Monday, September 24, 2012

General knowledge and personality

In recent years researchers have been interested in the correlates of individual differences in general knowledge. Some psychologists consider acquired knowledge as an important component of intelligence. The concept of crystallised intelligence explicitly includes how much information a person has acquired in their life, and a number of IQ batteries, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales include measures of general knowledge. There is evidence that general knowledge is a solid predictor of academic performance (Furnham, Monsen, & Ahmetoglu, 2009).

A number of researchers have studied how general knowledge is correlated with personality traits, particularly those belonging to the Big Five model of personality. This model comprises the five broad traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. As far as I am aware, the correlations between general knowledge and big five personality traits have been reported in eight different papers, reporting the results of 10 different studies. A summary of the findings is provided in the table below. The first paper (Ackerman, Bowen, Beier, & Kanfer, 2001) examined only two of the Big Five (openness to experience and extraversion), whereas the remaining papers reported results for all five traits.

Eight of the ten studies used a general knowledge test developed by Irwing, Cammock and Lynn (2001). These authors defined general knowledge as consisting of culturally valued knowledge available through a range of non-specialist sources. The test they developed was intended to provide a comprehensive sample of the full range of domains of human knowledge. The test used in the study by Schaefer et al. (2004) was also intended to assess a wide spectrum of non-specialist knowledge. The study by Ackerman et al. (2001) assessed more specialised forms of knowledge, specifically from 19 domains of academic study encompassing sciences, humanities, and civics. Additionally, tests in each domain were designed so that questions were presented with increasing levels of difficulty and once a participant was unable to answer three consecutive questions each test was terminated. In this study, general knowledge was defined as a composite of these 19 domains. From this it appears that the “general knowledge” assessed in this study was of a more specialised and advanced type than that tested in the other nine studies. One possible implication of this will be addressed later.  

The trait most consistently correlated with general knowledge is openness to experience, which had a positive correlation in all studies. Openness to experience is known to be positively correlated with measures of IQ and is characterised by intellectual curiosity and interest in learning. Hence its connection with general knowledge does not seem surprising. Findings in relation to other personality traits have been less consistent. Some researchers have proposed that extraversion (Ackerman, et al., 2001) and neuroticism (Chamorro-Premuzic, Furnham, & Ackerman, 2006) would be negatively correlated with general knowledge. Extraverted people with strong social inclinations might invest less time in non-social activities associated with learning. High neuroticism is associated with test anxiety and hence with poorer performance on ability tests. Others (Furnham & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2006) have argued that conscientiousness might have a relationship with general knowledge, although whether this should be positive or negative is unclear. Research has found that conscientiousness has a modest negative relationship with intelligence, hence people high in conscientiousness might have less general knowledge. On the other hand, students high in conscientiousness achieve higher grades than their less conscientious counterparts and might be expected therefore to have more general knowledge. However, the studies shown in Table 1 reveal that extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness have inconsistent correlations with general knowledge, as there is a mixture of positive and negative correlations for each of them.

Table 1. Correlations between Big Five personality traits and general knowledge in 10 studies

Study authors
Openness to experience
Ackerman, Bowen, Beier, & Kanfer (2001)
Schaefer, Williams, Goodie, & Campbell (2004)
Chamorro-Premuzic, Furnham, & Ackerman (2006)
Furnham & Chamorro-Premuzic (2006)

Study 1
Study 2
Study 3
Furnham, Christopher, Garwood, & Martin (2007)
Furnham, Swami, Arteche, & ChamorroPremuzic (2008)
Furnham, Monsen, & Ahmetoglu (2009)
Batey, Furnham, & Safiullina (2010)

Weighted mean correlation

Key: *p < .05; **p < .01 

In order to obtain a more accurate estimate of the true correlations between each of the five personality traits and general knowledge, a weighted average of the correlations for each study was computed taking into account the sample size.[1] The results are shown at the bottom of the table. Openness to experience is the only personality trait with a substantial correlation with general knowledge, with what could be considered a moderate sized effect. Extraversion and neuroticism had quite small negative correlations. These are in the direction predicted by Ackerman et al. (2001) and Chamorro-Premuzic et al. (2006) but the effect sizes are much smaller than expected. Conscientiousness has a very small positive effect, suggesting that it tends to be an inconsistent predictor. The effect of agreeableness is nearly negligible. As noted previously, the study by Ackerman et al. appears to assess a somewhat more specialist and advanced type of knowledge than the other studies. When this study is excluded from the analysis, the weighted mean correlation between extraversion and general knowledge becomes almost negligible (r = -.02), whereas the correlation between openness to experience and general knowledge barely changes (r = .31).

