J. P. Gerber, Ph.D.

The Shape of Traits

Can We Only Trust Selfish People to Be Themselves?

How complexity may be one measure of maturity.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

One of my favorite Steinbeck characters is The Patron from Sweet Thursday. The Patron is a people watcher and a hustler, always looking for the levers that drive people’s behavior. Early on, we read that the Pátron believed that “the only person you can trust is an absolutely selfish person. He always runs true to form. You know everything he’ll do. But you take somebody with an underlying kindness, and he might fool you.” Is this actually true, is goodness correlated with complexity?

In the arena of morality, goodness and complexity do appear to be related. “It’s all mine” is a very simple goal to pursue. It’s Smaug’s goal, the goal of selfishness – to get everything and keep it for oneself in a big pile. “How we do we distribute this fairly?” is a more complex goal, one that we constantly struggle with, in politics and everyday life. Selflessness is more complex than selfishness.

But even within goodness itself, we can still move from the simpler to the more complex. The simplest form of selflessness is “don’t keep anything”, which is a very easy rule to follow if you just play hot potato. An arguably better rule is “keep enough to distribute to others” but that’s much harder to do, it’s not always giving things away immediately. So even on just the side of good things, greater complexity is associated with greater goodness. Kohlberg argued for the same thing long ago, saying that our ethical reasoning proceeds from simple rules to more abstract principles.

But we haven’t made the same leap — relating goodness and complexity — in arenas outside of morality. Personality psychology does not explore goodness and complexity, or even the fundamental notion of complexity in any trait, very well. Are there simpler and more complex levels of personality? Can extraversion be deeper or more shallow? Can conscientiousness be deeper or more shallow? More or less complex?

My guess is that as a person’s personality becomes more mature it also becomes more complex, that the nature of our traits, the goals involved, become more abstract and harder to see, and hence people can appear to have less personalities and indeed become less predictable. Take extraversion, for example. At the simple level, there’s the brass band extrovert, a true party spirit who is always excited to be here and loud. I doubt the Patron would be surprised by this type of extrovert, mainly because he’d have advance warning of their march coming down the street! Crash, crash, I’m here everybody.

But a more complex type of extrovert might be someone who enjoys being around others and wants them to feel comfortable. This person is like a panther, sometimes pouncing on the social opportunity, sometimes holding back to make others feel comfortable, but always watching, always alert. You can’t tell what the panther will do, and I think the Patron would be more surprised by their behavior. Note that it’s likely that the brass band does less good than the panther because the panther is more sensitive to the situation and others’ needs. Thus, it does indeed seem reasonable to conclude that complexity is correlated with goodness, and also with maturity. In all cases, the person is 'being themselves', it's just that, as the Patron noted, some people are less predictable than others.


Steinbeck, J. (1954). Sweet Thursday. NY: Viking Press