Over the past couple of years an old interest in personality psychology has reawakened. In part, it stems from spending more time in office environments, where my success is dependent on my ability to work well with people who are different from me. Also, the more data I get from 23andme about my genetic traits, the more curious I’ve become about how nature and nurture have shaped my adult self.

Nurturing My Nature

Based on analysis of my DNA, 23andme says I’m lactose intolerant, not a fast sprinter, generally not a great sleeper, and consume more caffeine than others. All true. Though, of course, I could choose to consume less caffeine, which would probably help me sleep better, and I could train to become a much faster sprinter.

Studies of adopted twins that grew up in different families have found that most personality traits are inherited rather than developed. In one study, researchers gave a personality questionairre to identical twins that grew up separately. Based on their responses, the personality traits most strongly influenced by heredity were need for achievement, leadership, obedience to authority, zest for life, alienation, risk-seeking, and resistance to stress. In other words, most of the traits that define how we behave in any given situation.

Researchers that study the genetics of personality now focus on the so-called “big five” of personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. With genetic data from more than 140,000 people, there are demonstrable associations between our genes and our personality traits, but they have yet to find, say, an extraversion gene. Not only do these studies confirm that we inherit many of our personality traits, but they have also found correlations between some of those traits and other characteristics. There is a strong association, for example, between extraversion and attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder, and between openness and schizophrenia. More controversially, some research suggests that there may be associations between our personality traits and our physical traits. Studies from the Face Research Lab at the University of Glasgow have found a correlation between plump cheeks and higher rates of anxiety. Introverts produce more saliva when drinking lemon juice than extroverts.

The internet becomes a scary place when you search for these studies. If some of our personality traits are inherited and linked to our appearance, then it’s natural to wonder if there are broad personality differences that differ by race. Of course there are differences between a Chinese teenager in Beijing and a Finnish teenager in Helsinki, but how many of those changes would reverse if the Finnish teenager had been adopted as a newborn baby by Chinese parents in Beijing and vise-versa?

Traits, Situations and Self-Constructs

“Every person is in certain respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person.” ~ Clyde Kluckhohn & Henry Murray

A few weeks ago, I went to a happy hour after a workday that was packed with meetings and was greeted with, “we all thought you were too introverted to come out.” Instead, I was one of the most talkative and animated people at the happy hour. I wasn’t behaving out of character. I’m almost always extraverted when in group settings, though I put myself in group settings less often than most. Personality traits are real, but how they manifest themselves in any given situation depends on the person and the situation. We can learn about ourselves and others by using personality assessments like Myers-Briggs or DISC, but we run the risk of exaggerating the effect of personality traits and underestimating the importance of mood and situational context. In fact, when we attempt to explain the behaviors of others, we’re more likely to cite personality (he’s rude), while we’re more likely to explain our own behaviors based on context (I was hungry).

We Can Change

So, context matters. And so do self-constructs, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The more we identify with the introvert construct, the more likely we are to explain our behaviors through that lens. The more we identify as “decisive,” the more decisive we are likely to become.

On the other hand, personality tests can help us see ourselves through the eyes of others. Whereas I may describe myself as “direct, intellectually curious and willing to engage in disagreement,” others may describe me as judgmental, cynical, aggressive, and even closed-minded. Personality types help us see traits that tend to bundle together and how those traits are interpreted by other types of people with different bundles of traits. And there is no shortage in the offering of personality types.

Let’s say there is total randomness in how the big five of personality traits express themselves; then there are 25 possible combinations of personality types. That’s more than the 16 personality types according to Myers Briggs , the 15 types based on the DISC assessment, or the four color-coded profiles of Taylor Hartman. And it’s slightly less than the 27 personality sub-types based on the Enneagram or or the 4000+ personality traits described by Gordon Allport.

Over the past two years I’ve read up on all of these different personality frameworks to come to a better understanding of myself, how I differ from others, and how they are likely to perceive me. Surprisingly (to me at least), the most helpful framework is the one surrounded by the most psuedo-scientific, mystical woo-woo: the Enneagram.

Author and Enneagram evangelist Beatrice Chestnut doesn’t shy away from hippie mysticism in her book The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge. Case in point:

In the chapters that follow, I will explain how the vision and technology associated with this ancient wisdom tradition come alive in the Enneagram. As we will discover, the Enneagram symbolizes this wisdom path through both its message and its mathematical-geometric structure, which expresses universal laws of nature that show how this ancient vision can be enacted, and reveal the methods for achieving it.

