Category Archives: Normal Personality

How to build a Monster Model of Well-being: Part 3

This is the third part in a mini-series of building a monster-model of well-being. The first part (Part1) introduced the measurement of well-being and the relationship between affect and well-being. The second part added measures of satisfaction with life-domains (Part 2). Part 2 ended with the finding that most of the variance in global life-satisfaction judgments is based on evaluations of important life domains. Satisfaction in important life domains also influences the amount of happiness and sadness individuals experience, but affect had relatively small unique effects on global life-satisfaction judgments. In fact, happiness made a trivial, non-significant unique contribution.

The effects of the various life domains on happiness, sadness, and the weighted average of domain satisfactions is shown in the table below. Regarding happy affective experiences, the results showed that friendships and recreations are important for high levels of positive affect (experiencing happiness), but health or money are relatively unimportant.

In part 3, I am examining how we can add the personality trait extraversion to the model. Evidence that extraverts have higher well-being was first reviewed by Wilson (1967). An influential article by Costa and McCrae (1980) showed that this relationship is stable over a period of 10 years, suggesting that stable dispositions contribute to this relationship. Since then, meta-analyses have repeatedly reaffirmed that extraversion is related to well-being (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998; Heller et al., 2004; Horwood, Smillie, Marrero, Wood, 2020).

Here, I am examining the question how extraversion influences well-being. One criticism of structural equation modeling of correlational, cross-sectional data is that causal arrows are arbitrary and that the results do not provide evidence of causality. This is nonsense. Whether a causal model is plausible or not depends on what we know about the constructs and measures that are being used in a study. Not every study can test all assumptions, but we can build models that make plausible assumptions given well-established findings in the literature. Fortunately, personality psychology has established some robust findings about extraversion and well-being.

First, personality traits and well-being measures show evidence of heritability in twin studies. If well-being showed no evidence of heritability, we could not postulate that a heritable trait like extraversion influences well-being because genetic variance in a cause would produce genetic variance in an outcome.

Second, both personality and well-being have a highly stable variance component. However, the stable variance in extraversion is larger than the stable variance in well-being (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016). This implies that extraversion causes well-being rather than the other way-around because causality goes from the more stable variable to the less stable variable (Conley, 1984). The reasoning is that a variable that changes quickly and influences another variable would produce changes, which contradicts the finding that the outcome is stable. For example, if height were correlated with mood, we would know that height causes variation in mood rather than the other way around because mood changes daily, but height does not. We also have direct evidence that life events that influence well-being such as unemployment can change well-being without changing extraversion (Schimmack, Wagner, & Schupp, 2008). This implies that well-being does not cause extraversion because the changes in well-being due to unemployment would then produce changes in extraversion, which is contradicted by evidence. In short, even though the cross-sectional data used here cannot test the assumption that extraversion causes well-being, the broader literature makes it very likely that causality runs from extraversion to well-being rather than the other way around.

Despite 50-years of research, it is still unknown how extraversion influences well-being. “It is widely appreciated that extraversion is associated with greater subjective well-being. What is not yet clear is what processes relate the two” ((Harris, English, Harms, Gross, & Jackson, 2017, p. 170). Costa and McCrae (1980) proposed that extraversion is a disposition to experience more pleasant affective experiences independent of actual stimuli or life circumstances. That is, extraverts are disposed to be happier than introverts. A key problem with this affect-level model is that it is difficult to test. One way of doing so is to falsify alternative models. One alternative model is the affective reactivity model. Accordingly, extraverts are only happier in situations with rewarding stimuli. This model implies personality x situation interactions that can be tested. So far, however, the affective reactivity model has received very little support in several attempts (Lucas & Baird, 2004). Another model assumes that extraversion is related to situation selection. Extraverts may spend more time in situations that elicit pleasure. Accordingly, both introverts and extraverts enjoy socializing, but extraverts actually spend more time socializing than introverts. This model implies person-situation correlations that can be tested.

Nearly 20 yeas ago, I proposed a mediation model that assumes extraversion has a direct influence on affective experiences and the amount of affective experiences is used to evaluate life-satisfaction (Schimmack, Diener, & Oishi, 2002). Although cited relatively frequently, none of these citations are replication studies. The findings above cast doubt on this model because there is no direct influence of positive affect (happiness) on life-satisfaction judgments.

