AotD: Cognitive Correlates of Personality

Article of the Day:

Cognitive Correlates of Personality – 
Links Between Executive Functioning and the Big Five Personality Traits

by Murdock, K.W., Oddi, K.B., & Bridgett, D.J. O. (2013)

(Journal of Individual Differences, 34(2), 97–104. DOI: 10.1027/1614-0001/a000104)

Background & Research

Executive functioning, understood broadly as the cognitive processes that facilitate and guide planning and executing goal-oriented behavior and the regulation of affect and thought, has been of great interest to psychologists for decades, but pinning down and defining these high-level processes has remained difficult. In Miyake and Friedman’s model (2000) employed in this article, executive functioning consists of three elements: Cognitive Flexibility, Inhibition and Updating/Monitoring (information in working memory). Factor analyses as well as neuroimaging techniques have given these distinctions some empirical support.

Exploring the connections, if any, between executive functioning (EF) and personality traits could be important for understanding the origins, neurobiological and otherwise, of individual differences, for advancing theory on different predispositions toward certain behaviors (e.g., to be targeted for intervention in clinical applications), as well as for issues relating to construct overlap. In the last few years especially, quite a few studies have indeed looked at links between (mostly individual) EF components and (Big Five) personality traits. Many possible connections have been identified, but overall, according to the authors of this article, the findings have been mixed and no study has considered all core aspects of EF as laid out by Miyake and Friedman and all five Big Five personality traits simultaneously.

The intention in the study reported on here was thus to examine the connections between all three EF components (Monitoring/Updating, Inhibition and Cognitive Flexibility) and the Big Five personality traits (Neuroticism, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness). Costa & McCrae’s NEO-FFI self-report measure was used for measuring the Big Five personality traits of participants (N = 182). A verbal fluency test was used as a measure of Updating/Monitoring, a Stroop-like test for Inhibition and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test for Cognitive Flexibility.

Results & Discussion

According to the multiple regression analyses carried out, Neuroticism was (negatively) predicted by the Updating/Monitoring EF component, while Openness was (positively) predicted by both Cognitive Flexibility and Updating/Monitoring. The other three traits (Extraversion, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness) were not predicted by any of the EF factors.

For Openness, the authors suggest the significant association with Updating/Monitoring may relate to particularly Open individuals employing information thresholding, thought to be a component of Updating/Monitoring, to a greater degree than people scoring lower on that trait. Further, that Updating/Monitoring was a predictor of both Neuroticism and Openness suggests that some shared cognitive mechanisms may underlie these characteristics, in particular, working memory. In other words, the traits may be indirectly related through Updating/Monitoring.

Based on earlier research, other connections were anticipated too, especially between EF and Extraversion. Such connections did not appear in this study. According to the authors, this may be due to methodological differences – this study was the first to use an EF framework where all three aspects of EF identified by Miyake and Friedman were systematically studied.

The authors admit some limitations to the results of this study. In particular, the participants were young university students (age M = 19.81), so generalizing the results across the lifespan should be done cautiously. Associations between personality traits and EF may be different in different age groups, although it is thought executive functions will have already solidified in young adults. Some of the choices of measures in this study may also be questioned, particularly the use of verbal fluency as an indicator of Updating/Monitoring, and employing a shortened measure of personality. The authors call for additional study in this area, employing a wide array of methods and a well-defined EF framework, while addressing the limitations in this and other previous research.

Commentary

This research demonstrates many of the fundamental difficulties in psychological research. Questions of (construct) validity are always present. What exactly are we trying to measure here (and does “the thing” we want to measure even exist in any meaningful sense)? On the other hand, what in the end are we actually measuring with the methods we have selected? Further, different (partially overlapping) frameworks and conceptualizations, for EF, for instance, are employed by different researchers, and we often end up with incommensurable results. Such problems (and these are just a few of them!) are particularly evident when trying to study such high-level human processes as executive functioning.

In any case, examining the connections between personality traits and cognitive (here, executive) functioning is a fascinating field. On one hand, it may help us understand what challenges and strengths people of different dispositions may have cognitively. On the other, it may tell us something important about the mechanisms underlying the development of differing personalities. Of more general interest, this study and others like it may also provide some answers as to whether certain personality traits could be thought of as more “useful” or beneficial for success in life (as good executive functioning is crucial to many aspects of daily and professional life). In relation to executive functioning, it would appear the best evidence currently exists for high Neuroticism being linked with poorer EF, and higher Openness with better overall EF, but as this study demonstrates, the connections may be more specific than that, down to the level of certain sub-aspects of executive functioning.

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