Three layers of personality

An interesting theme that emerged from the Consilience Conference was the idea of humans as makers and enjoyers of stories. Two of the leading scholars in literary Darwinism spoke at the conference (more about their work later), but the first mention of the importance of story in human life came in a talk about personality.

Dan McAdams is a psychologist at Northwestern who studies personality and psychological development throughout the lifespan. I’ve read his book The Stories We Live: Personal Myths And The Making Of The Self, which discusses how individuals develop a sense of who they are. In The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, he takes a broader view of self and identity in America. His latest book, George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream : A Psychological Portrait, provides a psychological portrait of George W. Bush. He used examples from Bush’s story to illustrate his three-tier model of human personality.

If human nature is an evolved psychological design, then personality, according to McAdams, represents the “socially consequential variations on the design.”

One way to think about why these variations exist is to look at humans as social actors with roles that may require differing capabilities, or personality traits, like those described by the Big Five model: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of these says something about our style of social behavior; in fact, they represent things that people want to know about other people who they need to or may want to interact with: How curious is this person? Can I depend on him? How socially dominant is she? Can I trust her? How emotionally stable is he? Our reputations, which are based on the answers people give to these questions about us, are generally known to an activity network of about 150 people with whom we are acquainted.

A note about that number: Robin Dunbar has suggested that we are cognitively capable of sustaining relationships with only so many people; Dunbar’s number, which describes this limit, is often given as 150. BTW, Dunbar suggests that we began using language, specifically gossip, to promote social cohesion when human groups started to grow too large to use the traditional method of regularly grooming each other, which other apes use.

As much as I love to think about personality traits, their seemingly infinite combinations, and the systems used to describe them, I realize that there’s a lot that they leave out. Openness, for example, is associated with intellectual curiosity and a willingness to entertain new ideas. Maybe someone who scores high on this trait is more likely to be a scientist or other researcher, or maybe a writer. But the trait by itself doesn’t tell us much about what he or she might want to study or write about. McAdams suggests a second layer, our goals and values, which shape how and why we use the skills and limitations of our Big 5 description. At this level, people are seen as motivational agents who are trying to fulfill their objectives. Understanding what another person wants is a vital adjunct to knowing how he or she is going to try to get it (which is pretty much what the Big 5 or other trait descriptions tell you). This second layer of our personalities is known only by an affinity group of about 50 people.

The third layer is what emerges when we build on the traits we have and the ends toward which we direct them: we develop the stories we tell about our lives. At this level, we see each other as autobiographical authors. Dunbar defines two smaller groups, the sympathy group and the social clique; these are the ones who know your story, who “get” you at the deepest level. As a writer, this is where things really get all juicy and interesting for me; the stories of other people’s lives are often quite interesting in and of themselves, but the really fascinating thing is the sense people make out of the events of their lives. Out of all the things that happened to them, which ones do they emphasize? Which have they forgotten? What do they think those things mean?

McAdams had an interesting observation about the story of George W. Bush’s early life: He was living, not his own story, but his father’s (he backed this up with some examples of parallels in the two men’s lives as young adults). Bush Jr. had to come up with a new narrative (he chose a tale of redemption) that fit his own personality traits and goals. McAdams also had some great quotes on the human need for stories. Edward O. Wilson described the mind as a narrative machine, and Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. He himself described the narrative identity as a personal myth, “an imaginative reconstruction of the past and construction of the future that yields a sense of unity, purpose, and meaning.” This reminded me of another quote, this one from the Richard Powers novel Galatea 2.2: “You tell the stories you need to tell to keep the story tellable.”

So there we are: inborn tendencies that, although McAdams didn’t get into this, are partially shaped by experience; on top of these, the values that we choose; and tying the whole thing together, the meaning we construct for ourselves by writing the stories of our lives. Overall, it’s a pretty satisfying look at what makes us who we are as individuals. It may even give me a leg up when thinking about writing characters for stories.

1 Comment

  1. I love it. “He himself described the narrative identity as a personal myth, “an imaginative reconstruction of the past and construction of the future that yields a sense of unity, purpose, and meaning.””

    I suppose he knows that his attempt to provide himself a sense of unity, purpose, and meaning by inventing his own categorization for personality is itself also a myth.

Comments are closed.