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Do Parents Make a Difference? A Public Debate in London

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On Monday in London’s Emmanuel Centre a debate took place that pitted two Quillette contributors—Robert Plomin and Stuart Ritchie—against two “experts” on child psychology—Susan Pawlby and Ann Pleshette Murphy. The motion was “Parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think)” and we knew from the outset where people stood thanks to the format adopted by Intelligence Squared, the company that organized the debate. The ushers asked people to vote for or against the motion on their way in and then again at the end, the idea being that the “winners” would be the side that persuaded the most people to change their minds rather than the side that got the most votes. Which was just as well for Plomin and Ritchie since only 17 percent agreed with them at the beginning of the evening, with 66 percent against and 17 percent saying “Don’t Know.” Would they be able to level that up a bit over the course of the next 90 minutes?

Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, went first, summarizing the evidence from twin and adoption studies—his area of expertise, having designed and overseen many of those studies himself. Using slides, which is unusual in a public debate, he drew the audience’s attention to two key findings that have emerged from this research—that siblings raised together are as different from each other as siblings raised apart, and identical twins raised separately are as similar to each other as identical twins brought up in the same home. In short, genetic differences between people influence how different they are from one another, but parenting seems to have little effect.

Plomin made it clear he wasn’t claiming genetic differences accounted for all the differences in how children turn out. He estimated that genes explain about half the variance when it comes to the Big Five personality traits, with the environment accounting for the other half. However, that doesn’t mean nurture is as important as nature. The salient environmental inputs are not those things we normally think of as “nurture,” such as parents and schools. Rather, what matters, according to Plomin, are random, serendipitous events—what he refers to as the “non-shared” environment and which are, by definition, non-systematic.

Robert Plomin is a professor of behavioral genetics. Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared

Quoting from Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, his recently-published book, Plomin said: “Parenting matters, but it doesn’t make a difference.” He acknowledged that this left him feeling slightly ambivalent about the motion—”Parenting doesn’t matter”—and was at pains to make clear that he wasn’t providing deadbeat dads with a license to goof off. Parenting matters in the sense that how parents behave affects their children’s well-being in the moment, if not over the course of their lifetimes, and we have a duty to look after our children and make sure they’re happy, at least while they’re under our care. It also matters in the sense that it affects what will be among the most important relationships of our lives. Finally, he acknowledged that parents have an important role to play in helping children discover and cultivate those talents that they’ve been genetically endowed with.

But parenting doesn’t affect how children will turn out when it comes to key psychological traits like conscientiousness—the ones correlated with important life outcomes, such as educational attainment and socio-economic status. If we think helicopter parenting will boost our children’s IQ or increase their chances of getting into Harvard, we’re kidding ourselves. So parenting matters, but not in the way that overanxious, middle-class parents imagine, according to Plomin. However, he did add one important caveat: Terrible parents—those guilty of extreme neglect or abuse—can have a long term, negative impact on their children.

Next up was Susan Pawlby, a development psychologist with a background in research as well as clinical practice. She began by citing a number of studies showing that the experiences of pregnant women can have an effect on their children’s personalities. For instance, high levels of stress in expectant mothers is correlated with higher levels of cortisol in their blood, as well as their amniotic fluid. That, in turn, she said, can affect a prenatal baby’s brain and lead to problems later on, like developmental delay. Another example she gave was the Dutch famine of 1944–45, which had created a natural experiment, enabling researchers to measure the effects of maternal undernutrition on the life course of the offspring who’d experienced the famine in utero. The IQ of this cohort, many of whom are still alive, hasn’t been affected, but they are more prone to obesity, schizophrenia and anti-social behavior.

Pawlby also brought up epigenetics and claimed that some environmental inputs affect gene expression, such as breast feeding. She didn’t spell out how this undermined Plomin’s argument, exactly, but perhaps what she meant was that some of the findings from twin and adoption studies might be confounded by epigenetics. For instance, it could be that some of the genetic variance that Plomin and others have linked to phenotypic variance could have been influenced by environmental differences that triggered epigenetic effects.

