personality Fixed? Personality Changes as Much as “Variable” Economic Factors and More Strongly Predicts Changes to Life Satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, DOI 10.1007/s11205-012-0006-z