The Big and Little Choices
The pioneering work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has been popularized in recent years by the gamut of notable thinkers, including Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and, in this case, Michael Lewis. Their life’s work focused on the nature of human decision-making. In this short excerpt, Amos Tversky describes the difference between how the mind makes big and little decisions, and how those decisions shape an entire life:
It’s hard to know how people select a course in life…the big choices we make are practically random. The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are.
Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.
A Good Map
I’ve come to think understanding personality is like holding a good map. That map can’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t change your location; you’re still right where you were before. But the map’s purpose isn’t to move you; it’s to show you the lay of the land. It’s the tool that makes it possible for you to get where you want to go.
The Fictions We Live
The simple truth of our being gets lost in the meta-narratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. Consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous.
It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing, and it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!
The Insight that Changes Everything
Have you ever seen the movie The Sixth Sense? Okay, I’ve actually seen only a few clips…but the movie has so permeated popular culture that even people who haven’t seen it know about the twist ending. This supernatural thriller is about the relationship between a little boy named Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis), the psychiatrist enlisted to help him. Cole has a secret ability to communicate with dead people. As Dr. Crowe teaches Cole to release the ghosts that scare him by offering them help, he learns that maybe he wasn’t summoned to help Cole. Perhaps it’s the other way around. In a surprise ending, we discover that Crowe has been dead from the beginning.
It explains why his wife won’t talk to him, why she doesn’t even acknowledge his existence. For two hours, viewers are led to believe that she is ignoring him because their marriage is awful, but it turns out she can’t even see him. With the big reveal, our minds reel as we mentally flip back through the movie to incorporate this key piece of information into our understanding, which casts the film’s events in a whole new light. Once we know Crowe is dead, the narrative shifts and everything makes perfect sense. We think, Oh, of course, even though while we were watching the movie the first time, we never perceived anything was amiss.
Try this for a more relatable example. Have you ever had a really bad day? A day when nothing seemed to be going your way and you were tired and moody and agitated and nobody liked you and you didn’t like them either and you couldn’t put your finger on what was going so terribly wrong? Then you ate a sandwich (or, better yet, took a nap) and felt like a brand-new person, and you realized that nothing was horribly amiss, you were just hangry. Or maybe slangry. (You can figure out what that means, right?) That little insight completely reframed the way you felt about the previous few hours.
If you’re a parent, you’re acquainted with the phenomenon when your two-year-old is having a really terrible afternoon and won’t eat their snack and won’t keep their clothes on and won’t say anything but no and screams for no reason and you fear that you’re a terrible parent who has ruined everything, until your child finally wears themselves out and collapses on the sofa, snoring, three hours before bedtime, and you realize, My child isn’t possessed; they were just exhausted. Personality insights can be like this. One key piece of information shifts our whole paradigm—and the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.
The North and South of Temperament
Even though Carl Jung first introduced the terms introvert and extravert back in 1921 (in his now-classic volume Psychological Types), the concepts—especially introversion—crashed into the public’s consciousness in 2012 with the publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet, which greatly increased awareness of “the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”
Cain succinctly defines introverts as “people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments,” compared to extroverts, who seek out—and even thrive on—noise and stimulation.
Introverts are fundamentally attuned to what happens within, while extroverts focus externally on the world around them. Both types naturally want to spend more time in the “real world” but disagree on which that is—the external world of experience or the inner world of thought. Researchers generally agree that introverts and extroverts are born, not made.
While one’s tendency may shift over time (people tend to become more introverted as they get older), they don’t choose to be one type or the other. Studies estimate that one-third to one-half of us fall on the introverted end of the spectrum. Men are ever so slightly more likely to be introverted than women.
…As far as personality distinctions go, introversion versus extroversion is an important one. Scientist J. D. Higley calls introversion and extroversion (or, as he phrases it, “inhibition and boldness”) “the north and south of temperament.” These traits affect the very core of who we are.
Personality Traits Come Right Out of the Box
Current research indicates that personality traits are hardwired; they’re largely hereditary and remain relatively constant throughout our lives.1 If we’re outgoing or reserved, energetic or subdued, we deserve neither credit nor blame for those traits. We just came that way, out of the box, and we can’t trade ourselves in for a different model.
While personality is a key part of who you are, it’s just one of many things that make you you. Many important traits don’t fall under the personality umbrella. Kindness, generosity, honesty, patience—these are all examples of character traits that interact with but are distinct from personality. It’s easy to conflate character with personality; it’s a common mistake. We’ve all met someone charming but dastardly, if not in the neighborhood then in a favorite novel.
What do All These Personality Quizzes Point to?
The BuzzFeed-style quiz is taking over the internet, serving up answers to questions no one is asking. What Star Wars character are you? What restaurant trend describes your personality? Which Hogwarts house suits you best? What city should you actually live in? Which Ryan Gosling character is your soulmate? What’s your superpower? Your work style? These addictive quizzes make it easy to put ourselves in (very weird) boxes.
And if my Facebook feed is any indication, people can’t resist taking these quizzes and sharing their results—no matter how inane the topic or how small the insight offered. Underpinning these quizzes is the core assumption that we won’t have the same answers. We are all different—in matters both serious and silly—and discovering those differences is strangely enjoyable. Cynics argue that we’re drawn to these simple check-the-box quizzes because we’re ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of real life, but I believe this trend points to something more substantial.
We’re not just looking for a way to kill five minutes online. Our methods may be questionable, but our motives are pure: we truly want to know more about ourselves and the people we interact with every day. We suspect our lives would be better if we actually understood ourselves and the people we love. We want to know why we do what we do, think what we think, act how we act—and why they do too. But what we’re finding is this: actually knowing ourselves isn’t as easy as taking a few check-the-box quizzes on the internet.
We’re surprised to discover that it’s difficult to perceive ourselves for who we really are. That information would be infinitely more useful, but it’s also harder to come by. Since we don’t know where to start to find the good stuff—the genuinely helpful information about ourselves and the people we love—we settle for discovering which defunct ’90s soda we are or which Jane Austen leading man we’re meant to marry.
But if we instead knew the right questions to ask ourselves—the ones that would give us true insight into our inner selves—and approached those questions with the same playful spirit (and perhaps just a smidge more seriousness and self-reflection), we could emerge with life-changing information. We could learn to read people better—ourselves and others.