Acting Out of Character in the Immortal Profession: Toward a Free Trait Agreement

By Brian R. Little  |  From the April-May 2010 Issue of Academic Matters

-Sometimes, the academic life demands that faculty deny their fundamental personality traits. But if collegial respect includes allowing colleagues the latitude to nurture their true characters, academics can survive and thrive amidst the challenges of academic life.

It often comes down to personality. Despite the candidate’s obvious brilliance, tenure is denied. The comment “insufferably arrogant,” uttered almost sotto voce just before the vote, helps tip the scales.  Across campus a dedicated but painfully shy associate professor is reading the term’s teaching evaluations and, once again, is simply devastated. And over at the faculty club, a newly minted Professor Emeritus bounces into the retirement party to find only three attendees at the event, trying in vain to create the illusion of a throng. Later, at the bar, the reluctant pseudo-celebrants agree on one thing — this wouldn’t have happened to any of their other colleagues. Personality matters. Continue reading

Personality Science and the Northern Tilt: As Positive as Possible Under the Circumstances

Book: Designing Positive Psychology
In K. M. Sheldon,T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (2011).
Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward
New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 228-247.

Introduction: Positive Psychology and Personality Science

Positive psychology and personality science emerged virtually simultaneously as the new millennium appeared on our horizon. The aspirations and research agendas of these two intellectual movements overlap yet their core tasks differ.[i] The central concern of positive psychology is to reorient  psychology to positive features of human conduct that have been understudied in conventional psychology such as hope, happiness, exceptional accomplishment, virtuous action and human flourishing (Sheldon, Frederickson, Rathunde, Csikszentmihalyi & Haidt, 2000.)  In exploring these topics positive psychology is concerned with aspects of human thought, feeling and action that are, in Peterson’s (2006) terms, “north of neutral.” Personality science, the hub of which is an invigorated and expanded personality psychology, aims to explore and integrate the full range of diverse influences on personality drawing on disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to narrative theory (Cervone & Mischel, 2002a; Little, 2005, 2006). Its explorations extend both north and south of neutral. I suggest that the geographic center of personality science is essentially equatorial.

My goal for this chapter is to reflect on how these two movements have co-evolved and how they may continue to do so.  The key substantive question I explore is this: to what extent and in what ways are positive emotions, orientations, and actions critical for human well-being? Drawing on research in personality science I will make the case that for some individuals, under certain circumstances, adopting what I will call a northern tilt will be highly adaptive. Under other circumstances, however, an upward bound approach to life might be less adaptive.  At its worst, unmitigated positivity might catch us unawares and bring us to our knees. Continue reading

Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered


I review a social ecological model of human development that stimulates recon- sideration of some traditional views in personality and motivational psychology. I propose that the quality of lives is contingent upon the sustainable pursuit of core personal projects. Project pursuit may occasionally require the suspension of biogenic fixed traits and the adoption of ‘free traits’, and I review some prelim- inary research on this recent topic. Free traits are culturally scripted patterns of conduct that are strategically crafted to advance projects about which a person cares deeply. Biogenic introverts, for example, may act as extraverts in order to advance projects requiring expressions of enthusiastic assertiveness. This may not only enhance well-being by promoting successful project pursuit but may also compromise well-being because of challenges to the autonomic nervous system. The costs of free-traited behavior can be mitigated by the provision and use of restorative resources. When viewed through this perspective seeming inconsistencies and paradoxes of daily life become less puzzling as well as more intriguing. By tracing these themes through the lives of a hypothetical couple, George and Elizabeth, I hope to provide a stimulant to theory, research, and applications that can both explain and enhance the quality of lives.  Continue reading

Personality Psychology: Havings, Doings, and Beings in Context

Brian R. Little
Carleton University and
Murray Research Center
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Harvard University

Introduction: Voices in the Cafeteria

Imagine that we are listening in on a conversation between three students in the college cafeteria. Their discussion weaves around many topics but the dominant theme is their common project of applying to graduate school in psychology. Speaking animatedly and downing her third cup of coffee, Eve declares that she is only applying to her top three choices and she’s looking forward to dragging her boyfriend to Ann Arbor. She suddenly bolts from the group realizing she’s late for her stats class. Adam says little, nods often, and is wondering whether he really is grad school material. Besides, his parents want him to go back home after graduation to work in the family business. Nikki isn’t really listening at all; she’s hung over again, hadn’t realized grad application deadlines were coming up, and frankly is fed up with Adam and Eve and the whole human condition. She mumbles something they can’t quite hear and heads for the restroom.

If you are sitting in the adjacent booth in the cafeteria, would you linger a bit, intrigued by the differing styles, contrasting concerns, and singular stories you hear emerging in the snatches of conversation? If so, then you probably have a natural affinity for personality psychology. This chapter surveys the past and present state of personality psychology as a core specialty within psychology and examines how it goes about understanding the lives of the Eves, Adams, and Nikkis of this world.

The field of personality psychology is flourishing. In many respects the current buoyancy of the field reflects important shifts, both methodological and conceptual, that have occurred over the past two decades. Some of these changes arose in response to conceptual crises within the field, particularly the Great Trait Debate that occupied much of the field in the seventies. (Mischel’s (1968) critique, which launched the debate, and reactions to it are discussed in a later section). Continue reading