Psychology Data and Research

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The Unspoken Truth

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Why Psychological Traits Impact How Successful You’ll Be

When you ask a 9-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, the answers are often broad and vary from a firefighter, to an astronaut, to batman. But how might personality traits channel individuals into the careers they actually choose? Answering this question involves distinguishing between who people are and who people want to become. In other words, there is a difference between psychological traits (descriptors) and motivations. One can view the relationship between traits and goals as separate--meaningful traits represent who we are and goals represent who we want to become--or as linked--traits are and goals are intimately related constructs.

We’ve argued for the latter view in a recent webinar, and recent research on goals and personality has shown that they appear to be two sides of the same coin, but how might this play out with career choices and other major life decisions? Research on this question by psychologists Richard Robins and Brent Roberts shows that just as in other domains, goals and traits are not separate, but rather they are two sides of the same coin. They provide just one more line of converging evidence that goals (e.g., what career an individual pursues, the priorities on family and lifestyle, where people shop, and even political affiliations) link back to psychological traits.

Participants in their study took a Big 5 personality inventory, and then were asked to rank the importance of various life-goals such as “Having new and different experiences”  or “Having a high-status career” that fell into specific categories (theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, religious, physical well-being, hedonistic and personal growth). The data was analyzed to understand the relationships between these goals and the Big 5 traits.

The authors predicted that the Big 5 traits of Extraversion and Conscientiousness would be associated with goals that were related to getting ahead and that Agreeableness would be associated with goals related to getting along. Indeed, both Extraversion and Conscientiousness were correlated positively with valuing the pursuit of economic goals. Furthermore, these values also correlated negatively with Agreeableness and Openness to experience. This suggests that traits and goals are not correlated in a discrete 1:1 manner, but rather that clusters of traits are important for understanding goals.

They also found that political goals were related to the combination of high Extraversion and low Agreeableness, not just one or the other. Interestingly, this combination – which distinguishes between social engagement and actual close connections – was the most common profile associated with the suite of all life goals. Indeed, you may already be familiar with the colloquial term for this combination of Big 5 traits: narcissism. Narcissism was strongly, positively correlated with “having an exciting lifestyle” and strongly, negatively correlated with “earning enough to be comfortable and no more”, and “working to promote the welfare of others.” Consistent with our everyday use of the word, this paints a picture of narcissists wanting to get ahead more than they want to get along.

The authors put forth two explanations for narcissism being the most commonly associated profile. The first is identity based: Narcissists are driven by goals that relate to getting ahead and drawing the spotlight towards themselves. The second is simply that narcissists value more goals in general, as a result of their need for feelings of pomposity. Whatever the reason may be, narcissists appear to be more likely to rise to positions of leadership. However, like a Greek tragedy, the very traits that are responsible for their rise through the ranks may also sow the seeds of their destruction.

This research provides evidence for an view that almost seems too obvious to be worth stating: Who we are influences who we want to become.  While it’d be a far stretch to correlate what you want to be when you grow up to the likelihood of your success, there may be more to your desire to be batman when you were younger than we notice on the surface. This all becomes even more interesting when we start to think about how we actually go about becoming those people. What choices do we make and how/why do we make those choices? Thinking about the puzzle from this perspective brings it into the domain of consumer behavior. If we know that traits are correlated with goals, and we assume traits act as motivations for decisions to get us to these goals, we can begin to predict what these decisions are.


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Posted by Madeline Ford on May 17, 2013

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