Me, Myself and Us — A Book Review


This book by Professor Brian Little is about the new science of personality psychology.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, human traits have been described and studied in different ways. We had the Greek four bodily humours which were: air (phlegmatic - relaxed and peaceful), black bile (melancholic - analytical and quiet) blood (sanguine - optimistic and social) and yellow bile (choleric - short-tempered and irritable). In more modern times we had the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who focused on subconscious forces, our dreams and our primordial sex drives.

In the mid-20th century the humanistic psychology of Carl Rodgers and Abraham Maslow flourished where scientific objectivity itself was seen as a barrier to understanding human nature. This was a prominent view of the New Age understanding of self and we have the Maslow pyramid of human needs (like a food pyramid!). They believed deeply in the human capacity both individually and collectively to shape our own futures. Scientific research did not match the rhetoric of this movement.

Today we have positive psychology — it explores factors that enhance individual lives, communities or nations. It is committed to a scientific analysis of personality psychology from neurons to narratives, from biochemistry to literary biography. The study of the human triats has been revitalised and there is a consensus among psychologists, namely — OCEAN — Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

In previous my posts - My Genes Made Me Do It - the genetic aspects of these traits were explored and along with their associated neurotransmitters. In Brian’s book these traits are seen as flexible points around which our psychology pivots balancing different aspects within each trait: Openness: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious); Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless); Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved); Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached); Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).

Brian Little, who describes himself as an extreme introvert, provides a framework for thinking about the personal implications of this new science of personality psychology. Throughout the book there are mini-questionaries that facilitate self-exploration of ourselves and other selves and examines the biogenic, sociogenic and idiogenic factors that contribute to who we are. He illustrates how we function on a day-to-day basis using our personal constructs and following our ‘core projects’. We create a confederation of ‘mini-selves’ in our interactions with our spouse, our work colleagues. our children, our parents.

In the final chapter he summarises some of the main points in his book by evoking the image of  a dance -- “Save the Last Dance for Me”. Listen to the audio below.

As an aside: The OCEAN model has been criticised for not being theory-driven. It has been argued that it is a collection of data that has been clustered together for statistical descriptions of the observations. In this regard it reminds me of the previous posting on Machine Learning. A BIG Data analysis of observations without a theoretical basis or a predictive model of their underlying mechanisms. Another criticism is that the five factors are not independent of each other — are not fully orthogonal to one another. Furthermore the factor analysis is linear and does not capture nonlinear, feedback and contingent relationships between the individual differences. Finally there is lexical issue — the use of verbal descriptors for individual differences. The use of language creates sociability bias in verbal descriptors of human behaviour. For instance, there are more words in the language to describe negative rather than positive emotions. Still OCEAN seems to be the only game in town that is worth watching.

In summary: The book is an excellent read — I bought the Audible version - it is full of illustrative and witty stories about people that you would easily recognise. I highly recommend the book.

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