Dr. Brian Little

October 30, 2014 by Speakers' Spotlight

Excerpt: Me, Myself, and Us

Personality psychology has become a widely popular area of interest among many individuals. Personality quizzes, “type” analyses and endless explanations detailing why we act the way we do are all sub-sets of the area Dr. Brian Little specializes in. Described as “a cross between Robin Williams and Einstein,” Dr. Little employs equal doses of humour and intelligence to explain how our personal communication styles influence our experiences with colleagues and clients. We’re thrilled to share this excerpt from the preface of his latest book, Me, Myself, and Us, which introduces readers to a new and fascinating perspective on personality psychology:

Me, Myself, and Us explores questions that are rooted in the origins of human consciousness but are as commonplace as the conversation you had at breakfast this morning. The questions are very personal and deal with you, yourself. Am I really an introvert? Why can I motivate my employees but can’t connect at all with my kids? Why am I a completely different person at home from the person I am at work? Do I really control the things that matter to me? I seem to be uncommonly happy—is there something wrong with me? Is there any truth to the ludicrous rumor that I am, in essence, a jerk?

Some of these questions deal with us, the other people in your life, particularly those who matter to you. Why does my ex-spouse do those things he does? Can I trust the new associates in my firm? Why was my grandmother so much happier than my mom? Should I be concerned that my daughter invests more in her online “friends” than in her immediate family?

To answer these kinds of questions we will draw on recent advances in the field of personality psychology and explore several key ways of understanding personality. We will start by examining your “personal constructs,” the cognitive goggles you use to understand yourself and others. We will then examine your traits, your goals and commitments, and the personal contexts of your everyday life. We will show how each of these factors helps shape the course of our lives and how understanding them helps us reflect on where our lives have gone and where they might still go.

Personality psychology emerged as an academic specialty in the 1930s, but its roots extend back to philosophical and medical theories in fourth-century BCE Greece. Influential among these ancient theories were those that emphasized how various bodily humors—air, black bile, blood, and yellow bile—gave rise to four corresponding temperamental types: phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine, and choleric personalities. Although such views are now thoroughly discredited, for centuries they were the dominant way of thinking about personality. So if your breakfast conversation had taken place during medieval times, the rumor that you were a jerk, ludicrous or not, would likely have been attributed to your surplus of yellow bile—that was your basic nature, and there was little you could do about it. There are echoes today of such a view about personality in theories that emphasize “types” of individuals. You may have already “typed” yourself because of a test you have taken: you think you are an extravert or a Type A, and you’re curious about whether such ways of thinking about yourself have any scientific validity. We will deal in some detail with such issues in the chapters that follow, and the answers might surprise you.

Those of you who have taken courses in psychology will be familiar with theories of personality that emphasize unconscious drives and impulses as the root causes of our behavior. The theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which were particularly influential in the early twentieth century, still have an influence in clinical psychology and literary fields but have fallen out of favor among academic researchers in personality psychology. If you have come to believe that the most consequential aspects of your personality are unconscious forces, primarily sexual in nature, what follows will certainly challenge you. Although forces of which we are unaware may well drive our behavior, such influences will not be the prime focus of this book; rather, we will explore how your life is more actively shaped by your goals, aspirations, and personal projects—self-defining ventures that provide meaning in your life. Looking at personality in this way provides you with a vantage point from which to reflect upon your life and think about your future. You are not simply a passive pawn manipulated entirely by forces beyond your control, even though you may have your doubts when you wake up and reflect on what an idiot you were last night.

Another way in which you may have come to think about your personality was through the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and others that flourished in the mid-twentieth century. In contrast with theories that emphasized unconscious determinants of personality, the humanistic psychologists emphasized the more active and growth-oriented aspects of human behavior. A generation that believed deeply in the human capacity, both individually and collectively, to shape our own futures enthusiastically endorsed this human potential perspective. Unfortunately, rigorous science did not match much of the rhetoric of the humanistic movement in psychology. Indeed, scientific objectivity was, itself, seen as a barrier to a true understanding of human nature, a view that was particularly prominent in “new age” approaches to understanding ourselves.