Pawlby closed by entreating everyone in the audience to ask themselves one question: “Have your parents made a difference to who you are?” If the answer was “yes,” you had to vote against the motion.

The next speaker was Stuart Ritchie, a lecturer in the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, and the author of Intelligence: All That Matters. He queried whether the research studies cited by Pawlby constituted evidence that parenting matters since they all concerned environmental effects on prenatal babies. Does the behavior of pregnant women come under the heading of “parenting”? It would be particularly odd to describe the undernutrition of expectant mothers during the Dutch famine as a form of parenting.

However, he allowed that there was plenty of research that appeared to show parenting did have an impact on important life outcomes and, as an example, cited a recent paper that had been covered in the Guardian under the following headline: “Growing up in a house full of books is major boost to literacy and numeracy, study finds.” Looking at a sample of more than 160,000 adults from 31 different countries, the authors of that study found that subjects who’d grown up in homes containing a large number of books performed better in literacy and numeracy tests than those brought up in homes with almost no books.

Stuart Richie and moderator Xand van Tulleken. Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared

Unfortunately, Ritchie explained, this research tells us very little about the underlying reason for this correlation because the authors hadn’t made any attempt to control for genetic similarities between the children in the study and their parents, which could be confounding the results. After all, it’s probable that parents who have a large number of books in their home have above average levels of literacy and numeracy themselves, so it’s not surprising if their children turn out to score well in literacy and numeracy tests too, given that those traits are at least 50 percent heritable. He had looked at the paper and typed in Ctrl + T “genetics” but there was no mention of the word. That is a flaw in nearly all the research purporting to show a link between various outcomes and a person’s childhood home environment, he said, and then rattled off a list of parenting fads that some of these studies have given rise to, from “Baby Mozart” to “orgasmic childbirth.” (I made the same point in the Spectator recently about a study claiming to show that helicopter parenting had a negative effect on children’s ability to self-regulate.)

Ritchie also gave short shrift to epigenetics. The research showing large epigenetic effects in humans, particularly that relating to transgenerational inheritance, is pretty sketchy and more work needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn. (There’s a Twitter account called @EpigeneticsBs that monitors some of the more outlandish claims made on behalf of epigenetics.)

In general, he said, the behavioral genetics studies showing that parenting effects are small are based on large samples, have been replicated numerous times and are being corroborated by work being done in molecular genetics. The parenting studies in developmental psychology, by contrast, are, for the most part, based on small samples, confounded by genetics and have proved hard to replicate—although he did say there are some exceptions to this rule, and singled out this study showing that early interventions can have a positive effect on conduct disorder. I daresay Ritchie will expand on this survey of the literature in in his forthcoming book about the replication crisis in psychology.

It was left to Ann Pleshette Murphy, the former parenting correspondent of ‘Good Morning America,’ to fight back. She had prepared a case against what she called Plomin’s “genetic determinism,” so began by expressing her disappointment that he’d taken up a more moderate position on this occasion, allowing that environmental inputs could have some effect. The man before us tonight, she said, was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She then delivered the speech she’d written in advance, focusing on Plomin’s use of the word “blueprint” in his book title. According to her, that implies our genes provide a rigid schematic that dictates how we turn out, when they’re only responsible for half the variance in individual differences. “DNA may provide a blueprint, but it’s love that builds the house,” she said.

Former ‘Good Morning America’ parenting correspondent Ann Pleshette Murphy speaks. Tim Bowditch/ Intelligence Squared

Listening to Murphy, I didn’t think her criticism of Plomin was fair. While the title of his book is a bit misleading, he makes it clear throughout that he’s not a genetic determinist, a point I stressed in my last article for Quillette. He didn’t make any concessions to environmentalists in his speech that he hadn’t made in Blueprint. His hypothesis is not that we are entirely determined by our DNA, but that DNA is the most important systematic force on how we turn out because the salient environmental inputs are almost entirely non-systematic. Interestingly, this is a point of slight disagreement between Plomin and Ritchie. Ritchie recently published a paper with Elliot Tucker-Drob that analyzed 42 data sets involving over 600,000 participants and concluded that school attendance does boost IQ. According to them, each additional year a child spends in school raises their IQ by between one and five points. Plomin isn’t completely dogmatic about this—he says in Blueprint that the shared environment is responsible for a modest amount of the variance in key psychological traits—but Ritchie certainly seems a bit less hereditarian. Had I been arguing against the motion, I would have brought up Ritchie’s most recent paper and asked him whether the surprisingly large effect size he and Tucker-Drob had discovered for years of education had made him reconsider his dismissal of parenting effects.

