Six Clues to Character
The traits that shape us remain fairly stable over time, making them the closest thing we have to a crystal ball. Whether you wish to take an inventory of yourself, gauge the suitability of a partner, glimpse what a friendship might hold, or preview a child's trajectory, here are six key candidates for your attention.
By Hara Estroff Marano published May 3, 2011 - last reviewed on October 9, 2018
Seconds after Tamara was ushered into his office, Michael knew she was right for the creative staff of the advertising team he ran. Within a year, they were not only a productive duo professionally, they were dating. She soon jumped to another agency largely so they could live together openly. A year later, they were married and enacting their plan to start a boutique agency together. Business grew comfortably although not spectacularly—until the recession hit. Having observed from a master how to initiate client contact, Tamara went into overdrive. Michael, unflappable as ever, admired her indefatigability.
The harder she worked, the more Michael's praise got under Tamara's skin; she grew to hate being viewed as indefatigable. Over the last half of 2008, she says, "anxiety began shredding me." Good as he was as a life partner, she came to realize, Michael lacked "the gut-fire" for business; a downturn was the clearest time to see it but the worst time to accept it. Desperate to keep her whole life from falling apart, she quietly contacted a consultant. The plan: Close the agency, look for separate jobs or freelance arrangements, and keep the marriage. Could she live with that?
It's taken over two rocky years for the shame, the anger, and the disappointment to subside. Tamara would happily erase the entire entrepreneurial episode. "I should have paid more attention to Michael's approach to work," she now says. "Yes, he has a great reputation, but there were signs he just wasn't driven. He's very confident, but he doesn't have that competitive edge. He never hid his nature. I partly blame myself; we could have avoided a few nasty years."
Does any one of us know who our lovers, our friends, our business partners, our children—and even we ourselves— will become, especially when tossed into a new set of circumstances? Most future forecasting is stunningly off the mark. Typically, it assumes too many discontinuities from the present. But psychology knows that the future grows out of the past, and both tend to be built on observable aspects of character and behavior. It's possible to extrapolate from today to tomorrow—if you know what to pay attention to.
Even with children, development is not a mystery, says Susan Engel, a psychologist at Williams College. "It's a crystal ball. You just have to know how to read it." The trickiest part may be finding—or deliberately creating—situations most likely to elicit the traits you want to observe in action.
The important signs of a person's path into the future inhabit six broad domains, says Engel: intelligence, drive, sociability, capacity for intimacy, happiness, and goodness. All six elements show up early in life and don't change much over its course. As outlined in her recent book, Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become , the six can be seen as an index of what really matters in life.
Some are traits, more or less wired into personality—such as basic level of interest in others. But some have a considerable skills component—for example, how we explain the events of our lives. A small shift in attributional style, for example, will have an outsize effect on a person's motivation and propensity to happiness. Sociability may be a basic component of personality, but it's still possible to influence its expression by learning how to approach others.
Much as we may recognize the importance of each domain for foretelling the future, still we have trouble knowing exactly what to look for. Tone is one of the big distracters. Being low-key, for example, does not preclude happiness, as some people assume. Nor does winning prizes in school predict later success. But it turns out that many of the attributes that most influence us, that create that je ne sais quoi known as character, are fairly stable over time. As a result, we can scrutinize them at any one point and project them into the future.
Intelligence: The Biggest Boon
Of all the attributes to consider in another person, intelligence is probably at the top of the list. Since it is the most stable quality over time, and primarily a product of genetic endowment—although stimulating environments allow it to blossom—it is almost as reliable a guide in children as it is in adults. More than any other trait, it is the great declarer of possibility, an indicator of the likelihood of doing well in life.
Try to define intelligence and you'll have one of psychology's longest-running fights on your hands. This much can be said with impunity: It encompasses the ability and speed of processing information.
It allows for, although makes no guarantee of, deeper understanding of life, experiences, and other people. It underlies the ability to deal with complexity.
As cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman sees it, there are two major types of intelligence—controlled and spontaneous. They operate differently and confer distinct advantages. At the top of the hierarchy is the capacity for conscious, deliberate, abstract thinking, which is what is generally measured on intelligence tests. "Conscious intelligence reflects the capacity of working memory and executive functioning, skills requiring focus and related to cognitive control," he explains. It is goal-directed and draws on a limited pool of attentional resources.
