There are a variety of stable aspects of our selves that help us to define who we are. Two of the most prominent are personality traits and values.
Personality traits are characteristics that relate to the factory settings of our motivational system. They determine what we tend to be motivated to do in the absence of a strong influence of the situation. A person high in openness to experience is typically motivated to approach new things, though they might treat new things with caution in a dangerous environment.
Values are factors that drive what we find to be important. Research by Schwartz and his colleagues suggests that there is a universal set of values. This work suggests that people’s values are influenced by a variety of factors including the culture to which they belong, their underlying personality traits, and their experiences.
Researchers are interested in understanding how these two sources of stability in a person over time are inter-related and whether changes in one factor (like personality) create changes in another (like values). This question was addressed in a paper in the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Velichko Fetvadjiev and Jia He.
They explored longitudinal data from a survey of over 10,000 people done in the Netherlands from 2008-2015. Five times in that period, participants were given a survey of their Big Five personality characteristics—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—as well as their values. In addition, they were asked questions both about their life satisfaction and the positive and negative feelings they were experiencing.
The advantage of having many different waves of data from the same people is that it enables researchers to speculate on whether changes in one characteristic cause changes in another. This can be done by asking whether changes at one time in one factor predict another more strongly than the reverse. For example, if changes in personality cause changes in values, then we would expect to see that changes in personality at one time predict future changes in values better than changes in values at that time predict future changes in personality.
The results of this study are interesting. First, as we might expect, people’s personality characteristics and values are fairly stable. People’s responses to both the personality inventory and the values scale did not change much over time. However, the responses to the personality inventory changed less than the responses to the values survey.
Overall, some personality characteristics and some values are related. Agreeableness was correlated with the value of being prosocial (that is, wanting to engage in positive actions for society). Conscientiousness was correlated with conformity (which reflects that conscientious people tend to want to follow rules including societal rules). Extraversion was related to the value of enjoyment. Openness correlated with the value of self-direction. There were no strong correlations between neuroticism and any of the values.
Using the logic I described earlier, the researchers found that changes in personality at one time were better predictors of values in the future than the reverse, suggesting that personality traits have a bigger influence on values than the reverse.
In addition, personality traits appeared to influence a variety of measures of well-being. People high in agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness tended to show higher measures of well-being while being high in neuroticism was linked to decreased measures of well-being. Changes in personality at one time predicted future measures of well-being better than the reverse, suggesting that personality is affecting well-being rather than the opposite.
Values related most strongly to the strength of positive feelings and were not strongly related to a measure of life satisfaction. Surprisingly, changes in measures of well-being were a better predictor of future changes in values than the reverse. This finding suggests that changes in people’s overall sense of well-being (and particularly their positive feelings) may have a bigger influence on values than values do on a sense of well-being.
So, what does all this mean?
There are three big takeaways here.
First, in an era in which key findings fail to replicate, this study solidifies the relationship between personality characteristics and values that have been observed before. It also demonstrates that both personality characteristics and values change slowly.
Second, this work suggests that changes in personality characteristics (which reflect people’s underlying motivation) have a bigger impact on values than changes in values have on people’s personality characteristics.
Third, this work suggests that both personality characteristics and values are related to people’s sense of well-being. However, personality characteristics seem to have a broad impact. Changes in personality can precede changes in well-being, but it appears that changes in well-being may actually have an impact on people’s values.
Even though this is a large study, it is still just one. More work will have to be done to further illuminate the relationship between personality characteristics and values.
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Fetvadjiev, V.H. & He, J. (2019). The longitudinal links of personality traits, values, and well-being and self-esteem: A five-wave study of a nationally representative sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(2), 448-464.