One of the weaknesses of Pawlby and Murphy’s case is that they didn’t have a convincing story to tell about why parenting effects don’t show up in twin and adoption studies if, as they were claiming, parents play such a critical role in influencing how children turn out. Murphy actually said, “What we do as parents makes a huge difference,” which begs the question. In fairness, she did take a stab at explaining why siblings brought up together are as dissimilar as those raised separately, saying it was because parents treat each of their children differently. She pointed out that they tend to be much more anxious about their first born, fussing about their exposure to germs and so forth, than they are about their younger siblings.

But that wasn’t very convincing. There isn’t much evidence that birth order has an effect on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination (see here), and you’d expect the dissimilarities in how the same parents treat their different children to be smaller than the dissimilarities between the parenting styles of two completely different sets of parents—and if parenting “makes a huge difference” for that discrepancy to show up in adoption studies. But it doesn’t.

The debate was well-chaired by Xand van Tulleken, a doctor and broadcaster who has an identical twin brother named Chris, and, after he’d taken plenty of questions and done his best to sum up, the audience was asked to vote again. As expected, a majority still disagreed with the motion, but Plomin and Ritchie had succeeded in persuading some people to change their minds. The number against the motion declined from 66 percent to 51 percent, while those in favor increased from 17 percent to 29 percent, with 20 percent saying “Don’t Know.” That made Plomin and Ritchie the winners.

Photos courtesy of Tim Bowditch/Intelligence Squared.


Toby Young is an associate editor of Quillette.

The post Do Parents Make a Difference? A Public Debate in London appeared first on Quillette.

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Maria Herminia Tavares de Almeida: Na encruzilhada

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- Folha de S. Paulo

Não se pode subestimar a erosão da democracia que um governo pode promover

Cientistas políticos chamam de "encruzilhadas críticas" as situações nas quais, em contexto de incerteza, a decisão de protagonistas relevantes define um caminho sem volta, em prejuízo de outros possíveis: uma vez tomado, o caminho limita, por um bom tempo, os passos possíveis dali em diante. Estamos em um desses momentos, e os protagonistas que farão essa escolha crucial são os milhões de eleitores brasileiros.

Por isso, é apropriado especular sobre o rumo que o país poderá tomar, caso se confirme o resultado que as pesquisas de opinião indicam. Ao fazê-lo, porém, toda cautela é pouca: analistas da sociedade e do comportamento humano são treinados para explicar o passado e não dispõem de instrumentos afiados para falar do futuro com segurança.

Colegas cuja integridade pessoal e competência profissional merecem respeito sustentam que a democracia não corre risco, mesmo que vença o candidato de extrema direita. Argumentam que não basta olhar para o discurso e o compromisso dos candidatos com os princípios democráticos; é preciso também levar em conta os antídotos institucionais contra possíveis tendências autoritárias.

Nessa ordem de ideias, supor que a eleição de políticos indiferentes ou avessos aos valores democráticos colocaria em xeque o regime de liberdades equivaleria a ignorar os freios que as instituições são capazes de impor à conduta dos políticos.

A tese aqui é forte: as regras que limitam a vontade dos governantes acabarão por forçá-los à moderação. O raciocínio que vale para os deputados seguidores de Bolsonaro —que estão longe de ser hegemônicos no Legislativo— é mais discutível para um Bolsonaro presidente.