Sharing equal billing with general understanding, argues Kaufman, is spontaneous intelligence, which provides mental dexterity. Spontaneous cognitive processes involve the ability to acquire information automatically. They are associated with implicit learning, the incidental acquisition of a complex pattern, says Kaufman, a visiting scholar at New York University and coauthor of the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence . Call it the cognitive unconscious. "It's the ability to be open to possibilities that may not be obviously relevant to the task at hand"—like having a sudden creative insight without deliberately working on a problem.
Neither component of intelligence is more important than the other, but what is crucial is the ability to flexibly switch between modes of cognition as a task demands. "It is important sometimes to defocus. It allows for novel on-the-spot problem-solving," says Kaufman. Cognitive flexibility is knowing when to completely deactivate focused intelligence. He notes that the highest levels of creativity most likely require the ability for both modes of intelligence and the flexibility to switch thought strategies.
Clues to Intelligence:
"Pay attention to how a person thinks," advises Engel. "Listen to how he or she develops an argument." Barry Lubetkin, a clinical psychologist in New York, advises noting how systematically someone weighs pros and cons of a dilemma and how clearly the person can define and state a problem. "Look for someone who has clarity, whose thoughts have edges."
Also, make sure a person knows the difference between how he feels about something and what he thinks about it. "Confusing feeling and reason is a huge problem," Engel finds. Another measure of intelligence is how quickly a person takes in new information and especially how fully and quickly they grasp complex situations. The ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem through brainstorming, Lubetkin says, is another marker of intelligence, especially the spontaneous variety. Closely related is the ability to discard calcified ways of doing things.
Evolutionary psychologists, in particular, regard the ability to generate humor as a robust sign of intelligence, as it reflects a complex array of cognitive skills, from language use to abstract thinking, involving the capacity to take a novel perspective on information.
Drive: The Goals You Set
Everyone defines it differently, but is there a person alive who doesn't want to succeed? Engel emphasizes doing well at something you love. That's a nice ideal; for some people, it's more a financial calculation. And still others want public attention or recognition, even celebrity in the mix. Two key variables to focus on, then, are how a person defines it and how—or even whether—someone is willing to work for it.
There's effort and there's effort, says Engel. There is a quality beyond working doggedly—some call it surgency—in which the energy of hard work is accompanied by vibrancy and a sense of pleasure. Others call it passion; either way, it fuels perseverance. It's the fire at the heart of motivation. "Drive," Lubetkin says, "is the engine of accomplishment. It allows a person to achieve whatever goals they set in life." And yet, persistence also begets passion. Further, both of them are made possible only by a sense of optimism.
It was on the perseverance-passion spectrum that Michael and Tamara encountered the difference that undid their work partnership. Tamara says she still doesn't understand Michael's failure to be energized by difficulty. But she knows she'd never put herself again in a situation that might require it.
Researchers find that the drive that leads to success maps closely with the Big Five personality trait of conscientiousness—being prepared, organized, and able to control impulses. There are additional markers of the capacity for success. And some underpin the ability to take risks that result in that special off-the-grid brand of accomplishment, innovation.
Going beyond routine paths, Lubetkin points out, requires a certain independence of thought and the capacity to operate independent of others' opinions. There's no time frame for what he calls "building a bank of self-trust." But its most noticeable feature might be the ability to put faith in one's own decisions. Intelligence, he notes, should not be taken as an indicator of such an ability.
Clues to Drive:
"how does a person talk about the problems in his or her life?" asks Lubetkin. "What do they say when they are met with a barrier? You want to hear they believe in the importance of effort and that they are worthy of it. You want to see that they assess themselves in a healthy way. That includes recognizing the randomness of life. An unhealthy person rages against ill luck."
Happiness: The Capacity For Finding Satisfaction
There's a great deal of cultural confusion about what happiness is and how to achieve it. Psychologists and philosophers find that happiness derives from having a sense of purpose and feeling useful. But a culture of consumption like ours puts forth highly seductive messages suggesting happiness comes from enjoying a string of positive events or a life of ease or acquiring things, known as hedonic happiness. Exploring a person's beliefs about happiness is likely to reveal not only how they might approach it but how likely they are to find it. Anyone who seeks it in acquisitions will be doomed to disappointment; hedonic pleasures have limited staying power.
