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A conversation with Kelci Harris

An interview

Recently, we talked to Kelci Harris, whose article "Why are Extraverts More Satisfied? Personality, Social Experiences, and Subjective Well-Being in College" is featured in EJP's March/April issue. Kelci just received her PhD from Washington University in St. Louis, and is heading to the University of Toronto to begin a post-doc.

 Kelci, pictured here with her office mate, Miles.

Kelci, pictured here with her office mate, Miles.

Q: Hi Kelci! Can you tell us about your recent paper?

It’s a paper looking at the fact that extraverted students, when they come to college, also tend to be happier by the time that they graduate. I had access to two longitudinal datasets; one from Harvard in the 1960s, and one from Stanford from early 2000s. Both studies had measures of extraversion, life happiness, and peer experiences. To see whether or not peer experiences partially explained why extraverts were happier by the time they graduated, I ran a cross-lagged longitudinal mediation analysis. In the first study, which was with the Harvard data, there was no mediation -- so extraverted students in the study had better peer experiences and were happier than less extraverted students, but these peer experiences did not explain why they were happier. In the second study with the Stanford data, we had measures of quantitative (i.e., how many friends students had) and qualitative peer experiences (i.e., how much students felt like they belonged). For quantatitive experiences, there was no mediation of peer experiences. But, the qualitative peer experiences did show mediation. So extraverts were happier, said they had better quality peer experiences, and because of those experiences, were happier. An interesting thing about the Stanford study was that we also had peer reports, and there was no mediation through the peer reports. This suggests that whatever is happening, it is very much happening in people’s heads.

Q: Why do you think there was a difference in the results for the two studies?

I think part of it might be that the measures that we used were not exactly the same. Part of me wonders if different aspects of experiences might be more important for happiness or life satisfaction. I think one thing that I would do differently in a future study is that I would consider different ways in which to examine the quality of experiences and why certain qualities might be more or less important for life satisfaction. I think it would be good to sit down and ask myself, “What do I expect this quality to matter for?”. For example, feeling connected to peers might be particularly important for life satisfaction in college because students often live and work in the same environment.

Q: What inspired you to conduct research on the topic of peer experiences and extraversion?

This paper was actually my first research project in graduate school, and it ended up being drawn out throughout graduate school. As an undergrad, I worked in a lab that studied peer experiences. I joined the lab because I was interested in it and then it really influenced how I thought about things. In my first year, Josh [Jackson] had this Harvard dataset for me to play around with. I noticed that extraverts were happier and I wondered whether that was because they are more sociable, and that became my first year project. Then Sanjay [Srivastava] mentioned the Stanford dataset, and Tammy English gave me access to it. I tried to replicate the Harvard study for my Master’s. After that, it was just writing and revising for the next two years.

Q: What are some research interests that you are currently, or will be exploring?

Right now, I am working on a very similar project, in which we look at the topic from a state perspective. So, how does having good quality interaction with someone affect how happy you are in the moment, and does your level of extraversion moderate that? In general, I think a lot of my interests are in personality and social experiences, because I think they are interesting in their own right. But, I think one way to make them more generally interesting is to see how they affect some outcome. Since a lot of research on relationships is tied to romantic relationships, I think one way to further justify looking beyond romantic relationships is to be like: “[Friendships and peer relationships] are valuable, because they affect things like well-being”. I think I will continue to pursue more stuff like this in the future.

Q: Speaking of the future, what are are you up next?

Research-wise, I am starting a post-doc in August with Liz Page-Gould. I am really excited about that, because she does some research that uses Experience Sampling Methodology. My lab has done this as well, but I haven’t really been central on those projects. So, I am excited to expand my methodological training. She is also studying cross-race interactions. I am really interested in cross-race friendships and how personality might play a role in how cross-race friendships affect well-being. Expanding my interests in a slightly different context is a thing I am really excited for the next few years.

Q: Congratulations on your post-doc! As you make the transition from grad student to PhD, do you have any advice for young researchers?

One thing that really helped me become more comfortable in grad school is realizing that there are a lot of different ways to be good at academia. My supervisor is really good at stats and so is one of my labmates. I am also good at stats, but I don’t love it like they do. At first, I felt like maybe I was doing it wrong, but then I realized that I have my own strengths and I learned to be confident in them. It also helped me to maintain perspective -- I learned to appreciate the things that I am good at and although there are things that I want to be better at, I understand that those things won’t make or break me.

Q: We know you're a big music fan. What bands have you been listening to lately?

Last night I went to see the band Chastity Belt. They’re kind of sad, girly, surf rock. The songs are a little slow in tempo and their albums are a bit cheeky. And, actually, right before this interview I was listening to St. Vincent, who finally released the first track of her new album. I never know what to expect from her, but it's ballad-like, and I really liked it!

Thanks so much for talking with us, Kelci!

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