Whether pushing beyond one's comfort zone or engaging in a double life, we pay a price for going against type. Two experts consider the trade-offs of acting out of character.
By Kaja Perina published November 4, 2014 - last reviewed on May 22, 2020
For one-third of the year, in any given place in the English-speaking world, Brian Little is a man on a mission. That mission, to deliver an inspiring lecture on his lifelong study of personality, frequently concludes with Little huddled in a bathroom stall, feet up to avoid being spotted by those who would hunt him down. The position usually signifies unmitigated success. If Little is hiding on the porcelain throne to avoid small talk, it is likely that the lecture was a triumph, such that attendees want to continue to banter, even amongst the intimate chime of bodily evacuation. Little declares this refuge an essential "restorative niche," because he has just completed a mentally exhausting, personality-bending performance.
An avowed introvert, Little believes that he must act like a jovial dervish to deliver what audiences want. When he's on the podium, he writes in Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, "a familiar 'click' occurs. I switch from my natural (biologically) introverted personality to something very different. At 8:35 in the morning audiences do not really want to hear modulated, soft-spoken, tentative, introvert-speak, especially after a long bout of impassioned drinking the night before." But showmanship on the lecture circuit takes a toll, hence the bathroom bivouac.
Little, who lectures in psychology and business at Cambridge University, has made a successful career by behaving out of character in service of his goals. And it is no wonder, because he studies just such gambits.
Acting counter to one's temperament is a double-edged maneuver. To go against one's nature is often to court high levels of stress, regardless of the act. Suppressing innate tendencies arouses the autonomic nervous system, an act that can set off cascades of stress hormones and, in turn, illness. An introvert who is suddenly forced to make conversation with everyone in his orbit would surely feel ill at ease, as would a conscientious person enjoined from responding to phone calls or emails that he'd normally attend to promptly.
A person's behavior, Little argues, is broadly dictated by three forces. There are biogenic personality traits, such as the disposition to be conscientious or agreeable or extroverted. Such qualities of mind have their own neurochemical signatures—agreeable individuals have higher levels of oxytocin, for example.
Add to that the way in which culture "sociogenically" drives behavior. A man who grew up in 1950's Cold War America perennially on the cusp of nuclear winter might develop a more punitive attitude to the dissemination of state secrets than would his son, asail in a post-Communist open-source community of hackers.
Ultimately, though, Little is most interested in the oft-silent, necessarily singular goals that shape behavior for better or for worse (although he is resolutely focused on the better). He calls these "idiogenic motives," or "the reasons why a person is engaged in a particular pattern of behavior." It is these private compulsions that push people beyond their biogenic comfort zone. We look to idiogenic motives to explain not only why wars are fought and marriages forged, but also why a person is said to act "out of character." Little uses the term to express both going against expectation and acting in service of one's values. The brain is well-equipped to judge biogenic personality and the zeitgeist in which a person swims, but the internal dialogue and goals of another are necessarily unknowable.
For Little, acting counter to one's innate disposition (he calls this "using free traits") is usually cause for celebration. "There is a moral dimension to free-trait behavior," he writes. "We rise to occasions when we might have defaulted to our biogenic selves. We do it out of love and we do it out of professionalism."
Of course, people do not always bend their character for the better. Little's ideas about personality provide a basis for thinking about one of the most nefarious idiogenic acts a person can commit: insider spying.
Double agents are human ciphers of a sort, and psychiatrist David Charney has been serially engaged in picking the lock. For hours at a time, Charney has slipped away from his private practice in Alexandria, Virginia, to interview the most inscrutable spies in America. As a pro bono consultant on the defense teams of notorious moles Earl Edwin Pitts, Robert Hanssen, and Brian Regan, he was given unrestricted access to each man. Charney's patients had long included intelligence operatives, paving the way for the consultancy work with Pitts, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to aiding the Russians. Charney's most infamous client was Hanssen, the grandiose, disaffected FBI agent whose decades-long volley of intelligence to Russia catastrophically compromised U.S. operations and resulted in the execution of multiple Russians spying for the United States. Thereafter, Charney worked with Regan, an Air Force sergeant convicted in 2003 of attempting to peddle secrets to Libya, China, and Iraq.
Charney argues that most insider spies are not rabid ideologues or psychopathic manipulators. Nor, he argues, do they do it primarily for money. They are most often driven by self-loathing turned outward onto their agencies.
Such moles are hatched amidst personal travail filtered through a relentlessly self-critical eye. Insider spies are almost always male and are plagued by what Charney describes as "an intolerable sense of failure, as privately defined by that person." Marriages go south, promotions are missed, but it is the idiogenic gloss the men bring to adulthood's inevitable disappointments that pushes them to "self-recruit" into a foreign intelligence service. Some people would turn to drink or even suicide. A blue-collar worker might "go postal." The self-hating spy, Charney argues, turns instead against the system he has sworn to uphold.
Yet no sooner does the double life commence than the difficulty of perpetuating it becomes crushing. Sure, there are initial moments of James Bondian zeal. Hanssen penned sardonic notes to his KGB handlers, bragging about his tradecraft and offering to teach the Russians how to be better spies. But such brio is short-lived, argues Charney, who says that the men he met each followed a pattern of initial euphoria rapidly followed by regret. Short-lived, too, are the personal crises that tipped the men into traitordom, replaced instead with the logistical and existential pressure of subterfuge: How can one continually engage with foreign handlers while living an already full life?
