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Posts Tagged ‘Free Trait Theory’

Susan Cain

In 2012, when I first posted a sequence concerning Quiet, Susan Cain’s book about introversion, I was puzzled by how all the activities I had been involved in including family, Bahá’í duties and clinical work, could be reconciled with a highly introverted temperament. I’m going to dig a bit deeper into her book this time, though starting from much the same place.

Free Trait Theory

I homed in on Free Trait Theory as something that helped resolve the puzzle. She discusses the extent to which we are prisoners of our temperament, but explained that Free Trait Theory is to some extent a get-out clause.

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:[1]

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.

She explains that:[2]

. . . 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:[3]

“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[4] ‘the socially adept head of a financial services company.’

Cain looks as some of the factors that might make this possible:[5]

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[6]. 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.

Our Core Personal Project

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:[7]

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.

I don’t think I have ever had much difficulty answering those three questions.

What did I love doing as a child? Books. Try the Emptiness, the poem about my reading beside my father as he was dying of cancer, describes the source of my attachment exactly:

I read my way through Dickens in
his curtained room, even his cough
failing to break my consolation,

a knack I’d mastered as a child
from days escaping illness by
devouring stories in my bed,

to ward away my mother’s dread
that I’d join my sister Mary
in an early grave.

The second question was a bit more difficult to answer until I remembered my fantasy as a primary school child of becoming a District Commissioner, inspired by A Pattern of Islands, a memoir first published in 1952 by Sir Arthur Grimble, recounting his time in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as a Resident Commissioner between 1914 and 1933. As the Wikipedia article explains, ‘The memoir gives an attractive account of island life and colonial rule, based on his extensive engagement with the islanders.

This was probably the nearest approximation I could find at the time of a job that involved taking some kind of care of people, as the phrase ‘extensive engagement with the islanders’ suggests. For me now though, its association with colonialism would disqualify it straightaway, but for me then it made sense.

When, in the sphere of applied psychology, I finally fused my love of books and reading with my felt, but for a long time forgotten, calling to help others, it was a perfect fit – a kind of District Commissioner of the mind’s interior, known in the trade as a Clinical Psychologist. In becoming a teacher of English Literature I had mistaken my love of books for my vocation. In becoming a clinician I finally realised books were a vital tool that would enable me to operate effectively in the work I really longed to be involved in.

The envy question raises yet another issue. I don’t envy clinicians because I achieved my ambition in that respect. It was my job until I retired. Bubbling under the surface all those years, though, and still active now is a kind of envy of those who have written brilliant fiction or great poetry. I’m sure I will never be able to do the same, but the feeling still drives me to attempt yet another lyric poem in the hope that one day one of them will be good enough to alleviate my sense of failure in this respect.

Dealing with Role Strain

To come back to the main issue now: Free Trait Theory and the ‘core personal project.’

It is important to bear in mind that the kind of trait transcendence often demanded by a ‘calling’ is not achieved without strain. Steps have to be taken to make sure our batteries are re-charged:[8]

. . . . . 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:[9]

. . . . . 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:[10]

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.

There are numerous entries in my diary testifying to a degree of role strain, especially when, in addition to my professional work, and my roles as a husband and father, I had taken on substantial commitments to work for a national charity. For example, in June 1992, about four years after taking on this second role, I wrote: ‘I alternate between  slightly manic dutifulness and exhausted escapism, each alternation leaving me more depleted than the last.’ Somehow I seemed in the end to manage these competing claims on my energy and time well enough to avoid any serious health consequences.

The Loneliness Question

Now, though, after almost a year of the Covid-19 pandemic panic, a different question confronts me. Given how much I value interconnectedness, at least theoretically, why don’t I feel so acutely the pain of loneliness that everyone seems to be warning us about and many people clearly and understandably suffer from at this time. The most recent typical statement on this theme I’ve read came in Stuart-Smith’s book, The Well-Gardened Mind. She talks about the ‘plague of loneliness’ increasingly defining our times and writes:[11]

With one in four people suffering from feelings of isolation, loneliness has never been more prevalent than it is today. Until recently, the adverse effects were thought to be mainly psychological but now it is known to be a physical health issue, as well. A lack of social connections is associated with a 30 per cent greater risk of early death from all causes, an increase equivalent to being obese, or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Loneliness has become a major public health problem.

I’m very far indeed from the extreme disconnectionism of Pessoa’s, or should I say Soares’ conscious understanding of his own nature, expressed in such aphorisms as ‘To associate is to die’[12] and ‘We squander our personalities in orgies of co-existence,’[13] but I just don’t feel lonely most of the time these days.

Perhaps my relative indifference to the absence, for such a long period, of close interactions with other people, except my wife, can be explained simply by my degree of introversion as Susan Cain implies when she quotes her friend Alex as saying, ‘I could literally go years without having any friends except for my wife and kids’?

The more interesting issue of conflicting traits and how to deal with them still remains. My probing around this question goes back a long way. There are numerous examples in my diaries. This one should do to illustrate. On the run in to Christmas 1981, I was writing about how someone I was close to ‘does not seem to share my passionate enthusiasm for speculations about the meaning of life,’ something which involved ‘reflecting at length on experience via diaries/reading etc’ to an extent that caused me concerns about whether ‘my life style may be incompatible with any partner’s happiness.’

It could be a touch more complicated than that, as we will see when I come on to deal with introvert/extravert relationships – the main topic of the next post.

References:

[1]. Quiet – pages 209-210. All references are to this book unless other wise stated.
[2]. Page 210.
[3]. Page 211.
[4]. Page 210.
[5]. Page 212.
[6]. Page 214.
[7]. Pages 217-218.
[8]. Page 219.
[9]. Page 220.
[10]. Page 222.
[11]. The Well-Gardened Mind – page 166.
[12]. The Book of Disquietude  – page 125.
[13]. Op. Cit. – page 126.

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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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