We live in a world that puts a premium on being “authentic” and “showing your true self.”
But what exactly is your authentic and true self?
For example, is it your natural tendency to be a curmudgeon, or your concerted effort to be kind and generous?
Which one is the “real” you?
My guest today has grappled with those questions for most of his career as a psychologist, with a focus on personality research. His name is Brian Little and he’s the author of Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, as well as the recently published book, Who Are You, Really?
Today on the show, Brian and I have a fascinating discussion on the world of personality science that will leave you wondering who you really are. We begin our conversation discussing the various factors that influence our personalities, including genetics, social environments, and self-direction. Brian then digs into the debate on whether our personalities are set in stone or if they can change, even into old age. We then discuss whether personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs, actually tell you anything about your personality.
We end our conversation discussing how simply changing environments can change our personalities, how we can willfully change them ourselves, and what the “real” you actually is.
You’re in for an enlightening existential conversation that also provides actionable insights on how you can live a more flourishing life.
- What exactly is personality, as defined by science?
- The ancient history and study of personality
- The interplay of nature and nurture when it comes to personality
- What is a personal construct?
- “Person” specialists vs. “thing” specialists, and how men and women differ here
- Do personality tests actually tell us anything useful?
- The Big Five personality traits — the O.C.E.A.N. acronym
- The importance of conscientiousness
- What are the benefits downsides of being neurotic?
- Introversion vs extroversion
- How situations and environments shape our personality, and how that differs from person to person
- What are “free traits”?
- Using free traits to help us with our core personal projects
- Why acting out of character isn’t always a bad thing
- Using “restorative niches” to recover from acting out of character
- What authenticity really means when it comes to personality
- The three forms of authenticity — biogenic, sociogenic, and idiogenic
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- What Leaders Can Learn About Meaningful Work from NASA and the Space Race
- Dr. House
- Myers-Briggs Test
- Understanding the Nature of Shyness
- The Milgram experiment
- Podcast: The Road to Character
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- Brian Little’s “Who Are You Really?” TED talk
Me, Myself, and Us is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read. It provides so many insights into why we are the way we are, and really gets you thinking about what it means to be “you.” Also check out his new book, Who Are You, Really?, based on his popular TED talk.
Connect With Brian Little
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, we live in a world that puts a premium on being authentic or showing your true self. But what exactly is your authentic and true self? For example, let’s say you’re naturally a curmudgeon, that’s your naturally tendency to be. But, you’ve made a concerted effort to be more kind and generous. Which one is your true self? Your natural curmudgeon-y side, or your kind and generous side? Which one is the real you?
Well, my guest has grappled with this question for most of his career as a psychologist with a focus on personality research. His name is Brian Little, and he’s the author of Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Wellbeing, as well as his recently published book, Who Are You Really?
Today on the show, Brian and I have a fascinating discussion on the world of personality science that will leave you wondering who you really are. Beginning our conversation discussing the various factors that influence our personalities including genetics, social environments, and self-direction. And then Brian digs into the debate on whether our personalities are set into stone or if we can change them even as we get into old age. We then discuss whether personality tests like the Myers-Briggs assessment actually tell you anything about your personality, and if there are better personality assessments out there. And we end our conversation discussing how simply changing environments can change our personalities, how we can willfully change them ourselves, and what the real you actually is.
Stay tuned for an enlightening existential conversation that also provides actual insights in how you can live a more flourishing life. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/personality.
Brian Little, welcome to the show.
Brian Little: Thank you. Delighted to be here.
Brett McKay: I see you wrote a book that … I really enjoyed it, ’cause it’s a topic that I think fascinates a lot of people. It’s personality. You’re a psychologist who specializes in the science of personality. I’m curious, what got you started researching personality?
Brian Little: Well, as an undergraduate, I was toggling back and forth between the physical sciences, the biological sciences, and the humanities. And I loved all of them, and when I found psychology, I found that I was able to invest in both the sciences fields and the humanities. And with this psychology, the field of personality was particularly convivial to me because in the morning I could read about neurons, in the afternoon about narratives and the full canvas that that field offered up was really quite beguiling to me.
