Engagement and Self-Control: Superordinate dimensions of Big Five traits
Kenneth R Olson; May 2005
Personality and Individual Differences
Two separate factor analyses of Big Five traits have independently identified two higher-order factors. These factors have been interpreted quite differently by their respective researchers. This conceptual paper posits the superordinate personality dimensions of Engagement (engaged versus disengaged) and Self-Control as the common elements of these higher-order factors. A review and integration of existing research shows that Engagement traits decline and Self-Control traits increase during adulthood. The Big Five traits of the Engagement dimension are each empirically related to positive affect, academic engagement in the form of classroom participation, benefiting from major life challenges, sensation seeking, and the construct of inspiration. Self-Control traits are negatively related to variables such as problematic work-related behaviors and job performance, personality disorders, negative affect, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
The Engagement dimension (engaged versus disengaged) reflects the degree of individuals' social and experiential engagement. This dimension encompasses Digman's (1997) Beta (personal growth) factor and Carroll's (2002) SF1 (General Social Competence). Based on the Big Five domains loading on Digman's Beta factor and the traits comprising Carroll's SF1, Engagement encompasses positive affective states, openness to a variety of novel and imaginative experiences, and social and interpersonal involvement. It entails active and enthusiastic participation in life activities. In relation to Big Five traits, Engagement entails gregariousness and social assertiveness, vigorous activity, and positive affect (Extraversion) and pursuit of novel intellectual, emotional, behavioral, and aesthetic experiences (Openness to Experience). Openness is highly correlated with a factor labeled Intellectual Engagement (r = .69) which measures individuals' desire to engage and understand their world, and breadth of interest (Goff & Ackerman, 1992).
The Engagement dimension incorporates both vigorous social engagement (Extraversion) and experiential engagement (Openness to Experience). Thus, Engagement encompasses the ‘‘venture-some encounter with life’’ that characterizes Digman's Beta factor, and the social and intellectual engagement evident in Carroll's SF1. In broad terms, it reflects the extent to which individuals actively engage their inner and outer worlds.
Individuals who exhibit high levels of engagement are likely to demonstrate intense and vital involvement in activities. Kytle (2000) described the experience of engagement as involving deep commitment and purposive attention and as being accompanied by elevated mood. He suggested that high levels of engagement are akin to the psychological characteristics associated with optimal states such as Maslow's (1968) peak experiences and self-actualization, Csikszenthmihalyi's (1991) concept of flow, ‘‘the process of total involvement with life,’’ and Langer's (1989) dimension of mindfulness, which involves cognitive engagement. Engagement in events is empirically associated with feelings of commitment (Britt, 1999). Engagement in the classroom is related to the traits of the Engagement dimension. Using a criterion of academic performance that assesses active classroom engagement––classroom participation grades among masters of business administration students––Rothstein, Paunonen, Rush, and King (1994) found significant positive correlations for Extraversion and Openness to Experience.
At the other end of the engaged–disengaged continuum, disengagement is characterized by detachment, disinterest, apathy, low involvement, and a non-participatory orientation to life activities. Thus, for example, a dynamic and charismatic individual would likely be high on Engagement traits whereas an apathetic and passive person would tend to be very low. Natural selection likely equipped humans with traits that optimized their ability to adapt to their environments. If it is indeed a fundamental trait dimension, Engagement would be expected to have significant adaptive benefits. An individual must engage the environment in order to obtain resources for nourishment, shelter, and growth. Engagement would likely increase the chances that the individual would explore and pursue desirable incentives and goals so as to foster evolutionary tasks such as survival and reproduction. Humans have evolved increasingly complex and sophisticated forms of engagement with their environment. However, extreme, constant, or unmitigated engagement may be counterproductive. Therefore, at the other end of this trait continuum, there should also be advantages to disengagement in particular circumstances and environments. Disengagement from goals and incentives has adaptive benefits (Klinger, 1975). For example, Gibson and Sanbonmatsu (2004) found that optimists more so than pessimists maintain positive expectations and continue gambling after negative gaming outcomes. These researchers suggested there are common situations in which the pessimistic tendency to disengage is beneficial.
Self-Control is the underlying variable that is common to Digman's (1997) Alpha (socialization) factor and Carroll's (2002) SF2. In terms of these higher-order factors, the Self-Control dimension is positively associated with caution, control, and inhibition of antisocial behavior and negatively associated with negative affective states. Self-Control incorporates the impulse restraint and inhibition of aggression of Digman's Alpha (socialization) factor and the self-restraint, carefulness,
and inhibition of antisocial behaviors that are characteristic of the traits loading on Carroll's SF2. With regard to Big Five traits, Self-Control entails restraint of (a) hostile, uncooperative behaviors (Agreeableness); (b) irresponsible, lackadaisical behaviors (Conscientiousness); and (c) negative, distressing emotions (Emotional Stability). Thus this superordinate trait dimension reflects interpersonal self-control (Agreeableness), emotional self-control (Emotional Stability), and task-oriented self-control (Conscientiousness). The idea that Self-Control warrants consideration as a fundamental trait dimension is consistent with the suggestion that self-regulation is a core feature of the self and is vitally important for achieving success and happiness in life; deficiencies in self-control have been linked to a wide spectrum of personal and social problems including addiction, abuse, crime, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, academic failure, bankruptcy, and obesity (Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001). Regarding the Big Five traits that comprise Self-Control, the notion of emotional control is inherent in the domain of Emotional Stability (versus Neuroticism) which reflects control of distressing emotions. With regard to Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, Ahadi and Rothbart (1994) suggested a developmental connection between these two trait domains and early appearing processes of self-regulation, termed Effortful Control (EC). EC processes that provide the developmental foundation for Agreeableness and Conscientiousness involve self-regulation of frustration. During the course of development, the EC system is posited to differentiate into two separate systems that deal with the frustration coming from people (Agreeableness) and the frustration coming from tasks (Conscientiousness; Jensen-Campbell et al., 2002). Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are empirically related to self-regulatory behaviors as measured by neuropsychological tests and are predictive of healthy EC processes (Jensen-Campbell et al., 2002). Piedmont (1998) described trait Conscientiousness as reflecting the degree of individuals' personal control. Conscientiousness is inversely related to imprudent behaviors (e.g.., school truancy, drug and alcohol use, involvement in accidents) and self-reported criminal intent (O Gorman & Baxter, 2002). Thus, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness appear to be related to self-control and self-regulation both theoretically and empirically.
Why are Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability the fundamental traits related to self-control? One answer may be that these three traits encompass self-control of critically important areas of human functioning. Agreeableness and Conscientiousness refer to actions in the external world, with Agreeableness related to self-control in the personal domain of interpersonal relations and Conscientiousness related to self-control of task-oriented behavior. Emotional Stability relates to self-control of the internal world of affective experience in regard to emotional distress.
From an evolutionary perspective, there are numerous benefits to self-control. Survival is enhanced by control of potentially rash and hasty actions and by thorough consideration of consequences. Inhibition of impulsive responses may help avoid exposure to predators, enemies, disease, and other dangers. Careful planning and foresight increase the odds of securing necessary resources such as food and shelter. Control of emotional reactions such as rage and hostility facilitates formation of cooperative and strategic alliances and successful pair-bonding. At the other (low) end of the Self-Control continuum, in some circumstances it is also adaptive to be highly sensitive to external threat, imminent danger, and potential loss and to experience the negative emotions that warn of these aversive events. When directly threatened, individuals' survival may be enhanced by immediate action and vigorous fight or flight reactions.
[Engagement and Self-Control = Plasticity and Stability]