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A conversation with Anna Baumert

An interview

We recently chatted with Anna Baumert about her article "Integrating personality structure, personality process, and personality development", which is featured as a target article in the special issue of EJP on integration of personality pathology and beyond. Anna is head of the research group "Moral Courage" at the Max Planck Institute for Research on General Goods.

Read more about Anna's view on the article, the current state of the field, and future directions below.

Picture Anna Baumert - kopie.jpg

Q: Hello Anna, can you tell us a bit about your article?

Together with my colleagues Manfred Schmitt and Marco Perugini, we have been discussing how personality psychology could move from a descriptive towards an explanatory science for quite a while now. I have always been particularly interested in patterns of information processing and how they might be causal for interindividual differences in emotion and behavior. When we decided to organize an expert meeting on personality process, structure, and development, in 2015, for me personally, the picture really got completed. During that meeting, with the experts that later co-authored the article in the European Journal of Personality, we debated how interindividual differences in those processes that might serve to explain why people behave differently in concrete situations, could also be involved in the emergence of clusters of correlated behaviors -- that have received broad trait labels -- as well as in development across time.

The process of writing the article was quite adventurous and challenging, I would say. With a group of 19 authors, discussions sometimes became extensive. Also, in the beginning, some colleagues were a bit skeptical about whether the whole endeavor could be successful in the end. But, in hindsight, I have to say that despite difficulties, the joint writing process really pushed everyone to think carefully and to connect ideas in novel ways.

Q: Your article is featured in a special issue of EJP that is about the integration of personality psychology both within the field and in conjunction with other disciplines. Why do you think this is such an important topic?

In our article, we argue that tackling key questions of personality science in isolated ways might lead to limited or even wrong answers. For example, if we investigate psychological processes that cause specific behaviors in isolation from each other, we might miss fundamental mechanisms that could be at work across domains. If we exclusively rely on broad trait labels for prediction of behavior, we cannot understand how the different processes aggregated within those labels transact and give rise to patterns of correlated thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If we treat causes of concrete behaviors in a particular moment and causes of enduring behavioral inclinations in isolation, we forego the opportunity to learn about how those causes are similar or distinct at different time scales. So really, integration within the field of personality psychology is necessary to find comprehensive answers to core questions. Integration across fields, in addition, has the potential to detect similar questions, problems and solutions in related fields. Some of the comments that we received in response to our target article highlighted how similar integrative steps are being taken in research on clinical disorders or animal personality.

Q: We noticed lively discussion regarding your article. Could you describe some particularly interesting reactions to your article?

The comments that we received were very stimulating. It was great fun to have the opportunity to write a response after reading them. The comments challenged us to be even more outspoken about some of the ideas that guided our target article.

Q: Were do you think the field of personality psychology is heading in the next years?

This is a question one should ask personality psychology researchers; I come more from the personnel selection domain. However, if you ask about my five cents, I’d say that especially more dynamic concepts/measures of personality hold a lot of potential to provide new answers to old research questions and to tackle new research questions. As one example, the use of tracking devices opens a lot of possibilities to study group dynamics (e.g., in companies, schools, etc.) and the work-life interface.

There were several comments that stuck to my mind, in particular. For example, one comment pushed our arguments further and challenged whether broad traits could play any causal role at all, either for explaining interindividual differences in concrete behaviors or for explaining behavioral outcomes. This comment really resonated with our main focus on psychological processes and systematic interindividual differences in those processes as causes of behavior.

Several comments made reference to the distinction between patterns of interindividual (i.e., between individuals) covariation and patterns of intraindividual (i.e., within individuals) covariation. This distinction has been discussed in the literature a lot and examples have been stressed for how those patterns can be different. However, in our target article as well as in our rejoinder, we argue that even if patterns of covariation are different, this does not necessarily imply that different causes are at work at the intra- and interindividual levels. In most examples, there seems to be a confound between inter- vs intraindividual associations, and associations across different time scales. One example provided in the comments was the association between positive and negative affect. Studies looking at interindividual associations have sometimes found correlations close to zero, whereas intraindividual associations tend to be negative. However, the former studies deal with the tendency to experience positive affect and the tendency to experience negative affect aggregated across larger time frames. The latter studies, by contrast, look at much shorter time scales and find that in one moment, negative and positive affect usually do not co-occur. We debated this example to highlight that the same causal mechanism can give rise to different patterns of associations at different levels of aggregation across time.

This relates to another comment that resonated with my interest in experimental approaches in personality psychology.  The potential of experimental approaches for understanding personality phenomena should be developed more systematically, I believe. Typically, personality psychologists are used to dealing with correlational designs. One of the comments outlined how experimental designs can serve to observe differential patterns of associations between broader trait measures and behaviors across situations. I agree that investigating systematic interactions between dispositional and situational variables can be particularly revealing with regard to the processes potentially driving behavior. However, I would like to go one step further and directly manipulate the processes of interest in order to establish their causal effects. If this is done at different time scales, it might even serve to identify for what phenomena causal mechanisms differ across time scales and for what phenomena the same mechanisms are at work. Of course, this will be of particular interest for applying effective interventions.

Q: Where do you think the field of personality psychology is heading in the next years?

My impression is that personality psychology already has developed a stronger focus on psychological processes that shape concrete behaviors. It has moved away from the great structural disputes about how many and which dimensions best describe interindividual differences. But research is still heavily relying on measures of broad traits. Those broad trait labels often seem to cover up the most exciting questions regarding more detailed dynamics among different processes, such as cognitive, affective, motivational processes, and overt behavior. In the next years, I think there will be an even stronger emphasis on complex designs and multi-method assessments, that allow observing dynamics and transactions among processes across different situations and time, while connecting assessments at different scales of resolution (e.g., ranging from seconds, to weeks, or years). As one team of commenters stated, personality psychology is getting more complex, more complicate, and more resource intensive – and I agree that this is a great direction to move forward to.

Q: Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers that wish to contribute to the developing field of personality psychology?

This is a tough question. Maybe this rather general one: Apart from all the good advice how to strategically foster one’s career, I think, as a researcher it is also necessary to keep close contact with one’s genuine, intrinsic motivation for understanding the world and human beings in it.

Q: Thank you for chatting with us, Anna!

To read the companion piece of this interview with Filip Lievens, author of the other target article for the special issue of EJP, click here.

Personality traits differ depending on the context in which they are measured

A conversation with Filip Lievens