Brett McKay: And so, let’s talk about what personality is because I know I’m fascinated with it, I know other people are fascinated with it because of personality tests and this idea that we can figure out what is us and what that means. And we can determine our careers based on our personality. But, from a scientific perspective, what exactly is personality?
Brian Little: It’s best described as the distinctive ways in which our behavior and preferences and motives distinguish ourselves from other individuals. It’s nicely captured in a phrase that one of the founders of the field, Henry Murray, and a colleague of his coined, which was that each of us is, in certain respects, like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person. And the personality psychologist is interested in the way that we’re like all other people and that they trace some of the roots of personality back to our evolutionary background and so on.
We’re interested in how we’re like some other people in terms of the various tests that look at what we call individual differences and the traits of personality and so on. And like no other person, which happens to be the area that I’m most interested in, which looks at the singular way in which we approach our world and in which we construct a life for ourselves. And so, all of those touch on issues that you can hear discussed in the bar, you can hear it discussed at home around the table. And it’s enduringly fascinating as a field.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and it’s been … The area of personality has been … The research goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks. They thought personality came from your humors.
Brian Little: Yes.
Brett McKay: So a mixture of your bile. So during that time of just the study of personality, what have been some of the theories as to why people have the personality they do? What are the different theories out there?
Brian Little: Yeah. The modern study, the modern academic study of personality really dates back to the early decades of the 20th century. And, though as you say, the ancient Greeks weighed in with speculations about human personality. But within the academic field and the more scientific analysis of personality, there were two major perspectives or slants on the field. One was what I call the biogenic, which stressed that we are the products of biological, neurochemical, and other influences that shape our behavior and make us who we are. And the other was the more cultural or social constructivist views, which said that we are and become what we have been taught by the cultural codes we are socialized into and so on.
And now, the old nurture/nature debate is over. I mean, we now realizes that they transact. That the biological or … Again, I like to use the term biogenic, meaning root to the end biological factors, is influenced very much our environments. Even our intra-uterin environment. And vice versa, that our nurture is shaped in part by the kind of biological creature we are. So they interact or even transact in ways that raise a whole new set of issues for studying personality.
Brett McKay: So it’s hard to say which one has the … I’ve heard the … Thrown the number out. Oh, 60% of your personality is genetic and 40% is environmental. Is that a hard fast thing or is it more mushy?
Brian Little: I wouldn’t call it mushy in that the kind of statistical analysis and genetic analysis of it is done, is pretty rigorous. I think it’s a bit more complex than that, and I would probably put it more at 50/50. It depends on what kind of traits you’re looking at, but somewhere between 40 and 60%. But, why they are more complex than that, why the relations are more complex is precisely because there are shifts that can occur when the genetic propensity interacts with certain situations or contextual features as I say even in the intra-uterin existence. If you have a mother who’s starving, the expression of gense that might come in that might potentially influence the child are going to not be expressed depending upon the environmental factors in the family, in the mother and so on.
And so, I think that there is … I think it’s helpful to realize that there are biogenic influences and that they’re substantial, but there not immutable. Height is very highly genetic, and yet you see massive population changes in height as a function of greater nutritional needs being satisfied and so on. So I think as long as we don’t assume that that genetic influence is forever fixed, it’s informative.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you can play around with it. You were just describe epigenetics, so there’s things we can do proactively, but also just our environment can affect our personality.
Brian Little: Yes, correct.
Brett McKay: Well, you start off the book talking about personality, this idea of a personal construct. And I guess the takeaway I got from that was that personal construct is how you see yourself. Is that what that is?
Brian Little: It’s a little broader than that. It’s how you see your world, including yourself. Most of the research that has been done within the personal construct tradition has looked at how we construe others and how we construe what’s happening to ourselves in our life. And I give an example within that chapter of a person who used many different labels for describing other individuals, but when we look at the deep structure underlying it, that guy had one big personal construct with respect to seeing himself and others, and that was whether they’re in the army or they’re not in the army. And in a way, the person who developed this way of looking at personality, George Kelly, used to say, “You are your constructs.” And in many ways, that fellow was that construct. He was, for a time, in the army. And he judged individuals and he judged his life in terms of whether it related to the army or not to the army. And it dominated his personality and it helped explain some of the things that happened in his life.
