Should We Take Personality Personally?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told that you have a “Type A” personality.

To this day, I am not sure if that is a compliment. However, it turns out that this type of thinking actually has roots in psychological research.

I feel like people generally talk about personality in evaluative and vague terms, like having a “good” or “difficult” personality. But psychologists have actually found several effective ways of quantifying personality for assessment purposes. There are many different methods of doing this, but one of the most common – and the method that most intrigues me – is “The Big Five.” The Big Five theory is derived from universal language descriptions (also known as “the lexical hypothesis” in case it ever comes up in trivia). It maintains that our personality can be broken down into different levels of five traits: Agreeableness, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness. For example, you Type A folks that just had your hand up might really just be ranked 78 on the Conscientiousness scale. You can take the assessment for yourself here.

But what I am most intrigued by is what the field of psychology has found about how we develop these personality traits. You have probably heard of the nature vs. nurture debate, but psychologists have actually found consistent formulas of how our traits come to be:

Personality = 35-50% Genetics + 2-11% Shared environment (upbringing) + 41-49% nonshared environment (school involvement, social circles) + scientific error

This is a formula detailing what makes you, you. Think about this for a minute.

Now that you’ve thought about it, I’m going to tell you why this gave me a LIFE-CHANGING perspective. According to this (very well-accepted) theory, we do not have much ownership over our personality.

“Whoa… you mean that when my roommate comes home on a sunny day at 4pm and sees me still on the couch in my pajamas watching Scandal I can tell her that I’m not lazy, I was just born and raised to have a low Openness to Experience?” Well, yea.

But don’t forget the customer who was rude to you at work, your friend who cries at literally everything, and the partner on the group project who always turns in his work late; they too are victims of their genetics, shared and nonshared environment. So while we should not feel poorly about ourselves for our faults, we also should be consistently empathetic and understanding of others’ shortcomings.

Okay, now let’s think about the flip side. This theory also implies that all of your good traits – helpfulness, organization, curiosity– are also a result of this formula. Here comes humility time! Instead of feeling so high and mighty for the things that make us unique, it might be healthy to take a step back and contemplate why we have these traits.

Now before you go telling your internet provider that you shouldn’t have to pay the late fee because it is your Conscientiousness level that caused you to miss the payment, I want to circle back to the “error” part of the equation. While this is generally left ambiguous in research, my professor and mentor shared with me that he believes it is our “intention.” Because regardless of our dispositions, bills need to get paid, you need to be kind to friends and you need to be adaptable to changing times. So while this theory serves as compelling reason for practicing empathy and humility, it is not an endorsement for prohibiting action. People can and do change all the time.

This might seem like a more scientific way of saying “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” and in some ways it is. But having this knowledge has greatly inspired me to be more humble and empathetic. So I encourage you, try to think of those difficult people in your life as more than their personality. Everyone could use a little understanding.


Borkenau, P., Riemann, R., Angleitner, A., & Spinath, F. (n.d.). Genetic And Environmental Influences On Observed Personality: Evidence From The German Observational Study Of Adult Twins. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (4), 655-668.

Bouchard, T. and Loehlin, J. (2001). Genes, Evolution, and Personality. Behavior Genetics, 31 (8), 243-271.

Goldberg, L. (1993). The Structure of Phenotypic Personality Traits. American Psychologist, 48 (1), 26-34.

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