Post No.: 0038
‘Personality’ is that pattern of characteristic thoughts, feelings and behaviours that distinguishes one person from another, and that persists over time and situations.
For a long time now, many psychologists have used a certain model or framework to assess people’s personalities. The ‘big five’ broad dimensions of personality in this model are – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN, or CANOE). A series of questions are asked that attempt to score individuals along each of these five dimensions.
But do note that these personality assessments, like intelligence assessments, are not 100% predictive because they do not ask or test for everything and in all situations, when different contextual or situational factors can affect our behaviours. Even though our personalities are supposed to persist across different situations, we can behave like sufficiently different individuals in different contexts (like I’m normally tranquil but I turn into a growling monster in the gym!) It’s barely a complete description of a person’s personality. It covers more the outward signs but not inward ones like one’s tendencies to certain beliefs, prejudices, quickness to temper, one’s sense of humour, and more. They also usually involve self-reporting, and therefore potential biases when one judges one’s own attitudes and behaviours.
Yet such tests are not without utility – being able to better understand the personality of a person can help you to better understand how to communicate with them, handle them or make the most of them.
Openness – imaginative, creative and open to new ideas and experiences; but can be too suggestible and may lack focus on the smaller picture to turn those ideas into reality.
Conscientiousness – methodical, organised, dependable, responsible and highly self-disciplined; but can be perfectionists and put too much stress on themselves and possibly others.
Extraversion – enjoys the company of others, likes parties, are risk-takers and decisive; but can be on the other hand antisocial due to the attention-seeking, loudness and risk-taking, and requires more, and more continuous, stimulation just to feel anything (hence they’re not necessarily having more fun than introverts but need more stimulation just to feel like they’re having fun).
Agreeableness – trusting, friendly, kind, compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious of others; but has to be careful to avoid being taken advantage of and to be more assertive, straight-talking and competitive in certain contexts.
Neuroticism – worrying can be adaptive because worry can motivate us to notice and act upon something rather than ignore it until it becomes a bigger problem; but low scorers are more emotionally stable, laid-back, less prone to distress, anger or anxiety and work better under pressure.
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ personalities – certain traits that are more socially appropriate and/or more advantageous in one context can be socially inappropriate and/or disadvantageous in other contexts (e.g. narcissists can be annoying to those around them but then attention-seekers do end up receiving more attention from others, or psychopaths can lack empathy but then they can perform surgical procedures as doctors without feeling emotionally squeamish). So some personality traits that might not be socially likeable have their advantages in other contexts so no trait is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it just depends on the situation.
Genetics seems to play a key role, but upbringing (family, but especially peers) and key life events greatly influence our personalities too. During much of our adult years, our personalities seldom change, at least substantially or rapidly, but people can substantially change in a relatively short time under severe or extraordinary circumstances (e.g. a tragic loss or ongoing health problem which leads to chronic depression, or surviving a major health scare could lead to a person living more generously and gratefully). Of course our brain function is influential too (e.g. sustaining brain damage can instantly and substantially change a person’s personality across some or all dimensions). Personalities can ever-so-gradually change as people age too, particularly from childhood to adulthood (hence don’t judge a child’s personality too soon!) Elderly people seem to be generally more forgiving and less vengeful. Because any such changes tend to be incredibly gradual – when we’ve not seen a person for a very long time, this can be when the changes, if any, are most noticeable.
Being the eldest child in a family may mean you’ll be more conservative, and being the youngest child may mean you’ll be more rebellious, radical and adventurous, so birth order seems to have some correlational patterns too – at least on average when looking at sampled populations as a whole i.e. you and anyone can legitimately be an exception to such rules like these (and do note that it’s only correlational data too).
The model does receive a lot of criticism though, such as for not being a theory per se (it doesn’t explain any underlying causes for people’s personalities), for having some overlap between the traits, and for being an oversimplistic and incomplete assessment of an individual’s personality – particularly neglecting any fuzzy traits that aren’t considered ‘normal/common enough’. People can be, say, introverted in some contexts and extroverted in other contexts, hence wouldn’t describe themselves as firmly one type or the other. Alcohol and other substances, or sleep deprivation, can also affect our attitudes and behaviours for a given moment. The company we’re presently around with can too, such as being more boisterous or lewd amongst the lads compared to amongst our parents or others. People are therefore more complex than what a personality test result might reveal because their circumstances matter too.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an alternative test used frequently in the corporate world. It’s not supported or approved by the scientific community yet many swear by it (but then so do many regarding horoscopes!) Again, as with personality tests in general, a problem is the self-reporting; so if your potential employer asks, “Do you enjoy working with others?” – you’re not exactly going to say, “No, I hate being around people!”
It is extremely difficult to operationally define ‘personality’, at least in a simple and practical way. Yet these tests can be somewhat informative if we bear these caveats in mind.