Tech UPTechnologyIs our personality written in the genes?

Is our personality written in the genes?

In Zelig (1983), Woody Allen tells us the story of a man who lacks personality. Throughout the film, Leonard Zelig adopts the ways of behaving of those whom he knows and admires. Until then everything would be more or less normal, since we all imitate those we like. But Zelig amazes us because he copies everything: gestures, phrases, attitudes, opinions, clothing … He ends up being a vampire of identities who suddenly behaves like an orthodox Jew, an African-American street musician or an intellectual and arrogant psychiatrist. He wants to be everyone, and in the end he is nobody. His sad story embodies an idea that is very present in the modern world: the need to have personality.

Although it is a difficult psychological phenomenon to define, coherence in the way of being is so essential that we notice its absence when it is not present. For this reason, when someone in our environment acts randomly, adapting to the circumstances and expectations of others, we say that “he lacks personality.” And when a person exhibits a consistent role model –for example, being decisive and showing self-confidence in their family and work life–, we refer to them as “ an individual with a strong personality ”.

The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. And the modern world repeats phrases to us about the need to be oneself . This current prioritization of personal coherence is a product, according to psychologist Roy Baumeister, of several historical milestones. For this researcher from Florida State University, the revolutionary social changes of the last centuries have led us to put our personal identity before pressure from others and from the circumstances we live in. Now, for example, we know each other better and, according to this author, that is partly due to the general practice of confession, introduced by Catholicism.


Our current identity is individual

Changes in our way of defining ourselves have also been important: from the seventeenth century, identity is individual and is no longer associated with family lineage. Our way of relating to society has also changed: romantic rebellion is one of the factors that increased the perception that it is healthy to be in conflict with the world to maintain our identity. Finally, the need for self-realization based on our personal style is being promoted a lot since the emergence of capitalism.

All these factors that Baumeister cites lead us to give great importance to our personality. If you ask those around you, you will see that they all believe they have a certain consistency of behavior and define themselves by their character traits. We think we are stubborn or flexible, sincere or Machiavellian, sociable or shy … But are we like that or is it just the image we like to have of ourselves? Are there personality traits that remain stable throughout life? Or was the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne right when he said that “there is as much difference between ourselves and ourselves as there is between us and others”?

The Austrian psychologist Walter Mischel, recently deceased, was one of the scientists in favor of thinking that the personality is an entelechy. His research on this topic led him to conclude that our behavior is arbitrary, that the results of the personality tests do not serve to predict behavior and that we must be cautious when labeling people. According to Mischel, we act in every circumstance trying to achieve our goals. We read the situation, interpret it, and decide what to do based on our perception of what is happening. We will repeat our behaviors – and it will seem that we have a certain personality variable – when we reach the conclusion that doing the same thing again will allow us to obtain the results we want.

But if our interpretation of the circumstances tells us that it is better to act differently, we will behave differently without any problem. It is a theory that does not postulate permanent personality traits: we only seem consistent in our behavior because we often reach the same conclusions in similar settings. But as soon as we change our habitat – something that happens, for example, when we change our circle of friends, our partner or our country of residence – we act differently.

Current criticism of personality tests is heading in that direction. Thus, the psychologist Adam Grant, from the University of Pennsylvania, has recently published research with which he wants to show that the Myers-Briggs indicator, one of the most used, lacks scientific reliability. “The characteristics measured by this test have little predictive power about whether we will be happy in a situation, how we will perform in our work or what our marriage will be like,” says this researcher.


The trait theory

The opposite approach, the one that believes that there is a constancy in our actions that can be cataloged by means of tests, would be represented above all by the theory of traits, based on factor analysis. These experts say that there is statistical evidence that certain types of attitudes tend to occur together, and that shows that there is a personality characteristic that encompasses them all.

For example, the British psychologist Hans Eysenck, the best known defender of this technique, found that the tendency to feel better in face to face than in large groups, the need to experience moments of loneliness every so often, the propensity to read or listening to music in silence and being prone to having few – but very good – friends are related. He called this group of characteristics introversion , one of the personality traits that we will talk about in this article. His argument is not based on the constancy that we perceive in others or in ourselves, but on the fact that there are personality variables that are reflected mathematically and therefore have a scientific basis.

In fact, Eysenck believes that certain personality traits have a genetic basis. In the case of introverts, they are people, he suggests, who have a higher than usual level of normal brain arousal. This increased level of cortical arousal causes your brain to be continuously active with little need for outside stimuli and to focus more on inner thoughts and feelings. The images obtained by PET (positron emission tomography) show that an area of the frontal lobe included in the inhibition of behavior is more active in them. And this leads them to be less spontaneous. Their brain is in continuous activation, and therefore they regulate the entrance of the external stimuli.