The answer is that no one can. No matter how brilliant his stratagems, an insider spy is still a pawn in a geopolitical chess game who knows he could be exposed at a moment's notice by the service for whom he is moonlighting. Charney compares the double agent's psychic predicament to a person awaiting a conclusive cancer diagnosis over a period of years—inevitable bad news coupled with highly uncertain timing.
Christopher Boyce, who had a CIA clearance and sold secrets to the Russians in the 1970s, told Congress that "there was no excitement, there was no thrill. There was only depression and a hopeless enslavement to an inhuman, uncaring foreign bureaucracy. It's just so totally an unattractive thing to be into-you're never going to get away from it, and it's never going to end." Some of the men Charney studied went dormant for long periods in hopes that their foreign handlers would let them slip away. The compartmentalization required of double-agents is not a skill set most people wish to cultivate, and ultimately it becomes unsustainable.
"Becoming an insider spy requires an out-of-character leap, which is why it is so anomalous," says Charney. "Pitts, Hanssen, and Regan each told me about security flaws they knew existed and explained how to protect the United States from the very depradations they had committed."
Therein lies the possibility of an exit strategy that Charney argues would both capitalize on double agents' remorseful nature and staunch the damage that they inflict on national security. In a two-part white paper published this year, entitled NOIR: True Psychology of the Insider Spy and Proposing a New Policy for Improving National Security by Fixing the Problem of Insider Spies, Charney argues that double agents should be granted clemency if they come clean and debrief to a new agency that would exist for the express purpose of off-ramping them.
The proposal, now making the rounds in Washington, suggests that insider spies who turn themselves in and submit to a full damage assessment might be spared jail and a public outing. They'd lose their jobs but their life and that of their family would not crater completely.
Charney's initiative faces many hurdles, including the charge that lowering the punitive bar increases the incentive to spy. Charney counters that there is a national-security rationale for rehabilitating the mole; it is a trade-off not unlike granting amnesty to those in the Witness Protection Program. And he thinks insider spies are so miserable they'll jump at the option. Dante reserved the lowest rung of hell for those who commit treason, and Charney depicts moles as being every bit that miserable.
"The insider spy suffers two failures before getting caught," Charney writes. "His first failure is his inability to successfully navigate his own life; his second failure is discovering that his best attempt to solve his worst life crisis turned out to be a pathetic delusion as he is now merely a puppet on the string of his handler. [If caught] his third and very public failure is that he could not even succeed at being an insider spy."
The idea for reconciliation occurred to Charney at the outset of his 18-year stint as a spy whisperer. He had yet to meet Pitts, but had gleaned from the man's attorney that the accused double agent was suicidal. In a clinical mindset, Charney wondered what hope he could offer a man facing life in prison. Might he be motivated to live if he felt he could atone for his breach? It turned out that Pitts was eager to be Charney's guinea pig in such an idiogenic effort and shared his troubled rationale for insider spying. Charney and Pitts correspond to this day. Indeed, during his interrogation Pitts suggested that Hanssen was a security threat—four years before he was apprehended.
Charney calls his proposed agency NOIR, the "National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation," and imagines that it would counsel intelligence officers in crisis as well as debrief those who've committed treason.
Can someone who has acted so flagrantly out of character find his way back? "Personality has both an inner and an outer dimension," writes Little. "The inner reality consists of what we are intending to do—what personal projects we are pursuing at any given time. The outer reality consists of images that we create, consciously or not, for others. It is in the nexus between these two realities that our personalities are constructed, challenged, and reconstructed. When we explore this nexus, all sorts of strange behaviors can be observed."
Brian Little makes his career by compartmentalizing. Pitts, Hanssen, and Regan ruined theirs by doing the same. To be self-aware is to know, amongst one's extraordinary range of idiogenic motives, which may lead to triumph and which will surely tank. If there is any parallel to be drawn between Little's life-affirming gambit and the treachery of the insider spy, it is that we need to honor the possibility of a malleable self, one that is poised for improvement, no matter how long dormant.
Would these turncoats have turned themselves in?
How three insider spies actually got caught
BETRAYED BY HIS HANDLER
Earl Edwin Pitts was implicated when his KGB handler defected to the U.S.in the mid 1990s. A sting operation ensued, in which the FBI caught Pitts red-handed by posing as Russian agents hoping to reactivate him as a double agent.
CODE NAME: GRAY SUIT
When a six-year FBI-CIA task force failed to turn up the mole who proved to be Robert Hanssen, authorities bribed a Russian KGB officer, granting $1 million and a new identity in the United States in exchange for a file that led to Hanssen’s arrest.
A SPY WHO COULDN’T SPELL
A dyslexic who had access to classified information about spy satellites, Brian Regan was apprehended after a letter he wrote proferring secrets and discussing “esponage” and “enprisoion[ment]” was intercepted.
Newly published works discussed
Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian R. Little, Ph.D.