Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Features

Who Are You?

By Tina Owen

It’s the big question that we all ask. As we look in the mirror and take stock of our familiar outward appearance, another imponderable stares us in the face: Who am I?

Who is the elusive character inhabiting this physical body, determining how we act, whom we love, and what we do? We start posing this question early on and it haunts us until our final days. For how can we be true to ourselves if we don’t know who we are?

Fortunately, I now possess the knowledge to unlock my personal identity. I am Obi-wan Kenobi, C-3PO, and Wicket the Ewok—although my friends say I’m more like Yoda.

They’re Star Wars characters, of course. During my research for this serious-minded article about personality theory, I stumbled across an entertaining, online exercise that promised insights through comparisons with Star Wars characters who represent major personality traits. So, I took the test. And then I e-mailed all my friends and family members, urging them to try it—not because they’re sci-fi fans, but because I knew they’d be intrigued by what it revealed about their basic characteristics.

David Watson, a UI psychology professor who’s been studying personality for some 30 years, says, “People are very motivated to try to understand themselves, to come up with explanations as to why they are the way they are and whether they’re different from other people in ways that make sense.”

Often, our curiosity is driven by insecurity. Some theorists say that one of the most stressful things is having your self-perceptions challenged. Hearing “You’re not a supportive person” may upset everything you believe to be true about yourself.

As Watson explains, “In our society, we get a lot of feedback about our abilities, so we don’t really need to ask ourselves ‘Am I smart?’ or ‘Can I play the flute well?’ Personality is part of how we’re viewed by other people, and we don’t usually get clear feedback [on that]. There’s always some doubt about our own self-perception. We don’t really know the answer to ‘What kind of mark am I leaving on the world?’ or ‘How do people perceive me?’”

What exactly is personality?

Contrary to the impression given by the makers of movies such as Finding Nemo and A Shark’s Tale, it seems unlikely that fish have distinct personalities. Nonetheless, a researcher at the University of Texas believes that findings about animal personalities can provide insight into human psychology, and he is investigating the finer characteristics of guppies, as well as octopuses, dogs, rats, chimpanzees, and other creatures.

Personality is such a fascinating, vast, and relatively unexplored subject that it presents all kinds of research opportunities, such as:

• "A Room With a Cue,” a 2002 study in which researchers found that personal environments such as offices and bedrooms can provide accurate insights into their owners’ personalities;

• Exploring the possibility that people’s personalities are linked to where they live. Researchers found that people living in areas with heavy rainfall had higher rates of neuroticism, while people in heavily populated cities ranked higher on openness but lower in agreeableness. So far, they don’t know whether personality affects where people choose to live, or whether place can affect personality;

• The two online questionnaires (including the Star Wars test mentioned in this main article) that academic researchers interested in “cyberpsychology” posted on the Internet. Based on standard personality tests, these exercises attracted more than 360,000 users, providing the psychologists with an unusually large and diverse sample, plenty of research data, and headlines around the world when they released their findings.

Watson distinguishes it this way: “Ability is what we can do; personality is what we want to do or be, how we view the world.” Goals, motives, interests, and styles—they all end up in the melting pot. Overall, personality refers to characteristics that are fairly constant and long-term. If you occasionally feel crabby, you might just be having a bad day. But if you’re crabby all the time, it’s probably your personality.

Tests designed to appeal to popular demand often oversimplify the complex nature of personality. In expert hands, though, broad categories can be useful. Since the 1990s, many psychologists have used as a yardstick the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Of these, extroversion is probably the most significant, followed by neuroticism, which includes characteristics such as sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, and guilt.

"Big” means that these traits paint an overall picture of a personality. Other traits also exist—such as The Big Two, the Big Three, and the Big Seven—and even the Big Five can be broken down further. An extrovert, for example, may be characterized as someone who is friendly or someone who likes lots of stimulation.

When Watson taught his first psychology class as a graduate student in Minnesota in 1978, experts disagreed on how personality was formed or whether it was capable of change. Today, though, most researchers think that personalities systematically change over time. The questions now are when that changing ends—and what causes it.

The “plaster hypothesis” sums up this debate. “Hard plaster” supporters argue that the Big Five personality traits are firmly set by age 30. “Soft plaster” proponents say that changes continue to a lesser degree after that time. To make it more complicated, some researchers think that external events can influence personality changes until people are in their 50s.

Such questions pose interesting research problems. Traditional studies have used representative subjects from different age groups, although critics argue that this is like comparing apples and oranges. So, Watson designed a much more ambitious study that involves four researchers, almost 400 volunteers, and ten years of their lives. The Iowa Longitudinal Personality Project (ILPP) charts developments in the same group of people, from their early 20s to mid-30s. Every three years, the researchers ask the 296 women and 96 men to complete questionnaires that gather demographic information, such as whether they’ve started a new job, moved, been fired, or gotten married. They also provide feedback on their personality traits and moods by rating agreement with statements such as “I see myself as…full of energy;…trusting;…a reliable worker.”