Studies on the inheritance of personality are very topical. An example is the research just published by an international group of scientists. The authors –among them experts from the University of Granada and Robert Cloninger, one of the most influential psychologists in this field– claim to have identified more than seven hundred genes that determine the inheritance of our behavior. In the document, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry , they defend the theory that the weight of heredity in the main traits of our personality ranges between 30% and 60%. Until now, according to these researchers, there have been no great advances in detecting the mechanisms that shape it because previous work focused on the effect of individual genes. But this new research uses artificial intelligence techniques to find gene clusters that interact with each other and with the environment, and that attempt to analyze physiological inheritance in all its complexity.

There are intermediate positions between these last hypotheses based on genetics and those that postulate that personality variables do not exist. Without ignoring human incoherence, they admit that it is important to know our tendencies to behave in a similar way. This is the case, for example, of the theories of the American scientist Seymour Epstein, who argues that our propensities exist, although they do not determine us so rigidly. Identifying them does not serve, as Mischel reminded us, to predict all our behaviors, but it does an average. According to Epstein, a factor against this self-knowledge is the limitations of the tests. As this psychologist reminded us in one of his articles, “the advancement of psychology as a cumulative and integrative science is limited not so much by its conceptual complexity as by the difficulty of humans to observe themselves with objectivity, courage and desire to avoid false illusions ” . One of the problems with the questionnaires is that they are based on what the person tells us about himself, with all the biases that this implies. Based on the idea that we know what we are, and differentiate it from what we would like to be, is debatable.

The psychologist David Funder, for example, puts forward a hypothesis that would challenge this belief. According to this Stanford University professor, the data provided by those who know us would provide more reliable information , because they have seen us act in different contexts thousands of times and they observe us in a slightly more objective way.

In spite of everything, many psychologists affirm that understanding our personality tendencies can be a good variable of environmental health. It helps us, first of all, to respect our way of being in situations in which we feel different from the majority of those around us. Second, talking about personality variables as propensities to a certain behavior can help us to look for vital architectures –work environments, lifestyles, couples, etc.– that favor our best potentials. A clear example is the ‘openness to experience’ dimension, investigated by psychologists such as the American Marvin Zuckerman. Those who score high in this category have a continuous need to explore new worlds, as they find the routine tedious; and labeling yourself open to experience will help you try to avoid boredom. As Zuckerman reminds us, in our first decades these new worlds arrive alone –childhood, youth, choice of vocation, first partner, first job… – but in maturity we must proactively seek new experiences.

With that objective of knowing our personality tendencies, we are going to reel off scientific discoveries about some of the variables most used in their study.


Impulsiveness vs. Reflectivity

It is one of the personality variables that, with one name or another, appear in almost all tests. People who are more prone to being impulsive tend to prioritize action over thought, they are decisive in decision-making and waste a lot of vital force. They speak, on many occasions, before thinking about what they are going to say and can act without reflecting on the consequences of their actions. Unpredictability is usually their biggest advantage, because it makes them stand out from the rest.

On the other side would be thoughtful individuals. They tend to think a lot about what they are going to say and weigh the pros and cons before acting. Thanks to that, they generate a lot of trust in those around them. Also, by creating life habits and customs that they feel comfortable in, they stick with decisions for quite a long time.

As with other personality labels, advocates of a permanent trait claim that there are biological bases for these vital predilections. The causes of this greater or lesser propensity for self-control seem to lie largely in neurological issues. The most cited physiological correlate is the number of connections between the amygdala – the place where the need for security is born – and the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain from which decision-making arises. Those who have n highly interconnected areas tend to think a lot about what they do, since the amygdala exercises great authority over their actions. In contrast, people with low amygdala-cortex connections tend to ignore precautions and act more spontaneously.

But that is not the only neurological basis cited. The neuroscientist Hugh Garavan, from Trinity College Dublin, supports the hypothesis that there is a correlation between this personality variable and the development of the areas of the brain – mainly the frontal lobe and the right region – that affect memory. This would explain that being reflective has to do with remembering what happened in other similar situations. Whether or not to repress an attack of anger depends on memory: we control ourselves because we remember that expressing it was wrong or we are spontaneous because we forget the negative consequences.

