What Explains Personality Covariation? A Test of the Socioecological Complexity Hypothesis


Correlations among distinct behaviors are foundational to personality science, but the field remains far from a consensus regarding the causes of such covariation. We advance a novel explanation for personality covariation, which views trait covariance as being shaped within a particular socioecology. We hypothesize that the degree of personality covariation observed within a society will be inversely related to the society’s socioecological complexity, that is, its diversity of social and occupational niches. Using personality survey data from participant samples in 55 nations (N ¼ 17,637), we demonstrate that the Big Five dimensions are more strongly intercorrelated in less complex societies, where the complexity is indexed by nation-level measures of economic development, urbanization, and sectoral diversity. This inverse relationship is robust to control variables accounting for a number of methodological and response biases. Our findings support the socioecological complexity hypothesis and more generally bolster functionalist accounts of trait covariation.

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Copyright © 2017 SAGE Publications, Inc.This article first appeared in Social Psychological and Personality Science 8:8 (2017), 943-952.

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