Your personality doesn't belong to you

November 17, 2020

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The study of personality has a fairly storied history—a pretty contentious search for the essence of human expression. But more modern approaches to the study of personality show us something interesting—that our personalities might be something that's forced upon us.


The study of personality has a fairly storied history—a pretty contentious search for the essence of human expression. Something about it seems to have called to thinkers for an extremely long time.

For example Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, imagined personality types like the 'unseasonable man'—someone who has an "inopportune attitude to those we meet" and will bother you when you're busy or tell you a long-winded story you've already heard. A fairly apt description of people I know today and he was writing about 2300 years ago.

And this kind of longevity is the point. I've previously written on the history of an important aspect of personality philosophy. It seems like we have a fairly universal impulse to compare peoples' temperament with the elemental forces. Some people are heated and quick to engage like fire, where others are cold and withdrawn like water, and so on. These ideas don't just colour our ideas about personality today, but stretch across cultures from modernity to antiquity.

The longevity and stability of these features of human expression has led many modern researchers to believe that personality doesn't really change all that much, both across history and across the lifespan. But more modern approaches to the study of personality make that a little hard to believe.

Indeed, modern approaches to the study of personality seem to indicate that our personalities might be something that's forced upon us.

The modern take on the essence of human expression

As mentioned, thinkers would very often compare human expression to the elements. In fact, the entire approach to medical models in the ancient world were very often laid down in terms of elemental forces.

But more recently, as technology permits, we've embraced big data. Early factor analysis proponents, who'd use statistical methods to identify common features in big datasets, would analyse our language or our responses to questionnaires to see what traits were common across different people.

The dominant approach in psychology (as opposed to business or industry psychometrics), and the most well-studied traits, are often referred to as the 'big-five', and consists of five continuums of personality factors. While these five have slight variations in name across the literature, they each refer to the same general personality trait clusters. To quote my last article:

  • Openness to experience—people who are higher are more likely to seek out new things, be curious and create. People who are lower are more likely to be consistent and more cautious about engaging in new activities.
  • Conscientiousness–people who are higher are more likely to be organised around goals and efficient at achieving them. People who are lower are typically less goal-oriented and instead more extravagent and disorganised.
  • Extraversion—people who are higher are usually more social, energetic, and outgoing. Those lower are generally more reserved and solitary.
  • Agreeableness—those higher are more likely to go along with things, to be friendly and compassionate. People who are lower are more likely to be challenging, combative and less concerned about 'smoothing things over'.
  • Neuroticism—not quite the typical conception of neuroticism. People higher in this trait are more likely to be sensitive to stress, high-achieving, self-reflective and oriented to threats. Those lower are more likely to be ignorant or care less about threats or stress, less reflective, and may be more resilient.

This particular scaffold of human expression represents a departure from the more common elemental classifications (although the elements still peer out at us. The reason for this may well be because this model is derived statistically, as opposed to being the result of theory. The human mind recognises elemental forces and superimposes them upon people. Statistical models, we like to think, are more impartial—objective.

This particualar model is borne of what's called the 'lexical approach'. Essentially, the more words we have in our language to describe something, the more important it is likely to be to us. With factor analysis we statistically search for commonalities between clusters of related words—words we use to describe each other—and we find these 'big-five' clusters.

As such, many researchers have great enthusiasm for it. A statistical model illuminating not what big thinkers thought divided up the forms of human expression, but what the data generated about human expression through centuries of human interactions can tell us.

Rocky road for the big five

If you haven't come across it already, any search for information on personality will lead you eventually to the big five. It's been a staple of clinical and research practice since it's modern incarnation in the '80s. While other personality typologies remain popular in slower-moving industries, the big five holds the most sway in both the academic and popular consciousness currently.

And it has its merits. Our scores on these five dimensions generally remain fairly stable across adulthood. It appears that we inherit some proportion of these traits from our parents. And it has been linked to the temperament of infants. Temperament is thought to be a biological disposition to respond to stimuli. Some babies are calm and rarely make a fuss, and some babies are more sensitive and cry frequently, much to the chagrin of unfortunate parents. Some babies are more emotionally expressive, and some are less. And so on.

Temperaments are typically far broader and less specific than personality traits, be it the big five or another typology. In part this is because babies can't do personality quizzes. But it's also because babies are less capable of engaging in behaviour. If one has a limited range of expression, then it's hard to create detailed accounts of how one expresses oneself.

And this very fact should alert us to an issue with our big five personality traits. The big five don't perfectly link to temperament. They couldn't—temperaments are less detailed. But not only do they not fit perfectly, the fit is actually fairly feeble. If temperament is of biological origin, and it unpredictably transforms from a small number of broad predispositions into some even larger number of more detailed personality traits, then the difference is probably largely explained by the environment we're exposed to.

