Right Now | Traits of Gibraltar
A century ago, psychoanalysts declared that the human personality was largely fixed by age five. More recently, biologically oriented psychologists have detected characteristic signs of temperament in infancy. Even so, personality psychologist Brian Little, lecturer in psychology and a former Radcliffe Institute fellow, is "wary of spurious genetic postulations and claims of a genetic basis for fixed traits." Another of psychology's pioneers, William James, M.D. 1869, asserted that our psychological traits are "set like plaster" by age 30. Little counters that James was "only 50 percent correctwe are half-plastered. There is a heavily genetic aspect to the first stratum of personality. But our brains evolved a neocortex, which enables us to override these biological impulses to act in a certain way."
In a series of papers and a forthcoming book, Human Natures and Well Beings, Little bucks the current trend of biological determinism in psychology. He argues for the existence of "free traits": tendencies expressed by individual choice. Little ticks off the "Big Five" personality traitsopenness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticismand suggests thinking of them as musical notation. "Fixed traits are like a chord, five notes played at once," he explains. "But you need to extend personality temporally. Over time, traits might be expressed more like an arpeggio, with one or another note dominant at any given time."
Furthermore, Little argues that traits do not exist in the abstract, but are evoked in important ways by our "personal projects." He defines these commonsensically: personal projects are meaningful goals, both small and large, that can range from "put out the cat, quickly," to "transform Western thought, slowly." Individuals activate their free traits, expressing or stifling inborn tendencies, in service of "core projects"the endeavors linked to their deepest values. "Out of love for our wives or kids or our professions, we enjoin ourselves to act 'out of character,'" Little says. "For example, even though I'm a classic introvert, when I give a lecture for my students I perform with great passion. Introverts, when they are 'on,' become pseudo-extraverts. Can you tell the difference between a born extravert and a pseudo-extravert? Usually you cannot."
Acting "out of character" can mean acting away from one's character, but can also be behavior chosen on behalf of character, says Little, adding, "Character traits have an evaluative dimension, but personality traits are generally not evaluative." (He notes that the Journal of Character and Personality evolved into the Journal of Personality, and asks, only half-kidding, "When did we lose our character?")
Courage often means acting out of character. For example, while extraverts seek out reward cues, introverts, who have lower pain thresholds, instead tend to avoid punishment cues. "An introverted kid in a soccer game who is kicked hard in the shin might show her pain and hear someone say, 'Don't be a wuss,'" says Little. "But the introvert who hobbles back onto the field with a tear in her eye is even more of a hero than the extravertshe's acting out of character for the sake of her team."
In such instances, says Little, analysis of character in terms of free traits and personal projects opens "lines of commerce" between psychology and moral philosophy. "As scientists, we cannot adjudicate these moral questions," he says, "but we can inform their adjudication." He refers to the work of Amartya Sen (who returns to Harvard in January as Lamont University Professor), who argues that even though having "rights" is well and good, those rights mean little if one is precluded from the means of converting them into viable projects. "Human flourishing," says Little, "is achieved through the sustainable pursuit of one's core projects."
Although free traits can advance core projects, prolonged periods of overriding one's inborn temperament do take their toll. "It exacts a price in health, and can cause burnoutunless you have a restorative niche where you can indulge your first nature," Little explains. "After an hour or two in front of a class, my introverted side restores itself by taking a quiet break in the washroom, or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. With spouses and bosses, we can strike a bargain: I'll act out of character to advance our joint project if you will grant me a restorative niche. What we need is a Free Trait Agreement."
Brian Little e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org