When Amanda Turner joined an Internet datingservice several years ago, she knew exactly what she wanted, and why.
“I was looking for someone who was somewhat extraverted and quite open to new experiences, yet also very emotionally stable,” says Amanda. A researcher with a marketing firm in New York City, Amanda studied personality psychology in graduate school. As a result, she knew the lingo of the Big Five theory of personality, which compresses the astounding range of human traits into five dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
“I’m quite outgoing and adventurous myself, and so I wanted someone who shares those qualities. He didn’t have to be super conscientious,” she continues, “because
I can run a tight ship all by myself. But he did need to be high in agreeableness. Trust, after all, is the foundation of a good relationship.”
Amanda chose a Web site that offered personality tests with dimensions similar to those of the Big Five. She then sorted through bachelors’ profiles until she found a few who met her criteria. Within 3 years, she had met and married John Chu, a New York stage actor.
John likewise consulted the site’s personality test results. “I was shy when I was a kid—partly because my family had just immigrated, and so we were all a little cautious. But I always liked the loud girls,” he laughs, “and so I knew I wanted to be with an extravert.” Otherwise, though, John didn’t have strong preferences about the personality traits of his partner. “I was more interested in people’s values and activities,” he says. “After all, how people act so often depends on the situations they find themselves in, and how they view those situations.”
From choosing life partners, to describing our friends and enemies, to understanding ourselves, we appeal to the notion of personality. But are we really the same person across situations, or do we act differently at different times? Amanda, for example, chats with strangers on the subway, but finds herself subdued in museums and places of worship. Likewise, John is often soft-spoken with his grandparents, but loud and commanding with his two younger brothers. “Those roughnecks need to know who’s in charge,” he jokes.
But can we change our personalities entirely? Can others change us? John says that marriage has made him more conscientious, although he admits to carrying an electronic calendar to compensate for his dispositional lateness. Amanda points out, though, that John believes he can change more than she believes she can change. “I usually just try to accept my personality quirks,” she says. “He tries to be a better person every day.”
Where do personalities come from, anyway—our genes, our experiences, or both? Amanda’s mother says that Amanda “was born early, and has been early to everything ever since.” Amanda notes, however, that her mother wouldn’t have tolerated anything else: “She’s done with her Christmas shopping by September, and expects her children to be, also.” And so Amanda’s experiences with her family enhanced her seemingly inborn inclination to be conscientious. Meanwhile, John notes that he was an introverted child, but acting brought out his extraverted side.
People differ in many ways, including their desires, feelings, and behavior, their views of themselves and others, and their outlooks on the world. Some people are a delight; others are obnoxious. Some like to be with a crowd; others prefer to be alone. These distinctions and many others fall under the heading of personality, an area of psychology that describes how people differ and explores how the many aspects of each person come together. As it turns out, this is an undertaking so ambitious that no one approach provides a completely satisfying account of all of personality.