I would advise the scientific minded to skip chapter two and head straight to Chestnut’s clear, no-nonsense descriptions of the nine main Enneagram profiles and the three sub-types for each profile. I identified deeply with the #5 “Investigator” profile with a strong “social subtype.” This isn’t to say that it’s a complete picture of my personality traits or behavioral tendencies, but it’s pretty damn close. Among my highlights:

  • “Fives have analytical minds and tend to spend a lot of time pursuing their intellectual interests.”
  • “They see knowledge as the most secure and satisfying form of power. In the face of conflict, difficulty, or hurt feelings, this stance sees withdrawal and distance as the best strategy.”
  • “They are calm in a crisis. As they appreciate the importance of boundaries in relationships, they value and respect others’ boundaries and confidences.”
  • “Naturally austere and laconic, Fives are minimalistic and economical in the things they do, which reflects their concern with making the most of what resources they have and an ability to get by on limited supplies.”
  • “Fives typically report that they had an early experience of being either neglected or engulfed by others at a time when they needed other people to survive. Because there was nothing to do but to live in privation, they learned to hold onto their meager resources.”
  • “This leads to a tendency to withhold limited resources, and to a “greediness” or hoarding mentality when it comes to time, energy, information, and material supplies. They often pride themselves on having an ascetic or minimalistic way of life.”
  • “This defensive strategy naturally leads Fives to acquire habits through which they distance themselves from others. This strategy can make Fives seem aloof and uncaring, but they are much more sensitive on the inside than they appear.”
  • “Five’s desire to observe and reflect on life instead of participate in it actively, in spontaneous ways. Naranjo thus likens the satisfaction Fives seek in thinking to a “replacement of living through reading.” Intense thinking activity also serves the purpose of helping Fives prepare for life, a preparation that they always feel like they need to do more of because they never feel ready enough.”
  • “Fives’ thinking tends to focus on figuring things out, preparing for interactions, and engaging in mental classification and organization. They are also attracted to thinking because it supports looking competent, which can be a way of hiding or a way of communicating your value without revealing too much of yourself.”
  • “Fives both feel a need for and idealize autonomy. They highly prize self-sufficiency, a value that offers both a way of affirming and rationalizing their preference for distance from others.”
  • “Fives are mindful of others’ needs for space based on their own concern with privacy and protection.”
  • “Normally, people have some ability to say, “I want that”—to express desires and do the work they need to do to get what they want—but these Fives cannot ask and cannot take. So they must rely on preserving what they are able to acquire themselves.”
  • “In their search for meaning, these Fives can become spiritual or idealistic in a way that is actually counter to real spiritual attainment, because it bypasses compassion and empathy and the practical level of how people connect to each other in ordinary life. This tendency is the prototype of what is sometimes called a “spiritual bypass,” in which a person looks for and devotes himself to a higher ideal or a valued system of knowledge as a way of avoiding doing the emotional and psychological work he would need to do to grow and develop.”

As you can see, these archetypical observations aren’t intended to make us feel good about ourselves; they are far more useful. Chestnut describes the common childhood experiences that lead to coping mechanisms that become personality traits — and I readily identified with all three. Also, each chapter doesn’t stop at diagnosis; we’re given practical suggestions to understand ourselves better and experiment with approaches to address the negative aspects of our personality traits. For example, she recommends that I:

  • Recognize when you may be thinking about feelings rather than actually experiencing emotions … allow yourself to shift your attention to your body, with the intention of being open and alert to picking up subtle signs of emotion.
  • Whether it’s getting a massage, letting someone take you out to dinner, or sharing more of yourself with someone you trust, allow yourself to increase the pleasurable ways in which you participate in the external world.
  • Notice when your devotion to high ideals displaces an openness to what’s happening in everyday life and actually causes you to close yourself off to others.

The biggest surprise from reading over past journals is how little I’ve changed over the past 20 years. The fundamentals of my personality remain the same, and surely most of them are rooted in my genes while others are deeply encoded in my subconscious based on how I grew up. Still, emerging research suggests that there are aspects of our personality we can change. And even if we couldn’t, I still find it valuable to better understand why others perceive me differently than I perceive myself. There is a comfort and confidence that comes with self-awareness.

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