There can be no doubt that the benefits to having a sharp mind are myriad. With mental powers that are sharp, quick, and accurate, there should be no stopping you. Perhaps you like to do crossword puzzles and enjoy showing how quick you are to your fellow solvers. Maybe you can’t get enough of Sudoku and like to challenge yourself to see how many puzzles you can solve during your lunch break. Or a friend’s cellphone is acting up, and you eagerly offer to fix it, knowing that you've never met a tech problem you can't cure. All of these situations require some knowledge, but more importantly, the mental flexibility to look at problems from a variety of perspectives. You need to be able to examine all sides of a situation and then play with possible solutions, allowing your mind to wander while still focused on your desired outcome.
The quality of mental flexibility is part of the larger domain of the cognitive area of fluency. One component of intelligence, known as fluid ability, involves the skill of being able to find novel solutions to problems as well as to generate a variety of ideas to a single stimulus. For example, in verbal fluency, your task might be to come up with as many words as possible that begin with the same letter. The more words, the more flexible your mind.
Psychologists typically look at cognitive (thinking) abilities as driving fluid intelligence, particularly those abilities that are unlearned. New research by Florida State University’s Angelina Sutin and colleagues (2019) suggests that an untapped set of resources may exist in personality. Noting that the typical pattern of aging and intelligence shows a decline in those fluid abilities and stability or increase in “crystallized” (knowledge-based) intelligence, they also point out that decline is not inevitable: “Individuals may develop compensatory processes that help offset brain-related deficits that undermine performance” (p. 363). Personality might just provide that compensation.
Sutin and her associates base their work on the Five Factor Model of personality which proposes that personality is organized into the traits of neuroticism (vs. emotional stability), openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Personality models, in general, emphasize individual differences, and when age-related changes in cognition are viewed from this perspective, personality traits may serve as “factors other than brain aging may contribute to individual differences in cognitive function, with effects that accumulate over the life span” (p. 363).
Supporting the proposal that personality traits influence cognition, Sutin et al. cite prior evidence showing that people higher in conscientiousness perform better on memory tasks at least in part because they work hard and are well-organized. In contrast, people high in neuroticism perform more poorly on cognitive tests because they are too anxious to focus. Openness to experience, as shown in prior research, also helps people on tests that benefit from a creative and unconventional approach. The research evidence is mixed on extraversion, and there is not much evidence regarding agreeableness and cognition.
With this background, the authors proposed that verbal fluency should be particularly sensitive to personality traits, particularly in the traits of openness to experience (positively), neuroticism (negatively), extraversion (positively), and conscientiousness (positively). In other words, you should have the most verbal fluency if you enjoy playing with ideas, aren’t afraid to make a mistake, talk a lot, and are able to inhibit responses that don’t fit the category. To the extent that these traits also benefit your health, so much the better for your verbal fluency.
The authors were able to take advantage of a very large amount of data (over 90,000 participants) amounting to 11 samples from 10 studies though, unfortunately, all were cross-sectional comparisons rather than long-term follow-ups. The samples were, however, drawn from international sources including the U.S., England, Wales, Scotland, and Germany. Personality measures, although differing across samples, were all based on the 5-Factor Model. The various studies used common verbal fluency tasks, in which participants had 60 seconds to name as many animals or as many foods as possible, and/or to name as many words as they could starting with the same first letter. Various control factors were entered into the analysis including age, gender, race/ethnicity, and years of education.
Consistent with previous studies on age and verbal fluency, Sutin et al. reported lower scores for participants in their 60s and older, with the greatest drop-off for the over-90 age group. After controlling for age and other demographic factors, the research team reported that across the 10 studies, as predicted, verbal fluency was lower among participants with high neuroticism scores, and highest among participants with high openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Agreeableness was not consistently related to fluency. Within the fluency measures, letter fluency proved to have the strongest connection to personality.
Particularly intriguing was the fact that openness and fluency were related even after controlling for participants' levels of education. As the authors note, “This association is likely due in part to the greater verbal abilities associated with openness, an association that starts in childhood” (p. 369). It seems that the highly open people spend more time reading, starting at an early age, and this maintains them in later life. Extraversion’s role in verbal fluency further adds to the idea that personality can influence cognitive ability—but in a different way. Extraverts talk a lot, and so when prompted, they don’t hold back on coming up with a slew of verbal associations.
On the negative side, neuroticism’s effect on verbal fluency was associated with lower verbal output. The authors suggest that neurotic people not only use fewer words, but that they also worry more about being put on the spot to produce as many words as they can when time is limited and they’re being watched.
The study did have limitations, which the authors acknowledge. The samples were cross-sectional, the measures of personality were all slightly different, and the data did not permit the authors to tease apart the contribution to fluency of each of the five traits. Such large scale studies have the strengths of numbers even as they lack the ability to exert precise controls over the data itself. Further supporting the findings is the fact that the theory behind the study was sound and the authors controlled as many extraneous factors as they could.
To sum up, the Sutin et al. findings tell a fascinating story and provide ideas about how you can keep your verbal fluency, and hence mental prowess, as sharp as possible. Openness to experience may seem like a personality trait that you can’t alter, but once you’re aware of the benefits of allowing your mind to wander, training it through reading, or just enjoying occasional flights of fancy, you'll be better able than ever to flex your mental muscles.
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Sutin, A. R., Stephan, Y., Damian, R. I., Luchetti, M., Strickhouser, J. E., & Terracciano, A. (2019). Five-factor model personality traits and verbal fluency in 10 cohorts. Psycholpgy and Aging, 34(3), 362-373. doi: 10.1037/pag0000351