And as I related in that chapter, he got dismissed from the ROTC program and ended up not being in the army, and he collapsed. His whole psychological structure had collapsed because it had been invalidated. George Kelly used to argue that personal constructs are like goggles, but they’re also predictions and we’re like scientists. We erect these hypothesis, and if they work fine and if they make sense of what we’re doing, we keep them. But if they don’t predict, like a good scientist, you change the construct. But, sometimes, there’s enormous resistance to changing a construct. And in his case, when he realized he was not in the army any longer and his core identity had been challenged, he was flooded with anxiety and life did not go well for him.
Brett McKay: So the lesson there is you don’t just want to put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to your personal construct. You want multiple.
Brian Little: I think that’s a good way of putting it. I think that even though you may have many constructs, which is adaptive. They need to be related to each other in ways that provide some structure. Otherwise, you get chaos. And so, I think that looking at it as an intricate pattern of independent constructs that have a particular range of convenience, as we say, to anticipate certain events. And for some individuals, the events that they have complex constructs about are quite different than for others. And when I did my own work many, many years ago on what I called specialization theory, I distinguished those who have elaborated constructs with respect to other people. But when it comes to physical objects, things in their environment … Wow. They’re pretty simplistic. And vice versa. And so, I talked about person specialists and thing specialists, and that ends up raising some really interesting questions about career choice and sex differences and so on.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d like to dig into that a little bit deeper here. But I love this idea of being … I guess, when I read that chapter, the example I thought … That came to my mind was a man who made his whole identity his job. And he loses his job, it’s just like this army guy. And then his whole world collapses. I guess there’s this idea, instead of thinking about that you’re your job, you should have some sort of higher purpose. You have a calling to be a teacher. So you might lose your teaching job in a company, maybe you’re an instructor or facilitator. That’s because you’re still a teacher, you can go find another teaching job.
Brian Little: Yeah. That’s a lovely example. Or you can think of the individual who is working on a building and all he’s doing is putting on brick in at a time, and he could identify his construct, could see him as simply putting one brick after another. Or you could see him and he could see himself as building a cathedral. Or, as a recent article in the organizational behavior field puts it, that the individual who is sweeping the floors at NASA could construe himself as landing a man on the moon.
Brett McKay: Right. And then also having … Not only have a broad personal construct, but also having multiple personal constructs. So don’t just see yourself as a worker, see yourself … Well, I failed at my job, that didn’t work out. But I have a great family, and don’t discount that. And so, going back to this idea of personal specialists and thing specialists. So, personal specialists are people who, I guess, do well with interpersonal relations, right?
Brian Little: Yeah. They also have some really interesting interaction characteristics. For example, we found that those who score high on a measure of person orientation. When they’re interacting with others, they’re more expressive. Their faces show greater expressivity. They’re more empathetic, they have a greater capacity to and interest in attending to the nuance of your behavior, rather than just what you say. So they look at tone and so on. Whereas the more thing oriented individuals, when they’re dealing with people, are more likely to simply do what the more outward, observable features of what you’re saying. Rather than digging deeper.
And so, this leads to a capacity among person specialists in fields that require some degree of empathetic insight. Teaching, social worker, psychologists, or at least, clinical psychologists. And the thing specialists have a very different way of looking at things. And the interesting thing is you may find in some of the helping professions that the primary orientation is actual thing orientation. Dentists, for example, are scored particularly high on my thing orientation skill. Far higher than they did on person orientation, which may resonate for those of you who’ve ever had a root canal done with a decided lack of empathy.
Brett McKay: Yeah. There’s that debate in medicine right now. It’s like, “Well, we should teach doctors how to be more empathetic and give the … The patient-doctor relationship used to be better and more nuanced,” whatever. It’s like, no. If I’m dying, I want House. I want Dr. House …
Brian Little: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: I don’t want him to make me feel good. It’s like, make me better.
