The type of personality that we have plays a central role in all aspects of our lives. Our personality is a composed of several facets or traits. These traits can predict the types of relationships that we build, the roles that we carve out for ourselves and the types of lives we lead. As such, significant research has endeavoured to explore exactly what kinds of personality traits predict various outcomes.

As our personalities are distinguished by boundless individual differences, research often focuses on exploring broad personality traits defined by psychological theory. “The Big Five” as they have come to be known are the five distinct personality traits that psychologists most often refer to. These five traits emerged through decades of psychological research to be considered as representative of the prime components of personality. These five traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Each of these traits have an associated opposite and can be broken down into further sub-facets or sub-traits.

  • Openness to experience refers to a general sense of appreciation and curiosity towards one’s surroundings and experiences. This trait is characterised by a number of sub-facets that include: imagination, artistic interests, emotionality, adventurousness, intelligence, and liberalness.
  • Conscientiousness describes someone who is goal-orientated and well-regulated with strong impulse control. This trait is again characterised by a number of sub-facets that include: self-efficacy (or your confidence in yourself that you accomplish things), orderliness, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, and cautiousness.
  • Extraversion is indicative of an energetic and outgoing approach to one’s world. Its sub-facets include: friendliness, gregariousness (a sense of enjoyment from people), assertiveness, energetic, excitement-seeking, and cheerfulness.
  • Agreeableness refers to a general prosocial concern for others. This personality trait is characterised by sub-facets that include: trust, morality, altruism (finding enjoyment and satisfaction from helping others), cooperation, modesty and sympathy.
  • Neuroticism accounts for a tendency to experience negative emotions more often than positive emotions. This personality trait can be further divided into sub-facets which include: anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, immoderation (orientated towards short term rewards without consideration of the consequences), and vulnerability.

Performance research has always garnered significant research. This is because researchers from every field, be them psychologists, physiotherapists or scientists, have always been eager to tap into exactly what causes us to perform optimally in a number of settings. Psychological research has prioritised its attention on exploring what determines academic performance. This is largely due to the consequence that if we can understand what predicts better academic performance, we can apply these findings to support others to perform better. In terms of personality research, large pools of research have demonstrated that distinct personality traits can be associated with greater or lesser academic performance. For instance as you would expect, higher levels of conscientiousness has been associated with higher academic performance.

A recent study carried out by psychologists Anna Vedel, Dorthe Thomsen and Lars Larson, in Denmark and published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, however recognised that a significant proportion of the existing personality-performance literature is limited by one common flaw. Most often researchers base their research on easily obtained sample groups, the easiest of which being university students majoring in psychology who are attracted by the relevant experience, personal interest in the area or class-credit that the opportunity may provide. This is a contentious issue throughout psychological research as many argue that a sample composed of mainly young, often female individuals that are likely from a similar background with probably similar interests and abilities does not represent the wider population. Therefore, results from these kinds of study could be considered ungeneralizable. While this issue is often overlooked, it is particularly pertinent in personality and performance research due to the fact that this sample group probably share a number of similarities on both of these constructs.

With this in mind Vedel and her team designed their study to examine the interaction between personality and academic performance in a group of students from seven distinct academic fields: medicine, psychology, law, economics, political science, science (e.g. chemistry, mathematics, and physics) and arts/humanities (e.g. literature, history, and philosophy). They believed that certain personality traits would be measured as higher or lower depending on the academic field. Interestingly they decided to use students who were newly enrolled in university – in this way they could determine whether or not the student’s personalities may have drawn them to their current field and not that they had been influenced by any socialization within their in-group.

As you would expect, Vedel and her team found that many of the links between personality traits and academic majors were quite predictable. It was not too surprising to find that individuals studying in the sciences scored lower on measures of extraversion as opposed to those studying in arts/humanities fields. Similarly those studying in the medical and psychology fields scored higher on measures of consciousness than their peers. This is expected given the earlier information provided regarding consciousness and academic performance and the fact that these academic fields are generally the most difficult to attain a place in.

What is interesting about Vedel and her team’s results is that they found that certain traits were associated with greater academic performance for certain academic fields. In other words, different personality traits appear to be advantageous or disadvantageous for certain academic fields. For instance being extraverted was associated with poorer academic performance for individuals who were studying psychology and openness was seen as being advantageous for individuals studying political science.

These findings suggest that our personality types may naturally lead us to pursue particular fields where we feel we might adapt best (e.g. being an extraverted individual may lead to you pursuing a career such as law which requires you be outgoing and vocal). Vedel and her team’s findings also suggest that once we find ourselves studying or working in a given professional field, our personality traits may help or hinder how we perform in this area. This is extremely valuable information for those who work in educational support services and also individuals and young people setting out on their careers. A good understanding of our personality might help to inform us what career path is best suited for us.

Think about your own personality. How do you think you measure up? The following is a link to a quick and easy personality test that might help to highlight what type of personality you have. Remember however that this is not a validated psychological measure and is just for a bit of fun!



Does the type of personality that we have affect how we perform academically?

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