The following analyses examine how extraversion is related to well-being in the Mississauga Family Study dataset.

1. A multi-method study of extraversion and well-being

I start with a very simple model that predicts well-being from extraversion, CFI = .989, RMSEA = .027. The correlated residuals show some rater-specific correlations between ratings of extraversion and life-satisfaction. Most important, the correlation between the extraversion and well-being factors is only r = .11, 95%CI = .03 to .19.

The effect size is noteworthy because extraversion is often considered to be a very powerful predictor of well-being. For example, Kesebir and Diener (2008) write “Other than extraversion and neuroticism, personality traits such as extraversion … have been found to be strong predictors of happiness” (p. 123)

There are several explanations for the week relationship in this model. First, many studies did not control for shared method variance. Even McCrae and Costa (1991) found a weak relationship when they used informant ratings of extraversion to predict self-ratings of well-being, but they ignored the effect size estimate.

Another possible explanation is that Mississauga is a highly diverse community and that the influence of extraversion on well-being can be weaker in non-Western samples (r ~ .2, Kim et al. , 2017.

I next added the two affect factors (happiness and sadness) to the model to test the mediation model. This model had good fit, CFI = .986, RMSEA = .026. The moderate to strong relationships from extraversion to happy feelings and happy feelings to life-satisfaction were highly significant, z > 5. Thus, without taking domain satisfaction into account, the results appear to replicate Schimmack et al.’s (2002) findings.

However, including domain satisfaction changes the results, CFI = .988, RMSEA = .015.

Although extraversion is a direct predictor of happy feelings, b = .25, z = 6.5, the non-significant path from happy feelings to life-satisfaction implies that extraversion does not influence life-satisfaction via this path, indirect effect b = .00, z = 0.2. Thus, the total effect of b = .14, z = 3.7, is fully mediated by the domain satisfactions.

A broad affective disposition model would predict that extraversion enhances positive affect across all domains, including work. However, the path coefficients show that extraversion is a stronger predictor of satisfaction with some domains than others. The strongest coefficients are obtained for satisfaction with friendships and recreation. In contrast, extraversion has only very small relationships with financial satisfaction, health satisfaction, or housing satisfaction that are not statistically significant. Inspection of the indirect effects shows that friendship (b = .026), leisure (.022), romance (.026), and work (.024) account for most of the total effect. However, power is too low to test significance of individual path coefficients.


The results replicate previous work. First, extraversion is a statistically significant predictor of life-satisfaction, even when method variance is controlled, but the effect size is small. Second, extraversion is a stronger predictor of happy feelings than life-satisfaction and unrelated to sad feelings. However, the inclusion of domain satisfaction judgments shows that happy feelings do not mediate the influence of extraversion on life-satisfaction. Rather, extraversion predicts higher satisfaction with some life domains. It may seem surprising that this is a new finding in 2021, 40-years after Costa and McCrae (1980) emphasized the importance of extraversion for well-being. The reason is that few psychological studies of well-being include measures of domain satisfaction and few sociological studies of well-being include personality measures (Schimmack, Schupp, & Wagner, 2008). The present results show that it would be fruitful to examine how extraversion is related to satisfaction with friendships, romantic relationships, and recreation. This is an important avenue for future research. However, for the monster model of well-being the next step will be to include neuroticism in the model.
Continue here to go to Part 4

Should Governments Shape Personality

Dear Wiebke, Patrick, Mitja, Jaap, Marie, Christian, Richard, Maike, Ulrich, Jenny, Cornelia, Johannes, and Brent.

You suggested that personality traits are actionable targets for public policy (Bleidorn et al., 2019).  I was surprised and actually shocked by this proposal.  I have taught personality psychology for over a decade and I always emphasize that individual differences are normal and should be celebrated like we celebrate other aspects of human diversity in culture and in sports.  Therefore I don’t think personality interventions are needed or desirable. Maybe there is some fundamental misunderstanding, but reading your article suggests that you are really proposing that public policy should target personality traits.

This idea is not new.  Socialistic governments and fascist governments had ideals of the model citizen and aimed to fit their citizens into this mold.

