Brian Little

Who are you, really? The puzzle of personality

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0:12

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

0:17

(Laughter)

0:19

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.

0:42

(Laughter)

0:43

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

0:46

(Laughter)

0:48

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.

1:01

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.

1:33

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."

1:56

(Laughter)

1:57

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.

2:11

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.

3:03

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.

4:00

(Laughter)

4:01

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.

4:17

(Laughter)

4:18

Those are the extroverts.

4:20

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.

4:52

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.

5:41

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.

6:18

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.

6:39

(Laughter)

6:40

There are studies done on the frequency with which individuals engage in the conjugal act, as broken down by male, female; introvert, extrovert. So I ask you: How many times per minute — oh, I'm sorry, that was a rat study —

6:58

(Laughter)

7:01

How many times per month do introverted men engage in the act? 3.0. Extroverted men? More or less? Yes, more. 5.5 — almost twice as much. Introverted women: 3.1. Extroverted women? Frankly, speaking as an introverted male, which I will explain later — they are heroic. 7.5. They not only handle all the male extroverts, they pick up a few introverts as well.

7:39

(Laughter)

7:41

(Applause)

7:47

We communicate differently, extroverts and introverts. Extroverts, when they interact, want to have lots of social encounter punctuated by closeness. They'd 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 a Charles, it rapidly becomes "Charlie," and then "Chuck," and then "Chuckles Baby."

8:20

(Laughter)

8:22

Whereas for introverts, it remains "Charles," until he's 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 again 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 —

9:01

(Laughter)

9:02

More or less.

9:04

(Laughter)

9:05

As it were.

9:07

(Laughter)

9:08

Not to put too fine a point upon it — like that.

9:12

When we talk, we sometimes talk past each other. I had a consulting contract I shared with a colleague who's as different from me as two people can possibly be. First, his name is Tom. Mine isn't.

9:26

(Laughter)

9:28

Secondly, he's six foot five. I have a tendency not to be.

9:31

(Laughter)

9:33

And thirdly, he's as extroverted a person as you could find. I am seriously introverted. I overload so much, I can't even have a cup of coffee after three in the afternoon and expect to sleep in the evening.

9:49

We had seconded to this project a fellow called Michael. And Michael almost brought the project to a crashing halt. So the person who seconded him asked Tom and me, "What do you make of Michael?" Well, I'll tell you what Tom said in a minute. He spoke in classic "extrovert-ese." And here is how extroverted ears heard what I said, which is actually pretty accurate. I said, "Well Michael does have a tendency at times of behaving in a way that some of us might see as perhaps more assertive than is normally called for."

10:29

(Laughter)

10:32

Tom rolled his eyes and he said, "Brian, that's what I said: he's an asshole!"

10:39

(Laughter)

10:41

(Applause)

10:44

Now, as an introvert, I might gently allude to certain "assholic" qualities in this man's behavior, but I'm not going to lunge for the a-word.

10:55

(Laughter)

10:58

But the extrovert says, "If he walks like one, if he talks like one, I call him one." And we go past each other.

11:04

Now is this something that we should be heedful of? Of course. It's important that we know this. Is that all we are? Are we just a bunch of traits? No, we're not. Remember, you're like some other people and like no other person. How about that idiosyncratic you? As Elizabeth or as George, you may share your extroversion or your neuroticism. But are there some distinctively Elizabethan features of your behavior, or Georgian of yours, that make us understand you better than just a bunch of traits? That make us love you? Not just because you're a certain type of person.

11:54

I'm uncomfortable putting people in pigeonholes. I don't even think pigeons belong in pigeonholes. So what is it that makes us different? It's the doings that we have in our life — the personal projects. You have a personal project right now, but nobody may know it here. It relates to your kid — you've been back three times to the hospital, and they still don't know what's wrong. Or it could be your mom. And you'd been acting out of character. These are free traits. You're very agreeable, but you act disagreeably in order to break down those barriers of administrative torpor in the hospital, to get something for your mom or your child.

12:44

What are these free traits? They're 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'm a professor. And I adore my students, and I adore my field. And I can't wait to tell them about what's new, what's exciting, what I can't wait to tell them about. And so I act in an extroverted way, because at eight 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.

13:35

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. As Susan Cain said in her "Quiet" book, in a chapter that featured the strange Canadian professor who was teaching at the time at Harvard, I sometimes go to the men's room to escape the slings and arrows of outrageous extroverts.

14:12

(Laughter)

14:13

I remember one particular day when I was retired to a cubicle, trying to avoid overstimulation. And a real extrovert came in beside me — not right in my cubicle, but in the next cubicle over — and I could hear various evacuatory noises, which we hate — even our own, that's why we flush during as well as after.

14:36

(Laughter)

14:39

And then I heard this gravelly voice saying, "Hey, is that Dr. Little?"

14:46

(Laughter)

14:49

If anything is guaranteed to constipate an introvert for six months, it's talking on the john.

14:57

(Laughter)

14:59

That's where I'm going now. Don't follow me.

15:03

Thank you.

15:04

(Applause)

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.

About the speaker
Brian Little · Personality researcher

Cambridge research professor Brian Little analyzes and redefines the threads of our personalities — and suggests ways we can transform ourselves.

Cambridge research professor Brian Little analyzes and redefines the threads of our personalities — and suggests ways we can transform ourselves.