Posted on 6/26/2018
Christopher Soto is an associate professor of psychology at Colby College. His research examines personality measurement, lifespan personality development, and how personality characteristics relate with life outcomes.
What led you to choose a career in personality and social psychology?
A sequence of two things got me hooked on personality psychology quite early. First, one of my history teachers (Hello, Mr. Fischer!) at Wausau East High School offered an elective course in psychology. As part of this course, I took a personality test for the first time. Rather embarrassingly for an eventual personality psychologist, it was a Myers-Briggs-like type sorter. But I remember reading the description of my personality type, finding it very interesting, and wanting to learn more about ways to conceptualize and measure personality.
The second thing was learning, early in college, about the research leading to the Big Five taxonomy of personality traits. I remember being amazed by the historical arc of it: decades of research, spanning multiple generations of scientists, that began with a simple but important question (What are the most generally important personality traits?) and slowly but surely made progress toward a pretty satisfying answer (the Big Five). The Big Five taxonomy, and the story of its development, cemented my interest in personality psychology. I enjoy telling that story to a new class of students each year.
Briefly summarize your current research, and any future research interests you plan to pursue.
My research tends to cycle through three main interests: personality measurement, development, and life outcomes. Right now I’m at the end of a personality measurement phase. It has focused on development of the Big Five Inventory-2 (BFI-2; Soto & John, 2017), a major revision of the original BFI. Here’s my quick plug for the BFI-2: It efficiently measures the Big Five and 15 more-specific facet traits, providing greater reliability, validity, and predictive power than the original BFI. With 60 items, it only takes about 6 minutes to complete, and can be administered in a wide range of research contexts. It’s freely available for research use, so interested readers should check out the BFI-2 tab at http://www.colby.edu/psych/personality-lab. (End plug.)
The next phase of my research is oriented toward life outcomes, with a metascience twist. Like a lot of SPSP members, I’ve been following the recent discussions in our field about replication and open science. I agree that replication is crucial for scientific progress, and I share some concerns about the potential replicability of behavioral science. Much of the discussion and debate around these issues has focused on cognitive and social psychology, which has left me wondering about the replicability of personality research. I view the capacity for personality to predict consequential life outcomes as the most powerful argument for why personality is an important topic to study. So I’m currently working on a project that attempts to replicate a broad set of trait-outcome associations, in order to provide some information about the replicability of the personality-outcome literature. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this project by the time next year’s SPSP Convention rolls around.
Do you have any advice for individuals who wish to pursue a career in personality and social psychology?
I can offer two pieces of advice from the perspective of someone working at a small liberal arts college. The first is that if you enjoy both teaching and research, then consider pursuing a career at a small college. The benefits for teaching are probably obvious: You get to teach bright, motivated students in classes small enough to allow plenty of individual and small-group interaction.
The research benefits may be less obvious, but they are real. When you are only expected to write a couple of papers per year (due to teaching and mentorship commitments), you can be quite selective and intentional about your research. As each new academic year approaches, you can stop and think: What are the two or three projects that would be most interesting and important to work on this year? Then you can focus your research attention and effort on those projects. This kind of necessarily deliberative, “slow science” mindset doesn’t appeal to everyone. But if it sounds appealing to you, then a small college may be a good place for you to conduct research.
My second piece of advice is that if you are interested in a career at a small college, then find a way to get some teaching experience as the instructor of record (rather than only as a teaching assistant). Ph.D. programs can vary quite a lot in terms of how much teaching graduate students are expected, or even allowed, to do. In some cases, finding an opportunity to serve as the instructor of record may mean teaching a summer course, or adjuncting at a nearby institution. But teaching even one or two courses as the instructor of record can make you much more competitive for positions at small colleges.
Why did you join SPSP?
I joined SPSP early in graduate school, as a way to start connecting with the field of personality and social psychology beyond my home department. And that motivation has stayed quite consistent over time. As a faculty member at a small college (perhaps even more so than as a graduate student), professional organizations like SPSP are an important part to staying connected with the broader field.
What is your most memorable SPSP Convention experience?
At the risk of sounding like a caricature of a boring personality psychologist, it was a symposium on personality structure and measurement at the 2016 Convention. Anissa Mike (who organized and chaired the symposium) showed how bifactor models could be used to separate facet-level personality information from the Big Five, David Condon presented the ambitious SAPA Project to map the universe of personality-descriptive phrases, Michael Boudreaux showed an innovative way to identify problematic aspects of socially desirable personality traits, and I presented our initial work on the BFI-2. I remember being struck by the diversity of research questions and approaches, even within this highly specialized sub-area of social-personality psychology. There was a lot of psychometric love in that room!
How has being a member of SPSP helped you professionally?
SPSP membership has helped me in two key ways. The first is social: SPSP helps me form and maintain friendships and collaborations with other scholars. Some of these relationships date back to grad school, but some are much more recent. The second way is informational: SPSP helps me keep up with current research and discourse in our field, and helps me share my current work with others.
Outside of personality and social psychology, how do you spend your free time?
Before 9:30pm, I spend time with my wife and our two daughters (ages 3 and 6). We like to be outdoors in Maine, so depending on the season we might be hiking, biking, canoeing, or cross-country skiing. After 9:30pm, when the rest of the family is asleep, I like to read fiction and play video games.
What is your favorite class to teach and why?
I like to teach lecture courses in personality psychology, research methods, and statistics, but my very favorite course is Seminar and Collaborative Research in Personality Psychology. Students enter this class having already completed a personality lecture course, as well as a year-long research methods and statistics sequence. Up until this point, they have mostly experienced personality psychology as something that happens in lectures and textbooks. Now they’re ready to shift toward engaging with personality theory and research much more directly. They read, discuss, and analyze scholarly papers, and they conduct an empirical research project of their own. (In fact, some of these students have presented particularly well-conducted seminar projects at the SPSP Convention.) My goal is for students to leave the course understanding that personality psychology isn’t just something you read about; it’s something you can actively do. It’s a fun transformation to facilitate and observe.
Are there any teaching techniques that you’ve found to be especially helpful?
I’m a fan of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, which interviews about a dozen people every seven years from age 7 to (most recently) age 56. I use clips from these documentaries to illustrate various points in my personality psychology lecture course. I also use them to bookend the course as a whole. On the first day of class, we watch the interviews with Tony and Nicholas from 21 Up (i.e., at age 21). Each student completes a handout asking them to describe some distinctive characteristics of each man’s personality, and to propose hypotheses about how these characteristics developed, how they are influencing his current life, and how they might affect his future outcomes. After a class discussion about these questions, I collect the handout and hold onto it throughout the semester. On the last day of class, I pass the handout back to my students, and we watch the interviews with Tony and Nicholas from 49 Up (i.e., 28 years later). The first day activity provides a vivid illustration of individual differences in personality, and how these can manifest themselves in everyday life. The last day activity shows continuity and change over time, and lets students test their own intuitions about personality development and life outcomes. I’d like to think that it also helps provide a sense of closure, and encourages students to think about the course as a whole.
Learn more about Christopher and his work with the Colby Personality Lab.