Examination of Previously Homeschooled College Students with the Big Five Model of Personality

Examination of Previously Homeschooled College Students with the Big Five Model of Personality

Scott White, Psy.D., is Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, Belhaven College.
Megan Moore, B.A., is now a Ph.D. student in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, Florida State University.
Josh Squires, M.A. is now a professional counselor in Jackson, MS.

WHILE PARENTS CHOOSE to home educate their children for a variety of reasons, one factor that appears to motivate many parents is their desire to have greater influence on molding their children’s character and behaviors (Medlin, 2000; Ray, 2004). A proposed benefit of homeschooling is that parents, rather than same aged peers and other adults in society, play the primary role in molding their children’s character.  Medlin (2000), after summarizing the research suggests that, “Many parents choose to homeschool not for academic reasons at all but to surround their children with the kind of nurturing atmosphere that will support their development as individuals” (p. 119). Those in the conservative Christian community who comprise a large percentage of American homeschoolers (Ray, 1997) often emphasize the role of homeschooling on developing character traits in their children (Ray, 2004). As part of homeschooling, these parents often focus upon the goals of developing good character, maturity and moral behavior in their children.

While a major concern of home educating parents is the character development of their children, a major concern of critics is the adequate socialization of homeschooled children (Medlin, 2000). Some individuals worry that the greater social isolation and restriction to specific social groups might negatively impact the emotional and social development of homeschooled children (Kitchen, 1991; Murray, 1996). Others appear concerned that allowing parents to tailor their teaching to a specific set of beliefs and value systems might have a negative impact on the children’s ability to adapt to society (Knowles & Muchmore, 1995). Wright (1988), an educator, posed the question, “…how will these children function in our diverse multicultural society when they are raised in a setting with monolithic views and beliefs?” (p.111). There appears to be some concern that homeschooled children might grow up to be close-minded and intolerant individuals who will either not choose to or not be able to assimilate into a diverse society.

Personality and Homeschoolers

Interestingly, the dominant personality taxonomy in the field of personality psychology today (Digman, 1990; McAdams, 2000; Friedman & Schustak, 2006), the Big Five personality factors, measures dimensions that help examine some of the various concerns addressed above. The five factors represent the most basic dimensions underlying the personality traits identified in both natural languages and in psychological questionnaires. The five personality factors include: Openness to Experience (O), Conscientiousness (C), Extraversion (E), Agreeableness (A), and Neuroticism (N). Extensive studies of these five factors of personality have supported the utility of this taxonomy across a wide variety of cultures and groups (Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley, 1998;  Digman, 1990). Researchers have also demonstrated the stability of these personality factors over a 45 year period beginning in college (Soldz & Vaillant, 1999).

Over the past century, modern psychology has largely changed society’s focus from examining individuals’ character to measuring personality differences. However, the Big Five personality taxonomy includes two traits, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, which imply a judgment relevant to moral character (McCrae & Costa, 1987). Due to this, some theorists have even questioned including these dimensions into their trait theories because they are viewed as being too value laden to classify as personality traits (McCrae & Costa, 1987). However, McCrae & Costa (1987) argue that “…the fact that a trait may be judged from a moral point of view does not mean that it is not a substantive part of personality.” (p. 88). Additionally, the Big Five taxonomy measures a dimension that examines whether individuals tend to be open to new ideas (O), a dimension that examines the level of negative emotions experienced (N), and a dimension that measure sociability (E).  Each of these personality dimensions correlate with areas of expressed concern among various homeschooling critics.

