Very early in my career, I had the opportunity to take the Myers Briggs type indicator (MBTI), and get feedback on my personality type.
I still vividly remember reading the summary: this test knew me better than I did! It was staggering to me, at the time, how answers to what appeared to be random questions would produce a personality description that truly resonated: one I could never have written myself.
I’ve been a fan of the MBTI ever since. So it’s a little disconcerting that Brian Little’s intriguing Me Myself and Us gives rather short shrift to this popular personality indicator. Apparently, while the MBTI is ‘adequate’ on accuracy, it scores low on consistency: if you take the test twice, you may get a different type profile. But he acknowledges the power of the ‘magical transformation’ that can occur when you recognise yourself in your profile, and proclaim, as I did: “that really is me!”
Little’s main objection to the MBTI is that it places people too rigidly into one of its 16 types – INFJ, ESTP and so on. Personality, he argues, is far too nuanced to be treated in this way. In Me Myself and Us, he explores those nuances, broadening the way we might consider personality as a whole.
Assessing fixed traits
The famous Victorian philosopher William James claimed that:
In most of us, by the age of thirty, our character is set like plaster and will never soften again.
According to Little, this is half right. There is clear evidence that our core personality traits have a genetic component accounting for around 50% of our behaviour. As with other personality scholars, like Daniel Nettle, Little prefers to focus on the ‘Big Five’ when measuring these traits: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness, and Extraversion.
Little subjects these traits (sometimes known by the acronyms CANOE or OCEAN) to an entertaining discussion. We learn, for example, that:
- Features of personality can be detected in newborn babies. For example, babies destined to being extraverts will orient towards loud noises: those destined to being introverts will turn away.
- Conscientiousness is highly associated with success in life: but agreeableness is not. In fact, agreeableness is one of the weakest predictors of organisational success, and agreeable people (especially men) are often less successful in their working life.
- While agreeable people are more likely to report they are happy, disagreeable people are more likely to say they are happy when they are being disagreeable!
- Introverts have greater sensitivity to pain than do extraverts – particularly if they are also neurotic.
- Extraverts are more likely to opt for quantity, introverts for quality: a preference that is a frequent cause of tension between colleagues!
Other influences on personality
But if fixed traits account for only 50% of our behaviour, what about the other half?
Other influences considered by Little include how our environment influences our behaviour, and whether individuals have an internal or external ‘locus of control’ (a tendency to attribute events to our own actions, or to external factors outside our control).
He also tackles the way an individual’s behaviour is influenced by the situation they’re in. People who are high social monitors (HSMs) tend to bend their behaviour to match their social situation. People who are low social monitors (LSMs) adopt a ‘take me or leave me’ approach: they act pretty much the same way in every social setting.
As HSMs are used to flexing their behaviour to different social settings, they find it easier to ‘act out of character’, extending themselves beyond their fixed personality traits. LSMs find it harder – and indeed, they don’t understand why they should either. This difference can easily cause disharmony within relationships. As Little comments, the behaviour an HSM may call ‘socially appropriate’ an LSM may call ‘being a fake’.
This is a fascinating chapter, showing how people – whatever their traits – bend themselves, or not, to different situations. It made me review not just my own tendencies but also those of other people in my life, and helped me to better understand areas of potential conflict.
Finally, Little reveals how we exercise our freedom to act out of character to advance our own personal projects, particularly core ones that we care deeply about. Chosen well, these projects help us achieve our goals or live by our values – and can greatly enhance our wellbeing. But poor choices can also bring on stress and unhappiness.
Little’s book is not always light reading, but it’s amiable, perceptive and challenges you to consider your own personality – and your life – in a number of different ways.
If you’re interested in where you stand on the Big 5, there are lots of different tests on the web. You can get a brief introduction and take a quick test from Daniel Nettle’s book in this Guardian feature.