Friends with Personalities

Judging personality II: Nobody likes Rachel.

Posted Feb 07, 2012

Monica: Chandler, it's okay. You don't have to be so macho all the time.
Chandler: I'm not macho.
Monica: You're right. I don't know what I was thinking.

Note. I wrote this essay with Gideon Goldin and Leonard Chen.

In a somber mood, one might think that characters on U.S. American television are uni-dimensional. Sitcom characters in particular may be funny by virtue of being caricatures without depth. On Scrubs, J.D. is whiny, Elliot is insecure, Carla is domineering, Dr. Cox is psychopathically emotionless, and the janitor is janitorial. Perhaps we are stereotyping; by stopping after listing the first attribute that comes to mind, we are caricaturing the caricatures. One claim the Big-5 taxonomy of personality traits can lay to having depth is that it has, well, not 3 or 4, but 5 personality traits. With these traits being fairly independent of one another, describing each person on one more trait dimension adds complexity to the profile.

In a previous post on the European hit skit Dinner for One, we found that the personalities of Miss Sophie, her four dead friends, and her indefatigable (now there's a trait!) butler James emerged nicely from the profiles of mean ratings. Among other things, we noticed that the variability of a profile is an interesting measure of personality depth, which is literally seen in the profile's peaks and valleys. By that measure, Miss Sophie's personality was somewhat blah, whereas James scored high and low marks on several dimensions.

In today's exercise of personality judgment we turn to Friends, a beloved bevvy of young, attractive, coffee-sipping group of New Yorkers of the Ante-Starbucks era. Suspended between adolescence and adulthood, they haunted the dens and family rooms of American homes for 10 seasons. Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross: Who were they, psychologically speaking?

We showed one episode (4:12, The one with the embryos) to a class of 17 undergraduate students and gave them a rating sheet with 5 pairs of trait-descriptive adjectives, which they competed for each of the 6 characters using a scale from 1 to 5. The trait pairs were "extraverted and enthusiastic," "anxious and easily upset," "critical and quarrelsome," "dependable and self-disciplined," and "open to new experiences and complex" (Gosling, Rentfrow, & Swann, 2003).

Figure 1

We standardized the ratings so that the mean over all ratings for a trait was 0 and the standard deviation (the average difference between a rating and the mean) was 1. Figure 1 shows the averages (with standard errors - the standard deviation over the square root of the sample size [17]) for each character over the traits of Extraversion, E, Neuroticism, N, Agreeableness, A, Conscientiousness, C, and Openness (to new experiences), O. The SD (standard deviation) noted in each panel refers to the variability of the means over the respective profile.

Taxonomies like the Big 5 were developed, in part, to overcome clinical judgment and make personality assessment more objective. Yet, it is possible to take in each person's profile and to reframe it as a kind of type. Ross, for example, seems to fit the type of academic who has been touched by nerdiness. He the paleontologist is seen as conscientious (a trait necessary for success in science) and rather introverted. Surprisingly, Ross is not seen as high on openness, which detracts from his scientific prospects. Rachel, poor Rachel, does not fare well in the court of public judgment. She is seen as neurotic, disagreeable, unreliable, and closed to the new. As a type, she would be least liked overall. Phoebe has the opposite profile. Her high score on openness goes to show that this trait does not capture intellectual capacity unless you explicitly include an item to measure it.

Joey emerges with the profile of the fun guy that he is. Don't worry, be happy. Monica only distinguishes herself by not being all that nice (agreeable), and finally, Chandler comes in as the type that has no type; notice the low SD. One wonders if the show would have been no less successful without this "character."

Table 1

Table 1 shows the correlations over five trait averages for each pair of characters. Here we see nicely that Rachel and Phoebe are indeed the pair most clearly seen as opposites (r = -.87). As there are no large positive correlations, we can conclude that the characters are not redundant (that would be a waste on a sitcom or elsewhere).

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the average standard scores for each trait over the characters of Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross. If the display of scores over traits for each person (Figure 1) was idiographic, the display of scores over characters for each trait is nomothetic. It brings out the interest in individual differences that is pre-dominant in the field of personality research. Looking at extraversion, we see that Joey and Ross respectively represent the high and the low pole. For neuroticism, Rachel leads the pack. Agreeableness and openness are Phoebe's domains, and Ross's is conscientiousness. Monica and Chandler blend in with the crowd, as we already suspected when looking at their personal profiles. We also notice that the trait of extraversion (vs. introversion) does not discriminate among the characters as well as the other four traits do (notice the differences among the standard deviations).

When Monica and Chandler got married toward the end of the show, we couldn't say that opposites attract because neither of them has much of a profile. Nor can we say that they are birds of a feather because profiles without much variance can't produce much of a correlation (r = -.10). Do they know each other well? Their brief verbal exchange (see above) suggests that they do not.

Today's afterthought

The doctor tells Phoebe that with 5 embryos in play, the chances that one of them will implant in her uterus are .25. How many embryos would it take, kids, to make the chances even?

Today's quiz

[1] What are the chances that Monica and Chandler do not have kids within 10 years?

[2] What are the chances that Monica and Chandler are divorced within ten years?

[3] What are the chances that Monica and Chandler do not have kids and are divorced within 10 years?

[4] What is the name of the cognitive trap you might fall into while answering questions 1 - 3?

Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2003). A very brief measure of the Big Five personality domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 504-528.