According to Garavan, a sample of the biological bases of this personality variable is adolescent behavior. At that time, we are all more impulsive. And that coincides with the fact that the frontal lobe is the last part of the brain that matures: it does not finish its full formation until the age of twenty. At the same time, this is an example of a behavioral variable in which research has found effects of the influence of the environment. Cross-cultural psychology , which studies the influence of the type of society in which we have grown up on our way of being, has provided several discoveries. The psychologists Hazel Rose Markus, from Stanford University, and Shinobu Kitayama, from the University of Kyoto, developed research a few years ago that shows that cultures encourage or discourage disinhibition. In societies like the Japanese, their members are taught from an early age to self-control impulses. Vehemence comes at a high price, and social pressure leads residents to learn to be more thoughtful. On the contrary, other cultures –such as the Maghreb– are much more spontaneous: those who are excessively cerebral are suspected and the members of these societies end up developing greater impulsiveness.


Neuroticism vs Emotional stability

This is another of the personality variables that have appeared in many classifications of human beings. In general, neuroticism has been defined as the tendency to get angry often, lack of tolerance for frustration, and difficulty coping with disappointments caused by other people or by life circumstances. Those who are at that extreme refuse to resign themselves to the fact that life is not as they would like it to be. At the other extreme would be the stable: they are less rigid and better accept circumstances that go beyond what was planned. They adapt better to the ups and downs of life, have a better mood, and appear calm amid very different circumstances. Again, the authors who most believe in this variable as a fixed personality trait find a biological basis.

Eysenck postulates that neurotics have low thresholds of excitation of the sympathetic nervous system – this is activated by any minimum vital inconvenience -, and that causes them an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, greater muscle tension, sweating … and the need to put order and eliminate the stimulus that has de-centered them. The problem with this variable is that one of the poles seems to have too many negative connotations.

In all the questionnaires, neuroticism is associated with adherence to the norm, with a lack of tolerance for uncertainty … And, from there, scoring high at this end of the scale is associated with many mental health problems. Psychologist David Watson, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, has compiled research linking neuroticism with ailments such as anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, eating problems, and schizophrenia.

The distress it produces is so high that Watson hypothesizes that this variable, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depression are genetically indistinguishable. And it postulates that, more than a personality factor, what has been measured is vulnerability to subjective distress and negative emotionality.


Introversion versus extroversion

Do you need to isolate yourself often so as not to feel helpless in the crowd, or do you tend to prefer the company of others? What level of stimulation do you prefer: do you feel good in environments with loud music and many people, or do you almost always choose silence and one-on-one talks? They are the type of questions that define this personality pattern. Introverts are most comfortable in environments with a low degree of external arousal. They dose stimuli: they continually seek intimate spaces and build life around their need for specific isolation. For the same reason, they are more selective in their relationships and do not open up easily to others. A common phenomenon in them is that they tend to enjoy more when they remember good times in company than when they are living them. They are more inclined to read or listen to music without having to dance to it …

Extroverts, on the other hand, like to be with many people, participate in continuous conversations, and have lots of stimuli around them. They can be alone if necessary or if they feel dazed by the situation, but even then their mental stream is channeled outwards: they tend to play music, turn on the radio or television to keep it in the background or continuously listen to messages. on your phone. They are more likely to tell everyone about their intimacies and tend to be more spontaneous when it comes to expressing their emotions. It is also common for them to have more partners throughout their lives.

The difference between one and the other is one of the most classic divisions in psychology. It appears in all theories of personality, from Eysenck’s to that of the Big Five – a study pattern that examines openness to new experiences, responsibility, extraversion, kindness, and neuroticism – and is measured against most popular tests (MMPI, Myers-Briggs, 16PF, etc.). Lately there is a lot of talk about these two forms of behavior thanks to what has been called the Quiet Revolution. University of Florida professor Jenn Granneman, one of its promoters, reminds us in her book The Secret Lives of Introverts that many of the attitudes associated with introversion are perfectly adaptive. Not providing information about negative aspects of oneself, concentrating silently and deepening nurturing relationships instead of dispersing by spending time with anyone or being oblivious to peer pressure are attitudes that pay off in many life situations. Another of the scientists who participate in this “movement of the silent”, the American psychologist Susan Cain, speaks in her books and conferences of the need to vindicate the most silent. According to the author of The Power of Introverts , we have lived for decades in a world that encourages extroversion as the healthy pole of this personality variable.

The apology of youth and the primacy of social skills over effectiveness – it seems more important to sell our skills than to have them – have led the collective imagination to assume that it is not good to be introverted. In recent decades, the advice of social counselors –such as teachers, coaches and pedagogues– has been aimed at ensuring that subjects continually express their feelings, learn to work with all kinds of individuals without choosing their peers and be able to talk about any topic with anyone. That is why scientists like them analyze what are the vital advantages of one extreme and the other to balance the scale.

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