Personality, the basics.

Personality is a bit like fate, it happens. It means that within the limits of what’s possible, you cannot change it and you need to either come to terms with it or accept it. That said, this applies if you consider the basic traits that make up human personality, and ‘ignore’ or rather put to the side for a while the more complex influence of the environment, in terms of what kind of world surrounds and shapes you as you age.

The five-factor model of personality

Speaking of basics, let’s start with precisely that – a knowledge of what is known as the five-factor model of personality that is thought to capture the major variation in human disposition. It is called the five-factor model because it is built around five traits, the Big 5, (or the Central 6 if you want to include general intelligence, but let’s focus on personality at this stage), and the easiest way to remember them is to use the acronym OCEAN, where O stands for openness, C for conscientiousness, E for extraversion, A for agreeableness, and N for neuroticism. Incidentally you will more generally come across the term ‘emotional stability’ rather than neuroticism, because this would seem to be a more adequate descriptor, at least for our modern times.

Stories of success

We need to start our story somewhere, and there’s no better way to do that than to look at it as one of great success. As the evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss has so elegantly put it, “All living humans are evolutionary success stories.” That’s an exceptionally refreshing thought, and the best part of it is that it’s true, because it means we have inherited the tools of body and mind that have led to our ancestors’ achievements, and consequently, if any of these ancestors had failed along the way – to do what they needed to do to survive, have children, and solve their problems – they would not have become ancestors. As individuals, each of us has inherited the special adaptations that have helped our ancestors’ success, and that is nothing short of fascinating.

It is important to clarify that when we speak of success, what we have in mind is a kind of biological fitness. It is also worth remembering that ultimately fitness is the product of a balance between the costs and the benefits of a particular mechanism, because nature, unlike the engineer, does not craft things with fine precision, but prefers to go for compromises that prove to work in the long term.

Interesting facts

There are some interesting facts to learn about the Big 5, such as that they show what is known as a bell-curve pattern of distribution, meaning you would tend to find most people in the middle of the curve and much fewer at the extremes, which is a good thing especially when you think of a trait such as agreeableness, and are consoled by the fact that most people are moderately agreeable and that exaggerations of good and evil are equally rare. There’s also the valid observation that, with the exception of general intelligence and openness, the Big 5 traits are fairly independent of each other. Knowing that my colleague is a highly conscientious person tells me nothing about their emotional stability or any other of their traits.

Going through each of the Big 5 personality traits in enough detail, one by one, would require this article to be lengthier than what is fashionable or desirable. Maybe for another time. What I’d like to do instead, so that we can already begin to extract value from this knowledge and share it for the benefit of finding individual solutions, is to highlight a couple of points that I find interesting.

A balance of costs and benefits

In this discourse, perhaps one of the most important things to consider is the awareness that each domain of personality comes with its set of costs and benefits. As we said earlier, in selecting these traits, nature does a balancing act, which means that equipping humans with the skills that are useful for solving their problems comes at a cost. As we would expect. I’ll give an example. Some of the benefits attached to conscientiousness include a careful attention to the long-term fitness benefits, not only yours, but also of those under your care, a good life expectancy, and desirable social qualities. This makes the highly-conscientious a valuable person in nearly every circumstance. But there are also the downsides, starting with the problematic tendency for these people to show obsessive behaviour, to be rigid up to the point of placing themselves in a tight space, and to miss what gains and joys can be had in the short term.

Doing what ‘needs to be done’

We started by saying that personality is like fate because you cannot change it. The danger in this concept is that, once you get a good grasp of the type of personality you and important others in your life possess, you may start wearing it like a branded suit, labels and all. And because a little knowledge is a double-edged sword, this can harm you. It’s OK to know that your tendency to experience stress and to be constantly vigilant are some of the tell-tale signs of neuroticism, but this doesn’t need to define you, still less limit you from reacting in a way that works in your favour. At this point, I guess the best piece of advice I can repeat is to do what needs to be done (as opposed to thinking about it), irrespective of whether this goes against your very own nature. It may sound conflicting, but it’s true. And more importantly, it works.  

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