EAST LANSING, Mich. — Birds of a feather really do flock together, especially if they’re children. A new study finds that a child’s personality is strongly influenced by his or her peers because many traits are actually “contagious.”
Researchers came to the conclusion as they sought to answer a popular nature vs. nurture debate: are children’s personality traits determined at birth, or later, by their environment?
In the first study of its kind, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Michigan State University side with those who argue the latter— that personalities are generally malleable at a young age.
MSU researchers examined two separate preschool classes, each consisting of three- and four-year-olds, over the time span of an entire school year.
What researchers found was that children who demonstrated extroverted or hard-working behavior were likely to be mimicked by their peers and friends. Conversely, anxious and easily frustrated children did not transfer these personality traits onto their classmates.
“Our finding, that personality traits are ‘contagious’ among children, flies in the face of common assumptions that personality is ingrained and can’t be changed,” explains Jennifer Watling Neal, one of the study’s co-investigators, in a school publication.
If personality traits can change, we should try to instill ones that will bode well for the child later in life, Watling Neal argues.
This study also advances the argument that kids have a much larger effect upon one another than previously believed. Traditional wisdom within the field has said that it’s mostly teachers and parents who bear the responsibility for how a child acts and behaves later in life.
In perhaps a future study, it would be interesting to see how much a student’s behavior can change or be influenced as they continue to get older.