Prior to utilizing the Big Five traits, it is crucial that the traits are clearly conceptualized and defined. McCrae and Costa (1987) in the development of personality tests to measure the five traits have enumerated the key dimensions and adjectives that describe each of the five factors. Each trait is measured along a continuum which includes a trait that exists on the polar opposite end of this continuum. Neuroticism (N) is a dimension that is defined as the propensity to experience a variety of negative emotions such as worrying, anxiety, depression, and anger. Individuals high in N also express feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness, and are likely to be impulsive and use inappropriate coping responses. Those scoring low in N are would be described as emotionally stable. Extraversion (E) is a factor that has high loadings with variables such as sociable, fun-loving, talkative, friendly, active, assertive and cheerful. Those low on these characteristics are often referred to as introverted. Openness to experience (O) measures factors such as being imaginative, original and daring, and having broad interests. Those high on O tend to be open to new experiences, ideas, and values. Those high in O are also to be viewed as more independent and liberal. Those who are low in Openness are considered to be closed to new ideas, values, experiences and interests, and are often deemed to be conservative in their views and outlook. The fourth dimension is Agreeableness (A) which is in contrast to antagonism. Those high in Agreeableness are thought to possess characteristics such as tender-mindedness, trust, altruism and modesty, and have a more pro-social & communal orientation towards others. Those low in Agreeableness are more likely to be mistrustful, skeptical, uncooperative, stubborn, unsympathetic, and rude. Lastly, the fifth dimension is Conscientiousness (C). Those high in C are individuals who are well-organized, self-disciplined, task and goal directed, delay gratification, and tend to follow moral codes and norms. Those low on this dimension are seen as undirected in how they live out their day to day life.

Personality and Environmental Factors

Parents have often wondered how children raised in the same home can have such different personalities. Today, personality psychologists recognize that both genetic and environmental factors determine personality traits and that there is a complex interaction between the two. Extensive research has been conducted examining the role of genetics and environment upon the Big Five personality dimensions (Bratko, 1997; Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley (1998); Loehlin, McCrae, Costa, & John, 1998; Reti, Samuels, Eaton, Bienvenu, Costa, & Nestadt, 2002). Behavioral genetic studies suggest that genetic heritability generally accounts for 40% to 50% of the variance of adult personality characteristics (Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley, 1998; Harris, 1995). Historically, personality theorists and developmental psychologists have focused upon the family environment as the key to understanding the other 50% of the variance in personality. However, in recent years this focus upon the family environment to explain the other half of the variance has been questioned (Harris, 1995, 1998). This challenge is the result of analysis of a large number of studies that show that little or no variance in personality characteristics could be attributed to the shared family environment (Harris, 1995, 1998; Loehlin, McCrae, Costa, & John, 1998). Based upon this data researchers have focused upon non-shared environmental influences (Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley (1998). Harris (1995, 1998) proposed a theory that parents matter less than we think and that peers matter more than we have recognized.  Essentially she proposes that group influences outside of the home, especially influences of peer social groups, may be the most significant environmental contributor to adult personality formation.

Homeschooling and Personality Formation

Regardless of whether the 50-60% of the variance in personality differences is the result of family, peer socialization, or other non-shared environmental influences, the data suggests that the environment does play a key role in personality formation. It is likely that the vast majority of subjects in these studies were heavily involved in the various socializing institutions (e.g. schools) in modern western culture. However, it would appear that both shared and non-shared environmental factors are significantly altered in the lives of many homeschooled children. After all, that is often the very goal of many homeschooling parents. What might be the effects upon personality development if peer socialization was significantly decreased and/or managed, and parental/family influence was significantly increased?

Measuring the personality of homeschooled students might help address a variety of questions and concerns voiced by critics and proponents of homeschooling. For example, does the homeschool environment promote introversion and thus lead to difficulty socializing with others in their future?  Will homeschooled students who have a more narrow educational experience be closed to new ideas, values, and experiences that are often part of the multi-cultural American landscape?  Do homeschooled students develop traits that demonstrate aspects of good moral character?  Do students who are educated at home develop the conscientiousness needed to succeed in their chosen careers?

In this study, the Big Five personality traits of previously homeschooled students are compared to the college-aged national norms to further understand the impact of homeschooling upon personality development. Based upon anecdotal observations, deductive reasoning from the differences in environmental influences, concerns of critics, and statements from proponents of homeschooling, hypotheses were made about possible differences between students who were homeschooled and college-aged students in the general population. We hypothesized that previously home educated students would score higher than the college-aged national norms on the Conscientiousness and Agreeableness factor scales. In contrast, previously homeschooled students were predicted to score lower in Extraversion, Openness, and Neuroticism as compared to the college-aged national norms.

