A study investigating the association between personality traits and the ability to solve complex problems found that schizotypal, histrionic, dependent, and depressive persons are less likely to successfully solve problems. Persons with more pronounced resilience, action orientation, and motivation for creation are more likely to successfully solve complex problems. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
When a person is unable to reach the desired goal, a problem is said to exist. Cognitive activities that remove the obstacle and allow a person to reach the goal constitute problem-solving. Problems are a constant part of people’s everyday lives. Due to this, problem-solving abilities are essential for navigating successfully through daily life. These abilities require a person to identify ways in which the issue faced can be solved and to choose the best option in a situation that is unfamiliar.
Some problems people face are well defined and their solutions are straightforward. A good example of such problems would be school tests. Although they can sometimes be quite hard, school tests are intentionally designed to have a clear and straightforward solution. However, most problems of everyday life are not well defined and do not have a single, clear solution. Such problems are considered complex problems. The ability to solve complex problems is referred to as complex problem solving.
People differ in their abilities to solve complex problems. They also have different styles in approaching these problems. For example, problems can be approached in a rational style, where a person systematically and deliberately works on finding a solution, but also in an impulsive style, characterized by careless, hurried approach to the problem that often results in incomplete solutions, or an avoidance style, that is characterized by passivity and inaction about the problem leading to procrastination.
Previous studies have indicated that some personality traits are associated with the way individuals approaches complex problems in everyday lives and how successful they are at it. People with pronounced personality traits of conscientiousness, openness to experience and extraversion (from the Big-5 personality model) seem to have higher problem-solving abilities. On the other hand, persons high in neuroticism seem to be worse at solving complex problems, often adopting an avoidant or impulsive approach to solving problems.
Study authors Ulrike Kipman and her colleagues wanted to know how individuals with personality disorders solved complex problems, how are “extreme” levels of personality traits of these individuals linked with their ability to solve complex problems.
“Problem solving is considered to be one of the key skills of the 21st century, probably also because this cannot (yet) be done by the ever faster and better computers that compare all possible combinations of events within the shortest possible time, weigh them up and calculate the correspondingly most favorable decision,” explained Kipman, a professor at the Institute of Educational Sciences and Research in Salzburg.
“It is not just a matter of linking information in a meaningful way, relating it dynamically, calculating probabilities and making a chain of correct decisions, but also to take into account a large number of external criteria and to display a corresponding ‘knowledge of the world,’ which is not available to an artificial intelligence. Apart from that, it is not possible to consult an artificial intelligence for all decisions.”
Kipman analyzed data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), a test that measures how well students from different countries understand and apply knowledge in different subjects. The test included a focus on problem solving skills since 2012 and collaborative problem solving skills since 2015.
“I got more and more interested why some students perform well and others do not perform well, but PISA data could not explain this,” she said. “I am therefore interested in answering the question of how to become a good problem solver and why certain people are more successful in solving problems than others as it is also my job as a maths teacher for engineers to improve skills of students in this domain.”
For their new study, Kipman and her colleagues considered individuals with nine different personality disorders. Each of these disorders is characterized by a set of personality traits relevant for the disorder. These were paranoid traits (mistrust towards others), schizoid traits (inability to express feelings or pleasure), antisocial traits (disregard for social obligations and feelings of others), borderline traits (tendency to act on impulses regardless of consequences), histrionic traits (tendency to overdramatize and express feelings in a dramatic way), dependent traits (excessive and inappropriate agreeableness), schizotypal traits (social disengagement), obsessive-compulsive traits (excessive perfectionism and inflexibility), and depressive traits (persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest).
Participants were 242 adults (49% male) with personality and depressive disorders. Their ages ranged between 17 and 48 years, with the average age being 26. All participants were speakers of German. They were patients from psychiatric and psychosomatic hospitals.
Participants completed three personality assessment questionnaires – The Persönlichkeits-Stil und Störungs-Inventar, The Strukturiertes Klinisches Interview für DSM-5 — Persönlichkeitsstörungen, and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2. They also completed an assessment of personality traits in a work-related context (The Bochumer Inventar zur berufsbezogenen Persönlichkeitsbeschreibung).
The participants were asked to play a computer city-management simulation game called “Cities: Skylines.” In this game, developed by Paradox Interactive, the player takes to role of a mayor that directs the construction and management of a growing city, while taking care not to run out of money. As some of the participants lacked any game experience, before the start of the game, participants were given brief instruction on how to handle a list of fundamental game features. Success in the game was evaluated based on how much the number of inhabitants of the virtual in-game city has grown during gameplay (growing the city is the goal of the game).
Results showed that participants with more pronounced schizotypal, histrionic, and depressive personality traits were less successful in playing Cities: Skylines i.e., in complex problem-solving. They were more likely to fail the game altogether. Participants with more pronounced dependent and paranoid personality traits were also less successful in the game, but this association was weaker. Schizoid, obsessive-compulsive, and anti-social traits were not associated with success in the game.
Kipman said the study demonstrates “that we can measure complex problem-solving best by simulation games and not by short tests” and that “personality traits are connected to problem solving ability.”
When work-related manifestations of personality traits were considered, participants with more pronounced work orientation, professional orientation, and psychological constitution were more successful, while those with higher social competencies were less successful. Exploring these associations further, the researchers reported that participants with more pronounced resilience, action orientation and motivation for creation were more successful in the game. More sociable participants were less successful.
“Unsurprisingly, no single clinical personality structure was associated with better problem-solving performances (as compared with the non-clinical trait levels). As personality disorders are generally linked with increased levels of neuroticism, which subsequently was consistently found to negatively influence problem-solving, this result is also consistent with the general clinical intuition,” the study authors concluded.
The study provides a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge about links between personality and the ability to solve complex problems. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, complex problem-solving abilities were tested only through playing a single computer game. Results on different problem-solving tasks might not be the same. Additionally, prior gaming experience was not controlled, in spite of the fact that it is a factor that can greatly influence game performance.
The study, “Personality traits and complex problem solving: Personality disorders and their effects on complex problem-solving ability”, was authored by Ulrike Kipman, Stephan Bartholdy, Marie Weiss, Wolfgang Aichhorn, and Günter Schiepek.