Saturday, September 29, 2012

Personality: Production & Promotion

Recently, I've been reading Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012) and originally, that's what I thought I'd blog about.

But while reading Cain's book (which is, along with her TED talk, both very popular and very interesting), I was introduced to the work of Harvard professor Dr. Brian R. Little, and I decided that's what I really wanted to blog about.

As Cain points out in Chapter 9: When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?, psychologists have long debated whether or not certain personality traits are relatively fixed--and therefore unchanging over time--or whether they fluctuate as a result of the specific situations an individual finds him- or herself in.

How can a professedly introverted person manage to behave in seemingly extroverted ways? If s/he is introverted, wouldn't those personality traits manifest themselves consistently, regardless of circumstances?

This is an experience many introverts share. In my own case, I lead a decidedly introverted life: reading, cooking, knitting, gardening and interacting with absolutely no one--with the exception of my cats--for an entire 48 hours is, in my humble opinion, a perfectly fine way to spend a beautiful weekend.

I don't feel tired or sad or lonely or depressed at the end of it. On the contrary, I often feel energized or reenergized, and any sensation of sadness comes from the thought that all good things must end.

And yet, I'm a professor who really likes to teach and discuss ideas. I'm pretty sure that, in the classroom, I come across as anything but shy or introspective.

This is the essence of the "person-situation debate."  Some psychologists believe personality traits--the "person" side of the debate--are fixed and inherent over an individual's lifespan. Others--known as "Situationists"-- argue that there is no inherently fixed personality.  In Cain's words, they claim that "there is no core self; there are only the various selves of Situations X, Y and Z" (206).

As Cain points out, over the years, this two-sided debate has become decidedly more nuanced.  Like the famous nature vs. nurture debate, science has increasingly come to adopt an "interactionist" perspective.

When scientists ask, "Nature or nurture?", the evidence now indicates that it's generally both, operating in conjunction with one another.

On the heels of these insights, Professor Brian R. Little has developed what is known as "Free Trait Theory" to explain situations like the one described above, in which an introvert seemingly "becomes" extroverted for a period of time, under specific circumstances.

In "Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered," Little identifies "personal projects" as (obviously) "extended sets of personally relevant action that range from daily defining life commitments."

As Little observes, "Research has confirmed that the quality of lives is enhanced when people are engaged in personal projects that they regard as meaningful, manageable, not unduly stressful, and supported by others."

Of particular importance, Little argues, are "core projects," that is, activities which "anchor an individual’s project system as a whole and are deeply infused with a sense of self-identity." Core projects are commitments that fundamentally define who we are.

To live happy lives, Little argues, human beings need to pursue core projects. In pursuit of these aims, individuals will often demonstrate what Little identifies as "free traits" or "strategic enactments designed to advance core projects."

According to Little, the concept of free traits explains why an introverted person can be extroverted at times. Despite "biogenic" factors (such as genetics) and "sociogenic" factors (such as cultural norms)--both of which are largely unconscious--an individual's "idiogenic" factors (the personal values, commitments and self-constructions that are the conscious result of self-reflection and deliberation) can and often will impel a person to manipulate sociogenic factors in pursuit of a core project.

As Little puts it, "Free traits emerge when individuals enact sociogenic scripts to advance idiogenic aims, irrespective of the person’s biogenic dispositions."

You hate schmoozing, but you do it because you're starting your own business and you want it to succeed. You typically avoid confrontation, but you see someone bullying your toddler, so you intervene.

In these cases, your idiogenic aim ("I want to be a successful businesswoman" or "I'm going to be an Awesome Mommy") drives your decision to schmooze and to intervene, respectively, because you know that those are the social scripts that will advance your personal values--your "core project."

One might say that, in these moments, you become a different person because you realize that you need to be in order to achieve or promote something that you value greatly.

Some call this hypocrisy, of course, or suggest that you aren't "really" who you thought you were in the first place--that, "in fact," you're an excellent schmoozer or that you're wasting your obvious talents by not signing up to be Class Mom.

Because free traits arise as a result of an interactive experience, however, it is dangerous to identify them as constitutive of who you "really" are. As Little notes, "free traits may enhance life quality by promoting core projects, but protracted free-traited behavior may compromise emotional and physical health."

In short, people who continually pretend to be something that they're not in order to get ahead will ultimately pay a price for their behavior. In the end, identifying free traits as components of one's ingrained personality and behaving accordingly will, Little argues, take an emotional and physical toll on an individual's health and happiness.

This doesn't mean, however, that individuals need to simply surrender to their personalities. It does mean that they need to be more attentive to those personalities and to the ways in which free traits can work in their favor.

If you don't like to schmooze, you probably shouldn't--despite the fact that everyone is probably telling you that you "should" or that you "have to" and, worse yet, that you "should" "like it."

Intead of seeing it as an all-or-nothing proposition, however, both Cain and Little suggest that individuals should see if they can find ways to engage in modified social scripts in order to promote their personal aims.

I don't like to schmooze, so I'm obviously never going to take a job in sales. At the same time, however, my job does require a degree of self-promotion, so I have to pick my venues and adjust my strategies.

Large meetings, committees and/or cocktail parties are not my strengths, and if I'm required to attend them, as the song says, "in ten minutes I'll be late for the door": I feel uncomfortable when I'm at them, and exhausted and downright depressed after they're over (which is never soon enough to suit me).

(And no, alcohol doesn't help. Then I'm just uncomfortable and worried that I've had too much to drink and won't be able to drive home and sit with my cats. Which is what I desperately want to do. Immediately.)

Small committees (with clearly defined goals and an agenda) or a lunch or dinner with a colleague, on the other hand, is an enjoyable and productive experience for me: I learn things, I interact, I brainstorm, I laugh. I also don't mind hosting people or having small parties at my home, actually, because then I can interact with people in an environment in which I'm quite comfortable--my home.

This isn't schmoozing, but in many ways, it's better than schmoozing: it's a way of making productive connections with colleagues and advancing career goals in a way that doesn't feel awkward, artificial or emotionally draining.

In the end, the key to successfully using free traits to promote personal happiness lies in a recognition that they are in fact a means to an end. I want to be a good professor, and this requires that I be outgoing to some degree and in some circumstances. At the same time, however, my personality is such that I have come to realize that I will end up violently unhappy if I feel compelled to be outgoing all of the time.

So, at the end of the day, after lunch with a friend or colleague, a good class, and a series of productive conversations with students, my feeling is, "just take those old records off the shelf--I'll sit and listen to them by myself."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."