Method

Participants

Subjects in this study were 51 previously homeschooled college students, 12 males and 39 females, at a private Christian college in the southern United States. Our operational definition for previously homeschooled, required that college students had to have been homeschooled for at least 50% of their education during the first through twelfth grades. Ethnic backgrounds of the subjects were reported to be 94.12% Caucasian/European American, 1.96% Asian/Asian American, with 2.92% reporting other. Based on the regions defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, 62.75% of the subjects reported being from the South, 17.65% from the Midwest, 13.73% from the West, and 3.92% from the Northeast. Subjects considered to be International comprised 1.96% of the sample.

Materials

To assist in identifying previously homeschooled students, a brief general survey was developed. This brief survey asked questions regarding participation in campus activities and general demographic information. One demographic question asked students to circle each of the years they attended private, public or homeschool for each of the grades from 1-12.  This survey indicated that the purpose for collecting the requested information was for possible future participation in a study on college students and personality. The survey asked for the student’s signature if he or she was willing to participate in the study.

The NEO-FFI Form S, College Age was used as the self-report measure of personality. When participants were tested, a demographic questionnaire was used which included questions regarding race, hometown, number of children in household, both parents’ occupation and education, parents’ marital status, religious affiliation, reasons for choosing to be home educated or to attend traditional school, and whose decision it was to attend the respective types of schooling. Participants received and signed consent forms describing the purpose of the study as examining the personality of college students and explaining the use of the information.

Procedure

Four hundred and forty-six general demographic surveys were distributed during a required campus-wide assembly. Experimenters were stationed at all entrances of the building to distribute the surveys to all students arriving for the assembly. Experimenters greeted the students, gave each a survey, and informed them of collection procedures at the exits following the assembly. By completing the survey, they were entered into a prize drawing for a restaurant gift certificate. At the end of the assembly, 328 demographic surveys were returned. Based upon the initial survey, seventy-two students met the operational definition of previously homeschooled and for inclusion in the study. All of the students who turned in the demographic survey and met the criteria as a homeschooled student indicated their willingness to participate in the study. Experimenters attempted to contact each student at the phone numbers provided on the demographic surveys. Of the seventy-two who met the criteria, fifty-one students were able to be contacted by phone after multiple attempts over a three week period. All of these individuals consented to participate and were scheduled for a testing time. A calling script was used to ensure consistency in the information each participant received and the manner in which they were scheduled. To avoid biasing the test results, students were not informed that they were being included in the study due to their homeschooling status either before or during the testing. Students (N=51) were tested in groups of no more than four in the campus library. Upon arrival for testing, the experimenter read a brief overview of the study to the participants. Students were given an informed consent to sign verifying their own participation in the study. Students then completed the NEO-FFI Form S, followed by the demographic questionnaire. All forms were returned to the experimenter immediately after testing.

Each participant’s NEO-FFI, Form S was scored manually by the experimenters to obtain T-scores for each subtest. Separate norms were used as appropriate for female and male participants. A series of t-tests comparing the homeschooled to the national group norms was completed for each personality trait factor. Due to the relatively small sample of males (N = 12), separate t-tests were not completed based upon the sex of the homeschoolers.

Results

Main Effect

Using the self-reported scores on the NEO-FFI Form S, data were analyzed with a series of t-tests. The results of the Neuroticism scale, t(50)= 1.348, p>.05, were not significant and did not support the hypothesis predicting home educated students to be less neurotic than the college-aged national norm as shown in Figure 1.

Results of the Extraversion scale were also not significant, t(50)= 1.405, p>.05, thus contradicting the hypothesis that homeschooled students would be less extraverted as compared to the national norm (Figure 2). The t-test for Openness was significant, t(50)=4.162, p<.000, where the homeschooled sample was significantly more Open than the national norm, disproving the hypothesis for Openness (Figure 3). The results of the Agreeableness scale, t(50)=4.541, p<.000, supported the hypothesis by showing that the homeschooled sample was significantly more agreeable than the national norm (Figure 4).

Results of the Conscientiousness scale were statistically significant, t(50)=4.250, p<.000, supporting the hypothesis that the homeschooled sample was more Conscientious than the national norm (Figure 5).