Neuroscience has something important to say on the matter—primarily that happiness isn't something you can pursue directly. It's a byproduct of other things, most notably working toward meaningful goals. In the brain, maximum positive feelings are generated, and negative feelings turned off, not after reaching a goal but in the approach to a challenging goal, one you're not 100 percent certain you can reach, one where you have to muster all your resources and stretch. It's in that last final sprint toward it that people feel most happy. There is no happiness without challenge, risk, and growth.
Happiness may be a feeling but, over the past 50 years, psychologists have come to see that in large measure it is a reflection of how we think. Cognitive behavioral therapy is founded on the fact that we consistently engage in automatic patterns of thinking about experience, of which we are generally unaware, that pitch us into positive or negative mood states. Underlying a propensity to depression are not merely encounters with adversity but assumptions about the experience and beliefs about oneself that are in fact distortions of reality.
Further, the beliefs are typically expressed in the attributions we all make about the causes of events. Among the most common, says Lubetkin, is the tendency to selectively filter information—to focus exclusively on negative details of a situation while ignoring or minimizing its positive aspects. Equally destructive is catastrophizing, assuming the direst outcome from one negative event. The conclusions people draw from their everyday experiences often find their way into expression and are a major indicator of the degree to which they are unwittingly erecting barriers to their own happiness.
Clues to Happiness:
How realistic is someone about personal weaknesses? And just how willing is someone to act in ways aligned with his or her beliefs and values, even at the risk of criticism?
Happiness comes not from a magical power to escape setbacks but the ability to rebound from them, also known as resilience. How does someone interpret experience? A tendency to attribute all setbacks to fate can cripple will. Believing everything is under one's control likewise distorts reality and is a setup for misery.
Goodness: The Legacy Of Mama Madoff
Engel wants you to know about Bernie Madoff's mother. "Goodness comes from somewhere," says the Williams psychologist, "and so does badness. People model themselves on those around them." The greatest swindler in history wasn't the only cheat in his family. When he was growing up, his mother had her own financial brokerage firm. Eventually, she was investigated by the SEC for failing to file financial reports. Before they could revoke her registration, Engel recounts, she withdrew it. "She might have been defrauding customers, sneaking past the regulatory commission, or cheating the government, and if so, there would be a good chance it was rubbing off on Bernie."
Some aspects of morality are generated from within, and some from without—for example, the degree to which a person believes that ends justify any means. "I am certain that Bernie Madoff did not get the kind of influence in his childhood that how you do things is more important than whether you succeed," Engel says.
Empathy shows up early in life and it endures. How motivated is someone to care when you are hurt? How mindful is a person toward your goals?Empathy is laudable by itself, but it has enormous social utility. It is a source of restraint against the abuse and exploitation of others— yes, you.
There are people—often, leaders— who get good at faking empathy although they are at heart ruthless, Lubetkin warns. "Internally they feel little concern. But they can charm enough so that there are few consequences to their ruthless behavior."
The capacity for empathy is necessary for goodness but not sufficient. Another sign of morality is the willingness to help another. The capacity for moral reasoning is distinct from moral behavior. Brain imaging studies show that moral reasoning is influenced by how "hot" a situation is, Engel explains. "What we think of as right depends to some extent on how involved our feelings are."
It's accessing the ability to think about the perspective of another—as distinct from feeling what another is feeling—that is linked to benevolent actions. Like so much in life, thinking about the feelings of others hinges on emotion regulation. A person who can control his own emotions (especially negative ones like anger and anxiety) without denying them will be able to tolerate others' upsets, not prompted to run from them—and able to help.
Clues to Goodness:
Knowing how someone thinks about moral issues is useful, but it's not always enough to indicate how they will behave in difficult circumstances. And for that, says Engel, you have to know how someone calms him or herself—indeed, whether they can. The ability underlies more than moral capacity. It's a prerequisite for good decision-making in every domain of experience.
Friendship: The Capacity For Reciprocity
Friendship is both an arena with its own intrinsic rewards—happiness is prime among them—and a proving ground for intimacy. Relationships with peers hinge on equality and reciprocity—one reason, researchers believe, they are so inherently satisfying. And a perfect window into character. Says Lubetkin: "Friendship allows you to grow. Knowing there is a support system encourages you to take more chances and move toward greater success."