O chefe de governo que for eleito no domingo (28) enfrentará enormes desafios, dois deles prementes para libertar o país da crise econômica e política: alguma reforma fiscal que tire a economia do sufoco e permita crescimento; e a pacificação política, a fim de reduzir a polarização que dilacera a sociedade, ao estimular a incivilidade e a violência.

As mudanças necessárias, no primeiro caso, demandam um presidente com capacidade e disposição de coordenar sua base parlamentar --condição indispensável para o bom funcionamento do presidencialismo de coalizão.

As urnas geraram um Congresso fragmentado como nunca, com pouquíssimas lideranças experientes. O partido do candidato favorito é excepcionalmente diminuto, e as pequenas agremiações de direita e de centro não haverão de engrossar a base governista por mera atração gravitacional. Fazê-los atuar a favor de uma agenda de reformas, qualquer que seja, exigirá do presidente muita capacidade de negociação, muita flexibilidade para ouvir, convencer, acomodar interesses e ceder. Isso pressupõe que o presidente tenha tino político e inclinação para o diálogo, qualidades que Fernando Henrique e Lula possuíam de sobra, faltavam a Collor e Dilma e não caracterizam o candidato da extrema direita.

Ele tampouco parece ter vocação ou vontade de pacificação política. Seu histórico de destempero, insultos e intimidação nem de longe o qualifica para a tarefa.

Suas declarações durante a campanha eleitoral --veja-se a mensagem em vídeo aos apoiadores que se manifestavam em São Paulo, no último domingo, na qual ameaça banir os opositores e mandar Fernando Haddad para a prisão-- vêm incentivando a virulência de seus apoiadores mais ferozes nas redes sociais, quando não na vida real. Ao declarar que não tem responsabilidade nem controle sobre o que fazem em seu nome, o candidato lhes dá carta-branca.

O Brasil tem o perverso privilégio de integrar a liga das sociedades mais violentas do mundo. Nas periferias urbanas, nos fundões do país profundo, nas fronteiras onde o agronegócio investe contra as populações indígenas, nos pontos de passagem do comércio controlado pelo crime organizado —enfim, quase por toda parte—, a violência corre solta, mesmo quando a lei a proíbe e seus agentes querem coibi-la. Imagine-se quando os que a praticam se sentirem autorizados por um presidente que durante a campanha eleitoral a enalteceu ao tempo em que encoraja implicitamente a brutalidade dos seus seguidores.

O Brasil da Constituição de 1988 construiu fortes instituições de controle dos governantes e de defesa da liberdade dos cidadãos. A maioria no país é também moderada e não apoia a agenda de extrema direita. Mas não se pode subestimar a erosão da democracia que um governo desdenhoso de seus valores e regras pode promover.

Basta olhar para a Venezuela, a Polônia, a Hungria, as Filipinas. Aqui, os presidentes têm a sua disposição muitos recursos de poder. Gostaria de estar errada, mas prefiro não pagar para ver. Na disputa que chegará ao fim no domingo quem quer que tema a degradação da democracia entre nós só tem uma escolha.
Maria Herminia Tavares de Almeida, Professora titular aposentada de Ciência Política da USP e pesquisadora do Cebrap (Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento)
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48 days ago
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Regra sobre prisão deve opor Bolsonaro ao STF

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Aliados de Jair Bolsonaro avaliam que, eleito, o presidenciável do PSL terá atritos incontornáveis com o Supremo Tribunal Federal. Estimam que a primeira fricção ocorrerá no início de 2019, quando o presidente da Corte, Dias Toffili, pautar o julgamento das ações sobre a prisão de condenados na segunda instância. O pano de fundo do debate é o encarceramento de Lula.

O líder máximo do PT está na cadeia desde 7 de abril porque o Supremo negou-lhe um habeas corpus por 6 votos a 5. Graças a um decisivo voto da ministra Rosa Weber, prevaleceu a jurisprudência que tornou válida a prisão de condenados em segunda instância. No último domingo, Bolsonaro declarou que, se depender de sua hipotética Presidência, Lula “vai apodrecer na cadeia”.

