Which Personality Traits Facilitate Self-Care?

Psychologist Martina Pocrnic discusses personality differences in satisfying our basic psychological needs.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 11, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality studies examines how our personality traits influence our ability to take care of our basic psychological needs — such as the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

To better understand this topic, I recently spoke to researcher Martina Pocrnic of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. Here is a summary of our conversation.

How did you conduct your research on personality traits and psychological needs and what did you find?

We conducted a correlational study on a sample of Croatian twins. Our main findings were that all three basic psychological needs are substantially heritable and positively correlated with extraversion and negatively with neuroticism. Moreover, the need for competence also had a significant positive correlation with conscientiousness, whereas the needs for autonomy and relatedness showed a significant positive correlation with agreeableness.

What are the takeaways from your new research for someone seeking to improve their self-care routine?

Our study has shown that basic psychological needs and personality traits share the same background. Thus, if we try to change behaviors and thoughts that are part of a specific trait, this could lead to changes in the degree of need satisfaction.

Although personality traits by definition are relatively stable over time, they are not ''set in stone'' and the question of personality trait change is a very propulsive research question in the field of personality.

The good news is that these studies have shown that the trait which is most prone to change is neuroticism, the trait that showed the negative correlation with all three needs in our study! So, if we try to lower our levels of neuroticism through practicing meditation or mindfulness, for example, it could lead to greater satisfaction of our psychological needs, which in turn can increase our intrinsic motivation. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, so we cannot claim with certainty that a change in personality is accompanied by a change in the degree of need satisfaction. But that could be an interesting topic for future studies.

Your research talks about personality traits as tools for satisfying basic psychological needs. What are some real-life manifestations of these traits and behaviors?

For example, someone with a high level of extraversion is likely to have a wide social network, is more prone to initiate contact with other people, spend leisure time socializing, accept invitations to social events, etc. All of this can lead to situations that satisfy the need for relatedness. Another example is a student who has a high level of conscientiousness. Because of that personality trait, he/she is hardworking, organized, and highly self-disciplined. Therefore, he/she is likely to study regularly, achieve better grades, and consequently satisfy the need for competence to a greater degree.

How do you think about the traits of neuroticism and extraversion?

Neuroticism and extraversion are traits that involve emotional reactions, i.e., extraversion is associated with positive affect (emotion), whereas neuroticism is associated with negative affect (emotion).

Accordingly, higher levels of extraversion lead to higher levels of need satisfaction, while higher levels of neuroticism lead to lower levels of need satisfaction. This can definitely lead to the idea that the emotionality of a trait is important for need satisfaction, as our study results suggest that neuroticism and extraversion are the most important of all traits. However, the basic idea is that all traits can lead to need satisfaction. The individual tries to adapt and satisfy needs that are basic and universal with his/her specific set of traits. In this effort, he/she is more or less successful. That is why individual differences in the degree of need satisfaction exist.

Low levels of neuroticism and high levels of extraversion can certainly facilitate the satisfaction of psychological needs. But other traits can also make an important contribution. For example, high conscientiousness is important for satisfying the need for competence. So neuroticism and extraversion are definitely very important, but it would be too strict to say that they are necessary.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond what you hypothesized?

Although we mostly confirmed our hypothesis, it was a surprise to us that neuroticism had the biggest correlation coefficients with all three needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness). We had expected that all three needs would show significant relationships with at least one trait, but we had not expected that extraversion and neuroticism would be the crucial traits for all three needs. That was certainly the most interesting finding for us.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on basic psychological needs and personality go in the future?

Yes, we have a plan for the new research on the relationships between basic psychological needs and personality.

Regarding future studies, it would be interesting to examine how personality traits that are defined within different personality models (not only The Big Five) are associated with basic psychological needs. It would also be interesting to focus on more specific and narrow traits, such as facets or nuances of personality. For example, it would be interesting to find out which specific facet of neuroticism is more important for low levels of need satisfaction. Is it key in anxiety, depression, anger, or perhaps in vulnerability? This may also have important practical implications because then we would know which specific behavior to change if we want to increase our need satisfaction.