Prof. Brian R. Little: Uncharted Wor(l)ds

Interview: Sandra-Stella Triebl
Editorial Assistance: Kim Welti

Ladies Drive No 66. Prof. Brian R. Little: Uncharted Wor(l)ds
Ladies Drive Magazine
Can we, as human beings, change our personalities? - Yes, we can. But to do so we need to understand the three sources of our human natures.

Professor Brian R. Little received his early education in British Columbia and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.  His research lies at the intersection of personality, developmental and applied psychology.  He has taught at Oxford, Carleton, Harvard and Cambridge Universities and received numerous awards for his teaching and research. He analyzes and redefines the threads of our personalities and suggests ways we can transform ourselves. His book: „Me, Myself and Us“ outlines his unique personality theory but also imparts life-changing advice. We interviewed Professor Brian Little about personality traits, authenticity, psychological safety and how a misplaced book can change the course of your life.

Ladies Drive: I’m curious how you ended up being a researcher in that field that you are now.

Well, I was originally going into the field of neuropsychology, and one day I was searching for something called the Stereotaxic Atlas of the Brain. I was reaching out for it, and I accidentally pulled down a book that had been mis-shelved, and it was called “The Psychology of Personal Constructs” by a clinical psychologist called George Kelly. And I thought, well, let me just take a quick look at it. That “quick” look took several hours sitting on the floor in the library.  By the end of that I was convinced that personality psychology was where I wanted to pitch my tent.  Although I’d already been accepted to go to Berkeley in neuropsychology, I ended up switching into the personality area of the field and, very early on, created my own perspective on personality. So that’s how it happened. It was a misplaced book. 

Do you think this was an accident, or was it just fate? 

It was serendipity. It was completely accidental. I don’t credit fate at all. There are factors beyond fateful factors that influence our behavior. So, no, I’d probably call it sheer, unmitigated, random luck. 

Sheer, unmitigated, random luck. I love that! You have been such an innovator in the field of personality assessments, motivation, before we jump into that field let talk about personality – how do you define it?

These are the consequential characteristics of people that they bring to the situations in their daily lives. The field of personality science is a very large canvass. It includes biogenic traits—that include physiological and biochemical features.  It includes sociogenic influences—for example, the perceptions the person has of the organizational climate they work in. And it includes what I call idiogenic sources– the personal projects they mount to negotiate and navigate those disparate forces. And so, I am arguing for a three-source view of personality. And I argue further that well-being comprises the sustainable pursuit of core projects in our lives. Take the case of women at work.  Her biogenic traits may influence whether her work projects are sustainable or not. Similarly, if the organizational climate is such that it doesn’t meet certain standards, that we’re able to articulate some of our research, then that pursuit of a core project, which may be something like always being there for my kid, that might be compromised if the climate at work is one that calls up barriers to that kind of pursuit. So, personality for me is a very broad tent, and it includes these biogenic, these sociogenic, and these more idiogenic, self-generated pursuits that bring meaning to our lives. 

How do you observe the discussion about what kind of traits we’re born with, and what is something that we can learn?

It is often claimed that personality is driven by sociogenic influences and that biogenic processes don’t matter. But they do matter. The biogenic nature of human personality will often make some tasks or projects for people much harder than for others.  Among the most important traits that have strong biogenic roots are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.  So, maintaining a loving relationship with my spouse may be just a piece of cake for somebody who is warm and agreeable and low in neuroticism. But if they happen to be closed and reserved, they may find that as much as they love their spouse, they find it difficult to express that in ways that land. I think it is misleading to talk about the nature-nurture conflict.  We are far more complex than that. Incidentally, that complexity makes interviews in magazines like this much more difficult. So, it would be nice, from a journalistic point of view to say, well, all that genetic nature stuff is being supplanted by socially induced nurture. It’s neat and simple. It’s the kind of thing that one likes to write about because it sizzles. Unfortunately, a lot of the empirical research that we do doesn’t sizzle. It simmers on the back burner. Oh, dear, I’m getting into a food metaphor. I guess I haven’t had breakfast yet.

Something you mentioned really kind of struck me. Expressing feelings, emotions demands a specific vocabulary, right? If you don’t have a word to say „I love you“ in Mandarin you can’t express it, although you feel it. Would it change our experience of our feelings if we would learn more words that express all the nuances of our feelings?

