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Posts Tagged ‘Free Trait Theory’

Susan Cain

For a long time, during my rewarding years as a psychologist working with and fascinated by people, something which ran alongside an active engagement with the Bahá’í community, I puzzled over how all that could be reconciled with a highly introverted temperament.

Susan Cain’s inspiring book, Quiet, gives a fascinating insight into the dynamics of introversion and dispels many of the myths attached to that label. Her book covers a huge amount of ground and it would be impossible to do justice to its complexity in a couple of blog posts. So, I’ve chosen just two aspects to look at in more detail: Free Trait Theory and Introvert/Extravert partnerships.

The first of those is one of the most important in her book, at least for anyone who wants to combine introversion with social effectiveness. It helps resolve the puzzle that perplexed me for so long. She discusses the extent to which we are prisoners of our temperament. This thread runs through the whole book but there is a particularly telling section towards the end. It concerns this concept of Free Trait Theory. What she means by that will become clear as we go on.

Clearly if introversion condemned introverts to pass their days as hermits many of us, not least all Bahá’í introverts, would have a huge problem with that. Many of us want to be making an impact of some positive kind on the social world within which we live and, as Cain explains, there is no reason at all why we shouldn’t be able to do exactly that and very effectively as well. This is where Free Trait Theory comes in (pages 209-210):

According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”

In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.

There is a sense in which this could fairly be seen to involve some degree of forcing oneself against the grain. This doesn’t mean that a socially active introvert is some kind of hypocrite.

Felix Aylmer as Polonius

She quotes Polonius from Hamlet: ‘To thy own self be true.’ The full quote, which she doesn’t include, continues: ‘And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ As a former English teacher I am always uncomfortable when a writer of any kind quotes one of Shakespeare’s characters and assumes that the words exactly represent what Shakespeare the man believed. Whether these words of advice about integrity, given by the officious and duplicitous busybody, Polonius, to his son Laertes, are to be taken at face value in the context of the play is a question we’d better park for now. Sue Cain is using them as a clear and well-known reference point. She continues (page 210):

. . . we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous (not to mention exhausting), but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised.

She uses a friend of hers, Alex, as an example. He states (page 211):

“I could literally go years without having any friends except for my wife and kids,” he says. “Look at you and me. You’re one of my best friends, and how many times do we actually talk—when you call me! I don’t like socialising.”

Somehow, though, he also found a way to become (page 210) ‘the socially adept head of a financial services company.’

Cain looks as some of the factors that might make this possible (page 212):

How was it that some of [the] pseudo-extroverts [in a study] came so close to the scores of true extroverts? It turned out that the introverts who were especially good at acting like extroverts tended to score high for a trait that psychologists call “self-monitoring.”

She goes on to state that ‘self-monitors are highly skilled at modifying their behaviour to the demands of a situation.’ There are those who feel that this is somehow deceptive (page 214). This may be more than a touch unfair as the motivation for reading and responding smoothly to the social cues may not be to look good or to gain a personal advantage, but to avoid a faux pas and to be more effective at achieving objectives that are not self-serving but socially useful and helpful to others.

Which brings me back to perhaps the most important driver that enables introverts to transcend their natural reserve and sustain that transcendence over long periods of time. This is having a project of intense importance and value that we want to pursue. She calls it a ‘core personal project.’ It therefore becomes important to find a way of identifying what such a project might be if it’s not already obvious. She explains (pages 217-218):

I have found that there are three key steps to identifying your own core personal projects. . . . . First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child. How did you answer the question of what you wanted to be when you grew up? The specific answer you gave may have been off the mark, but the underlying impulse was not. . . . . Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to. . . . . Finally, pay attention to what you envy.

This last one might seem a bit puzzling. What she means is watch out for those people whom you envy for engaging in an activity you long to do yourself.

However, it is important to bear in mind that this kind of trait transcendence is not achieved without strain. Steps have to be taken to make sure our batteries are re-charged (page 219):

. . . . . the best way to act out of character is to stay as true to yourself as you possibly can—starting by creating as many “restorative niches” as possible in your daily life.

And we also need to ensure that we deal with any close personal relationships with extraverts in the same spirit. The creator of Free Trait Theory, Professor Brian Little (page 220)

. . . . . calls, with great passion, for each of us to enter into “a Free Trait Agreement.” . . . . It’s a Free Trait Agreement when a wife who wants to go out every Saturday night and a husband who wants to relax by the fire work out a schedule: half the time we’ll go out, and half the time we’ll stay home.

The costs of failing to make those necessary arrangements can be high (page 222):

Double pneumonia and an overscheduled life can happen to anyone, of course, but for Little, it was the result of acting out of character for too long and without enough restorative niches. . . . . When your conscientiousness impels you to take on more than you can handle, you begin to lose interest, even in tasks that normally engage you.

And this brings us neatly to the point where we need to deal with introvert/extravert relationships – the topic for the next post.

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