In marked contrast, democracies and market economies are built on the idea that citizens’ well-being is maximized by personal choice. The rule of governments is mainly to protect the safety of citizens and to regulate conflict when individual preferences are in conflict.  Well-being surveys consistently show that free and individualistic societies produce higher well-being than societies that impose ideological or religious norms on their citizens. 

The history of psychology also casts a shadow on attempts to shape individuals’ personality.  When homosexuality was a taboo, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Discorders included homosexuality as a mental illness.  Today most psychologists consider it a success that homosexuality is considered an expression of personal preferences and conversion therapy to cure homosexuals from some invented illness is considered unethical. More generally, mental illness has been defined in terms of patients’ suffering and concerns about patients’ well-being rather than in terms of cultural norms of acceptable or unacceptable characteristics.

New insights into biological influences on many illnesses (e.g., cancer) have given rise to personalized medicine which is based on the idea that the same treatment can have different effects for different individuals.  Rather than trying to fit patients to treatments, personalized medicine aims to fit treatments to patients.

Given these general trends one could argue that modern societies need personality psychology because a better understanding of individual differences is needed to create policies that respect individual freedom and creates opportunities for individuals to pursue their own well-being and to maximize their own potential. The call to shape personality, however, seems to suggest the opposite.  In fact, the call for governments to regulate personality development seems so absurd that it is seems improbable that a group of modern, presumably liberal leaning, psychologists would argue for it.  Does this mean I misunderstood your article? I hope so, but reading it didn’t help me to understand your position.

We agree that personality traits as enduring factors (a.k.a. causes, dispositions) within an individual that influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  You propose that governments should influence personality traits because personality traits influence life outcomes.  For example, personality traits influence divorce.  If governments want to reduce the divorce rates, they could target the personality traits that lead to divorce.  Another advantage of changing personality traits is that they are broad dispositions that influence a range of diverse behaviors. For example, conscientiousness influences class attendance, health behaviors, and making your bed every morning. Instead of having different interventions for each behavior, making individuals more conscientious would influence all three behaviors.  

Most of the article discusses empirical research whether it is actually possible to change personality traits.  I am not going to quibble with you about the evidence here because it is irrelevant to the main question that your article brings up: if it were possible to change personality, should governments role out interventions that shape personality? As the article focused on the Big Five traits, the question is whether governments should make citizens more or less neurotic, extraverted, agreeableness, conscientious, or open to experience?

“Our most general assertion is that personality traits are both stable and changeable, which makes personality trait change a powerful and hitherto relatively underused resource for policy makers”

You appear to be so convinced that government interventions that target personality are desirable that you ask only when to intervene, what intervention to use, who to target, and how to intervene. You never stop to wonder whether interventions are a good idea in the first place.

For example, you suggest that increasing conscientiousness in adolescence is a desirable policy goal because “it could elicit a cascade of positive outcomes” (p. 19).  And decreasing neuroticism is good because it “could significantly reduce one’s likelihood of experiencing negative life events” (p. 19).

In passing you mention the main problem of your proposal to regulate personality. “This is not to say that there are optimal trait levels that should be universally promoted in all people” However, you do not reconcile this observation with your call for personality policies. If there are no optimal levels, then what should be the target of personality policies?  And are the previous examples not evidence that you consider higher conscientiousness and lower neuroticism as optimal? If they are not considered more optimal, why should governments develop interventions to increase conscientiousness and to reduce neuroticism?

You end with the conclusion that “personality traits are ideal targets for interventions designed to improve life success,” which once more begs the question what the goal of personality interventions should be.  What is life success?  We know the answer is 42 (h/t Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but we don’t really understand the question very well.  

To end on a more positive note, I do think that governments can play a role in helping individuals to have better lives with higher well-being, and national rankings of quality of life and well-being show that some governments are doing a better job than others.  One main indicator of a good life is a healthy and long life, and health care is both a major contributor to GDP and a major policy agenda. Good health includes physical health and mental health.  Prevention and treatment of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or addiction are important. Unlike personality, health can be defined in terms of optimal functioning and we can evaluate policies in terms of their effectiveness to maximize optimal functioning. Addressing those concerns is an important policy agenda and psychologists can play an important role in addressing these issues. But I prefer to leave normal variation in personality alone. As you noted yourself, there are no optimal personality traits. The best personality policy is to create free societies that let individuals pursue their own happiness in the way they want to pursue it.

Your disagreeable colleague,