 

Post-hoc Comparison

After analysis of initial data, it was observed that the homeschooled sample included a significant percentage of students who were exclusively home educated, as well as students who experienced some traditional schooling. Based on this observation, the home-schooled sample was subdivided into pure and mixed groups. Purely home-schooled students were defined as the sample of students (N=29) who were home-schooled for 100% of their education. Mixed home-schooled students were defined as the sample of students (N=22) who were home-schooled for at least 50% of their education, but also attended some traditional school. The mixed sample attended traditional school (public or private) for a mean of 3.45 years. The mean includes all but two students who did not properly complete the form. The pure and mixed groups were compared to the college-aged national norm and to each other on the five personality factors. As shown in Figure 6, the mixed sample was found to have significantly lower scores, t(28)=4.116, p<.000, on the Neuroticism factor than the pure sample and the college-aged national norm. The pure sample was found to have significantly higher scores on the Openness factor, t(28)=2.198, p<.05, than the mixed sample and the college-aged national norm (Figure 7).

Discussion

COLLEGE STUDENTS WHO were previously homeschooled were found to be significantly more Agreeable, Conscientious and Open as compared to their peers in the national college-aged norms. No difference was found between the homeschooled sample and the national college aged norms on the Extraversion or Neuroticism domains. Because this is a correlational study, this study cannot establish whether the environmental differences homeschooled students experienced caused these differences in personality dimensions. These differences in scores could possibly be the result of differences between samples related to genetic heritability or a third causal variable. However, because both proponents and critics of homeschooling suggest that this model of educating and socializing children may impact their development, these results are useful in exploring the possible impact of homeschooling on children’s psychosocial development.

The finding that the homeschooled sample was significantly more Agreeable and Conscientious supports the belief of many homeschooling parents, observers of home schooled children, and our hypothesis.  This may also support the notion that this model of socialization helps parents to develop positive character in their children. Many parents would likely find the description of these personality traits to be positive character traits that they would like to see developed in their children. Therefore, these findings support the position of many homeschooling proponents. However, it must be remembered that proponents of the five factor personality theory (Costa & McCrae, 1992) suggest that all dimensions of personality are value neutral. They suggest that different traits may be more or less adaptive or beneficial depending upon the environment. For example, a longitudinal study (Judge, Higgins, Thoresen, & Barrick, 1999) examining personality and career success found high conscientiousness to be correlated with intrinsic job success (job satisfaction). In addition, extrinsic job success (salary, promotions, occupational status, etc.) was found to correlate with low neuroticism, low agreeableness, high extraversion, and high conscientiousness.

The finding that homeschooled students were more Open than the national sample was the opposite of our hypothesis. In addition, it would appear to be antithetical to the concern of critics who have expressed concern that removing these children from the influence of traditional schooling might produce closed-minded individuals (Wright, 1988). These findings, however, must be closely analyzed. The Openness scale measures a variety of dimensions. This domain includes openness to new experiences, the arts, ideas, values and pursuit of intellectual interests. It may be that previously homeschooled students, as a result of their educational experiences, are more open to a variety of intellectual pursuits, artistic interests, creative ideas, etc. Many are encouraged to help choose their topics of study, attend non-traditional learning experiences and may have more time to pursue outside artistic outlets such as music and dance. They may also be more prone to independent learning and being comfortable not meeting the social norms of American adolescents. Therefore, it would be possible for these students to score higher on Openness yet maintain traditional moral and religious values.  This finding may reflect that these students are more independent, intellectual, and creative as compared to their traditionally schooled peers. This analysis is supported by the finding that students who were exclusively homeschooled were significantly more Open than the mixed homeschooled group in the post-hoc analysis. It may be that homeschooled students who also attended traditional schools for some period of time (for 3 ½ years on average) assimilated into the adolescent peer group and began to internalize some of their values (e.g. popularity vs. intellectualism) and interests (e.g. sports vs. museums). Thus it appears that attending school may actually decrease the Openness of college students as defined by the five factor trait theory and measured by the NEO-FFI.