That’s a fascinating question. In one way, I think the answer is a clear yes. To learn more ways of expressing one’s love or one’s concern or one’s appreciation of another person would be helpful in advancing that relationship. However, I think that merely learning new ways of expressing yourself verbally may not be all there is, may not be sufficient. It may actually be seen as contrived. And so, let’s say Doug and Emily, have been having difficulty in their relationship. And Emily feels that he’s not really able to communicate with her about love. Having some coaching in which Doug learns how to express things with words might help, but maybe Emily needs to understand that Doug isn’t very big with words. Doug is a person of action. And his way of telling her he loves her is to bring her that extra cup of coffee in the morning and just put his hand on her shoulder. And it may not be that he is lacking words, but she might be lacking awareness of the way he expresses love. And I think as one gets older in a marital relationship, one learns to read those signs. Doug pats Emily on the back like a little puppy, but it’s his way of saying, “ I love you Em.” What doesn’t work is if he learns a script to say: “Okay, sit down Emily, I love you more than all the beams of light in the universe“. She may find that this is so unlike Doug that she wonders if he really means what he’s saying. Sometimes we just can’t explicate feelings, in part because they are inchoate and beyond words. So we need to be careful not to extort words from somebody who does not naturally use language to convey feelings. 

Is that a gender specific issue that sometimes we cannot read each other and that women tend to have, as far as I know, a larger vocabulary in general with words and men have less – I don’t want to be judgmental…

No, you’re right. Generally, if you look at the average, that’s true. Yes. 

On social media people are used to saying things in very short sentences and they don’t express feelings, they add hashtags. 

We have emojis. 

Yeah, we have emojis. What the heck? I don’t care about expressing my feelings. I send you an emoji and everything is crystal clear. 

It’s a really good point.

That’s how I feel, period. And I think, do we end up in having less and less words for what we are and how we feel? And how we look at the world outside? 

That’s quite possible. Again, it’s a fascinating hypothesis. I’d love to see some data on that. With the cohorts that were born and raised on X and these kinds of instant messages, is their emotional vocabulary and maybe other aspects of vocabulary shrinking? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d love to find out. 

How do you observe women in business, in general, when they talk about their personality? 

It’s interesting. My wife, Susan Phillips, is a professor at Carleton in Canada. Several years ago, she and I did an extensive study of women and work. And we did a report called “Just Managing.” It’s a bit of a pun. It’s just managing in the sense of not quite managing, and also managing through some kind of “just” system that showed respect for others in the workplace.  And we created an organizational climate checklist of various adjectives that describe your workplace. The results were informative because on the organizational climate side, one of the things that was created the most dissatisfaction in the workplace was the sense that there was unfairness in the workplace–a lack of justice. In many instances it was because they haven’t been able  to create an awareness among their senior managers of how important the junior managers were to the organization; how good they are. And you’re right. There is evidence that women tend to talk less about their positive features than men do. Men will often over-claim on their abilities and women will under-claim. It may well account for the fact that women are most burned out when they feel that they are being treated unjustly in their organization. 

How would we support women to be able to address it within organizations? 

In our study women frequently endorsed the view that “I don’t feel listed to.”  Women managers at the senior level realize that some of the organization’s problems can be effectively addressed by their subordinates who are closer to the action. That means having occasional, not daily, but occasional meetings where you are free to speak exactly the way you feel, where there’s a safe space in which you can do that. And that’s hard for senior managers who have a kind of control orientation. They don’t want emotions to get in the way or somebody’s projects to override the standard way of doing things.  It is exhausting for them to clean up the mess. But I think you need to create an environment in which people’s voices are heard, even though it may get messy at times. 

Can you share the most surprising thing that you kind of found out while you were writing “Me, Myself and Us”? 

I guess it wasn’t a surprise so much as a revivification, a restoration of my belief that human personality is complex and intriguing. For example, the projects that we engage in may nudge us or catapult us into the need to act out of character. An example of acting out of character would be someone who is biogenically agreeable and somewhat introverted. They are spontaneously warm and pleasant and nurturing. They may have a project, which is to help their mom get into a long-term care home. And at every point, they’re blocked.The administrative torpor is just agonizing, and mom’s health is going downhill, and this normally highly agreeable, sweet person, this Jennifer, in August of next year, becomes Hurricane Jen.  She will fight the administration, she will be unpleasant, she will be demanding. If she were naturally disagreeable, that wouldn’t be that hard. But if she’s a naturally biogenically agreeable and sensitive person, she’s acting out of character.  This can be exhausting and lead to burnout.  And so, after those interactions, Jennifer needs what I call a restorative niche. Her restorative niche may be a quiet, soothing place where conflict and negative emotion are absent.  You’re no longer acting out of character. You’re just being yourself. Her earlier acting out of character is what I call the employment of a free trait. Her free trait was being disagreeable assertive, maybe even hostile, because she had a core project that requires that kind of behavior. 

