Could personality be “contagious?”

contagious laughter? (photographer: Paul L Dineen).

by Charlotte Gehrke

The question of where personality traits come from has intrigued scientists across numerous fields resulting in extremely varying responses concerning their origin and manipulability. Are they simply ‘assigned’ in the form of hereditary attributes or are they taught? And if so, by whom? Is it parents, teachers, grandparents, nannies, or friends that shape our personalities? How and why do personalities change? Can personalities even change or are they genetically pre-determined?

A study by psychology researchers at Michigan State University seeks to answer some of these questions suggesting that pre-schoolers’ social interactions with one another shape their personalities.

The study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined two US preschool classes over the course of one school year discovering that the children were assimilating to their playmate’s personalities. The classes were divided by age; one was filled with 3-year-old children, the other one with 4-year-olds. According to an article in MSU Today, this study is the first its kind in terms of the prolonged period of time over which the gradually changing characters of the pre-schoolers were studied.

Dr. Catherine E. Durbin, the study’s co-author and associate professor of psychology at MSU, stated that in the pre-schoolers’ case, instead of “their parents or their teachers affecting them – it was their friends. It turns out that 3- and 4-year-olds are being change agents.” These findings are significant considering the frequent and perhaps partially misguided focus on a child’s adult relations in the form of parents, care givers and teachers when examining early influences on personality traits.

Contrary to expectations, the psychologists observed that positive attributes, such as being extroverted and hard-working, were taken on by the children’s playmates while negative personality traits, such as over-anxiousness or being easily frustrated, were not adopted by other pre-schoolers. This urges considerations regarding the children’s ability to distinguish ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character traits and questions concerning the source of these evaluations, such as instincts or a perception taught by parents and other authoritative figures.

The study also sheds new light on the controversy of ‘nature versus nurture’ since the “finding, that personality traits are ‘contagious’ among children, flies in the face of common assumptions that personality is ingrained and can’t be changed,” as MSU associate professor and co-author of the study, Jennifer R. Watling Neal described. While these results do not entirely discard the impact of genetics on the development of a child’s personality traits, it is a clear argument in favour of the possibility of changes in character and children’s personality being shaped by their social environment.

These findings might cause parents to pay even closer attention to their children’s social network; an attitude that is supported by Dr. Watling Neal appealed to the importance of the study’s discoveries concerning the children’s future considering that “some personality traits can help children succeed in life, while others can hold them back.”

Finally, this all begs the question: how did your pre-school playmates influence you?