These results indicate that as far as the Big Five are concerned, characteristics associated with openness to experience, such as general curiosity, are the most relevant to how much knowledge of the world a person acquires. Traits such as sociability, emotional stability, and achievement orientation appear to be much less important. When considering the findings of the study by Ackerman et al., it seems possible that extraversion might have little or no relationship with relatively non-specialised forms of knowledge, but that this relationship is different for more advanced levels of knowledge usually acquired with special study. That is, people who are highly extraverted may have as much non-specialist knowledge as the average person, but acquire less knowledge at a university level than their more introverted counterparts. Studies comparing non-specialist and more advanced forms of knowledge within the same samples would help to determine if this is true.

Previous research has found a substantial gender difference in general knowledge, with men tending to have greater knowledge than women (Lynn, Irwing, & Cammock, 2002). The results presented here would suggest that gender differences in general knowledge are probably not due to differences in big five personality traits. Women tend to score higher than men in neuroticism and to a lesser extent extraversion and conscientiousness (Schmitt, Realo, Voracek, & Allik, 2008) but the correlations between these traits and general knowledge appear far too small to account for the substantial gender difference in general knowledge. Furthermore, men and women do not tend to differ on their overall scores on openness to experience. Openness to experience is usually considered to consist of a number of narrower facets, including openness to ideas, values, feelings, aesthetics, actions, and fantasy. There is research evidence that men tend to be higher on openness to ideas whilst women tend to be higher on openness to feelings (Schmitt, et al., 2008). Whether or not openness to ideas is more strongly related to general knowledge than the other facets has never been examined.

Openness to ideas has a very strong conceptual similarity to a construct called typical intellectual engagement (Mussell, 2010). A number of studies (Chamorro-Premuzic, et al., 2006; Furnham, et al., 2009; Furnham, et al., 2008) have found that typical intellectual engagement has positive correlations with general knowledge. However, a study by Furnham et al. (2008) found that overall openness to experience was a stronger predictor of general knowledge than typical intellectual engagement. This finding might indicate that the broad tendency to be open to new experiences generally, rather than a specific facet of openness, supports the acquisition of general knowledge. In a previous article I argued that gender differences in general knowledge may be related to a greater male interest in things as opposed to a greater female interest in people. Elsewhere I have suggested that gender stereotypes could play a role as well. Future research could explore the respective contributions of gender typical interests, stereotypes, and possible differences in openness facets to sex differences in general knowledge.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Ackerman, P. L., Bowen, K. R., Beier, M. E., & Kanfer, R. (2001). Determinants of individual differences and gender differences in knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(4), 797–825. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.93.4.797
Batey, M., Furnham, A., & Safiullina, X. (2010). Intelligence, general knowledge and personality as predictors of creativity. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(5), 532-535. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2010.04.008
Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Furnham, A., & Ackerman, P. L. (2006). Ability and personality correlates of general knowledge. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(3), 419-429. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.036
Furnham, A., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2006). Personality, intelligence and general knowledge Learning and Individual Differences, 16, 79-90 DOI: 10.1016/j.lindif.2005.07.002 Furnham, A., Christopher, A. N., Garwood, J., & Martin, G. N. (2007). Approaches to learning and the acquisition of general knowledge. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(6), 1563-1571. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.04.013
Furnham, A., Christopher, A. N., Garwood, J., & Martin, G. N. (2007). Approaches to learning and the acquisition of general knowledge. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(6), 1563-1571. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.04.013
Furnham, A., Monsen, J., & Ahmetoglu, G. (2009). Typical intellectual engagement, Big Five personality traits, approaches to learning and cognitive ability predictors of academic performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 769-782. doi: 10.1348/978185409x412147
            Furnham, A., Swami, V., Arteche, A., & Chamorro‐Premuzic, T. (2008). Cognitive ability, learning approaches and personality correlates of general knowledge.  Educational Psychology, 28 (4), 427-431 DOI: 10.1080/01443410701727376
            Mussell, Patrick (2010). Epistemic curiosity and related constructs: Lacking evidence of discriminant validity Personality and Individual Differences, 49 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.014
Schaefer, P. S., Williams, C. C., Goodie, A. S., & Campbell, W. K. (2004). Overconfidence and the Big Five. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(5), 473-480. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2003.09.010
Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can't a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168-182.

[1] This is based on the theory that larger sample sizes should be given more weight as they are more likely to provide an accurate estimate than smaller samples. When the results were compared to the unweighted mean correlations there was very little difference between them. 


  1. Our general knowledge comes from the differcences in the ways we learn ands receive things. Learning is a process that produces a relatively in behavior or knowlegde as a result of past experience. Which also is formeed by Conditioning, the process of learning associations between enviromental events and behavioral responses.

  2. General Knowledge is mandatory to pass government job exams. Otherwise you don'e need to study general knowledge.