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Do You Grab Life by the Horns or Sit on the Sidelines?

Generally speaking, there really are just a few types of people in this world

"The only things in this life that you really regret are the risks you didn't take. And God knows if you see a chance to be happy, you grab it with both hands and to hell with the consequences."

--Grumpy Old Men

I couldn't have said it any better. I hope I don't have to wait until I'm a fictional grumpy old man to realize this! Sure, life aint easy. But amid all the zings and zaps are quite a few tasty morsels. And if you aren't open to them, they will pass you by. Which type of person are you? Do you grab life by the horns and ride or tie yourself to the mast? As it turns out, this isn't such a silly question. And the answer to this question has some profound consequences. Let's see why.

Personality psychologists have identified five dimensions of personality that people differ on: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience/Intellect. Most of you knew that already. But recently, researchers have made a fascinating discovery: above the Big Five, there hang two "meta-traits" that account for much of the shared variance among the lower order dimensions.

The first meta-trait has received various labels: Alpha, Stability, or Self-Control. They all are referring to the same thing. They are a blend of Emotional Stability (low Neuroticism), Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness. Those who score high on this meta-trait have a need to maintain a sense of order in their lives. In order to maintain this sense, they restrain themselves from a wide variety of behaviors. If you don't take a risk, you can't unleash chaos right? Or so their reasoning goes.

Individual differences in this meta-trait has been linked to serotonergic functioning. Serotonin is a neuromodulator with regulatory or inhibiting effects on mood, behavior, and cognition. Serotonin helps to increase a person's vigilance while also quelling the negative affect that might get in the way of the self-control. One researcher reported that the most consistent association between serotonin and personality was that between higher levels of serotonin function and greater impulse control.

The second meta-trait has received the following labels: Beta, Plasticity, or Engagement. This meta-trait is a blend of Extraversion and Openness to Experience/Intellect. Those high on this meta-trait have a need to engage in the world, constantly soaking up novelty from the environment.

Individual differences in this meta-trait are associated with the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system. Dopamine has mostly activating effects on behavior and cognition and contributes to approach behavior, sensitivity to rewards, and breadth of thinking. Dopamine has shown linkages to Extraversion, positive affect, Openness to Experience, broad thinking, and mental flexibility.

Keep in mind that it's possible to have any combination of these two meta-traits. And they are not opposites of each other. As my colleague Colin G. DeYoung at the University of Minnesota and his co-authors note in a 2002 paper on the link between the meta-traits and conformity: "The opposite of plasticity is not stability but rigidity, while the opposite of stability is not plasticity but instability." This situation means that at the most general level of description there are really only five kinds of people in this world:

1. High stability, high plasticity

2. High stability, low plasticity

3. Low stability, high plasticity

4. Low stability, low Plasticity

5. Moderate stability, moderate plasticity

Most people will fit into category #5, having a reasonable level of stability and plasticity, attempting to strike a sane balance. But it's interesting to think about those extreme on one pole or another, or even extreme on both at the same time and to consider each of the meta-trait's predictive powers separately.

In a recent study, Jacob B. Hirsh at the University of Toronto and his colleagues measured the two meta-traits in a community sample of 307 participants (98% were White). Personalities were rated both by the participants themselves as well as three of their peers. Participants also were given a list of 400 behaviors and they were asked to check off which ones they frequently engage in.

The meta-trait "Stability" was negatively associated with engagement in a wide variety of behaviors. In fact, out of all the significant correlations with Stability (82), 90% were negative. This is much higher than that expected by chance (50%). The top ten strongest behavioral correlates of Stability were:

1. Tried to stop using alcohol or other drugs. (-.29)
2. Drank alcohol or used other drugs to make myself feel better. (-.29)
3. Swore around other people. (-.27)
4. Hung up the phone on a friend or relative during an argument (-.27)
5. Lost my temper (-.26)
6. Spent an hour at a time daydreaming. (-.26)
7. Yelled at a stranger (-.25)
8. Rode a motocycle. (-.24)
9. Awakened in the middle of the night and was unable to get back to sleep (-.24)
10. Became intoxicated. (-.23)

Therefore, those with higher levels of Stability reported engaging in these ten behaviors less often.

On the other hand, the meta-trait "Plasticity" was positively associated with engagement in a wide variety of behaviors. Out of all the significant correlations with Plasticity (124), 98% were positive correlations, much greater than chance. Here are the top 10 strongest behavior correlates of Plasticity:

1. Was consulted for help or advice by someone with a personal problem (+.33)
2. Planned a party. (+.31)
3. Attended a public lecture. (+.30)
4. Told a joke. (+.28)
5. Gave a prepared talk or public recital (vocal, instrumental, etc.). (+.28)
6. Spent an hour at a time daydreaming. (+.26)
7. Wrote a thank you note. (+.26)
8. Wrote a love letter. (+.26)
9. Attended a city council meeting. (+.25)
10. Entertained six or more people. (+.24)

Actually my favorite one is #12: Lounged around my house without any clothes on. (+.24). I'm neither confirming nor denying that I engage in such behavior, but still, cool research finding.

Interestingly, the entire pattern of results was not the same when the researchers looked at the five Big Five traits separately. This supports the idea that there really are two higher-level personality traits that offer unique prediction above and beyond the Big Five.

The researchers conclude:

"At the broadest level of description, therefore, variability in human personality appears to reflect restraint and engagement. Stability appears to be associated with refraining from a variety of behaviors associated with disruptive impulses (such as drug use and reactive aggression), whereas Plasticity appears to be associated with engaging in a variety of behaviors associated with approach behavior and exploration (such as creative expression and attending social events)."

What are you?

No doubt you identify with one of the five types. Is one profile best? Who am I to say. There are advantages and disadvantages to each profile. And a lot depends on what you want out of your own life. But here's the irony: what you may think you want out of life might actually be heavily influenced by neurotransmitters. Are you high dopamine/high serotonin, low dopamine/high serotonin, low dopamine/high serotonin, low dopamine/low serotonin, or moderate dopamine/moderate serotonin?

While thinking in these terms is surely crude, it might be helpful. Because I'm a big believer that we can change. A lot. Now may be the time to identify what your tendencies are, really come to terms with them, and then create some higher-order beliefs that will spur you to take action. Such higher-order beliefs can take the form: "I want to like to like engaging" or "I want to want to be more stable", or even "I want to want to be more stable and engage more with the world" or whatever higher-order beliefs your higher-order beliefs desire. And start doing something about it. Today. Don't let life pass you by if you don't want to want it to.

My point is this: If you want to take life by the horns, do it. Don't let a bunch of little wimpy neurostransmitters stop you. By teaching the neurotransmitters who is the boss, you may just fundamentally change the levels of those various neurotransmitters!

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved


Hirsh, J.C., DeYoung, C.G., & Peterson, J.B. (2009). Metatraits of the big five differentially predict engagement and restraint of behavior. Journal of Personality, 77, 1-17.

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