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Science Research Stories: Psychologist Laura Sinnett

Reality TV Challenges Psychologists’ Understanding of Reality

Chimpanzee personalities are as complex as our own. By some measures, they may be even more so. Their personality traits fall into one of 6 dimensions, called “factors” — neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and dominance. Psychologists have long thought human personality traits only fall into one of 5 dimensions — the same dimensions as chimpanzees, minus dominance. In studies of human personalities, dominance “doesn’t stand out as its own big thing” and is instead included in the extraversion dimension, explains Laura Sinnett, Grinnell College professor of psychology.

That did not sit right with Sinnett. “There’s just so much similarity between chimpanzees, especially, and humans,” she says. Not only that, but through her own experiences she has observed, “Dominance seems to be everywhere. So why are we not finding it as a big separate trait with humans?” she wondered. It is here that the idea for a research project began to form. “Because psychology is the study of people, and we are people, a lot of our hypotheses come from our everyday experiences,” she says.

Sinnett suspected psychologists were not seeing the full picture of human traits because they were studying individuals in isolation, not in social settings. Sarah Beisner ’22, Sinnett’s student and advisee, explains how this could cause psychologists to miss dominance, “Obviously you can’t be dominant and alone. Who are you going to dominate, yourself?”

Combining Disciplines, Creating Methods

Sinnett’s training is in social psychology, “how social situations influence individual behavior,” and personality psychology, the study of individual differences. As a result, she knew a social psychology perspective could help explain this personality psychology conundrum. “I’m the first one to say, ‘We need to rate people in their social environments,’” says Sinnett.

The question, which she raised in her 2018 animal personality tutorial, was how. Kate Gallagher ’22, a student in that class at the time, lit up. “Why don’t you have people rate the personality traits of reality television characters!?” she exclaimed. This would enable Sinnett to study individuals in social settings without the ethical challenges of studying isolated groups of people.

Sinnett was planning to teach an upper-level personality course the following semester. “At that moment, the lab changed,” she remembers.

From Reality TV to Advanced Statistics

Sinnett and her students were thrilled by the new direction their lab had taken. When her students saw the syllabus, they exclaimed, “Oh my god! I get to watch TV for my lab!?” Sinnett remembers.

Dividing the work, the students took notes on the first four hours of seasons of the Real World and Survivor. They then rated the levels of traits of 294 cast members and contestants using a personality questionnaire that is often used to rate chimpanzees. Then, after Sinnett combined the students’ data, the students used a method called factor analysis to group trait adjectives that were highly correlated with each other. If individuals who had high levels of one adjective often had low levels of another, for example, those traits would be grouped together.

Beisner, who was a student in the class, said factor analysis had a steep learning curve. Despite that, she says overall, “It was a cool assignment. I still watch Survivor sometimes.” And the impacts of the lab on her life did not stop there — she enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to major in psychology.

A Different Trait Structure Emerges

Days into their factor analysis work, “one of the students hollered, ‘Oh my god, Professor Sinnett, look at this! Come over here. It’s dominance, it’s the first factor!” Sinnett remembers. That student was Beisner, who says, “Dominance emerged very clearly.” Even more than the five known factors, there was a clear group of highly correlated traits that all fit within dominance. “That was exciting,” says Sinnett.

Not only that, but the class found dominance followed the same trends it does in chimpanzees. “Chimpanzees get more dominant as they age. Well, it turns out that our cast members and contestants’ dominance is correlated with age,” says Sinnett.

Reality TV, however, is not reality. It is highly scripted. And only a small percentage of the recordings make the final cut, so it is by no means a random sample of behavior. “Dominance would be very visible, even more so than in everyday life, on a show like Survivor,” explains Beisner. That was not a major concern for Sinnett, who says, “That is likely to change levels of traits but not change the actual factor structure itself.”

In the coming months, Sinnett will continue analyzing the data. The students used exploratory factor analysis. She will take it a step further and use confirmatory factor analysis to find how well the data match the hypothetical trait structure that includes dominance. She plans to publish the combined findings in a paper.

Learning about Humanity, Learning about Yourself

This study “shows students at Grinnell College, in a laboratory course, engaged in meaningful discovery research,” Sinnett says. The most important impact of their research, she says, is demonstrating the need for personality psychologists to study individuals within social settings. Failure to do so can leave gaps as large as missing one of the six human personality trait dimensions.

Sinnett’s research advances our knowledge of human personalities, which is knowledge essential to understanding ourselves. Sinnett says this is exactly what draws her and her students to personality psychology, “You get to learn about what makes you, you.”


Vishva Nalamalapu ’20 is the content specialist fellow in the Office of Communications and Marketing at Grinnell College. She loves writing about scientific research in a way that is accessible and interesting to readers with or without science backgrounds. Her series on scientific research projects focuses on doing just that. If you are a Grinnell College professor or student interested in having your scientific research project featured or think someone else’s project would be a good fit, please contact her.

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