Personality Wars

Grumpy                                                                         Bashful

In the age of personality cults, the public is often drawn toward the dynamic and bubbly personas of Hollywood celebrities, political pundits, and the reality TV stars that dominate our entertainment industry. A closer look at this phenomenon reveals an even larger trend in which society at large tends to reward extroverts, those outgoing individuals with finely honed social skills. A scary fact is that this bias permeates American business culture as well as our education system, to the detriment of many less dominant but equally important personalities. Many businesses and MBA programs now use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to put together teams more effectively by balancing out opposite personalities (since there is no single best one). See Meet the New Boss: Big Data (WSJ).

The gregarious A-type personality is not necessarily the most beneficial for society. In fact, introverts have made major contributions to our culture and progress as well. Lawyer-turned-writer Susan Cain puts forth an argument regarding the power of introversion and evolution, which was discussed on NPR(here) and below:

There is danger in favoring or rewarding children for expressing a certain personality type, as highlighted by Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in Psychology Today “Confessions of a Late Bloomer” (here).

So how come a huge variety of human personalities all survive? Journalist David Dobbs argues in “The Science of Success” (from The Atlantic):

If you have too many aggressive people, for example, conflict runs rampant, and aggression is selected out, because it becomes costly; when aggression decreases enough to be less risky, it becomes more valuable, and its prevalence again rises.”

Dobbs tells us that individuals possessing genes for vulnerability toward anxiety or depression (i.e. serotonin transporter, dopamine receptor, MAO) are not merely resigned to such a dark fate since their environment (e.g. stressors) also plays as huge role in the manifestation of disease. But more importantly, these same vulnerability genes have an upside, namely enhanced plasticity and responsiveness and the ability for flexible thought.

“[While] these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival.” 

Overall, I am not a fan of pigeon-holing people into a certain “personality type” as there are layers of complexity to each individual and there is also huge potential for change and plasticity in the brain. Behavioral intervention, life experience, and many other factors can alter one’s personality within a lifetime and we should not disregard this when dealing with psychiatric patients and members of the healthy population with strong personalities.

There are many more questions to address regarding personality traits and benefits for economy/society:

In Praise of Misfits article from The Economist

10 Myths About Introverts from The Creativity Post

Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best from WSJ

How do you make an intellectual dream team? article from Psychology Today

Is entrepreneurship heritable? article from Inc. and a related article (click here) in The New York Times

Transformative Entrepreneurs VIDEO  interview with Columbia Business Professor Jeffrey Harris

How do the creative minds of leaders like Napoleon work? research from Columbia Business School

How to improve your own Creativity? tips from The Wall St. Journal Jonah Lehrer

Charlie Rose Imagine VIDEO interview with science writer Jonah Lehrer

Charlie Rose: The Brain Series VIDEO discussion about heritable psychiatric traits