Hannah Holmes explores the blend of nature and nurture that makes each of us extraordinary -- and, paradoxically, utterly and entirely ordinary.
By Hannah Holmes
Some people eat all their blue M&M's first. Some seek wisdom in tea leaves. Some are the sort to never leave a dish in the sink, while others are lifelong breeders of dust bunnies. Some flee from pigeons, while others keep pet iguanas. Though these behaviors may seem odd at first glance, they are the very idiosyncrasies that make us human. Rising from the bedrock of our personality and shaped by our varied environments, these quirks ensure that we are all peculiar -- and, as such, not peculiar at all.
The elements that constitute a personality may seem mysterious, even random. But psychologists who study personality can actually predict our general outlook on life by analyzing five factors so readily distinguishable that some can be identified in mice. (Really!) Each person possesses all five personality factors, but in varying proportions:
Conscientiousness: How strong is your drive to follow the rules and finish what you start?
Agreeableness: How far will you go to help others or make them happy?
Neuroticism: Is life a series of hazards to avoid or a feast of opportunities to pursue?
Openness to experience: Do you hunger for mental stimulation and yearn for novelty?
Extraversion: Are you more energized by interacting with people or by time alone?
These factors are like stove knobs: Your Conscientiousness might be boiling at 9 while your Extraversion crackles at 5 and your Agreeableness simmers at 3. But high and low settings aren't defects. Low Agreeableness doesn't necessarily mean you're disagreeable; rather, it may indicate that you're comfortable voicing an unpopular opinion. Low Conscientiousness probably doesn't mean you're a slacker, but that when opportunity knocks, you're likely to drop everything to fling open the door. And while high Extraversion may correlate to impulsivity, such risk takers often make fantastic explorers and inventors.
It's a high or low setting that can set you apart, as the stove of your psyche cooks up your unique mannerisms and coping behaviors. Though high Neuroticism doesn't doom you to full-blown phobias and panic attacks, it might portend a lively squeamishness over, say, snakes or germs. In the upper reaches of Agreeableness, we find people so empathic that they may burst into tears at parades, weddings, even poignant toothpaste commercials. Harmless compulsions appear to be related to our place on the Conscientiousness spectrum: Some hum a tune and their dutiful brain may wonder, Did I do it right? Did I do it enough? And they feel compelled to hum it again.
Of course, who you are isn't determined entirely by nature. Researchers estimate that our genes bear only about half the responsibility for our diversity, which supports the old nature/nurture hypothesis: Nature builds our basic personality, and then our environment tinkers with it over the course of our lives. A Japanese extrovert and an American extrovert may have identical stove-top settings, but one culture may frown when the extrovert shows her true colors, while the other will chuckle, and so they end up as markedly different people. Nurture doesn't change your personality as much as it discourages you from putting every bit of it on display or encourages you to let it shine.
And so most of us learn to express our peculiar selves in ways that the people around us tolerate or even enjoy -- and that make us happy, too. The conscientious dishwasher receives praise for her tidiness and keeps it up; the M&M color-coder learns that her private ritual can soothe her anxiety and proceeds accordingly.
The behavior that results from our stove-top settings can adapt to circumstance, and our five personality factors can be nudged over time. (A dust bunny breeder can learn to tidy up once in a while.) But even as nurture softens and smooths us, we can rely on nature to keep us peculiarly ourselves.