by syaffolee

Life Is Nothing But Leitmotifs

Except when I’m particularly bored, I pay little attention to personality theories. I’m familiar with Freud and Jung and those silly Myers-Briggs tests on the internet, of course, but I never really felt there was anything behind any of that stuff. After reading Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are by Daniel Nettle, I’m beginning to understand the why of personality development, but I’m still not convinced of the purpose of finding all of this out–except perhaps to give high school guidance counselors another tool to shoehorn students into predetermined career paths. (Wouldn’t it be better to just let people choose their own paths and make their own mistakes rather than trapping them in a possibly miserable situation if you’re wrong?)

Nettle posits in the introduction to Personality that life is nothing but a series of leitmotifs which can be predicted by an individual’s personality. Unlike other personality theories like the Myers-Briggs, Nettle touts the five-factor model developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae which has been determined by statistical observations–when different traits were analyzed for correlations, they clustered into five groups heretofore labeled as extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. Because humans are social animals and we need to act in certain ways to ensure cooperation and survival, the main thesis of the book is that personality is an outgrowth of evolutionary fitness.

An obvious question then is: If humans need certain cooperative behaviors for survival, then why don’t we all have the same personality? Why, in reality, is there a continuum–from introverts to extroverts, staid to flaky, co-dependent to psychopathic? Nettle answers that because the environment itself varies and may require different strategies for survival at different times, the existence of different personalities within a population is necessary. He argues that there is no bad or good personality–all personalities have their benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. Examples: Most people would associated excessive neuroticism with anxiety and depression. But you need to have some neurotic tendencies to help you keep alert for dangers. If you’re not neurotic at all, you might miss certain warning signs and walk straight into a life-threatening situation. One might say that a lot of openness is a good thing; openness correlates with artistic ability and creative thinking. But sometimes, it’s not–schizophrenics, psychotics, and believers of wacko religions tend to have high scores for openness.

Almost without exception, Nettle seems skeptical of any environmental influences on personality. He points to studies that show that similar family environments have no effect on personality (anecdotally, anyone with siblings could probably attest to that) as well as birth order. It’s possible that personality is influenced by the environment in a manner like that of the crest development of the water-flea Daphnia–by outside hormonal and environmental cues. However, in trying to explain the differing personalities of identical twins, the author leans towards the gene network theory. Because environment can influence outward characteristics like height, the tweaking of those factors may have a downstream effect on personality.

Nettle ends with some techniques for “changing” your personality if you’re displeased with it. It really isn’t so much “changing” as it is behavior modification. One is finding alternative outlets for your personality. Say you’re an extrovert who gets high off sky diving. But sky diving is dangerous–so you find an another activity that gives you a similar high (maybe participating in cooking competitions on television) that isn’t so dangerous. Or you could do something called “running against the spin”–which is not even starting a destructive behavior (like excessive drinking) in the first place.

One weakness of Personality is that it’s written as a popular science book. I would have liked a bit more science (the abysmal correlation values that were cited didn’t help any)–but as it is, one would have to go to the notes to look up the references if one were inclined to read the actual experiments. But then again, too much science would bore the heck out of a general audience–so I guess it’s a fine line to tread. At any rate, I had the impression that the text had quite a bit of hand-waving even with some intriguing theories.