Who are you, really? The puzzle of personality

What makes you, you? Psychologists like to talk about our traits, or defined characteristics that make us who we are. But Brian Little is more interested in moments when we transcend those traits — sometimes because our culture demands it of us, and sometimes because we demand it of ourselves. Join Little as he dissects the surprising differences between introverts and extroverts and explains why your personality may be more malleable than you think.

What an intriguing group of individuals you are … to a psychologist.


I’ve had the opportunity over the last couple of days of listening in on some of your conversations and watching you interact with each other. And I think it’s fair to say, already, that there are 47 people in this audience, at this moment, displaying psychological symptoms I would like to discuss today.


And I thought you might like to know who you are.


But instead of pointing at you, which would be gratuitous and intrusive, I thought I would tell you a few facts and stories, in which you may catch a glimpse of yourself.

I’m in the field of research known as personality psychology, which is part of a larger personality science which spans the full spectrum, from neurons to narratives. And what we try to do, in our own way, is to make sense of how each of us — each of you — is, in certain respects, like all other people, like some other people and like no other person.

Now, already you may be saying of yourself, “I’m not intriguing. I am the 46th most boring person in the Western Hemisphere.” Or you may say of yourself, “I am intriguing, even if I am regarded by most people as a great, thundering twit.”


But it is your self-diagnosed boringness and your inherent “twitiness” that makes me, as a psychologist, really fascinated by you. So let me explain why this is so.

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, and 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” — “extroversion,” in contrast to more introverted people. “A” — “agreeable individuals,” in contrast to 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. And so we know that, for example, openness and conscientiousness are very good predictors of life success, but the open people achieve that success through being audacious and, occasionally, odd. The conscientious people achieve it through sticking to deadlines, to persevering, as well as having some passion. Extroversion and agreeableness are both conducive to working well with people. Extroverts, for example, I find intriguing. With my classes, I sometimes give them a basic fact that might be revealing with respect to their personality: I tell them that it is virtually impossible for adults to lick the outside of their own elbow.


Did you know that? Already, some of you have tried to lick the outside of your own elbow. But extroverts amongst you are probably those who have not only tried, but they have successfully licked the elbow of the person sitting next to them.


Those are the extroverts.

Let me deal in a bit more detail with extroversion, because it’s consequential and it’s intriguing, and it helps us understand what I call our three natures. First, our biogenic nature — our neurophysiology. Second, our sociogenic or second nature, which has to do with the cultural and social aspects of our lives. And third, what makes you individually you — idiosyncratic — what I call your “idiogenic” nature.

Let me explain. One of the things that characterizes extroverts is they need stimulation. And that stimulation can be achieved by finding things that are exciting: loud noises, parties and social events here at TED — you see the extroverts forming a magnetic core. They all gather together. And I’ve seen you. The introverts are more likely to spend time in the quiet spaces up on the second floor, where they are able to reduce stimulation — and may be misconstrued as being antisocial, but you’re not necessarily antisocial. It may be that you simply realize that you do better when you have a chance to lower that level of stimulation.

Sometimes it’s an internal stimulant, from your body. Caffeine, for example, works much better with extroverts than it does introverts. When extroverts come into the office at nine o’clock in the morning and say, “I really need a cup of coffee,” they’re not kidding — they really do. Introverts do not do as well, particularly if the tasks they’re engaged in — and they’ve had some coffee — if those tasks are speeded, and if they’re quantitative, introverts may give the appearance of not being particularly quantitative. But it’s a misconstrual.

So here are the consequences that are really quite intriguing: we’re not always what seem to be, and that takes me to my next point. I should say, before getting to this, something about sexual intercourse, although I may not have time. And so, if you would like me to — yes, you would? OK.

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Shayne Heffernan Funds Manager at HEFFX holds a Ph.D. in Economics and brings with him over 25 years of trading experience in Asia and hands on experience in Venture Capital, he has been involved in several start ups that have seen market capitalization over $500m and 1 that reach a peak market cap of $15b. He has managed and overseen start ups in Mining, Shipping, Technology and Financial Services.

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