Para modificar a regra sobre prisão, o caminho jurídico não é o pedido individual de liberdade, mas a ação declaratória de constitucionalidade (ADC). Há duas no Supremo, uma do PCdoB e outra da OAB. Relator, o ministro Marco Aurélio Mello pediu, em dezembro do ano passado, que fossem incluídas na pauta. Mas sua colega Cármen Lúcia manteve a gaveta fechada.

Substituto de Cármen Lúcia na presidência do Supremo, Dias Toffoli já avisou que abrirá a gaveta no ano que vem. A defesa de Lula acredita que a polêmica será pacificada, pois o Supremo julgará dessa vez as ações que questionam a prisão em segunda instância em termos abstratos, não no caso concreto do prisioneiro de Curitiba.

Os advogados imaginam que o voto de Rosa Weber será diferente. Alega-se que, ao negar o habeas corpus a Lula, a ministra ressalvou sua posição conceitual contrária à antecipação da prisão. Esclareceu que negou o pedido de Lula em respeito à decisão colegiada do Supremo, que havia alterado sua jurisprudência sobre a matéria em 2016.

Se os advogados estiverem certos, voltará a vigorar a regra que permite aos condenados recorrer em liberdade até os tribunais superiores de Brasília. Nessa hipótese, Lula ganharia o meio-fio. Se estiver na Presidência da República, Bolsonaro, que já sinalizou a intenção de promover Sergio Moro de juiz da Lava Jato a ministro do STF, não ficará em silêncio, preveem seus aliados.

Pesquisa do Datafolha divulgada em 2 de outubro revelou que a maioria dos eleitores (51%) acredita que Lula, condenado por corrupção e lavagem de dinheiro, deve continuar preso. Outros 8% defendem sua transferência para a prisão domiciliar. Quer dizer: elegendo-se, Bolsonaro confrontará o Supremo escorando-se no pedaço da opinião pública que o chama de “mito”.

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48 days ago
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Inherited Trauma Shapes Your Health

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Often, when I complain to my therapist about how stressed out I am by a problem I’m having, she says a variation on the same thing:

“Well, like all Ashkenazi Jews, you have a lot of intergenerational trauma. You know, because of everything that’s ... happened.”

Of course you’re anxious, she seems to say, you’re Jewish! I think it’s meant to help me feel more at peace with my emotions, but, I must admit, I find this response deeply unsatisfying.

I am, of course, grateful that my life is easier than the lives of my relatives—Jewish and otherwise—who survived World War II. At the same time, I can’t do anything about the fact that the Holocaust happened, so I don’t want to spend time thinking about its effects on my cortisol levels. I can, however, write the perfect email to get myself out of a scrape, or find a way to stop thinking about why I didn’t get some plaudit or another.

“The Jews have nothing to do with it!” I always want to say in response, as though I’m debunking some George Soros–related conspiracy.

But a growing body of evidence suggests my therapist might be right, and I’m wrong.

The most recent chapter is a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research. They found that the sons of Union Army soldiers who endured grueling conditions as prisoners of war were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not prisoners. This is despite the fact that the sons were born after the war, so they couldn’t have experienced its horrors personally. In other words, it seemed like the stresses of war were getting passed down between generations.

[Read: Can a parent’s life experience change the genes a child inherits?]

The effects on longevity showed up for the sons of men who were imprisoned in 1863 and 1864, when conditions in POW camps were especially bad. Crowding was extreme—each man was said to have had a grave’s worth of square footage to himself—and deaths from diarrhea and scurvy were common.

Because the study authors controlled for other factors that might have influenced the sons’ longevity, like socioeconomic status and the quality of the parents’ marriages, they believe this effect on mortality is working through epigenetics, or the process by which genes are switched on and off. These epigenetic changes are inherited by later generations, setting diseases in motion.

“It’s either the stress of war or the malnutrition of war or both,” said Randy L. Jirtle, an epigenetics researcher at North Carolina State University who was not involved in the study. “The stress on the system moves the machinery to put down or not put down epigenetic markers.”

