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Title: Using computational psychology to profile unhappy and happy people
Author: Samson, Matthew James
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 9467
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2019
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Social psychology has a long tradition of studying the personality traits associated with subjective well-being (SWB). However, research often depends on a priori but unempirical assumptions about how to (a) measure the constructs, and (b) mitigate confounded associations. These assumptions have caused profligate and often contradictory findings. To remedy, I demonstrate how a computational psychology paradigm-predicated on large online data and iterative analyses-might help isolate more robust personality trait associations. At the outset, I focussed on univariate measurement. In the first set of studies, I evaluated the extent researchers could measure psychological characteristics at scale from online behaviour. Specifically, I used a combination of simulated and real-world data to determine whether predicted constructs like big five personality were accurate for specific individuals. I found that it was usually more effective to simply assume everyone was average for the characteristic, and that imprecision was not remedied by collapsing predicted scores into buckets (e.g. low, medium, high). Overall, I concluded that predictions were unlikely to yield precise individual-level insights, but could still be used to examine normative group-based tendencies. In the second set of studies, I evaluated the construct validity of a novel SWB scale. Specifically, I repurposed the balanced measure of psychological needs (BMPN), which was originally designed to capture the substrates of intrinsic motivation. I found that the BMPN robustly captured (a) dissociable experiences of suffering and flourishing, (b) more transitive SWB than the existing criterion measure, and (c) unique variation in real-world outcomes. Thus, I used it as my primary outcome. Then, I focussed on bivariate associations. The third set of studies extracted pairs of participants with similar patterns of covarying personality traits-and differing target traits-to isolate less-confounded SWB correlations. I found my extraction method-an adapted version of propensity score matching-outperformed even advanced machine learning alternatives. The final set of studies isolated the subset of facets that had the most robust associations with SWB. It combined real-world surveys with a total of eight billion simulated participants to find the traits most prevalent in extreme suffering and flourishing. For validation purposes, I first found that depression and cheerfulness-the trait components of SWB-were highly implicated in both suffering and flourishing. Then, I found that self-discipline was the only other trait implicated in both forms of SWB. However, there were also domain-specific effects: anxiety, vulnerability and cooperation were implicated in just suffering; and, assertiveness, altruism and self-efficacy were implicated in just flourishing. These seven traits were most likely to be the definitive, stable, drivers of SWB because their effects were totally consistent across the full range of intrapersonal contexts.
Supervisor: Rentfrow, Jason Sponsor: Gates Cambridge Scholarship
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: computational social science ; social psychology ; big data ; machine learning ; facets ; subjective well-being ; personality ; big five ; happiness