Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behaviour (I)

“Historically, psychologists and other scientists who study human behavior have tended to fall into one of two camps that are characterized by the kind of psychological variability in which they are most interested. Some researchers are predominantly interested in how people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors vary across situations. […] Other behavioral researchers are more interested in understanding how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors vary across people. […] a full understanding of psychological
processes requires devoting attention to both. […] Our goal in editing the Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior was to provide a relatively comprehensive examination of nearly 40 personality variables that have been studied by behavioral researchers. Dozens, if not hundreds, of personality attributes have been studied, and, by necessity, we had to be selective. But we hope that the Handbook includes the personality variables that researchers currently find to be the most interesting, important, and useful.”

I’ve read the first 12 chapters of this book at this point, which corresponds to roughly a third of the book. Aside from a couple of introductory chapters dealing with some methodology, the chapters so far have covered the topics of: Extraversion, agreeableness, attachment styles, interpersonal dependency, Machiavellianism, gender identity, neuroticism, happiness, depression, and ‘social anxiousness, shyness, and embarrassability’. In my opinion some of the chapters are much better than others; there’s a lot of variance here. A few of the chapters are in my opinion really weak. But the good stuff is good stuff. A couple of chapters would in my opinion deserve 5 stars on goodreads; others I’d be tempted to give 1 – so it will probably be hard for me to figure out how to rate this book when that time comes.

The authors generally cover a lot of ground in the chapters, and given this it’s probably not reasonable to expect them to go into the amount of detail one might normally want to go into when evaluating to which extent the results of a specific study hold; there are often way too many studies for this to make sense. As is so often the case in reviews, however, in a way the number of studies and the findings described actually on their own implicitly serve as ‘validity-indicators’, in that ‘many studies telling similar stories’ will tend to make some stories appear more plausible than others. The authors focus on what they consider to be important aspects and limitations of the studies in terms of the big picture; so rather than going into a debate about whether the implicit linearity assumption imposed in that X & Y study from 19XX holds, they cover some common problems in the literature in terms of how to interpret the results, and they talk about critical common assumptions. But aside from that they mostly just report the results – there are a lot of those. I should note that despite this far from uncritical coverage some of the (potential or actual) methodological problems which might apply are not covered at all, which is also part of the reason why I touch upon this aspect. The words ‘publication bias’ have not been uttered during the first 200 pages, and a word search for those words in the document made me aware that I should also not expect to see those words pop up in the remaining 420 pages. You can write an entire book where most chapters include reviews of the literature on specific topics without a single author mentioning publication bias anywhere in the coverage. This is interesting, I think. Another one of the elephants in the room, sample size/power problems, is certainly not dealt with in the amount of detail I believe it deserves. These people’s standards of evidence is way higher than the one Meston and Buss applied in their book, and it’s not like they’re trying to hide the sample size of the studies included, but I think it’s fair to say that some authors don’t give this problem enough attention. When the sample size most often occuring in a major review of studies published in the field one year came out at n=8(!), you sure as hell need to mention this problem often and repeatedly, and you need to convey that you’ve tried to get around this – the entire field is pretty suspect and you have a lot of explaining to do even if this problem does not apply to your subfield. Some authors handle this better than others, and in fairness it should be noted that in some chapters the authors did to a significant extent manage to alleviate my fears that these results were all pretty much useless and untrustworthy, because of the large numbers of reviews included and the existence of multiple types of analyses yielding similar (and theoretically plausible) results. Of course unlike what some people seem to think, adding a large number of bad studies (with similar methodological problems) together into a review article doesn’t make those studies any better or their conclusions more trustworthy (just as increasing n will not help you the least if the model is misspecified), but it’s a start anyway – when you’ve come that far we can start talking about other reasons why these studies ‘may not show what you think they show’. The evidence bases available to the various authors were obviously highly heterogenous, which is probably another reason why I think some chapters are weaker than others (you can’t do a lot of different types of reviews and compare the performance of various different models if only, say, 4 studies have ever been published on the topic, and if no major longitudinal studies have been published you can’t make one magically appear. Having said this I should perhaps note so that people don’t misunderstand me that all chapters in the book include in the coverage an at least reasonably large number of studies – as in, much higher than four (they don’t number the references, but a brief overview and count told me that it’s likely the first couple of chapters dealing with introductory stuff are the only ones with less than ~75-100 references) – but specific questions that really need answering may not always have been analyzed in much depth, if at all).