Jirtle explains the epigenome as a type of software that runs on the computer-like cell. The epigenome can affect lots of different cells, just like a software program can be run on many different computers. He thinks this study might help explain why states in the southern United States—which had more severe food shortages during and after the Civil War—have worse health outcomes today.

Epigenetic links have also been established in animal studies. For example, mice who have been taught to fear the smell of cherries when it was paired with an electric shock had children and grandchildren who also showed signs of anxiety when exposed to the odor, even though they had never “learned” the painful association.

Other research in humans has suggested there’s something beyond our genes and environment that’s affecting our health, but the Civil War study is one of the first to study the effects of war specifically. The “Hunger Winter” studies in the Netherlands in 1944 showed that people conceived during a particularly brutal winter famine, when adults were eating 400 to 800 calories per day, were more likely to have heart disease as adults compared to those who were in the womb during more prosperous times. Perhaps more surprisingly, the children of men who endured the famine while in the womb were more likely to be obese.

A 2014 study showed that sons (but not daughters) of fathers who began smoking before the age of 11, when they began to produce sperm, were fatter than those whose fathers started smoking later, after their sperm had already formed. Stress from racism might cause similar epigenetic changes: People who have experienced racial discrimination have more of a type of epigenetic change called methylation on the genes that affect schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and asthma.

[Read: Being black in America can be hazardous to your health.]

In 2016, Rachel Yehuda, of Mount Sinai hospital, and her colleagues found that Holocaust survivors and their children both had evidence of methylation on a region of a gene associated with stress, suggesting that the survivors’ trauma was passed onto their offspring. The paper was criticized for, among other things, having a small sample size and for not looking at the third and fourth generations of descendants of the Holocaust survivors.

The current Civil War paper overcomes some of these drawbacks, since it looked at thousands of veterans and their children. But the study looked only at the statistics, not at the genes themselves, so the idea that the connection is epigenetic is more like conjecture, or a process of elimination. The authors would have to follow the sample through further generations to know for sure.

And those are only some of the uncertainties when it comes to epigenetics. We don’t yet know, for example, which genes to look at for epigenetic changes. Or how epigenetic markers might survive the powerwash-like fertilization process. Confusingly, some studies find that stressful times our grandparents experienced might actually be beneficial for future generations. One study found that people who were undernourished at age 9 had grandchildren with better mental health. Studies performed on a series of poor 19th-century harvests in Överkalix, Sweden, found that grandsons of grandfathers who had bountiful harvests during childhood actually died younger than expected, but granddaughters of women who were in the womb during a famine were also at a higher risk of death at a young age.

Lars Olov Bygren, the author of the Överkalix studies, told me this could be because it’s beneficial for our grandparents to have plenty of food before age 10, but after that age something switches, and it’s in the best interest of our own longevity for them to be slightly under-nourished. Jirtle, meanwhile, says that the contradictory findings show up because while too little food is bad, so is too much food. Ideally, our grandparents should be stressed just enough, but not too much.

In another twist, the Civil War paper shows that the sons could be protected from their fathers’ trauma if their mothers had good nutrition while they were pregnant, which is something that’s consistent with epigenetic research.

“By no means is it saying that whenever there’s trauma, that means it’s going to be transmitted,” Dora Costa, the lead author of the Civil War study and an economist at UCLA, told me. “The epigenetic story is optimistic because it allows for the possibility of reversibility through maternal nutrition.”

Jirtle, for example, has found that dietary supplements fed to a mother mouse were able to protect baby mice from exposure to a chemical called BPA. “As Hippocrates basically stated two millennia ago, food is medicine,” Jirtle told me.

I asked Jirtle if there’s anything we can do, short of demanding to see our mothers’ food diaries during pregnancy, to try to erase some of our ancestors’ traumas. Jirtle says we still need more research to figure out such answers. But he pointed out that in Costa’s study and in some others, the blow to longevity only held true for the sons of POWs, not daughters. Costa believes the epigenetics are being transmitted through the Y chromosome only.

Because of that, Jirtle suggested I might be “home free.”

Just not if you ask my therapist.

