December 1, 2010

Let’s Get Personal

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Why do you hate your enemies and love your friends? It’s all about personality.When you read the description that your freshman year roommate wrote on the “roommate search” Facebook page, you thought she sounded perfect: laid back, easygoing, a lover of music and of eating Oreo’s with peanut butter. Three months into fall semester, you realize that you have made a terrible mistake. She is, as she said, easygoing and laid back; the problem is … you’re not. You can appreciate why all of your other friends love her, but living with her has become your worst nightmare.

If you hadn’t Sparknoted philosophy in high school, you would not have had the benefit of Socrates’ wisdom to “know thyself.” Personality science is focused on understanding these exact phenomena: What determines our personalities? Why do some people get along, while others can barely sit at the same table during Thanksgiving without starting World War III? Let’s start with the obvious: No two people are exactly the same. Even identical twins, who share all the same genes, differ in their personalities. Yet, despite a fascination with personality throughout human history, psychologists have yet to reach a consensus about the correct definition. The first major area of contention is about which factors determine personality; is personality a result of your biology, perception, emotions, environment, genetics, motivation or memories? If you believe that your interactions with your environment are the critical factor (if, for example, you think that being forced to write thank you notes while you were growing up is the reason that you are grateful), you support behavioral theories of personality. If you think that your personality is determined by a combination of your genetics, physiology and neurology (you believe you’re an introvert because of your cortical arousal), you support theories that have a biological basis. Freudians, on the other hand, believe that your personality is like an iceberg: Only 10 percent is visible, while the other 90 percent is below the surface, suggesting that your childhood memories and repressed feelings are important determinants of your personality and behavior. Still another group of psychologists are “humanists,” and emphasize that concepts, like self-actualization and our innate need for personal growth, are fundamental to understanding personality. The point is, the field remains fragmented and there is more than one compelling explanation for personality. Psychologists also differentiate ways of analyzing personality through “traits” or “types.” The distinction hinges on whether you view personality as a combination of different quantitative characteristics (your roommate was lazy, dirty and self-centered) or whether you believe that there are a few qualitative patterns of thinking and behavior (e.g. her “Type B” personality simply did not mesh with your “Type A” style). If you want to assess someone’s personality using traits, you can start with The Big Five. After decades of personality research, psychologists found that most personality traits “boil down” to five characteristics: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN). If the trait approach doesn’t jive with your view of personality, you’re in good company, since many people prefer a more general “type model.” You may have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is a popular way to assess personality because it’s straightforward and gives you usable information about how you “play” and who you play with best. The indicator is now used by everyone from company managers to online matchmakers.The MBTI sorts people based on preference; it’s not about character and does not assume that certain types are better than others. The test is based on Carl Jung’s personality theory, which elucidates four distinct dichotomies: extroversion/introversion, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling and judgment/perception. Based on the interaction among your preferences, you are sorted into one of 16 distinctive personality types. You can give yourself a “quick and dirty” mini-version of the test by answering a question for each MBTI dimension. First, do you recharge your energy by socializing with other people and engaging in activities (extroversion) or spending time in your inner space (introversion)? The Sensor/Intuitor variable is about information processing: when you are making a decision, do you focus mainly on the basic information that you take in (sensor) or your interpretation and the meaning that you add to the facts (intuitor)? When you make decisions, do you focus on thoughts and logic (thinking) or on people and your feelings (feeling)? Do you tend to set schedules and organize your life (judge) or do you leave the options open to see what happens (perceive)?Based on your answers, you end up with a combination, like, “ENFJ.” The test gives you an indication of your prefernces and helps you recognize your general style. While the MBTI is now widely used, many psychologists caution that it measures motives rather than personality. Regardless, even psychologists who reject the validity of the measure as a personality “test” recognize the value in its implication: these dimensions represent fundamental ways in which people differ. Although you might struggle to relate to someone who has a completely different type than you, working on a team of people with varied personality types can optimize group performance and project results. Whatever the model you like, thinking systematically about personality will make you a wiser group member, girlfriend and roommate so you can understand what works, what doesn’t and how to avoid finishing your AEM project solo.

Original Author: Emily Weinstein