Honest people may understand us better, KPU psychology researchers find

Wed, Jul 12, 2023

When Travis Takarangi set out to probe perspectives and personalities, he expected to find agreeable people are best at understanding the point of view of others.

His study showed otherwise.

“I was surprised. We found nothing that we were expecting to find,” says Takarangi. “But we found something that we didn’t expect at all.”

Takarangi, a research assistant at the Lifespan Cognition Lab in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s (KPU) psychology department, conducted the study for his honours thesis, laying the groundwork for future graduate studies. In it, he explored links between personality and what psychologists call theory of mind – an important aspect of human cognition that allows people to understand thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of others.

“Impaired theory of mind is something individuals with certain disorders suffer from. For example, autistic individuals usually have significant deficits of theory of mind. So, understanding the relationships between theory of mind and personality gives us more insight, and can be used to develop treatments aimed at modifying certain personality traits and behaviours,” says Takarangi.

What Takarangi found was individuals ranking high in “honesty-humility” – a personality trait of being fair and genuine – were better at understanding others’ perspectives than individuals with the personality trait of “agreeableness” – those who put needs of others before their own.

The finding is discussed in an unpublished study co-authored by KPU psychology instructor and Lifespan Cognition Lab director Dr. Daniel Bernstein and Simon Fraser University PhD candidate and KPU graduate Daniel Derksen. Honesty-humility correlates positively with theory of mind was presented at the 24th annual Northwest Cognition and Memory Conference, held at KPU Richmond this spring.

The researchers’ first study involved 264 people, including KPU students and participants from the wider community. Participants completed various tasks, including the “strange stories” task, which asked them to read stories designed to assess their understanding of non-literal speech. 

Researchers discovered that people higher in the personality trait of “honesty-humility” performed significantly better, suggesting such personalities may aid in interpreting figurative speech.

“It was a fairly significant result. Before we could trust this unexpected result, we needed to replicate it. So, we ran essentially the same study again,” says Takarangi.

The research team rounded up a new group of participants – this time 193 people – for a follow-up study. The result was the same.

But why?

“Maybe individuals higher in honesty-humility are just more outwardly focused on others, less focused on themselves, more humble, and therefore able to do better on these tasks where they’re having to interpret others’ mental states,” says Takarangi.

Dr. Bernstein cautions they only found a correlation, making it possible that – instead of personality leading the way – being better at theory of mind makes a person more honest or humble. But that, he says, is less likely to be the case. He also notes literature demonstrates people can improve at theory of mind, but there’s less research showing personality traits can be modified.

“We don’t have a good answer unfortunately. Maybe all we can hope for from this work is better understanding of those kinds of personality traits that link to better or worse theory of mind, and therefore perhaps come up with treatments, programs, to improve our understanding of that relationship, and also to improve the one thing out of the two in the equation that you can modify,” says Bernstein.

Derksen adds this new research could provide greater understanding for our own personal relationships. 

“If your partner, for example, displays certain personality traits, and you understand that these are related to theory of mind in these ways, then you can better understand them as people and have functional relationships with them,” he says. “Even if your aim isn’t to help them improve their theory of mind, it still has practical value.”