Brian Little: Yeah, exactly. I think one of the takeaways from this early work we did was that unlike our common conception that person orientation and thing orientation are the opposite ends of a single dimension. We found that they’re actually independent of each other, or in our statistical terms, they’re orthogonal. They’re independent of each other. So it’s possible to be low on both, to be high on one and low on the other, or to be what I call generalists, who are high in both. And I find them particularly interesting.
And in the medical field, I think it’s terrific to have generalists who are able to establish that relationship with the patient, to listen instead of simply process information, but to listen deeply to the concerns of the patient. But then to be able to switch into seeing the presenting problem as a thing specialist so that you are able to look at it as a physical problem that needs to be solved. A House call, if you wish, rather than bedside manner. That ability to switch is really critical.
Brett McKay: Right, and I imagine, generally, women are personal specialists and men are thing specialists. Or is that …
Brian Little: Yeah. It’s true. Personal specialist score are higher for women, thing more for men. But in terms of generalists, there’s no distinction. So it’s possible that you would find … Quite possible that you would find an equal number of generalists among men and women. It also plays into this whole notion of whether you’re orientation is exactly the same as your ability. You may be interested in things, but not necessarily have a great deal of ability in it. The interesting thing about thing orientation and women is that …
Some colleagues at Purdue University, have been looking at how it predicts women in the STEM fields. And thing oriented women who go into the STEM fields, first, they’re more attracted into STEM fields, and secondly, they last longer in the field. And I think having that enjoyment of tinkering around with things is really crucial. So it’s not necessarily a purely male phenomenon, and women have high levels of thing orientation, it augers well for their performance in the STEM fields, engineering and so on.
Brett McKay: Right. And the same goes for men. There are some men who are more personal oriented.
Brian Little: Yes.
Brett McKay: And they would do better in a more … A therapist, or a teacher, or a counselor, something like that.
Brian Little: Yeah.
Brett McKay: All right, let’s talk about the thing that I think has really given people a lot of incorrect ideas of what personality is. It’s personality test. You’ve probably taken one online, you’ve probably been to some corporate retreat where you take a Myers-Briggs personality test. Do these personalities test actually tell us anything useful about our personality?
Brian Little: It depends which ones we’re talking about. I’ve weighed in occasionally, I do in the book about Myers-Briggs and I’ve been enjoined by a number of Myers-Briggs practitioners in the last few months to realize that perhaps there are more sophisticated practitioners of that approach. And I’m very willing to agree that many of them have a far more sophisticated and nuanced view about what personality is than those who actually use it in a more informal and casual way.
I think Myers-Briggs and other trait measures are useful to begin conversations about personality. As I mentioned in the book, people enjoy taking them. They’re intriguing, people like to find out about where they stand relative to other people. But if people start to simply slot themselves into a whole, a pigeonhole, I really begin to worry. And so, once you stamp your Myers-Briggs code onto your forehead, or onto your cup, or onto your edible underwear, whatever it might be, we find that you start curtailing the possibilities you have in your life. And so, I think that while it may begin a conversation, we need to have a broader conversation about things that really matter to you, rather than just the kind of type that you were designated as having.
Brett McKay: Well, you know why I don’t find that useful? It’s that every time I take it, it’s different.
Brian Little: It is.
Brett McKay: Right? One week I’ll take it and I’ll be an extravert, and another week, I’m an introvert.
Brian Little: Yep.
Brett McKay: And I don’t know what’s going on there.
Brian Little: Well, the test … What we call the test, re-test reliability. That is, how you score on subsequent measurement with the scale, is not high and indeed, if you look at that reliability, it’s not as high as some of the other personality test measures that I do recommend. And I think that people become, because they experience what you did, they become skeptical of whether it points to anything other than a kind of momentary tendency when you’re taking the test. I’m a bit more optimistic of thinking it’s just chimerical. I think that if you look at it in terms of continuous scores, which some Myers-Briggs proponents do utilize, I should say. But, if instead of looking at yourself as an introvert or an extrovert, and you shift around from May to June, if you look at the range of scores, and if you look at the continuous scores, you may find greater stability.
