When we talk about a person’s personality characteristics, we are often focusing on what psychologists call traits. Traits are aspects of personality that stay about the same over time. An anxious person (someone high in the characteristic of neuroticism) is not necessarily very anxious every moment of every day, but in general, that person is more anxious than someone else who is low in the characteristic of neuroticism.
In addition to these traits, there are momentary variations in feelings and behavior that may reflect things like the situation or a particular mood. For example, even a person who rarely experiences much anxiety might feel anxious just before stepping out on stage in front of 3,000 people or going on a national television show. These more momentary changes in thoughts and behavior are called states.
Often, personality characteristics are measured using self-report scales in which people rate themselves on a set of characteristics. This approach assumes that people are generally sensitive to their overall traits. In general, that has been a reasonable way to assess personality traits.
An interesting question—explored in a 2019 paper in Psychological Science by Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire—explores whether people are also sensitive to changes in states.
They explored this question in an interesting way. Several hundred participants wore a device called an Electronically Activated Recorder (or EAR) that was programmed to record short snippets of audio at random intervals during the day. This allows the researchers to engage in what is called experience sampling, in which they gather a variety of examples of a person’s experience.
Four times a day for 15 days, participants gave ratings to four of the Big Five personality characteristics (agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness), and were asked to answer them as they feel at that moment (that is, to give a state measure) rather than as they feel in general (which would be a trait measure).
Then, trained coders listened to audio drawn from the EAR recordings for the hours that participants made ratings. (Participants were able to hear everything that was recorded before the coders got access to the data, so they could eliminate any recordings they did not want other people to hear.) The coders used these recordings to make their judgments of the degree to which the participant was displaying the same four personality characteristics in the audio they could hear.
The key question is whether participants’ judgments of their state matched the coders’ judgments of the participants' actions.
People seemed to be pretty sensitive to their momentary changes in state for two of the characteristics: extraversion and conscientiousness. So, participants and coders agreed when someone was being more or less extraverted or conscientious than usual.
Interestingly, there was at best a weak relationship between participants' judgments of state changes in their agreeableness and neuroticism and the judgments of these characteristics by coders looking at their behavior. The authors point out that the reason for this weak relationship is probably not the same for these characteristics.
Agreeableness reflects whether someone is treating another person nicely in the moment. People often have a difficult time judging the impact of their actions on other people in the moment, and so they may not be as successful at determining when they are being more (or less) agreeable than someone who is able to analyze their behavior.
Neuroticism reflects how people feel inside. Being more neurotic than usual often comes along with feelings of stress or anxiety that may be easier for individuals to detect for themselves than for coders to observe in snippets of behavior.
This analysis suggests that participants may actually be pretty good at observing state changes in their neuroticism, but that this study did not have a good measure for demonstrating that. In contrast, people do seem to have a hard time judging state changes in agreeableness.
Another limitation of this study is that it did not look at changes in the last of the Big Five characteristics (openness to experience). Further research will have to explore people’s sensitivity to changes in openness over time.
This research does add an interesting wrinkle to personality research. It shows that people have some sense of their overall personality traits, but that they also understand that their behavior doesn’t match their long-term traits all the time. It will be interesting to see what kinds of cues people use to detect these differences, but that will also have to be the subject of future study.
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Sun, J., & Vazire, S. (2019). Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment? Psychological Science, 30(3), 405–414. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618818476