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Personality: Understanding People

Psalm 8 asks, "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The scientist answers, "Man is a product of internal and external forces." Each person is the result of interaction between biological heritage and cultural history. The kind of person you are and what you do depend on both raw material (heredity) and what you do with this raw material (how it is shaped and grown). We must eat to live, but whether we eat rice or meat, and whether we use fingers or utensils, is influenced by culture and experience.1

The Importance of Self-Concept

Self-concept is the constellation of central ideas and attitudes we have about ourselves. Prescott Leckey, a psychologist in the early 20th century, explained the importance of self-concept in human behavior: “Every person’s central mission in life is the preservation and enhancement of his concept of himself.” This was put another way years later by educator S.I. Hayakawa: “The primary goal of a human being is not self-preservation, but preservation of the symbolic self. Why else would a man spend hundreds of dollars a year to catch a few fish? Or why would a woman skip lunch for years to buy a fur coat? Or why would a soldier throw his body on a live grenade, killing himself to save comrades he might not even know? We do what we do in order to be consistent with who we think we are.”7

People know their self-concept, dimly or clearly, and can usually justify why they do what they do in a word or phrase. Comedian Steve Martin says, "I'm a wild and crazy guy." Oliver North explained his motives to a congressional committee, "I did what I did because I am a patriot." As author Jack Bickham explains, people begin forming a self-concept early in life. They test it, and if it seems reasonably accurate, they begin to define themselves more specifically by it. To themselves and others, they may say, "I'm a man of action,' or, "I'm a lady of quality," or, "I'm a brilliant writer, but I can't do math," or, "I'm a Danforth, and every Danforth is a leader."

Whatever the roots of people's perceptions, once they start making judgments about themselves, the die is cast and it is hard to alter. People appear dedicated to becoming more of what they think they already are. This can be seen throughout one's life. The quiet and unassuming man who rushes into a burning building to save a child may never have considered himself to be a hero, but he probably always considered himself to be a man who loved children, and he could have told you earlier, "I'm a person who does what he must."8

Personality Plays a Part

Personality is an important part of one's self-concept. Years ago, Gordon Allport of Harvard University analyzed the English language and found 18,000 trait-like terms used to designate distinctive patterns of behavior. Allport believed that this rich collection of words provided a way to capture the uniqueness of each individual and that this uniqueness could be described in terms of personality. He identified three levels of strength or dominance of personality: cardinal dispositions, central tendencies, and secondary traits.9

When an individual has a cardinal disposition, almost every aspect of his or her life is influenced by it. The person’s core identity is shaped by this powerful disposition. People who have a cardinal disposition are often labeled with names or adjectives derived from historical or fictional characters, such as Christlike, Machiavellian, Quixotic, Scrooge, or Don Juan.

Few people have one cardinal disposition. Ordinarily, the personality develops around several outstanding central tendencies. These central tendencies form the dominant characteristics of the personality. Allport believed that the central tendencies of a personality were likely to be those traits you would mention in writing a letter of recommendation -- dependable, intelligent, kindhearted, outgoing, and resourceful are examples.

Secondary traits function more on the periphery of the personality. They are less significant, less conspicuous, and less consistent than cardinal dispositions or central tendencies, but they still are important in understanding why people do what they do -- "Likes sports," "likes to travel,"  "likes books,” and "loves animals" are examples of secondary traits.

Allport wasn't the first person to explain human behavior according to trait emphasis. Many years earlier, the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard came to view people as being either drifters or drivers and either takers or givers. His ideal, or model, person was a driver -- goal oriented and responsible for his or her actions -- and a giver -- concerned with the condition of others and committed to their welfare.

Allport found in his research that the average person can be best described by 7 to 10 personality traits. These cardinal, central, and secondary traits help us understand the uniqueness of the person. Consider the traits that describe your personality:

Cardinal Disposition

What are you more like than anyone else you know? For example, are you an “artist”? Are you a “scientist”?  Are you a “warrior”? What is your “ruling passion,” or cardinal disposition?

Central Tendencies

Identify the central tendencies in your personality. For example, are you dominant or submissive? Are you extroverted or introverted? Do you love variety or routine? Are you high-strung or calm? Are you liberal or conservative?