In fact, most of these personality traits are normally distributed, so that most people end up in the middle. And then it stems out symmetrically into the extremes. And if you look at people’s scores on some of the more frequently used personality tests that psychologists use in their research right now, you find that very clearly. I think those continuous measures of personality, particularly what are called the big five traits, are very useful.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll get to the big five here in a bit. One more critique of Myers-Briggs. I just … I don’t want to dog on Myers, but the other … When I’ve done those tests is that I found myself answering the questions in the way I think, or I wanted to be … I wanted to be this type, so I answered the questions in a way I knew would get me that. You mentioned there’s some tests that are actually more reliable that psychologists use. Which ones do you think are more useful?
Brian Little: There are a bunch of them that go under the general rubric of big five trait measures. And you can … These are accessible online, if you just put in “big five personality traits.” You’re able to access some of them. The grandparent of them all is called the NEOP PI, and it’s developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae. And they have a long and very well-researched measure, that’s a commercial measure. But some of the shorter measures are really quite accurate in pinning where you stand on these big five dimensions of personality. And they’re very consequential for predicting aspects of how we do in our lives.
Brett McKay: And what are the big five personality traits?
Brian Little: Oh, they spell out an acronym, which is OCEAN. So O stands for openness to experience in contrast to more closed. C for conscientiousness in contrast to more lackadaisical, an informal way of managing yourself. E is for extraversion in contrast to interversion. A is agreeableness in contrast to disagreeableness. And N is neuroticism in contrast to stability.
Brett McKay: Okay, and there’s a big biogenic factor in our makeup of these different personality traits, correct?
Brian Little: Yes, there is.
Brett McKay: Okay. And so, in this chapter about the big five, you go into detail. ‘Cause as you said, these traits can have a big outcome on our life. For example, you talk about conscientious in detail, that people who are … Let’s talk about what is conscientiousness in the first place. How do you define that?
Brian Little: The conscientious individuals are those who make plans and keep to them. They’re able to focus very much on the task at hand. And so, they’re not diverted away by other extraneous matters. And we find they do better in their academic pursuits, they’re more likely to be promoted in their organizations. And that is to be expected. What may not be anticipated as much, but which is clearly the case, is that they are healthier and they live longer. And I think the reason for this is that they take care of themselves. And when a healthcare regimen is suggested to them by their physicians, they adopt it and they stick to it. And I think that is one of the reasons why they tend to endure longer than those who are less conscientious.
Brett McKay: So, what do you do if you’re not as conscientious. Like, you’re not as conscientious as someone who can stick those sorts of things. ‘Cause, I mean, I can see this having big policy ramifications. If you’re a doctor, you want your patient to stick to a prescription medication regime, but if they’re not conscientious, that’s going to be hard to do.
Brian Little: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So what do you do about that?
Brian Little: Well, that goes to the whole issue of how tractable are our traits. How much can we shift them? And that’s where we get into what I call an ocean of free traits, where while you may not be biogenetically disposed to being conscientious, you learn to act conscientiously in pursuit of a project that really matters to you in your life. Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves on this, but to me, we are able to do that. And it has important implications for how we live our lives.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’ll talk a little more about these free traits and how we can … Not manipulate them, but use them to … Leverage them, is the word. So neuroticism is another one that can just lead to a lot … A detrimental life. So what are the downsides of being neurotic?
Brian Little: They are disposed to feeling anxious, feelings of depression, of vulnerability in general, overly self-conscious. And consequently, they have problems in the every day carrying out of their projects and tasks. But I do believe that there are some benefits, as well. And the term neuroticism is a bit unfortunate in a way. We’re not talking about individuals who are clinically neurotic, who have neuroses that require some mental health treatment regime. We’re talking about individuals who have a disposition to feeling vulnerable and so on, short of a clinical condition. And one of the benefits of neuroticism arises if we think of them as being very sensitive individuals. And so, they are often able to sense things going on.