The project aims to identify whether certain personality traits are more stable than others, as well as the extent to which external circumstances and events affect them. It’s a long-term investment on the part of everyone involved. The research team is both enormously grateful for and slightly astounded by the level of commitment of these volunteers, who signed up when they were psychology students at the UI. “We ask these people to take time out of their lives to help us, and they do,” Watson says. “They realize that they’re participating in something significant.”

Apart from their contributions to a better scientific understanding of human nature, these former UI students are quite simply irreplaceable. Many research studies call for a set number of people—any people. But, to be effective, longitudinal research needs the same participants to stick with the project. If any drop out, the researchers can’t go back in time and recruit new volunteers.

Eight years into the study, the research team has already documented interesting changes. Perhaps most dramatically, participants experienced fewer negative and more positive moods over time. “Anything with a mood component—such as optimism or pessimism—was less stable,” says Watson. “We suspect that these effects reflect both biological changes—a kind of reversal of adolescence, when our temperament mellows out—and broad environmental influences.”

The first two-and-a-half-year phase of the study took place while the subjects were still in college. This is the age when people—and their personalities—grow up. Researchers know that the 20s are a period of dramatic changes for most people, who generally find themselves in new and challenging circumstances such as college, work, and relationships. In fact, these life events stand alongside child-rearing in the crucible that forges character. As our environment changes, as we build successful careers and stable relationships, we become more secure and confident. At this point, Watson notes, “life generally gets better, more secure.”

The ILPP participants reacted right on cue, scoring more highly than they had earlier on conscientiousness, extroversion, openness, and agreeableness. They became more responsible, self-disciplined, sociable, talkative, open to experiences and ideas, and more polite and trusting.

Pinpointing the causes of such changes is more problematic. Watson loves tossing this question out to students in his Psychology 101 class: “At the moment of birth, is everyone the same and our personalities form differently because of our experiences? Or are people born different?”

Researchers still debate the relative influences of nature vs. nurture, but most now believe that a combination of biology and environment affects personality. “Each one of us is a unique product of our underlying biology and our different experiences,” Watson explains. Biology affects personality because it maps out our genetic birth blueprint, and it continues to exert a hold over us through the physiological changes that occur at certain life stages. Think of the dramatic physical, emotional, and mental transformations that adolescents endure, or how older adults with failing cognitive abilities sometimes develop personality changes.

Environment also undoubtedly plays a part in our development, and some experts believe that it actually becomes more influential as we get older. Culture shapes people, pressuring them to conform to certain behavioral norms. Regardless of what causes these changes, the good news is that people improve with age. “Cross-cultural evidence suggests that people get nicer as they get older,” says Watson.

In their 20s, people tend to become more conscientious. Teenagers grow out of their impulsive, reckless habits and—according to the theory—turn into disciplined, responsible, and task-focused young adults. By the time we hit our third decade, we’re becoming more agreeable. Generally speaking, both men and women are easier to get along with at this point; they steer away from causing arguments and tend to be more forgiving and sympathetic. Both genders also become more open to new experiences and ideas in time, while women become less neurotic.

Of course, one of the enduring problems with personality tests—whether they’re frivolous diversions or rigorous research studies—is that the results are based on what people say about themselves. However much they try to answer the questions accurately and truthfully, participants may have self-perceptions that are out of whack with reality. That’s why Watson appreciates the chance to talk to couples in another study he’s conducting on relationships. The other half of a couple can confirm or sometimes throw new light on answers given in a test.

Watson and his colleagues on the ILPP have discovered another quirk in the reliability of tests and their subjects. Participants seem to give slightly different answers depending on how a particular question is phrased. The UI researchers believe that the different phrasings activate different cognitive processes in participants’ brains.

"If you ask ‘Are you a good person?’ most people can answer that quickly without much effort because they have a certain schemative sense of themselves. The question activates the same kind of fact-based cognitive approach that deals with questions such as ‘What’s the capital of Iowa?’” Watson explains. “Whereas, ‘Are you generally happy?’ requires the use of episodic memory.”

This particular brain function acts like an autobiography or scrapbook. Instead of dealing with hard facts, it collates and stores your personal history. The problem is that it lacks a good retrieval system, and that’s actually a good thing. An inverse relationship exists between how easy it is to get things into your memory system and your ability to retain them. Procedural stuff takes longer to absorb, but it tends to stick. That’s why you don’t forget how to ride a bike. But, every waking minute, you’re constantly being flooded with personal experiences and events that would overwhelm your memory’s storage capacity. That explains why, unless it happened very recently, you probably can’t remember exactly where you were or what you were doing on your 20th birthday.

Autobiographical memory may account for why we miss the subtle changes in our personalities, just as we overlook the gradual onset of gray hairs and wrinkles. Standing so close to the subject of our own selves, we lack perspective to chart the changes that may seem obvious to outsiders. An old snapshot can reveal our youthful appearance, but personality doesn’t pose for a photograph. In our minds, we are simply who we’ve always been. And that doesn’t change.