17 January 2013

Who You Are

The general assumption in popular culture is that behavior is influenced only by the “character” of the individual. In scientific terms, “character” is called personality.

Attributing the behavior only to personality is erroneous and it is called “The Fundamental Attribution Error”. I have described it in an earlier post “Are you a jerk?” 

Throughout posts on this blog I have described influences on behavior of factors other than personality. At the same time in the 4 Dimensional Model of Behavior I have included personality as a source of human behavior.

Personality is not the only source of behavior and neither does it have the most important influence on behavior. At the same time, ignoring personality is wrong for both theory and practice. In some areas of practice such as marketing research personality has been (and still is) over-rated, but it does not mean that it should be ignored. Rather we should reassess its role in influencing behavior. In other areas such as human resources management and particularly recruitment personality was and still is highly relevant for assessing future behavior.

Not very long ago there was a school of thought in psychology (Behavioristic) which claimed that humans are born with “a blank mind” and that the environment and society is what shapes people in being what they are. For many years people believed that “society” is responsible for everything being it either good or bad.

Later research has shown that this perspective is fundamentally flawed. This is not to say that the environment and society don’t have an influence on us as individuals, but rather that for sure people are not born with “a blank mind”. Social and environmental factors influence how we behave and if we attribute behavior entirely to personality, then we can say that the environment and society shape personality. But, again, this is wrong.  

Reality is that what an individual is (personality) has a huge heritable component, but more on that a bit later.

Let’s see what personality is. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), “Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” (Source http://www.apa.org/topics/personality/index.aspx)

To put this in another light, personality refers to elements that are consistent through time across many behaviors. Earlier I have mentioned that it is wrong to attribute behavior to personality only. However, patterns in (and not individual instances of) behavior can come from personality.

Personality refers to stable traits that are consistent throughout life (or at least long periods of time). Personality gives a base-line for behavior and the other three sources (Dimensions) of behavior build on the baseline set by personality.   

Earlier research and popular culture tend to see personality in a categorical manner. In other words, they tend to categorize people as having “This” or “That” type of personality. However, this is wrong because personality is complex and personality traits are not categorical.

Current research on personality makes use of the “Big Five Personality Traits” model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism). I will explain in a future post each of these personality traits, but now it is important to know that each and every one of us has each of these personality traits and we have a score on each of them. In other words the Big Five is not a categorical model which says that some people are Agreeable while others are Neurotic. The Big Five says that everyone has these traits and scores different on each of them.

Another very important individual trait is intelligence (IQ). For marketing it is not necessarily important in the sense of measuring consumers’ IQs. For other areas such as human resources management and particularly recruiting it is very important. Numerous studies have proved that IQ is a very powerful predictor of job performance.

The study of personality has identified numerous personality traits, but their relevance is not fully clear. The Big Five and IQ are highly relevant for research and practice, so I will focus mostly on these traits. However, I will describe (in later posts) some other traits that I consider having a wider relevance. These traits are: need for cognition, need for uniqueness, regulatory focus, price conscientiousness and Life History Strategy adopted.

Another element that I consider to be highly important and include it in the Personality dimension (although it is not a personality trait) is gender. Men and women are different and this influences behavior. In no way I am saying men are better than women or the other way around. It is just that when analyzing and trying to influence behavior it is not necessarily a good idea to always think that men and women are exactly the same. In some cases men and women react to stimuli in similar manners, in other cases they don’t.

Hormonal activity influences behavior and to a certain degree personality. I will not address these influences, but you should know that a lot of behavior comes from the levels of different hormones we have. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend looking at behavioral biology.

Before concluding, I would like to make a note on the Big Five Personality traits and IQ. These personal characteristics are to a large extent heritable through both genetic and cultural (nurture) means. Putting things a bit differently, with what we are born is what we will have for the rest of our lives. It is not impossible to slightly improve one’s IQ or other traits, but don’t expect miracles.

To sum up, The Personality dimension of the 4D Model of Behavior  represents those traits (characteristics) that are stable across time and an individual has them throughout life. They set a base-line for behavior and are not the only (nor the most important) source of behavior.     

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