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Brian Little: Are Human Personalities Hardwired?

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 9:17 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Hardwired.

About Brian Little's TED Talk

Are you introverted or extroverted? It depends. When it comes to personality, psychologist Brian Little says we can actually act against our biology — especially if we pursue a "core life project."

About Brian Little

Brian Little is a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge and a fellow at the university's Well-Being Institute.

Little is the author of Me, Myself and Us — a book which explores how human personality changes and shapes life.

He's also a self-proclaimed introvert, but says he acts like an extrovert for his students.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So how would you describe your personality?

BRIAN LITTLE: Oh, goodness me, my personality is, I guess, fairly complex.

RAZ: This is Brian Little.

LITTLE: I'm a research professor in psychology at the University of Cambridge.

RAZ: And Brian does a lot of research on why we have the personalities we do, how much is hardwired and how much can be changed.

LITTLE: There are neurophysiological differences. There's the genetic component. But it also has what I call a sociogenic origin, in that cultures will provide the codes for how to act extrovertedly or agreeably or neurotically. And then we shape our behavior to be consistent with those expectations.

RAZ: Brian laid out how he classifies different personalities on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LITTLE: One of the most influential approaches in personality science is known as trait psychology. And it aligns you along five dimensions, which are normally distributed that describe universally held aspects of difference between people. They spell out the acronym OCEAN. So O stands for open to experience, versus those who are more closed. C stands for conscientiousness, in contrast to those with a more lackadaisical approach to life. E, extraversion, in contrast to more introverted people. A, agreeable individuals, in contrast of those decidedly not agreeable. And N, neurotic individuals, in contrast to those who are more stable.

All of these dimensions have implications for our well-being for how our life goes. Let me deal in a bit more detail with extraversion because it's consequential, and it's intriguing. Extroverts - when they interact - want to have lots of social encounter punctuated by closeness. They like to stand close for comfortable communication. They like to have a lot of eye contact or mutual gaze. We found in some research that they use more diminutive terms when they meet somebody. So when an extrovert meets Charles, it rapidly becomes Charlie and then Chuck and then Chuckles, Baby.

Whereas for introverts - remains Charles until he is given a pass to be more intimate by the person he's talking to. We speak differently. Extroverts prefer black and white, concrete, simple language. Introverts prefer - and I must tell you that I am as extreme an introvert as you could possibly imagine. We speak differently. We prefer contextually complex, contingent, weasel-word sentences, more or less...

(LAUGHTER)

LITTLE: ...As it were, not to put too fine a point on it - like that.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: How much of these characteristics are wired into us? Are we just born with some of these?

LITTLE: Yeah. That is being very keenly debated right now. My own take on it is that the literature is pretty convincing, that there is a genetic component to personality traits. I was asked once - are people set like plaster? - as had been argued early on about people - by the age of 30, their traits are set like plaster. And I sort of jokingly say with a British accent, no, but I think they're half-plastered. And that may be seen as somewhat flippant. But I think there's a kernel of truth to it, that there is a degree of fixedness to traits. They're manifested, if you wish, in temperament and early age and so on.

RAZ: I mean, this all makes intuitive sense, right? Like, I look at my kids, and I see in them personality traits that come from me and sometimes traits that I don't necessarily like about myself.

LITTLE: (Laughter).

RAZ: And you see it. We see it in our kids. Yeah.

LITTLE: It's a little daunting - isn't it? - when you see it in the kids.

RAZ: I mean, that's the thing, right? Like, it's a little scary because if there are things that you don't like about yourself...

LITTLE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...You - some of those are just - are they immutable?

LITTLE: No. No. That I would say. I do not think that they are immutable. We're wonderfully complex creatures. And I think that part of the delight of our complexity is that we're not as predictable as we might be.

RAZ: Yeah.

LITTLE: And we act out of character. And so those aspects of the expression of traits seem to me to be really important. And it takes us away from the notion that once you've got your personality fixed, that's it. You can't change. I think you can. And, indeed, over the lifespan, the research evidence is pretty clear that people will change as a group as they get older. They will become less neurotic. They'll be more conscientious, more agreeable and so on. But if you go back to your grade six reunion, the rank order of people on these different dimensions stays relatively the same. The kid who was the class clown may have a little more sophisticated sense of humor now that he's 36. But he's still the one cracking the jokes.

RAZ: Yeah.

LITTLE: I see traits as being - having sort of two boxes in the model. One are relatively fixed traits, which have a biogenic root, and then what I call free traits, which are more modulable and are much more likely to not reflect the biogenic but some other aspects of the roots of our personalities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LITTLE: What are these free traits? There where we enact a script in order to advance a core project in our lives. And they are what matters. Don't ask people, what type you are? Ask them what, are your core projects in your life? And we enact those free traits. I'm an introvert. But I have a core project, which is to profess. I am a professor. And I adore my students. And I adore my field. And so I act in an extroverted way because at 8 in the morning, the students need a little bit of humor, a little bit of engagement to keep them going in arduous days of study.

But we need to be very careful when we act protractedly out of character. Sometimes we may find that we don't take care of ourselves. I find, for example, after a period of pseudo-extroverted behavior, I need to repair somewhere on my own. I sometimes go to the men's room to escape the slings and arrows of outrageous extroverts. I remember one particular day when I was retired to a cubicle trying to avoid overstimulation, and a real extrovert came in beside me. And I could hear various evacuatory noises, which we hate, even our own. That's why flush during as well as after.

(LAUGHTER)

LITTLE: And then I heard this gravelly voice saying, hey, is that Dr. Little? If anything is guaranteed to constipate an introvert for six months is talking on the John.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is - Brian, this is like a question that you would ask God. And you're the closest that we have to God here today.

LITTLE: (Laughter) God, help us.

RAZ: So you're going to have to stand in for God. But, I mean, you know, we've heard from Robert Sapolsky about how our behaviors are essentially determined - right? - by genetics and environment and how we can also change our behavior from Moshe Szyf. So what is it? Like, what is it that makes us who we are?

LITTLE: Now here this...

(LAUGHTER)

LITTLE: I think it is our personality, but only our personality if it is construed as the pursuit of projects that matter to us in our life. We're foolish if we try to say we're either completely free to chart paths irrespective of the traits that we were born with, on the one hand, or the opposite. I think that there are three things that are important here. One is the biogenic authenticity of our lives, where you're able to do things that come naturally to you. The second is what I call socio-eugenic authenticity, where you're doing things that matter to your culture and you can do no other.

And the third is what I call idiogenic - comes from the same root as idiosyncrasy. And these are the personal things that you have crafted for yourself. And they may stand in conflict with both your biogenic nature and your socio-genic nature. And it is that that gives us our signature singularity. This isn't putting in a plea for snowflake-ishness (ph). This is a plea for recognizing that we are all like all some and no other person. Fascinating individual differences make us distinctive - indeed, unique.

RAZ: That's psychologist Brian Little. He's written a book about this. It's called "Who Are You, Really? The Surprising Puzzle Of Personality." You can hear his full talk at TED.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY CAN'T YOU BEHAVE?")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Why can't you behave?

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Hardwired this week. If you want to find out more about who is on it, you can go to npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out TED.com or the TED app. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Tony Liu. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY CAN'T YOU BEHAVE?")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Oh, why can't you behave? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.