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A Great Way to Define Who You Are

Our Second Psych Nerd: Dr. Kenneth Texeira Ph.D.

Kenneth Texeira Ph.D. Is a coordinator and Psychology Professor at Quincy College in Plymouth.  His PhD is from Fordham University in Applied Developmental Psychology.  He has worked with research teams from Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and he has published academic articles in the areas of end of life care, spiritual needs, and bioethics. His primary focus is on personality and spirituality and how they are associated with mood.

 

I am a researcher and a professor of psychology.   When people find out what I do I am often asked if I am reading their minds or analyzing them.  In the past I used to say no, however I have  never found a way to make people feel at ease by explaining that I really can’t do that unless they tell me a great deal of personal information.  So, after many a skeptical reception to why I cannot read minds, I have given up, and now I just tell people I can read minds and  am doing it to them at that very moment.  I usually make a very intense face and do a Freud impression which looks something like a mad scientist (evil genius hand gestures are helpful), and I listen very carefully and shake my head at some imaginary information I sucked telepathically from their unconsciousness.  After a few seconds, people usually see how awkward and impossible it is and we have a good laugh.

Recently, though, it dawned on me that I do read people and the idea is not that farfetched at all.  Everyone does this.  When you meet someone for the first time you automatically process a ton of information about them.  You probably know fairly quickly whether if you like the person or not and if you ever want to deal with that person again.  What we are doing is forming impressions about personality.  The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with a theoretical framework to help provide insight into ourselves and to learn to categorize other people in a deeper and more meaningful way.  I hope that this will give the reader a perspective into how to better predict behavior and sharpen the skills that you use all of the time.

The internet is awash with many personality tests.  Every so often I have observed  waves of tests through social media that tell you what type of superhero you are, what celebrity you are and even which type of snack food you represent.  There are other tests that are more serious sounding, but just about as accurate.  I get asked what sign I am pretty often.  I usually say a “yield sign,” but in all seriousness astrology is another way people try to gain insight about themselves.  There is a even a personality test on my placemat every time I go to my favorite Chinese restaurant.   I recall that I am a snake so I should beware the monkey.  From my decade of research in the area I have concluded that there are better ways to understand personality.  The tests described above are flawed and inaccurate, but they provide some entertainment.

If everyone that was born on the same day or on the same year was similar maybe there would be some truth to these tests, but I don’t think there is any foundation to the prediction of behavior in astrology or on the Chinese zodiac.  So what is a good and useful psychology test of personality?  First, lets define personality.  Personality refers to an unobservable quality present within the individual that is thought to be responsible for that individual’s observable behavior (Whitbourne, 2005).  Prediction of behavior is the goal of psychology so it is no wonder that most of the famous psychologists were also personality researchers.  Freud, Erikson, and others were all interested in personality.

Perhaps the most dominant theory in personality today is trait theory.  McCrae and Costa (1988) define personality traits as a set of characteristic dispositions.  There has been a great deal of research over the last 60 years on how many factors (or pieces) there should be in personality, but the following five factors tend to work pretty well.

The five factors include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, conscientiousness and agreeableness (Costa & McCrae, 1992).  An easy way to remember these is to think of the word OCEAN.  Each of the five factors begins with one of these letters.  Now let me explain what these factors are and what they represent.

Openness to experience refers to an active imagination and preferences in variety in the environment.  In an earlier version of personality a researcher named Eyesnick wrote of this trait in a very fond and interesting way.  He believed that openness to experience was an important part of the personality in order to learn new things, and even to have religious and spiritual experiences.  Each trait is on a continuum. For example, my father is very low in openness.  My dad loves routine; if he goes to a restaurant he always orders the same thing.  He would not want to try an exotic food and when asked if he will eat squid he always says, “no I won’t eat anything that won’t let go of my plate first.”

The next personality trait is conscientiousness.  Whether you realize it or not, when you show up to a job interview you are trying to look as neat and organized as possible.  We want to be on time, dress nicely, bring a nice mistake free resume, and even take notes.  Conscientiousness is a quality you would want in an executive assistant, the person preparing your taxes, and hopefully the auditor that files them at the IRS.  Attention to detail is a big part of this but so is achievement motivation.  People who want to do a good job on something because they have to,  will have a high dose of this.  If you are struggling with a teenager (or spouse) who doesn’t want to find a job you may wish that this trait could be given in pill form.

Extraversion is one of my favorite personality traits because there is no other psychological theory that is more associated with positive mood or happiness than this one.  People who are high in extraversion have emotional stability.  They tend to be warm, outgoing, and like positive engagement with people.  On the other hand people who are low in this trait tend to have more difficulty in themselves and with other people.  I happen to be really extraverted and teaching classes for me is fun and exhilarating.  If you don’t like meeting new people, or simply really need a large amount of alone time you may not be high on this trait.

Agreeableness reflects a tendency toward being open and straightforward.  Those who are high on this trait tend to nurture others and are sensitive to interpersonal conflict.  If you like to debate points and find yourself disagreeing and in interpersonal conflict you may be on the low side of this continuum.

The last personality trait is neuroticism.  Every character in the show Seinfeld was very high in this trait.   People who are high in this trait have an increased sensitivity to negative stimulus in the environment.  If you think about it, most of the information that you receive on a daily basis is neither good or bad.  We have to decide whether or not we see the information as good or bad.  If you order coffee and they are out of your favorite sweetener you will lose your mind if you are high in neuroticism.  Grey (1991) theorized that extraversion and neuroticism may reflect a part of your brain responsible for approach or avoidance.  Someone high in neuroticism has extra sensitivity to this avoidance system so they process information as negative and withdraw from situations more frequently.     Being very low on any of these traits including neuroticism is not necessarily a good thing.   Adolescents who get into trouble with the law tend to be very low in neuroticism.  It’s ok to have a healthy fear of consequences but if fear cripples us then we may want to get some help in this area.

Now that you have all of the five big factor traits in a understandable format let’s take this one step further.  I like to think of the late and wonderful Bob Ross when I explain this theory to my students.  Remember the guy who painted the happy little tree? That was Bob, if he is not a good example for you, think of a painter.  What if each one of these traits were like a color on a painters pallet?  We can paint a person’s personality.  We will have combinations of any of these traits and it makes us all unique.  These tend to be stable and not very changeable, so since we cannot do much to change our personalities, we can examine how our personality fits into the world we create for ourselves.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ken Texeira
    March 16, 2012 at 5:59 am

    This was the greatest insight to personality I ever read (wrote). Thanks to Joe Weeks for putting me onto his Blog

  2. Ryan M Shea
    December 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

    This is a great way to look at personality. I especially liked the five different factors you mentioned. I can say from personal experiance, that each of the traits are key to being a confident, happy person. However, although a the painter may only have five different colors on his pallet, that doesn’t mean he can’t perfect his skill with each one and create a masterpiece. It’s the same with personality. Even if there are only five traits that make ones personality, that does not mean that they are unchangeable. It takes alot of time and effort to truly perfect these traits. Unless they’re an extremley lucky person, they probably won’t have all the skills you mentioned. Everyone starts out out somewhere, as with painting, teaching, or anything really, practice makes perfect. It may be an abstract thought to apply to a person’s personality, but honestly it is one in the same. People aren’t just born the best in a particular area; they become it.

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