Let’s say in our organizations that others may be less sensitive to things that are going wrong, things that are potentially anxiety producing to all, but they see it first and they react first. And so they’re like canaries in the mine and I think that if we ignore the insights that neurotic individuals are able to bring to the table, we miss something really potentially important. And you see that in the arts, as well, in the proto-typical neurotic artist often will see, will sense things that are rising in the world that we need to attend to. And so, I think that brings benefits that are often squelched when we focus solely on the negative aspects of neuroticism.
Brett McKay: Right. And the other one is introversion, extraversion. That gets a lot of play. People are really obsessed with whether they’re an introvert or an extrovert. And I know Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, has really added to that conversation. But are there … I mean, a lot of people think that extroverts are the best thing to be. You’re sociable, and you’re the life of the party. But are there downsides of being an extrovert.
Brian Little: Yeah. Have you got 16 hours? It is such an intriguing topic, and you’re right. Susan Cain’s book really raised the level of public discourse on the benefits and downsides of both introversion and extroversion. Her claim was that North American culture, particularly American culture valorizes extroversion such that where introverted tendencies are squelched and marginalized, particularly in the world of business and law, which she practiced for years. And I think those are acute observations. There are benefits and costs to being both of those, and let me deal first with extroverts.
You’re right that they’re more engaging. The biogenics of extroversion relates to what we call dopaminergic processes in the brain. They seek out reward and they’re excited by the possibility of reward. Sometimes in doing that, they’re a little oblivious to some of the downsides. The more punishment cues that could be lurking in the environment that introverts, particularly neurotic introverts, would be very sensitive to. Extroverts have great memory, but it’s just short-term, not long-term memory. They have a capacity to get things done quickly, they interact in such a way that they’re very, very direct, and sometimes that gets things done. But they run into difficulties when it comes into situations that require more nuance, more holding back, a more introverted response. And they can drive each other to distraction. The introvert tends to do things more slowly, but is higher in quality. They get things done more slowly, but more correctly than their extroverted peers.
So there are just a whole diversity of ways in which they contrast. But if we’re looking at our businesses, if we’re looking at even our families, I think it’s possible to see strengths in both and that we need to resect those difference and not slot one group as inherently better than the other. And if you go cross culturally in many Asian communities overseas … And here I’m going to be vague because you really need to pin down whether you’re talking about Hong Kong or Japan and so on. But, broadly speaking, you’d find in some Asian communities that they’re worried if their child is too extroverted. They want them to learn to be more introverted, which is a big contrast, as Susan Cain would argue, with what is typically the case in North America.
Brett McKay: Right. So, before we get to free traits, I think we need to discuss this idea of … So, I thought this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book. This idea that situations in environments can shape our personality. And when I thought about it, I was like, okay. That makes sense. Because one of the examples you gave was the Milgrim study that happened in the ’50s.
Brian Little: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Where people … Yeah, they were told to shock somebody by this guy in a coat to the point where everyone pretty much killed the person. And so that was kind of an explanation of why people were able to do the Nazi death camps and the Holocaust. But in other ways, how can our personality change depending on the situation? Any other examples?
Brian Little: Yeah. I should point out for the record that they didn’t actually kill them in the Milgrim studies.
Brett McKay: Right, right.
Brian Little: Just in case that got misconstrued by anybody. I do have another example. I get into that in another chapter of the Me, Myself, and Us book. That some individuals are particularly shaped by the environment or the context, whereas others allow their more biogenic personality to override the situation. And the dimension of personality that captures this really nicely is called self-monitoring. And high self-monitors who shape their behavior to accord with the situation. And so, when they go to a funeral, they act funereal. When they go to a beach party, they act beach party. And they do not, if they’re feeling particularly funereal that day, act so at a beach party. Whereas low-self monitors are those who know what they like, what they are like, and what their preferences are.
