Thursday, April 17, 2008

Octopus personality

At the TLS, Carol Tavris on the new theory of personality:
Gone are the old type theories (are you a Thinking or Feeling type?) and single-trait descriptors (do you have a Machiavellian personality? Are you an erotophobe or an erotophile?). Evolutionary theory, the genome project, studies of identical twins reared together and apart, and brain-imaging techniques such as PET scans and MRIs have given scientists the theory and methods of identifying the differences in how people’s nervous systems are wired up and how those differences express themselves in characteristic responses to other people and to events. These characteristic responses statistically cluster into five basic factors, which are pretty much the same in every culture that has been studied, from Britain to Korea, Ethiopia to Japan, China to the Czech Republic. Nettle devotes a chapter apiece to each of the five: extraversion, the extent to which a person is outgoing, talkative, adventurous and sociable, or shy, silent, reclusive and cautious; neuroticism, the extent to which a person suffers from anxiety and other negative emotions such as anger, guilt, worry and resentment; agreeableness, the extent to which a person is good-natured, cooperative and nonjudgmental, or irritable, abrasive and suspicious; conscientiousness, the extent to which a person is responsible, persevering, self-disciplined and tidy, or undependable, quick to give up, fickle, sloppy and careless; and openness to experience, the extent to which a person is curious, imaginative, questioning and creative, or conforming, unimaginative, predictable and uncomfortable with novelty.


  1. Bit of a stretch to refer to the Big Five and associated hypotheses as a/the "new theory of personality".

    There's interesting work on non-orthogonality of the Big Five (no handy pointer - here's a more general link).

  2. Hmm, I do think I score high on all of those, which correlates with Brent's link.

  3. Hi, Jenny. The Big Five is not new at all! And the personality psychologists I know say that it's highly misleading, mostly because the traits interact with scenarios (e.g., you can be an extrovert in some settings and an introvert in others). Also, I don't think genetics and brain scans have anything to do with it--my impression is that the key knowledge here comes from old-fashioned questionnaires.

    But I may be wrong; I haven't read up on this. Anyway, Prof. Walter Mischel in the psychology dept here at Columbia is the expert on this.

  4. The Genome project is laughable and not to be taken seriously. They aren't even familiar with many of the countries they supposedly "cover." I shudder to think what they are doing with a country's "genetic" material when in many instances, they wrongly list non-natives as representatives of that country.