Friday 2 December 2016

Personality - what makes you the way you are

I have just finished reading Daniel Nettle's book: Personality - What makes you the way you are. The first thing to say is that it is fascinating - engagingly written, so that it is easy and enjoyable to read, and also well-founded on a very broad reading of the relevant research (and some interesting by-ways) and properly referenced: a book (and an author) you can trust.

Daniel (full disclosure - I know him) starts by explaining why personality traits matter, and what the Big Five are. Then he considers the evolutionary context: why is there such variance in each of the Big Five in all human populations. This is all fascinating context, enlivened by vivid examples and anecdotes - such as the variance in the Beak of the Finch (which is the title of the second chapter).

The next five chapters look at each of the Big Five in turn, considering the nature of the trait, how it has been researched, the benefits and risks associated with high or low scores, and so on. Each chapter has a title exemplifying. or rather personifying, the trait under consideration. Thus the chapter on Extraversion is Wanderers, that on Neuroticism is Worriers; Conscientiousness, Controllers; Agreeableness, Empathisers; and that on Openness, Poets.

In each case, I finished the chapter with a far deeper and richer understanding of the trait than I had had previously; and I am not starting from a zero base-line. 

In passing, it also becomes clear why typologies such as the MBTI, whilst they may have some utility as a useful fiction, and a way of enabling some self-awareness and some interesting discussions, are not really adequate in representing where the state of scientific knowledge now stands with regard to personality. The Hogan tools fare rather better, as the HPI is based on the Big Five, and also uses scales rather than the binary approach of MBTI.

The penultimate chapter then looks at the nature/nurture debate, particularly drawing on twin studies, which are, of course, crucial in this context. The startling and counter-intuitive conclusion is that parental influence (excepting extremes of abuse etc) has no influence on the personality of their children. There is more work to be done on environmental influence, but that finding is clear and conclusive. Other candidates for influence (such as birth order) are also considered and, by and large, discarded. But, as I say, there is more work to be done here.
Daniel Nettle (centre) expressing some extraversion:
chairing a post-play discussion with the cast of
Hitting the Wall at Northern Stage on 30 November 2016

All this can leave one feeling somewhat fatalistic: if so much of my behaviour is driven by my personality, and my personality is largely inherited and influenced post-birth by factors we can't fully describe, still less control, where do I stand in terms of individuality, agency and responsibility.  Daniel addresses this in the final chapter, and in particular, the key question: can I change? Here he makes valuable distinctions between personality traits and how one might express them (including working against them, as well as finding benign rather than harmful expressions); but he also emphasises the importance of the personal life story - the meanings an individual constructs to make sense of his or her experiences, and the malleability of those.  This of course is a perfect fit with my work in Shifting Stories, so I was both pleased and relieved to find it here.

So I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening his or her understanding of personality, and in particular the big five. And now I need to go through it again, this time making notes...

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