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54 days ago
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Most of us have some insight into our personality traits, but how self-aware are we in the moment?

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Screenshot 2018-10-01 13.07.33.png
Correlations between momentary self-views and observed behaviour, from Sun and Vazire, 2018.

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.

It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).

In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.

The study, provisionally titled “Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment?” had two main components. First, 434 Washington University of St. Louis students were texted four times a day for 15 days and asked to rate themselves on four of the Big Five personality characteristics based on how they had felt and behaved during the previous hour: Extraversion, Agreeableness (only “if they reported that they were around others during the target hour”), Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. Of these 434 participants, 311 also wore a recording device paired with an iPod touch that recorded for 30 seconds every nine and a half minutes from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, generating a huge amount of audio data. (Before researchers had full access to the recordings, students were allowed to listen to them and erase anything they didn’t want the researchers to hear, but only 99 files were deleted from a cache that became “152,592 usable recordings from 304 participants.”)

Second, a veritable small army of research assistants – more than a hundred – listened to the recordings and rated the speakers on the same four personality states they had previously rated themselves on. For a subset of the study participants, then, researchers had three useful pieces of information: recordings of them going about their lives, participants’ rating of their own personality states during those periods, and outside observers’ rating of those same states. This allowed the researchers to measure the extent to which self-ratings correlated with other-ratings – that is, did Tom’s view that he was quite extroverted during a given hour match up with how others who heard him on audio interpreted his behaviour during snippets of that period?

And measure they did, generating a pretty cool series of graphs (see above). The more acute the positive, upward slope, the more there was agreement between self- and other-ratings. So as you can see, Extraversion was, by a significant margin, the personality characteristic for which people seemed to have the most accurate self-knowledge. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. For one thing, while intuition isn’t always an accurate guide on such matters, common sense would suggest that people are well aware of the extent to which they are actively and enthusiastically engaging in social activity, and that we’re all pretty good at judging others’ level of extraversion as well. Second, the authors note that this finding is “consistent with a large body of literature demonstrating high self-observer agreement on trait extraversion across a wide range of conditions.” The state with second-highest subject-observer agreement, as the graph shows, was Conscientiousness (again, perhaps because in-the-moment conscientious behaviour is pretty easy for both the self and others to discern).

What about the two other personality states, where there was significantly less subject-observer agreement? The tricky part about interpreting these findings, as the authors point out, is that there are two possible explanations: the first is that the subject really does lack insight into their temporary psychological states and that the external observers’ observations accurately captured this; and the second is that the observer was wrong because they only had access to a limited slice of audio that simply might not be enough to accurately gauge the subject’s state at that moment (remember, the raters had no visual information to go on – no body language, facial expressions, or anything else). 

So when it comes to Agreeableness and that rather flat line – meaning little agreement between subjects and observers – the authors argue that “it is plausible that people have less self-insight into their momentary agreeableness,” because Agreeableness has so much more to do with external, observable behaviours, and with other people’s perceptions of your warmth, than with internal “thoughts and feelings” (meaning that other people might naturally be better judges of this personality state). Neuroticism, on the other hand, is different – it’s a state much more characterised by internal feelings than by outward behaviour. So in that case, Sun and Vazire argue that their findings alone shouldn’t be seen as supporting the idea that people are bad at self-rating their present level of Neuroticism – rather, it’s more likely the audio just didn’t give the observers enough to go on.

As is probably clear, this is a complicated topic, and it seems likely that people are much better at understanding their present personality states in some ways than others. Sun and Vazire’s study was quite ambitious, and it offers a useful path forward for researchers hoping to learn more about an important issue. In the meantime, their general takeaway? “Our findings show that we can probably trust what people say about their momentary levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and likely neuroticism. However, our findings also call into question people’s awareness of when they are being considerate versus rude.” Useful information – and probably not a surprise to anyone who has dealt with a bullying coworker who doesn’t seem to understand the impression he’s making on his colleagues.

Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment? [This paper is a preprint and the final peer-reviewed version may differ from the version that this report was based on]

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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