This isn't much of a surprise, I hope, to learn that the environment shapes us. What's more concerning is what kind of environmental factors are shaping us.

The big five across cultures

When we took the big five overseas, we were initially quite pleased to see that the big five personality dimensions mapped well to other cultures. That was until we decided to rerun the word analysis in the indigenous language rather than using the old research on English words. Then we started to see new factors appear.

The most developed example is an honesty/humility factor. In cultures that place greater emphasis on moral character, this factor appears instead of or alongside some of our more familiar big five factors. But plenty of other factors also appear to a greater or lesser extent. We sometimes find a masculinity/feminity dimension—a sensible finding in cultures where the language is divided in the same way. Another common finding is a factor of risk-taking, something that we find split in the big-five among traits like extraversion and openness to experience, but coalesces into something quite distinct in other cultures.

In short, it's not simply that the environment we're exposed to shapes our personality, but that our culture only encourages certain kinds of behavioural expression.

And then we reinforce it

Of course, we're not completely without agency in the development of personality. We also have a hand in shaping our behavioural expression. Unfortunately, this most often simply adds weight to the cultural shaping.

We've previously written about the reasons people are so cliquey. Similar forces are at play here. Models like Ben Scheider's attraction-selection-attrition model, social investment theory, or the person-environment fit model, explain that we:

  1. Seek out or are attracted to environments that fit our personalities;
  2. Fit better, and are thus more likely to stay in those environments;
  3. Are repelled or rejected by different environments; and
  4. Will do our best to shape ill-fitting environments to better suit our personalities.

On the surface, none of these things seem particularly surprising or even problematic. Humans feel a persistent urge to reduce the discomforts of the world. But if we dig a litte, the issues this poses becomes apparent fairly quickly.

Let's return our attention to the factor that arises is some other cultures—masculinity/femininity. Even in cultures where this doesn't appear, we see masculine and feminine differences. Women, for example, are often higher in neuroticism, agreeableness, sociable kinds of extraversion, and openness to feeling-type experiences. One might be inclined to make some kind of biological argument that women are somehow more submissive and community-oriented. But this oversimplification is a mistake we are fond of making. On inspection, the masculine and feminine traits not only change from culture to culture, but in some cases become clearly detrimental shapes for our behavioural expressions to take. Rather, it's far more easy to make a claim that, as usual, our culture prefers women submissive and community-oriented and in fact freak out a little. As the article I linked there demonstrates, this particular impulse and our reinforcement of it, may have resulted in the loss or corruption of one of the most fundamental traditions in the western world.

Or, we can take another approach. The book 'The Coddling of the American Mind' and the Atlantic article that preceded it caused quite some controversy in the academic community. However, the controversy was not directed at the thesis, but rather the details. The thesis, and the data that support it, are fairly clear: the communal impulse to protect our youth from challenges is leading to increasing rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. This idea is not new, but the 'Coddling' exposes that this communal impulse to protect has spread from the physical dangers of the world to the emotional one–we are now as likely to prohibit forms of behavioural expression as we are to prohibit dangerous items. In the words of the authors:

In the twentieth century, the word “safety” generally meant physical safety... As a result of class action lawsuits, efforts by investigative journalists and consumer advocates... and common sense, dangerous products and practices became less prevalent. Between 1978 and 1985, all fifty states passed laws making the use of car seats mandatory for children. Homes and day care centers were childproofed; choking hazards and sharp objects were removed. As a result, death rates for children have plummeted. This is, of course, a very good thing... But gradually, in the twenty-first century, on some college campuses, the meaning of “safety” underwent a process of “concept creep” and expanded to include “emotional safety.”... depriv[ing] young people of the experiences that [they] need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.

We might feel obliged to challenge the authors on various features of their argument. Yet, one cannot deny that while the university-going population has always scored highly, on average, in the personality trait of neuroticism, it is only recently that the expression of this trait has drastically spiked in the most negative forms—anxiety and depression. Neuroticism has always included these presentations, but neuroticism is more broadly about self-reflection. Self-reflection is also a necessary skill for growth. When our culture shapes us to focus increasingly upon threats, and we reinforce this process, self-reflection loses the value that it has for us. Indeed, since the strength of emotion is a product of our self-reflection it would only make sense that we see reports of more negative emotions.

These are examples of self-reinforcing cycles we didn't choose. So we face a question. Do we want our personalities decided for us? Or do we want to choose our personality?

A return to the elements

It is perhaps now more clear why there has been something enduring about the elemental approach to personality. We do have biological predispositions to respond—with more or less emotion, with more or less energy, and so on. And thus, whether you identify better with an element, or perhaps prefer more modern conceptions of temperament, it seems as though these broader characteristics are more helpful in trying to navigate the world. Everything else, we should get to choose.

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