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Personality differences uncovered between students at different US universities

By Christian Jarrett

Psychology is overly dependent on student samples, but on the plus side, you might assume that one advantage of comparing across student samples is that you can rule out the influence of complicating background factors, such as differences in average personality profile. In fact, writing in the Journal of Personality, a team of US researchers led by Katherine Corker at Kenyon College has challenged this assumption: their findings suggest that if you test a group of students at one university, it’s not safe to assume that their average personality profile will match that of a sample of students from a university elsewhere in the same country.

Corker and her colleagues measured the personality of over 8,500 students studying a range of majors (including psychology, business and nutrition) at 30 colleges and universities across 20 different US states. They found some significant differences in average student personality between different sites. The amount of difference that was explained by the site of testing was modest – about 1 to 3 per cent – but Corker and her colleagues said that this “should not be dismissed as necessarily trivial or unimportant”.

Among the site-specific effects, larger universities tended to have more extraverted students; more urban and diverse universities had more open-minded students;  universities requiring letters of recommendation had more agreeable students; public colleges had less agreeable students than private colleges; and more expensive colleges had higher trait Neuroticism. Differences like these could reflect students with particular personality profiles being drawn to particular institutions; selection could be at play, in the sense of university selectors showing a preference for particular personality types; and also students’ personalities could be shaped by the culture of their university.

“All told, these results suggest there is more variability between students at different colleges and universities than some researchers might have expected,” Corker and her team said, though they warned their colleagues not to leap to this finding as an explanation for the replication crisis in psychology (the difficulty labs often have in trying reproduce earlier findings reported by researchers based at another institution), at least not until there is more data and a thorough theory in place to account for the site differences in personality.

It’s a shame the current research didn’t include students studying a more diverse set of subjects, but if anything, this makes it likely the observed between-institution differences are an underestimate. Perhaps for now the lesson to take is that if you’re comparing data from two sets of students at different institutions, it’s unwise to be overconfident about how similar they are likely to be.

College Student Samples Are Not Always Equivalent: The Magnitude of Personality Differences Across Colleges and Universities

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Circle time rituals help children beat the Marshmallow Test of self control

By Christian Jarrett

Sweet, old-fashioned circle time rituals involve young children sitting in a circle with a teacher and copying his or her specific actions as closely as possible. These rituals can seem a bit out of place in today’s culture with its emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, and the ubiquity of interactive educational games employing the latest beeps and whistles of technology. But a new study in Child Development says there is something about the conformity and attention to detail in ritualistic games that makes them a highly effective way to improve children’s executive functioning (their mental nimbleness) and self-control.

Veronica Rybanska at the University of Oxford and her colleagues tested two groups of 7- and 8-year-old children, one from Slovakia, the other from Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. The children first completed tests of their executive functioning and self control. The executive functioning test involved learning to respond accurately to reversed commands, such as touching toes when hearing the command “touch your knees”. The self control test was a version of Walter Mischel’s classic Marshmallow Test: if the children could resist eating a single piece of chocolate for 15 minutes, they could have three afterwards.

Next, for three months, some of the children undertook 35-minutes of circle time games twice per week (others acted as controls and didn’t perform these games). The games involved things like dancing, clapping or learning new traffic light rules, such as stopping for purple rather than red. Crucially, among the children who played the circle time games, half experienced them as rituals. They were told they must follow the actions of the game because “it has always been done this way” or “those are the rules and they must be followed”. The others experienced the games in a more “instrumental” way that emphasised the purpose of the games. For example, they were told “if we do it this way, we will learn how to dance”.

After the three month period, the children took the tests of executive function and self-control again. The children who’d completed the circle time games showed greater improvements in their executive function and self-control than the control group children, but crucially these gains were larger in the children who experienced the circle time games as ritual. Moreover, the superior improvements in self-control in the ritual group seemed to be explained by their greater increase in executive functioning ability. These effects were similar in Slovakia and Vanuatu even though the latter culture places a greater emphasis on rituals.

“Far from being a simple matter of ‘mindless’ copying, ritual participation arguably requires the kind of rigorous computation of arbitrary detail and avoidance of normatively proscribed deviation from the script that engages and exercises our executive functioning abilities,” the researchers said. They admitted to the limitations of their study: for one thing, they didn’t measure the children’s behavior during circle time, so it’s not certain the ritual group children really did pay closer attention to the games. Nonetheless, they said there could be educational implications to their results: “the irony may be that in devising strategies for parenting and schooling geared to a world of rapid technological change while neglecting the importance of traditional cultural practices, we may be contributing to a deterioration of young people’s attentive and inhibitive resources, thus promoting impulses toward instant gratification”.

Rituals Improve Children’s Ability to Delay Gratification

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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