Gerald Matthews, Ph.D.

Gerald Matthews Ph.D.

First Person Plural


Deconstructing Personality

Why personality is more elusive than you think

Posted Apr 30, 2010

Here is a puzzle about personality. We all believe we have a personality, and we find it easy to assume that others do too. In fact, we typically over-estimate the influence of the personalities of others (social psychologists call this the ‘fundamental attribution error'). We can also measure personality quite successfully, using frameworks such as the Five Factor Model, and there is a reasonable (if imperfect) level of agreement in how we see ourselves and how others see us.

So what's the problem? The basic difficulty is that the more closely we look at personality the harder it is to see. A good metaphor for personality is the mosaic; you have to stand back to see the pattern in all the little pieces of tile.

My own research is concerned with the relationship between performance and personality traits such as extraversion, anxiety and impulsivity. It seems plausible that personality influences how well a person can pay attention, retrieve information from memory and react quickly. Indeed, relationships between personality traits and various cognitive functions have been found. But, they are often quite small in size and dependent on just how the study is run. Anxiety is fairly reliably linked to deficits in attention, for example, but, in any given study, there will often be plenty of anxious people whose attention seems to be functioning just fine.

Personality is elusive in lines of research other than cognitive performance. One of the most exciting developments in personality research is the molecular genetics of traits - finding individual genes whose variations (‘polymorphisms') relate to traits. For example, a polymorphism in a gene that controls serotonin reuptake at the synapse (5-HTTLPR) correlates with anxiety as measured by questionnaire, and with the responsiveness of the amygdala (a key brain structure for anxiety). Again, though, as Marcus Munafo of the University of Bristol and his colleagues have shown, the correlations with personality are small in size, and not always found.

In social psychology, we might take it for granted that extraverts are talkative with their friends, that they like to joke around and that they are forceful in work settings. On average, extraverts do possess these qualities. But, as Dan Cervone (University of Illinois at Chicago) has shown, the particular set of characteristics possessed by any individual ‘extravert' varies quite a lot. Knowing that someone is extraverted may not tell us much about how that person will behave in a particular setting. Dan believes that standard personality constructs like extraversion are not much use in describing individuals; instead, we have to look at individual personality as complex of multiple cognitive and emotional processes. I don't entirely agree (I'll explain why in a later post), but I do think Dan is right to point out the limitations of much conventional thinking about personality traits.

The title of my blog reflects this tension between the unitary self and the plurality of the individual cognitive and neural processes that somehow work together to support the self. I don't believe that either personality or the self is an illusion. But I also don't believe that we can find any single ‘personality' center in the head. In fact, I think that personality emerges from the interaction of multiple cognitive processes, and I hope to explore this basic idea further in future posts.

This is a good point at which to thank Matthew Hutson of Psychology Today for inviting me to begin this blog. Matt asked me to blog on personality and cognition, which I will. But I am also going to take the liberty of writing about the emotional side of personality, and how it too is inextricable from cognitive processes. For example, another of my research interests is emotional intelligence, and I aim to comment on how this new construct for personality reflects a multitude of separate processes.

More on the intricate and elusive mechanisms of personality in later posts....