Why do we engage in free traits?  I think there are two important reasons.  We do it for professionalism and we do it out of love.  Many people who act out of character don’t realize it. When I give talks on this, people will come up after and say, “wow, I didn’t realize that for the last 17 years, I’ve been acting as a pseudo-extravert. My husband is a real extravert, and he likes to take me everywhere, and we party like crazy.  I’ve do it because I adore him; but I’m exhausted.” What we need here is what I call a free trait agreement. The agreement is that I will act out of character to advance our joint core projects if you will grant me a restorative niche afterwards. And I’ll do the same for you.  A free trait agreement, I think, is a really good way of managing some of the conflicts that arise in our married lives. 

“Me, Myself, and Us” could you share with us two or three of the most fascinating facts for you?

The whole book starts off with looking the Big Five traits and their importance for understanding our well-being.   I add another couple of dimensions, what we call a sense of control over your life and self-monitoring.  The latter captures  the extent to which you shape your interactions by focusing on the demands of the situation rather than express your own feelings. High self-monitors might be seen as chameleons in their daily lives and they contrast to low self-monitors who are more steadfast and predictable. They can drive each other to distraction in their relationships.  

I think both styles can be adaptive. Being able to be oneself and to directly express your own views is necessary unless one wishes to be buffeted about by the situations you are confronted with.  But we also need to recognize where situations require us to temporarily suspend our own perspective and adopt that required by the particular situation you are navigating.  Let’s assume you are in a new relationship with someone who is passionately radical and left-tilting.  You might want to strategically suspend expressing your positive view of Trump if you wish to advance that relationship.  This require a certain degree of subtlety and finesse.  Of course a low self-monitor would call that king of behaviour misleading, sneaky and unprincipled.  My resolution in that chapter of Me, Myself and Us is to have the flexibility to invoke high or low self-monitoring as needed in the course of our lives.   Indeed, flexibility is the key message of the whole book:  Flexibility in terms of knowing that traits aren’t fixed. Flexibility in terms of knowing how to accommodate to situational demands without being a chameleon.  And when to stand up for your personal convictions without succumbing to self-defeating rigidity.     

Can a human really deeply transform and change profoundly?

Yes, is the answer. Profound is a profound question. Does profound mean in ways that we could never have imagined? Occasionally. Most people want to change their personalities. In terms of the big five, they want to be a bit more extroverted, they want to be more open to experience, more conscientious, more extraverted and agreeable.  And less neurotic. 

The girls with straight hair, want curls – so, it’s always the things that you don’t have, right?

Absolutely. That’s a good example. And it is possible to change. First of all, a lot of people desire to. And secondly, they are able to. There’s a growing research literature now, on self-induced personality change. We have some findings that were replicated by researchers in Finland at the University of Helsinki that showed that self-change projects like “Be More Extraverted” can be associated with feelings of depression. And in some of our own work, we found that those projects can also be associated with creativity. And it led me to postulate that what differentiates between wanting to change your personality as a depressing prospect and as a creative one, is the origin of the project. If the project to be more outgoing comes from your mom saying, “Stella, you’ve got to be more outgoing.” Or if it comes from Stella saying, “I’m going to explore this different aspect of myself.“

And how can we become authentic leaders? 

I’m not a good one to interview on this because I disagree with most scholars in the field. Most people think that authenticity is a primary good. And they argue that in order to succeed in management as a woman, you should be utterly yourself. But such authenticity can actually backfire.  Herminia Ibarra has presented a compelling analysis of how frank, authentic expression by a woman leader of her vulnerabilities and short-comings can be dispiriting to those who look to her for strong leadership.  

In my view there’s not one kind of fidelity or authenticity. There are three. 

You can show fidelity to your biogenic nature by doing what you think feels right. You can show fidelity to your sociogenic nature by doing what you think is required of you by your culture, by your job. You can show fidelity to your core projects in your life. And these may conflict with both your nature and your nurture.  

In short, we can be authentic by doing those things that make us feel natural, the things that society expects of us, and the things that we are truly committed to in our lives. If you have to choose between the three I would ask, are you authentic to the core projects that matter in your life?  And to make the pursuit of those core projects sustainable remember to be flexible and for goodness sake, have some fun! 

More information: 

Veröffentlicht am Juni 25, 2024

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