And they are much more resistant to shifting their behavior to accord to the situation that they happen to be in and the demands they’re in. And this can lead to some really interesting and consequential conflicts between, for example, spouses. So a fellow may be a low-self monitor. He’s Doug, and he’s Doug no matter where he is. He just acts Doug. And he’s never Dougie in a playful, and he’s never Douglas in an overly formal way. He’s just plain Dough. His partner may well be a high self-monitor. And for her, let us say, she’s appalled at what she sees is the rigidity of Doug. She says, “It’s a party. Can’t you just loosen up and act as if you were at a party instead of expatiating on the value of a flat tax all evening?” And Doug also has his concerns. He says, “You know, I don’t know who you are. You’re this in situation A, you’re something different in situation B. And I don’t know who you are in situation C. I’m not even sure who it is I fell in love with.”
And they have this conflict that I think is not rare between those who believe that they’re biogenic self, who I am, rests in their fixed nature and those who feel that we need to flex ourselves to the situations and the context we’re in. It’s a protracted concern, and I think it can be solved or remedied by us realizing that there are these differences in personality regarding when we express out first nature, as I call it, or we accommodate to situations without being standup chameleons, where we’re just wishy washy.
Brett McKay: Right. So this brings another idea of … So our environment can shape us … I’m trying to lead up to this idea, we’re going to get metaphysical here in a bit, ’cause I think it goes to what your latest book, Who Are You Really? is about. So our environment can shape us, we have our genetics that shape us, but then you have this idea of free traits, which is basically our free will. We can decide that something’s important and we can behave in a different way. So can you … You started talking about it a little bit, can you expand on that somewhat?
Brian Little: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I’m glad to come back to that because I think it’s crucial. What I feel is really central to understanding what our personalities are is … Are the core projects in our lives, the personal projects to which we commit. To which give meaning and structure and shape to our lives. We’re not just a bunch of traits bouncing into situations and being propelled by the traits and shaped by the situation. I think each of us creates a series of projects in our lives, some of which come at us rapidly, social demands. Some of which arise out of our deepest strivings or how we want to be in the world. And those projects may sometimes cause us to, impel us to act out of character.
And acting out of character is a really critical phrase for me because it means two things. It means on the one hand acting in ways that go against our natural dispositions. So, good gosh. Chuck was really acting out of character yesterday when he danced on the table. But it also means acting on the basis of values that matter to us, on character. And a good example would be individuals who are biogenically rather introverted, but who have core projects in their lives that enjoin them to act in a more outgoing, dominant, and extroverted fashion. And often, certainly in the larger context of what your podcast and your whole program is about, these are things, which as guys, we often need to do. And women as well. We need to rise to the occasion. We just can’t retreat into our first nature.
And in doing that, by acting out of character, we’re engaging what I call a free trait. So, an introvert who has to, for whatever reason in a project, act in an assertive and an extroverted fashion, is engaged in the free trait of pseudo-extroversion. And this brings us a bunch of very positive things, such as progress on the projects that matter to us in our lives. It also helps us grow into being something different than we normally are. But there can be a cost, and the cost is potential burn out.
So, the example I gave in the book is my own behavior. I’m a biogenic introvert from way back. I think in the womb. And yet, as a professor, it seems to me that my main job is to profess. And I adore my students, I love my field, and I can’t wait to tell them what the field is about. And I can’t wait to tell your audience what we’re doing in our field of research. But my natural disposition is to be much more introverted, and so, when I at 8:00 in the morning to keep my students excited, I stand on my head or whatever I need to do to get them up and engaged, I’m acting out of character. And I can do this, and I’ve done it for so many years now that it’s not that costly.
But, sometimes, those of us who do that need to find restorative niches after we’ve finished. And particularly, let’s say at the break in a lecture where I’ve got 15 minutes, unlike a true extrovert who would stick around with the students, I need to get away and hide somewhere. Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet, have a whole chapter that used an example of this funny little Canadian prof at Harvard who used to do this. And I resonated very much to that story, as it turns out. And we do this. We find our restorative niches in which we are able to return our biogenic nature. But by having those free traits, I think we advance things that really matter to us in our lives.
