By Kirsty OUP-UK
Regular readers of the OUP blog will remember that back in July I told you about a personality survey that we were running in conjunction with the British Association for the Advancement of Science to tie in with the new book by Daniel Nettle called Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are. Well, the results are in and Daniel Nettle has kindly written the piece below, detailing his findings. Thanks to everyone who took part!
This summer I undertook a mass personality survey, with the cooperation of OUP and of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. I had just written a book about the five-factor approach to personality. This framework defines personality in terms of five axes. You fill in a questionnaire and get a score along each of the five dimensions. The dimensions are Introversion-Extraversion, Stability-Neuroticism, Spontaneity-Conscientiousness, Disagreeableness-Agreeableness, and finally Concreteness-Openness. There is no better or worse score to have along any of these. Different scores merely reflect differing thresholds for different types of emotional or cognitive response to situations. Differences between individuals are thought to stem from differences in genes to a very significant extent.
In the book I argue that in a modern, affluent society, with lots of different ways of living available, and a high degree of personal choice, personality is a key predictor of what we end up doing with our lives. To test this out, we ran an online survey with a personality questionnaire, and some information about where people lived and what they did for a living. About seven and a half thousand people took part, ranging in age from 15 to 80, with six thousand from the UK and most of the rest from the USA.
Many of the results were as we might have predicted. For example, women scored more highly than men on the Neuroticism and Agreeableness axes. This means that women respond more strongly to threats and negative emotional events than men do, and that they are more ‘prosocially’ focussed, empathizing more strongly and showing greater concern for others than men do.
One of the most interesting things we were able to do was to separate out certain occupational groups and see what their profiles were like. High scores on the Agreeableness dimension separated out members of a group of caring professions – nurses, doctors, psychologists and therapists. By contrast, Agreeableness was relatively low in professions focussed on systems rather than people – accounting, and computing, in particular.
On the dimension of Neuroticism, librarians and those working in publishing (many of whom were editors or lexicographers) scored relatively highly. This might seem surprising, but in fact it is well known that Neuroticism can be positively associated with scholastic attainment and with attention to detail, essential in bookish work. By contrast, individuals in the police, the military and the fire services were unusually low in Neuroticism. This again makes sense; if one is to put oneself regularly in the line of physical danger, it is a prerequisite not to respond to such situations with too much anxiety. This really illustrates well the point that there is no better or worse level of Neuroticism to have. You simply have to find the right niche for the profile you have.
High Openness distinguishes a group including writers, artists, journalists and ministers of religion. All of these groups tend to be concerned with exploring something beyond that which is given to the senses. There are differences, though: those high on Openness and also on Agreeableness are more likely to be ministers of religion (the ethereal plus the pastoral), whilst those high in Openness without being especially high on Agreeableness are more likely to be artists.
We also found that Londoners were higher in Neuroticism, Extraversion and Openness than people living in the rest of the UK. The most likely explanation here is selective migration. Those who love the bright lights, the arts and so on, will tend to gravitate towards the big city, whilst those who are less ambitious will tend to flow the other way.
The survey has limitations – notably, the very short questionnaire we used being very crude – but the results are suggestive of the way that personality characteristics define the niche of interests and activities that we use to guide use around the complex ecology of a modern society.