No difference was found between the homeschooled sample and the national norms on Extraversion or Neuroticism. This finding may be helpful in what it did not find. Parents considering pursuing homeschooling their children could be concerned that the social isolation of their children could cause them to become excessively introverted. Additionally, someone may observe a homeschooled student who is very introverted and automatically attribute this trait to the fact that they were homeschooled. This study however, suggests that by the time homeschooled students reach college, there is no difference on the Introversion vs. Extraversion dimension. Introversion among homeschooled children may simply fit the same distribution across the continuum as it will for traditionally schooled students.

Individuals may also be concerned that the lack of  typical socialization experiences that are found in school could negatively affect children emotionally causing them to have higher levels of anxiety, depression, insecurity, self-consciousness, et cetera. Again, among college-aged students this was not found. However, the post-hoc comparison between the pure homeschooled group and the mixed homeschool group revealed an interesting finding. The only group that was found to have a significantly lower Neuroticism score was the mixed homeschool group. Therefore, students who attended some schooling, but were primarily homeschooled (8 ½ years on average) were less Neurotic than either comparison group. While this finding seems less self-evident than the others, several hypotheses might be considered. One possibility is that the parenting style and home environment of students whose parents are more open to their children experiencing some traditional schooling provide, on average, the most emotionally positive environment for their children. Perhaps, for example, they provide an optimal level of protection against negative outside stressors while also allowing a beneficial degree of autonomy and peer socialization.  A second hypothesis is that experiencing several years of traditional schooling by itself may have a positive impact on children. For example, this relatively small dose of traditional socialization may increase children’s self-confidence, coping skills, social skills or resilience as they have more practice interacting with peers and adults outside of their home and narrow social groups. A third hypothesis is that students with lower Neuroticism traits may be more likely to seek some traditional schooling or be sent to school by their parents. Thus, for example, a less anxious child or more assertive child requests that they try traditional schooling. Finally, genetic heritability could be a causal explanation. It may be that parents who are lower in Neuroticism are more likely to send their children to school for a period of time. Their lower Neuroticism trait is genetically passed on to their children who belong to this sample.

There are several limitations to this study. Firstly, there is a lack of a normal comparison sample from the same student body. Because of this, it is impossible to rule out that the differences found between the homeschooling sample and the national norms might be a factor of differences between students who chose to enroll at this particular college and those in the national sample.  In the future, traditionally schooled students from this college should be sampled for a new comparison group to rule this out. Secondly, it is recognized that caution must be taken in generalizing this sample of students from one particular college to all previously homeschooled college students. A third limitation of this study was the inability to separately compare male and female homeschoolers to separate gender norms due to the relatively small sample of males (N = 12). While each gender’s scores were converted to a standard score based upon sex, by combining  both sexes we are unable to extrapolate if there might be a difference between how homeschooling impacts females’ versus males’ personalities.

It is recommended that additional studies be conducted that provide a larger sample of both males and females from multiple colleges, along with a comparison group of traditionally schooled students. To further study the differences found on the Neuroticism and Openness scales, a study using the full NEO-PIR could be used to provide subscales on the Openness domain to better understand on which of these subscales homeschoolers differ. Additionally, further studies may help to examine why Neuroticism was found to be lower in the mixed homeschool sample.

Assuming that differences in family and non-shared environmental factors influence the five personality factors, this study lends support to the belief that the unique socialization practices of homeschooled families may impact their personality development.  Based upon these findings, homeschooling parents should be heartened that their atypical lifestyle and educational practices are having a positive impact on the character development of their children. In addition, this study does not support the concern of critics or parents that homeschooling will have a negative impact on a student’s openness to others’ ideas in society or have a negative impact on the emotional and social dimensions of their personality.

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Authors’ Notes:

Scott White, Psy.D., is Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, Belhaven College.
Megan Moore, B.A., is now a Ph.D. student in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, Florida State University.
Josh Squires, M.A. is now a professional counselor in Jackson, MS.
We thank Kimberly Myers, Briana Novick, Christine Roosma-Bassett and Emily Deaton for their help in conducting the study as well as those who volunteered to participate in the study.  We also thank Dr. Elizabeth Williford for her assistance with statistics.
Correspondence concerning this study should be addressed to Dr. Scott White.