Empirical results they cover, but there’s naturally other stuff in there as well. All chapters cover some theoretical stuff pertaining to the topic of interest, and they will often include historical aspects pertaining to how research into this subject has developed over time, how unsatisfactory empirical results have sometimes (though not always, it seems…) lead to a greater appreciation of ‘what’s actually going on’ by the identification of new areas of research requiring attention, etc. Most chapters talk in some detail about how the constructs we’re talking about (e.g. agreeableness, neuroticism, happiness…) are defined, how they’re actually measured, etc. Is it for example better to ask someone if he’s happy or to ask his wife – or is it perhaps even better to ask a doctor who’s interviewed him? In the specific case it turns out that just asking people is actually a pretty good way to get at what we’re trying to measure, but construct validity is a potential issue all authors deal with to some extent (and this dimension adds a lot of problems in some areas of research). Even when the evidence feels a bit shaky the theory is occasionally at least somewhat interesting, because of the ‘I had not thought about the fact that you could think about this problem that way’-experiences. New dimensions you had perhaps not thought relevant pop up occasionally, and just like you’ll probably realize when reading a medical textbook for the first time that the heart and the lungs are more interconnected than you thought, you’ll probably realize along the way that some identity parameters and life outcomes are clustered in a way you perhaps had not considered.

Below some general remarks from the introductory chapters:

“a single measure of behavior is not a reliable indicator of a person’s general behavioral tendencies. […] When behaviors are aggregated across situations (just as self-report responses are aggregated across the items on a personality questionnaire), behavioral measures are more reliable, correlations are notably larger, and personality does a better job of predicting behavior. […] personality relates more strongly to behavior in some situations than in others. […] the effects of a particular situation may vary across levels of a trait or the effects of a trait may vary across situations. […] a particular trait may relate to behavior in only some situations, and a particular situation may influence the reactions of only people with a certain personality characteristic (Bern & Funder, 1978). Thus many studies in social and personality psychology test for person-situation (or trait-by-state) interactions. […] although interactions between situations and dispositions are often interesting and informative, they are also notoriously difficult to obtain, and, when they occur, they tend to be quite small relative to main effects […] interactions between situations and personality are relatively rare relative to main effects, and those that do occur generally account for relatively little variance.”

“Individual differences can be measured at varying levels of specificity, from very general (e.g., trait anxiety) to highly specific (e.g., trait anxiety regarding interactions with people of the other sex). Typically, the specificity of the measure used should fall at a point along this continuum that corresponds to the level of specificity at which other variables in the study are measured. […] relationships between attitudes and behaviors are strongest when the context and specificity of the measures are compatible […] one solution to the problem of low observed correlations between personality and behavior (Mischel, 1968) is to aggregate behaviors to produce a variable at a level of generality that is similar to standard measures of personality traits […] Unlike the development of state-level counterparts to trait measures, the development of specific measures from general measures […] is not straightforward. A fundamental concern involves determining the appropriate dimensions that should be used to parse the general construct to produce more specific variants. […] Moving in the other direction—from specific to general—is more straightforward. Measures of particular behaviors or of domain-specific self-reports can be aggregated (i.e., typically summed or averaged) to produce measures of general tendencies that are comparable in level of specificity with general measures of personality.”

“No single measure fully captures the construct that it operationally defines—a frequent but misguided assumption known as definitional operationism (Campbell, 1969). For example, no measure of extraversion truly, accurately, and completely assesses extraversion. Moreover, all measures are influenced to some degree by extraneous factors such as social desirability or biases in how particular respondents use the response scales. For this reason, it is unwise for research findings to be based on only one measure of key constructs. Ideally, multiple measures should be used across (or within) studies in a research literature or program, measures that differ not only in content but also in modality of administration, reporters (e.g., self, peer, parent, teacher), and means of responding. Findings that obtain across measures (particularly if the measures differ in response format or mode of administration) are presumably more robust and replicable than those based on a single measure.”

