Researchers are reporting findings that link positive emotional expression with personality and life outcomes across adulthood in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
LeeAnne Harker, PhD, and Dacher Keltner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that positive emotional expression in college yearbook pictures correlates with the self-reported personality traits of affiliation, competence and low negative emotions across adulthood, even when controlling for physical attractiveness and social desirability.
The study uses data from 100 women who participated in the Mills Longitudinal Study, which gathered information at ages 21, 27, 43 and 52. A subsample of the participants also took part in a more thorough assessment at age 21. At each age, the women completed personality inventories and answered questions on a variety of topics including marriage, family and work.
The researchers coded subjects' yearbook photos at age 21 for positive emotional expression. In addition, outside observers judged the photos for each woman's perceived personality and interpersonal impact. Because positive emotions have been shown to build personal and social resources, they conjectured that the emotions expressed in the photographs at age 21 would predict favorable life outcomes.
Harker and Keltner found that positive emotional expression related to personality at ages 21, 27, 43 and 52, although the pattern of these relationships changed over time. For example, the relationship between positive expression and affiliation (relating to others in a warm, sociable manner) at age 21 weakened over time, but remained evident, and the relationship between positive expression and competence not evident at age 21 emerges at age 27 and grows stronger at age 52.
"Over time, women who expressed more positive emotion in their yearbook pictures became more organized, mentally focused and achievement-oriented, and less susceptible to repeated and prolonged experiences of negative affect," say Harker and Keltner.
In addition, positive emotional expression predicted favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being 30 years later. Women who displayed more positive emotion were more likely to be married by age 27 and satisfied with their marriages at age 52. However, there were no correlations between positive expression and getting divorced or marital satisfaction at age 43.
"These findings are all the more impressive in light of the highly constrained nature of the context in which emotion was measured," says Harker.
However, the constrained nature of the photo may have contributed to the study's failure to find a significant correlation between positive emotional expression and positive emotionality.
Future researchers are likely to find stronger relations between emotional expression and personality by measuring expressions at different times and in diverse contexts, the authors say.