Some of my most popular posts have been personality quizzes or posts aimed at helping readers zero in on their exact personality subtype. I'm not surprised by that. Just like everyone else, I enjoy filling out the little a few multiple choice questions that promise to reveal the inner workings of my being.
Plus, as an introvert, I've found it interesting to understand the differences between quieter types and those with more stimulus-seeking personalities, as well as helpful to understand the different ways we work and communicate. Given all this, what could possibly be wrong with taking the odd personality quiz or asking others questions about their personality type?
That's the fascinating topic of both a new TED talk by Cambridge psychology professor Brian Little and a thoughtful Quartz article by Jordan Rosenfeld written in response to it. They're very different pieces of content -- one academic, one personal, one written, the other spoken -- but they both flag up the fact that most of us put far too much weight on the idea of an unchanging personality.
Passion trumps personality.
Like many other pieces of expert commentary on personality difference, Little's entertaining talk offers plenty of examples of how introverts and extroverts tend to differ, according to research. Introverts should be careful with coffee, for instance, while extroverts thrive on caffeine. Extroverts speak more directly than introverts, causing occasional misunderstandings. Extroverts, apparently, have more sex.
But the real insight of the talk comes near the end when Little reminds the audience: "You're like some other people and like no other person." While we may have personality tendencies, we don't always act in accordance with them, and this mix of character and personal will is what makes us who we are. A highly agreeable mother might become downright disagreeable when dealing with hospital bureaucracy if she feels her child's health is at stake. A seriously introverted professor can be downright boisterous discussing a subject he feels passionate about.
In short, we aren't the sum total of out personality traits. "What is it that makes us different? It's the doings that we have in our life. The personal projects," insists Little. And for this reason, he feels, you shouldn't ask people, "What type are you?" Instead, you should ask, "What are your core projects in your life?"
A leopard can change its spots.
But it's not just that your passion is a better determinant of how you'll act in any given situation than your personality, it's also that your personality itself is less fixed than many quizzes suggest, as Rosenfeld's personal experience illustrates.
"When I met the man who would become my husband nearly 20 years ago, we were a study in contrasts," she writes, "a classic introvert-extrovert pair. But over years of marriage, our social preferences began to shift." Her husband went from hiding in the garage at kids' birthday parties to happily volunteering to take a dozen screaming children bowling, while Rosenfeld herself grew steadily more inward-looking.
"In an era when Myers-Briggs tests and BuzzFeed personality quizzes dominate the web, it's popular to divide ourselves along clean lines of personality," Rosenfeld says. "But a closer look at the research on introversion and extroversion suggests these traits aren't as fixed as they seem. As my marriage would prove, it may be possible for both types to change their spots."
"As our circumstances change, so can our social preferences," she continues. "As I've become more stable and secure, I've found that I don't need the distraction of constant social activity. And once my husband became a psychologist, he realized that his job was to meet others' needs head-on. So he developed a skill set that would allow him to sustain energy in the midst of a lot of social interaction."
Which gets right to the heart of why you should take the next online personality quiz you come across with a grain of salt (and also why you should avoid pigeonholing others as 'introverted' or 'neurotic'). People can and do change based on both immediate circumstance and broader changes in the context of their lives. Expecting yourself - or others - always to act in accordance with a 'type' can be limiting.
So go ahead and enjoy that fun 'how much of a drama queen are you?' post, but don't let it limit your possibilities. Big drama queens can become stable in pursuit of their passions, and those inclined to meekness can become lions in the right circumstances.
Are you holding yourself back by thinking too rigidly about personality?