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The science of personality

You know all those personality tests you see on Facebook? There may be more to the science of personality than you think.


People like personality tests so much they sometimes get carried away: “Which Enneagram Personality Type Are You Based on Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type?” “What Does Your Phone Battery Percentage Say about Your Personality?” “Which Love Actually Turtleneck Are You Based on Your Star Sign?” (Yes, those are real.)

But understanding personality in scientific ways can shine a light on your individual motivation and in the shadowy corners of other people’s behavior. It can improve your communication with your boss, partner or child. It can help you make wiser career choices, predict who you’ll fall in love with and strengthen your lasting relationships. Plus, it’s as fun as the Love Actually turtleneck test.


What's your temperament type? 

For decades, psychologists have tried to untangle the mysteries of attraction. Dr. Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University research professor and author of Anatomy of Love, developed a personality test that offers a revealing window into interpersonal relationships. It’s been taken on by more than 14 million people, and it’s the only personality questionnaire in the world that arose from brain chemistry studies and was proven by putting test-takers in brain scanners. 

She’s identified four temperament types:

  • Explorers express traits associated with the dopamine system. They’re curious, creative, adventurous, optimistic and flexible.
  • Builders have elevated activity in the serotonin system. They’re dependable, loyal, popular, and respect authority and social norms.
  • Directors express testosterone. They’re analytical, self-confident, forthright, not particularly empathetic, and have deep but narrow interests.
  • Negotiators express characteristics related to estrogen, such as empathy, imagination, nurturing and intuition.

Mutual or fatal attractions? 

Explorers are attracted to Explorers. Builders fall for Builders. Directors and Negotiators are drawn to their opposite. “Every one of these combinations is going to have great joys and great problems,” Fisher says. “The more you know about who you are and about who the other person is, the more you can anticipate the great joys in the relationship [and] know more about how to please that person. And you’re going to know more about what the bumps in the road are going to be, and how to get around those bumps.”

For example, Fisher, an Explorer and Negotiator, is single and enjoys spending time with a certain Builder. But, she says, “I just kept it a friendship because I knew that he expressed the traits of the serotonin system, and down the road I’d get bored.” (That doesn’t mean an Explorer and Builder can’t make a great couple. But it’s important to ask yourself about your personal priorities.)

Fisher tells the story of a married couple who had a fight and realized the husband’s serotonin personality was clashing with the wife’s estrogen style. “They were never going to resolve the estrogen-serotonin issue because they see the world differently,” Fisher explains. “So the couple—who are also both Explorers—said, ‘Let’s forget about this argument and just go hiking.’”

Personality in the workplace

Being personality-savvy can also help at work. Fisher counseled a Negotiator woman whose boss was a walking vial of testosterone. “I said to her, ‘Fight back. When he becomes aggressive and tough-minded, turn around and tell him what you think.’ She did it, and she’s the only person in the office who made friends with him.”

“I don’t believe in the Golden Rule,” Fisher adds. “I believe in the Platinum Rule, which is ‘Do unto others as they would have done unto them.’ Understand who they are so you can reach into their brain and give them your perspective in a way they can hear it.”

Another useful and scientifically supported personality metric is the Big Five. Dr. Brian Little, a Cambridge University research professor and author of Me, Myself, and Us, recommends the online NEO PI-R Big Five test. It measures five traits: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

Each characteristic has positives and negatives. Agreeable people are popular, Little says, but “it’s very difficult for them to stand up within a very oppressive ecosystem. Disagreeable people ... can stand up to tyranny.”

"Familiarizing yourself with your traits can help you make better decisions."

Know thyself

If you’re introverted or disagreeable, it’s probably not a good idea to take a job in PR, even if you admire the company. If you’re highly conscientious (detail-oriented and fastidious) you might make a superb accountant but a lousy improvisational jazz musician. If you’re exceedingly open to new experiences, you might consider moving to New York rather than Fargo.

However, Little counsels against using the Big Five as a rigid guideline for decision-making or to pigeonhole people: “I challenge whether those relatively fixed traits are sufficient to help explain some of the more interesting and nuanced aspects of our everyday behavior.” 

Rather, he says, people can temporarily act out of character to be successful at something they’re passionate about or to cope with a challenging situation. Little—a natural introvert—turns into a charismatic extravert when he’s teaching because he wants to excite his students. A disagreeable man might act agreeable when meeting his fiancé’s parents. A normally careless cancer patient might choose to be conscientious about her doctor’s instructions to save her own life. 

Change for the better? 

Though it’s a cliché to say that people can’t change, they actually can, Little says. However, “it’s unwise to change your global personality in one big step. It’s better to do it on a smaller scale.” But be aware that even when you make small, situation-specific changes, there’s a cost. “If you protractedly act out of character, you may run the risk of burning out,” he says. “One way of mitigating the potential cost is to find restorative niches.”

After acting extraverted, an introvert might take a solo walk or—as Little did after his classes—hide in the bathroom. An extravert who’s had to be reserved requires a wild night out. An introvert-extravert couple needs breaks from each other.

Getting in tune with your natural and temporary personality traits can help you take care of yourself and those close to you, as well as allow you to be more adaptable to the situations life throws at you. “You’re able to see aspects of your life become more clarified,” Little says. “You gain perspective, and it helps you reflect better.”