Today this more optimistic view of our capacity for meaningful lives is studied by the field of positive psychology, which explores factors that enhance flourishing in individual lives, communities, organizations, and nations. Positive psychology has explicitly committed itself to a scientifically rigorous approach to understanding human well-being and distances itself from some of the more questionable excesses of humanistic psychology. Although Me, Myself, and Us is not a positive psychology book per se, it shares with that field a concern about well-being, happiness, and a sense of meaning in our lives, especially how our personalities influence these aspects of the good life. The application of these lessons from the science of personality to our own personal lives will not be in ten easy steps or formulaic algorithms. It will involve the art of well-being—the creation of a distinctive, singular way of reflecting on your life.

I don’t assume in this book that you have prior knowledge about personality psychology or of psychology, for that matter. I only assume that you are curious about understanding how personality can shape our lives. But some of you might well have taken a course in psychology and are aware that personality psychology went through a crisis in the 1970s as a result of the publication, in 1968, of a book by Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University. Mischel’s book, Personality and Assessment, challenged the whole notion of stable traits of personality. He concluded that there was scant evidence for broad, stable traits of personality, concluding that much of our daily conduct was based instead on the situations we confronted and the ways we construed those situations. Some took this as an indictment of the whole field of personality psychology, and a generation of psychology students was then taught that they should look elsewhere to understand the origins of their behavior. Perhaps you were taught this and thus approach the field of personality psychology with caution.

Today things have dramatically changed. The field of personality psychology is exceptionally buoyant and has expanded into a broad- based personality science studying a considerable range of factors, from neurons to narratives, and drawing contributions from fields as disparate as biochemistry, economics, and literary biography. Within this expanded field the study of traits has been revitalized. I will show you how these enduring aspects of personality have major consequences for your health, happiness, and success in life. We will also see that these traits have a neurobiological base that is, in part, determined by genetic factors. But we will not stop there—personality is more complex than the simple acting out of our biological dispositions. I will introduce you to the distinction between fixed traits and what I call “free traits” of personality, such as when an introverted person acts as an over-the-top extravert, and not only at the office karaoke party. Or a deeply disagreeable person is resolutely pleasant for a whole weekend in October. Perhaps you do this yourself.

Why do you act out of character in this way, and what are the consequences for you?

Beyond the revitalization of trait psychology, contemporary personality science has also made advances in four other key areas. First, our understanding of the biological influences on personality, our first natures, has grown enormously in the past decade. The old dichotomy between nature and nurture has given way to a more intricate and intriguing perspective on how we can nurture our natures. Second, our understanding of environmental influences on personality has been transformed. The social, physical, and symbolic contexts of our lives comprise our second natures. These influences, from our iPod playlists to the “personality” of our cities, both reflect and shape our personalities. Third, there has been a sea change in how psychologists have been exploring the links between personality and human motivation. I have coined the term third natures to refer to this shift. Third natures arise out of the personal commitments and core projects that we pursue in our daily lives. Under this new perspective genes influence us as do our circumstances, but we are not hostage to them. Our core projects enable us to rise beyond our first two natures. It is in this distinctively human capacity that the subtleties and the intrigue of human personality are most clearly discerned. Fourth, in contrast with the emphasis on pathology in some of the classic theories of personality, the new personality science is equally concerned with positive attributes like creativity, resiliency, and human flourishing, and in this respect it over-laps with the concerns of positive psychology. The science of personality explores those who are both odd and audacious—strange folks and real characters.

Me, Myself, and Us draws on these advances in the study of personality and examines issues that have consequences for how we think about ourselves and others. Are our first impressions of other people’s personalities usually fallacious? Are creative individuals essentially maladjusted? Are our characters, as William James put it, set like plaster by the age of thirty? Is a belief that we are in control of our lives an unmitigated good? Are there patterns of personality that differentiate hardy, healthy people and those at risk for coronaries? Do our singular personalities comprise one unified self or a confederacy of selves, and if the latter, which of our mini-me’s do we offer up in marriage or mergers? Are some individuals genetically hardwired for happiness? Which is the more viable path toward human flourishing—the pursuit of happiness or the happiness of pursuit?

Me, Myself, and Us explores these questions and provides a new perspective on human natures and the varieties of well-being. It also provides a framework through which we can explore the personal, more intimate implications of the science of personality. Such exploration may clarify some of the stranger aspects of our daily conduct and help you see your very self and other selves as somewhat less perplexing and definitely more intriguing.

From Me, Myself, and Us by Dr. Brian Little