I am a huge fan of all the Malcolm Gladwell books, and this will probably not be the last post I do that has something to do with them. The examples always captivate me, and I use them in regular conversation (granted, I am not a normal person).
When people ask me about my personality, I often falter- I’m shy, but only around strangers; once I become comfortable in an environment, I’m very outspoken. And I’m gentle, except in sports and competition when I’m very aggressive. I hate conflict, but if it’s about academics, I could argue for hours. So that makes me shy, outgoing, gentle, aggressive, conflict-hating, and argumentative. Really accurate personality description, right?
Turns out, I’m not just a poor, confused soul without any self-awareness or a superhuman. Everyone has “multiple personalities”, so to speak. This concept is relatively new in the psychological field, but obviously has huge implications. It means that we, as humans, are not innately married to a set of traits; are behaviors are largely dependent upon our environment and the situations we find ourselves in.
That’s not to say that we don’t have preferences or tendencies; obviously we do not act solely as our environment dictates. I am something of a cult-member of the Meyers Briggs test. This 70-or-so item true-or-false questionnaire measures a person’s tendencies, by strength, on a four scales: Extroversion/Introversion, Intuitive/Sensing, Feeling/Thinking, and Perceiving/Judging. These categories may mean absolutely nothing to you, and I won’t go into detail about them here, but I strongly suggest you take the test. Your profile may be surprisingly accurate.
This scale, however, only maps a person’s tendencies. Their behavior in uncomfortable situations may stray far from their innate preferences. A very outgoing girl, among a crowd of intimidating adults, may not utter a word. A usually cautious boy, among crazy friends, might act recklessly to everyone’s amazement. Take the concept further, to experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the concept of multiple personalities becomes scary.
The practical application of this concept is both societal and very personal. Essentially, it changes our entire conception about how people behave based on personality; it may be part genes and nurture, but a lot of a person’s personality is simply determined by their surrounding environment. It’s radical, it’s revolutionary, but it makes perfect sense: I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt strange with my seemingly conflicting personality traits. Now I know I am not wrong about the way I act, but about my fundamental understanding of personality.
So, how does this affect you?
This is both applicable to yourself and your social life. It’s a point of self reflection: instead of trying to figure out your personality, it’s more effective to figure out how you react in different situations, or to figure out your situational personalities, and how your tendencies fit into those. If you are confused about why you act differently among your friends, your coworkers, and your family, now you know. I know that I’ve been endlessly frustrated with my situational shyness in the past, wondering why it comes out sometimes and not others, but at least now I know what situations I will be shy in and can work to combat them.
Socially, knowing people have multiple personalities in different environments can build open-mindedness. Perhaps you find your best friend very funny, but their boss thinks they are quite serious. The truth is, you’re both right. There is no one-size-fits-all way to describe a person, so we should stop trying to box people into definitive and permanent personality traits. Our minds and behaviors silly don’t work that way.
More than anything, this concept to me is just plain fascinating; the world, and ourselves, do not always work the way we think they do. Our conception of human behavior is constantly evolving, and hopefully towards a more accepting, understanding, and peaceful state.