Below some more specific observations from the chapters on extroversion, attachment theory, and happiness:

“extraverts experience more positive affect than introverts; this finding has been one of the most robust in all of personality psychology (Lucas, Diener, Grob, Suh, & Shao, 2000). […] Not only do measures of trait extraversion predict trait positive affect, but trait extraversion also predicts aggregated momentary positive affect (Costa & McCrae, 1992a; Spain, Eaton, & Funder, 2000), as well as single ratings of current positive affect (Lucas & Baird, 2004; Uziel, 2006). This means that extraverts are happier than introverts in general, over short time frames, and even in the moment.”

“Across a wide range of tasks, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis revealed that extraversion as measured with the NEO-PI-R was associated with greater activation in numerous areas of the brain (amygdala, caudate, mediofrontal gyrus, right fusiform gyrus) when positive stimuli, but not negative stimuli, were presented. One important implication of these studies, noted by Canli, is that personality factors such as extraversion are likely to be widely distributed in the brain.”

Attachment theory […] was initially proposed as a way of understanding why close relationships in the family and the loss of such relationships are among the most important determinants of later social adjustment and mental health. […] The key components of the theory are few, and they are relatively easy to describe:
1. Humans and other primates evolved behavioral and motivational systems that allow them to survive and reproduce, despite vulnerabilities associated with being born prematurely, taking a long time to develop to maturity, and needing the protection, assistance, and cooperation of other species members across the lifespan.
2. One of these behavioral systems, the attachment system, is responsible for establishing primary social connections and calling on them in times of stress or difficulty.
3. The history of a person’s close relationships shapes the parameters of his or her attachment system, leaving an important residue in the form of “internal working models” of self, partners, and relationships. This developmental process results in each person having a measurable “attachment style” (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) that influences the nature and outcomes of subsequent relationships, including those with romantic/sexual partners, close friends, offspring, and even coworkers and subordinates in social organizations (e.g., Davidovitz, Mikulincer, Shaver, Ijzak, & Popper, 2007).”

“Today, adult attachment researchers working from a personality-social perspective largely agree that attachment styles are best conceptualized as regions in a twodimensional (anxiety-by-avoidance) space. The two dimensions are consistently obtained in factor analyses of attachment measures (e.g., Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998) […] The first dimension, attachment-related anxiety, is concerned with a strong desire for closeness and protection, intense worries about partner availability and one’s own value to the partner, and the use of hyperactivating strategies for dealing with insecurity and distress. The second dimension, attachment-related avoidance, is concerned with discomfort with closeness and dependence on relationship partners, preference for emotional distance and self-reliance, and the use of deactivating strategies to deal with insecurity and distress.”

“Hundreds of studies using self-report measures of adult attachment style […] have found theoretically coherent attachment-style variations in relationship quality, interpersonal behavior, self-esteem, social cognitions, emotion regulation, ways of coping with stress, and mental health. […] anxiously attached individuals are less confident than their more secure counterparts about being able to establish successful relationships […] and more likely to emphasize potential losses when thinking about relationships […] There is good evidence that secure individuals tend to maintain more stable romantic relationships than insecure people (either anxious or avoidant) and report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and adjustment […] This pattern has been consistently obtained in studies of both dating and married couples and cannot be explained by other personality factors, such as the “Big Five” personality traits or self-esteem […] Attachment security is associated with sexual satisfaction and is conducive to genuine intimacy in sexual situations, including sensitivity and responsiveness to a partner’s wishes and openness to mutual sexual exploration. In contrast, avoidant individuals tend to remain emotionally detached during sexual activities, and anxiously attached individuals tend to hyperactivate sex-related worries and engage in sex primarily to placate a partner, feel accepted, and avoid abandonment […] There is extensive evidence that anxiously attached individuals are prone to jealousy and tend to be overwhelmed by jealous feelings […] Furthermore, they tend to report high levels of suspicion and to cope with them by engaging in intensive partner surveillance […] extensive evidence documents attachment-style differences in the ways people react to others’ offenses and hurtful behaviors. These studies have consistently linked attachment security with functional, constructive expressions of anger (nonhostile protests) and attachment insecurity with less functional forms of anger, such as animosity, hostility, vengeful criticism, or vicious retaliation […] In addition, more avoidant people tend to be less inclined to forgive a hurtful partner and more likely to withdraw or seek revenge (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Slav, 2006).”

