Is Mental Toughness Part of Personality?



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*This post was authored by Georgi P. Yankov of Development Dimensions International and Ryne Sherman.

Do us a favor. Go to Google and search for the term “mental toughness.” Then click on “news” to see the latest news on mental toughness. We can almost guarantee that you will find an article published within the past three days. Doing this exercise on August 6, 2019 yielded the results on the right.

The point is, people – particularly sports coaches and athletes – talk about mental toughness as a key ingredient for success virtually all the time. Clearly, the concept of mental toughness is of wide interest and importance. But what is mental toughness exactly and how is it related to personality? A few years ago, we set out to investigate this question. Last week, our findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. In this post, we summarize the key results.

Locating Mental Toughness

Although scholars define mental toughness in slightly different ways, they all agree that mental toughness includes self-confidence, competitiveness, and emotional control. As such, our goal was not to try to determine which definition is correct, but rather to understand how the core of mental toughness was related to standard personality instruments.

To do so, we had nearly 500 participants – including 90 current or former collegiate athletes – complete an assessment of mental toughness and several normal personality assessments including the HEXACO-60, the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), and the Hogan Development Survey (HDS). The mental toughness questionnaire asked participants the degree to which they agreed with statements like “I have unshakeable confidence in my ability,” and “I am committed to completing the tasks I have to do.”

Next, we used machine learning techniques to determine the degree to which we could reproduce scores on the measure of mental toughness based only on scores on the personality assessments. We found that we could reproduce an individual’s mental toughness scores with a very high degree of accuracy (r = .70), indicating that mental toughness is a part of personality. Moreover, we found that mental toughness is made up of several dimensions of the HEXACO model of personality: parts of extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotionality. People high on mental toughness tended to endorse items related to pushing for results, having high energy levels, and having a high degree of self-confidence.

We found an even more direct link between mental toughness and the HPI. Specifically, the core components of the Ambition scale (Competitive, Self-Confident, Accomplishment, and Leadership) were strongly associated with mental toughness scores. In terms of the HDS, we found that a combination of subscales stemming from Excitable, Cautious, Bold, Imaginative, and even Dutiful were most related to mental toughness.

Summary

Mental toughness is found everywhere in the world of sports, and for good reason. Scores on mental toughness measures predict performance in Australian football, cricket, gymnastics, soccer, and tennis. Beyond this, mental toughness also predicts performance in non-athletic contexts. Our data show that mental toughness is not outside the scope of personality. In fact, using standard personality assessments, we can accurately reproduce one’s score on a mental toughness measure.