Secondary Traits

Identify your secondary traits. What is important to you? Do you like technology, do you enjoy music, do you like the outdoors, do you like gardening, do you like to build things, do you like to cook? What interests you?

By gaining insight into the subject of personality, people can understand themselves and their interactions with others. The key is to remember that different personalities have different needs and ways of behaving. The wise, caring, and effective person will value these differences and will strive to make the best use of the unique contributions of all types of people.

Keep in mind that no "questions" can capture the full flavor and uniqueness of a single human being. There is no one just like anyone else anywhere in the world. Each individual is biologically different because we are products of millions of ancestors, no two of whom were exactly alike. Additionally, each person is unique in his or her experiences, resulting in perceptions and judgments that are different from every other person's.10

Personality Consistency-- the Big Five Personality Traits

Some aspects of personality change little over time. Researchers have identified five robust dimensions or traits, each of which shows considerable stability from one situation to another and over time, as well as across cultures: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.13 A meta-analysis of studies on personality and leadership supports the following generalizations:

  • People high in openness to experience tend to be broad-minded, creative, insightful, and curious. They enjoy variety and adventure. These qualities are important in jobs that are fluid and dynamic, requiring innovational, daring, and unconventional thinking.15
  • People high in conscientiousness tend to be thorough, organized, self-disciplined, and dependable. They like order. They are responsible, able to plan, achievement-oriented, scrupulous, and rarely get into trouble. These qualities correlate positively with work success across a broad spectrum of occupations.16
  • People high in extroversion tend to be active, outgoing, assertive, and sociable. They typically have a large group of friends. These qualities are associated with jobs requiring high social contact and service to others.17
  • People high in agreeableness tend to be good-natured, courteous, approachable, considerate, and cooperative. These qualities are helpful when tasks require getting along with others and dealing effectively with conflicts.18
  • People high in neuroticism tend to be anxious, emotional, temperamental, and worrying. They have vivid imaginations. People low in neuroticism perform well in work requiring a calm demeanor, positive attitude, and keeping things in perspective.19

If someone is conscientious, no one says he is negligent or careless. If someone is agreeable, no one says she is critical or rude. If someone is neurotic, no one says he is calm or unemotional. If someone is open, no one says she is conforming and un-inquisitive. If someone is extroverted, no one says he is shy and quiet.

At least some personality traits are strongly influenced by heredity. This helps explain why identical twins who are raised apart often show pronounced similarities in their personalities. Research shows that just as people inherit variations in physical appearance, they also inherit variations in body chemistry that influence how sensitive they are to different types of stimulation as well as the types of feelings they generally experience. A person highly sensitive to stress may have higher neuroticism than other individuals. A person with a high need for stimulation may be more extroverted and open to experience than others. A soft-hearted and considerate person may be more agreeable than others. And a person with a high need for order may be more conscientious than others.22

In her excellent book Quiet, based on the theories of Carl Jung, Susan Cain addresses one of the "Big Five" personality traits, extroversion-introversion. Her conclusions are fitting as final thoughts on the subject of personality:

  • Personality is the product of biology and culture. It’s like a blizzard that is caused by neither temperature nor humidity alone, but by the intricate interaction of the two.
  • Personality is like a rubber band. We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so far. The extrovert Bill Clinton will never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends with a computer; and the introvert Bill Gates will never be Bill Clinton, no matter how much he polishes his social skills.
  • Introverts and extroverts are equally intelligent, although their group problem-solving styles are different. Introverts must think before they decide to speak. Extroverts must speak before they decide what they think.
  • Like "handedness," we have our preferences, but everyone is some of both -- introvert and extrovert -- depending on time and circumstances. The individual who is equally comfortable with both is ambivert, possessing the gifts of both.
  • Carl Jung thought the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed and indeed enriched. The ebullience of the extrovert excites the introvert, and the quiet of the introvert anchors the extrovert.

Cain summarizes, saying the secret in life is to be what you are and put yourself in the right setting. Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world, and do so by capitalizing on your natural personality strengths. Also, accommodate the social interaction needs of extroverts and the quiet privacy needs of introverts, and celebrate their different gifts.24 Effective leaders understand the needs and gifts of different personalities. They celebrate variety like crayons in a box, and appreciate the fact that we all must live in the same box.

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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