And on and on it goes (“doubts about other people’s trustworthiness”, “lack of respect for relationship partners”, “emotional problems and poor adjustment”)… ‘Don’t become romantically involved with one of those people,’ the data seem to yell out to anyone who wants to listen… The attachment styles chapter was one in my opinion one of the best I’ve read so far; I’m actually considering reading a textbook on this topic. As they pointed out towards the end of the chapter, “Anyone wishing to gain
a reasonably complete picture of the field has a great deal of reading to do.” Lastly, a little stuff on happiness:

“A general model specifying the major sources of variation in happiness can be useful at the outset. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) have proposed that a person’s chronic happiness level is determined by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, circumstantial factors (e.g., gender, education, culture), and the activities and practices that the person engages in. This model is remarkably similar to Seligman’s happiness formula, according to which one’s enduring level of happiness is the sum of (1) one’s set range for happiness, (2) life circumstances, and (3) factors under one’s voluntary control (Seligman, 2002). A survey of the literature suggests that whereas the genetically determined set point accounts for about 50% of variation in happiness, life circumstances account for only 10%, and intentional activities are responsible for the remaining 40% (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).”

“Among different facets of personality, extraversion and neuroticism are the ones most consistently and strongly related to happiness […] As expected, both of these traits are highly heritable, rooted in neurobiology, and exhibit little change over the lifespan […] A host of studies show that extraversion predicts positive affect moderately to strongly […], whereas neuroticism is an exceptionally strong predictor of negative affect […] Research has consistently revealed moderate to high correlations between self-esteem and happiness […] the direction of causality between the two constructs is not entirely understood […] When sex differences are observed in studies, it is typically women who report higher happiness levels, yet these differences tend to disappear when other demographic variables are controlled for […] women experience both negative and positive emotions more frequently and more intensely than men.”

“As to the effect of intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) on happiness, it seems to be very weak, if it exists at all. […] All in all, research suggests that money has a positive, yet diminishing, effect on happiness. […] Whereas having money is associated with a positive, albeit diminishing, effect on happiness, wanting money too much has repeatedly been shown to prove toxic to happiness. People who place a lot of importance on money and on material possessions, particularly to the expense of family and social relationships, tend to feel less satisfied with their lives and experience less positive affect and more negative affect […] A number of studies point to a positive yet modest effect of religion on happiness […] It is believed that the beneficial effects of religion on happiness stem largely from the sense of meaning and purpose that religious beliefs provide to the individual, as well as from the social support networks associated with organized religion (e.g., churches). […] people in individualistic cultures tend to base their life satisfaction judgments on personal emotional experiences, whereas people from collectivistic cultures emphasize the appraisals of others […] Whereas associations between objective health and happiness are often weak, research documents that associations between happiness and subjective health—as it is reported by the individual— are consistently strong (Okun, Stock, Haring, & Witter, 1984).”

“Having close friends and a network of social support has a distinct positive effect on happiness, to such a degree that some scholars have suggested that this could be the single most important source of happiness […] those who enjoy close relationships are better at coping with major life stresses such as bereavement, rape, unemployment, and illness (Myers, 1999), and perceived loneliness is robustly linked to depression (Anderson & Arnoult, 1985). It is not to be forgotten, though, that happiness itself may lead to better relationships. […] happy people tend to be more outgoing, empathic, and trusting than unhappy people, presumably resulting in enhanced quantity and quality of social relationships […] Research findings unambiguously illustrate that striving for and making progress toward meaningful, enjoyable, moderately challenging goals is an important source of happiness […] Individuals who have goals that they deem important tend to be more energetic, experience more positive affect, and feel that life is meaningful […] Interestingly, positive affect in itself has been found to predispose people to feel that life is meaningful […] Empirical research regarding the relationship between happiness and marriage in the last few decades has yielded the robust finding that married individuals tend to be happier than unmarried or divorced ones […] We should again be cautioned that the arrow of causality may point both ways: A number of studies have revealed that individuals who are likely to get married and to stay married are happier long before the marriage compared with individuals who remain single (Lucas et al., 2003).”

January 20, 2014 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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