Brett McKay: Okay. So I think this sets us up for the big question. Who are we, then? There’s this big … Today, there’s … Authenticity, right? Is the big buzz word. You got to be true to yourself. But you’ve just told me, we’ve had … I got genes that sort of help determine sort of my base nature, these big five personality traits, or a play big role.
My environment can shape my personality. So I could be introverted in one situation, but if you put me in another situation, I can be the life of the party. And I can decide, you know what? This thing’s really important to me. I can override that. So, which one’s the real you?
Brian Little: Yeah, that’s a great question. The book that comes out in a couple weeks, Who Are You Really?, has a chapter on authenticity. And I really agree with you, that authenticity is often a band aid and without, I think, an awareness of some of the complexities that attend it. And you’ve hit it right on the head. There are three claims to authenticity that I’d liked to distinguish. First, there is biogenic authenticity, which is where you’re true to your first nature. You go to a party because as soon as somebody says, “Party!” You say, “I’m in.” And so, you do it in an unreflective way, unreflective fashion.
There is, what I call … And you alluded to it by calling it environmental. I call it sociogenic. That is, it arises out of our social, cultural milieu. That constrains us or encourages us to act in a particular way. And we may show fidelity to that. We may act in a particular way constantly throughout our life ’cause that is what our family values are, or what our religious tradition enjoins me to be. Or what a good physician acts like, or a true lover. And those sociogenic influences may conflict with our biogenic. So we have to warring claims to our authenticity.
And finally, what you also alluded to, there is what I call idiogenic. It comes from the same root as idiosyncrasy. And idiogenic means arising from the personal projects, the singular claims that we have on ourselves in our lives, which also poses a challenge to our integrity. We may act out of integrity, we may act in an authentic way, irrespective of its conflicting with our biogenic and our sociogenic claims because we can do no other. It is something that we deeply value in our lives. We are an adoring father, we love our kids. We may have a biogenic tendency to have a short temper and be crude and so on. We may have a culture of people around us that encourage us to act in a way that is less than tender. But, we have a core project that is sensitive to the needs for kids to be related to a more gentle way, and so we do so.
And it is … I think that that idiogenic authenticity is, in a way, the real you. But if you don’t have core projects in your lives that cause you to act in that fashion, you may end up, as a default, simply doing what you think is natural for you or doing what you think you have to do because of your culture.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Brian, this has been a great conversation, and there’s so much more we could touch on in Me, Myself, and Us. We haven’t talked about narcism, we didn’t even talk about the research that you find that ties your personality based on your preference of where you want to live, whether the city or the country. A lot of fun stuff. And you got a new book coming out. Where can people go to learn all about this stuff?
Brian Little: Oh, thank you. It’s the … The main book is Me, Myself, and Us, and it’s accessible through all major bookstores and websites. The new one is a TED book, Simon & Schuster, and it comes out August 15th. It can be pre-ordered now. And it’s a shorter book, it’s much shorter than the one you’ve been drawing on. About 100 some odd pages, and it deals with just what we’ve been finishing on with the three ways of being yourself. And I guess, for a 15 minute … 15 second overview of what I do, my TED Talk in TED 2016 called Who Are You Really? is probably the shortest and simplest way of getting on top of this.
Brett McKay: I love it. Well, Brian, this has been a great conversation. What I love about the work is that I feel empowered. It’s like okay, there’s part of me that I can’t change, but there are things I can control, and that feels good. And I’m going to work on that.
Brian Little: That’s terrific. I’m delighted to hear that. Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: Brian Little, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brian Little: Cheers.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Brian Little. He’s the author of the books Me, Myself, and Us and also the recently published book, Who Are You Really? Both available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at brianlittle.com. Also check out our show notes for links to resources where you can delve deeper into his topic at aom.is/personality.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed this show and have gotten something out of it in the episode you listened to, appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, that helps us out a lot. And thank you to everyone who has given us a review, we really appreciate that. As always, thank you for your continued to support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 6, 2017