An enormous body of literature on children and adults attests that what people like in others is kindness and assertiveness—the sense that someone will be available to help in a time of need and has the ability to stand up for oneself. An adult who has few peer relationships may be unkind, unable to relate to others, or too self-involved.
Endurance is an important measure of friendship quality. "The ability to build a history with someone tells me about the value they place on loyalty, and how sustainable they are through the ups and downs of experience," says Lubetkin. "A long-term friendship signals a person is able to tolerate human foibles—including yours. Having been accepted fully by someone besides parents registers deep inside a person."
Signs of sociability are readily observable—the existence of a broad circle of associates one calls on from time to time and a smaller circle of one or two close friends one can call on at any time and to whom one can reveal one's inner landscape. Having at least one good friend, research shows, is a buffer against many of life's ills.
The capacity for friendship has two broad aspects. One is a level of sociability, mostly a matter of temperament. Level of interest in others is one thing; knowing how to interact with them is another, more in the domain of skills. Social skills—how to read signals, understanding the intentions of others, how to approach others—can to some degree be acquired by way of coaching, especially among children.
Not every person has the same level of sociability. Some people are very comfortable spending time alone and frequently prefer to. One measure of a person's character is how much solitude they desire—but it's just as important to know whether they can create a social life when they want it.
Interaction style tends to be stable over the lifetime, says Engel. A peek into the past is likely to reveal something about the future. A person who comes from a family where everyone was heard and each child had some say, is likely to be attuned to what others are thinking, while knowing how to assert his own needs.
Clues to Friendship:
Here's what the capacity for friendship looks like in action: asking about others, making someone feel welcome, making suggestions for joint activities, sharing (but not dumping) information about oneself.
It's important to assess the nature of a person's friendships. Are they purely voluntary or are they based on exchange of some kind, such as money, or consistently marked by inequality such as dominance or submission?
Perhaps the strongest signal of problems in the friendship realm is the existence of cutoffs. A string of ex-friendships is a sign of rigidity, indicator of an inability to tolerate conflict or stress in relationships or work out their complexities.
Intimacy: The Capacity for Vulnerability and Trust
Consider intimacy an important source of balance, the ultimate leavening in life, the deepest source of comfort. And because it is the root of psychic security, it is a firm foundation for approaching the new and a wellspring of willingness to engage in exploration of life. Gauge someone's capacity for intimacy and you will understand something about their ability to trust another human being, reveal vulnerability, make a commitment of any kind, and regulate distress as well.
On this psychologists agree: The first relationship is the basis for all others. The nature of one's emotional attachment in the family of origin establishes not only the ability to achieve a sense of connection but the degree of security in later relationships. Attachment to a consistently responsive caregiver in infancy is nature's first coping system.
The desire and ability to listen to another—sometimes the most essential need in a close relationship, particularly during times of distress—is a quality easy to discern. Its equally important—but often overlooked—companion skill is the ability to communicate that one's partner is being heard. "By itself it's a key social intelligence skill," observes Lubetkin. And the better the communication, the more satisfaction people feel.
There's an ineluctable mix of vulnerability and reciprocity at the heart of intimacy, and it declares itself. You can openly observe whether a person runs for emotional distance or disengages during difficult moments.
Given the depth of vulnerability that distinguishes intimate relationships, the capacity for intimacy couldn't exist without the willingness to trust another human being. In fact, no human enterprise can operate soundly in the absence of trust; the alternative of constant wariness creates an atmosphere of unceasing suspicion. Trust, of course, rests on the very foundation of predictability. Isn't this where we came in?
Clues to Intimacy:
"No matter how much you need to know it, you can't ask a person head-on whether he feels loved," says Lubetkin. "You need the details."
His recommendation to people on the verge of commitment: Make a drive-by visit to the old family manse. It's virtually guaranteed to stimulate recall of early relationships with great emotional immediacy. Ask your prospective partner to take you on a tour of her childhood home, and ask a few questions. "Tell me about the kitchen. What kinds of conversation went on? What was the family room like? Tell me about where you slept; what was your bedroom like? Was it yours? Could you take your private thoughts into it? Did you have comforting bedtime rituals?"
Even a person whose early experience was less than ideal will reveal in tone and attitude—anger, wistfulness, regret—whether they've declared a truce with history.