The role of personality

Personality certainly plays a role in how buoyant individuals are, even though the importance of this role is somewhat contested. Commitment, for example, includes elements of a personality trait known as conscientiousness and is related to 5C commitment. Another one of our 5Cs (composure) relates to the ability to keep our emotions under a degree of control and is, therefore, entwined within the personality trait neuroticism (or emotional stability).

The ability to bounce back from adversity may well be hard-wired through what are known as personality traits. These traits are habitual patterns of thought and behaviour that appear to remain consistent over time and have been found to be highly heritable (anywhere between 40 and 60 per cent). Fortunately, these studies also indicate that personality is as much environmentally influenced as it is genetically determined, which means that it's most likely that people have a genetic predisposition towards a certain personality trait but that the development of the associated behaviour is dependent on other, non-genetic, factors. Therefore, some people may be better equipped to deal with adversity naturally, while others can potentially become better through experience.

This places us in a rather difficult position. If buoyancy is a personality trait then the suggestion is that it is somehow hard-wired into the individual at birth (or develops shortly thereafter) and, while character traits can be learned, it doesn't appear that personality traits can. This may not matter as much as we think, because it's likely that we can teach skills that, when taken together, at least mimic these traits. In other words, we don't need to alter the nature of the person, simply provide them with the necessary tools. Indeed, some theorists have hypothesised some personality traits, namely conscientiousness, can compensate for low IQ, suggesting a degree of flexibility between different heritable components (Damian, Su, Shanahan, Trautwein & Roberts, 2015). First however, we need to enter the complex and often misunderstood world of personality.

Theories of personality

There is no single overriding theory of personality but there are those that are more influential and scientifically rigorous. These different theories often include different traits, although some may overlap while others are so similar in nature that the only real difference is in their name. More generally, however, people do tend to have some understanding about what personality is, although these might represent folk theories rather than those based on research findings.

Common sense ideas about personality suggest that we are governed by certain traits and that we are somehow beholden to the impact they have on our behaviour. So, while we might describe someone as an extravert, we might also label them as resilient. The first descriptor (extravert) is a widely understood trait that is included in all theories of personality. Resilience, however, is a little more contentious in that it isn't explicitly considered to be a personality trait by the more widely accepted theories. It's most likely that resilient people possess a number of traits that are consistent with being resilient, such as conscientiousness and openness to experience, which are recognised personality traits. Academic buoyancy, because it is a specific type of resilience, can be viewed in the same way.

Problems in deciding what is and what is not a trait may have arisen due to competing ideas of personality. Back in the 1930s, psychologist Gordon Allport identified no fewer than 45,000 of them. Personality theory is, in general, born out of a lexical hypothesis, that is, the words people use to describe themselves, which no doubt accounted from the huge number of traits initially. Thankfully, these were whittled down, often through the use of a statistical technique known as factor analysis. Raymond Cattell reduced this initial list to 171, while Hans Eysenck settled on three 'dimensions' of personality: extraversion-introversion, emotional stability-neuroticism and psychoticism. Some of these lists have overlapping components while others use different descriptors for traits that appear identical. This has the potential to create a host of problems for researchers engaged in a branch of psychology known a psychometrics, which involves the measurement of psychological attributes such as personality and intelligence.

In order for us to try and understand the nature of personality we need reliable descriptors and effective ways to measure them across populations. If there is no agreed upon criteria then we can't know if what we're measuring is either reliable or accurate. This is why different theories have their own measures, most often a set of statements that are scored using a sliding scale. The methods used to measure personality, regardless of the particular theory adopted, have been found to be highly robust, in fact, along with cognitive psychology, personality theory is one of the most reliable and replicable areas of psychology.

The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (or EPQ-R) is still used widely today, in part due to its simplicity and accuracy, yet the standard model for research purposes is often regarded to be the Big 5 (or Five Factor) model. There are other scales used for commercial purposes, the most popular being the Myers- Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI), but the MBTI is plagued by inconsistency and its validity has been called into question. As its name suggests, the Big 5 model consists of five traits: openness to experience (sometimes just referred to as openness and sometimes openness/intellect), conscientiousness, extra version, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional stability). If a person scores very low on extraversion, they are an introvert, so the model doesn't explicitly include an introversion component. You might notice that the five traits spell the word OCEAN (see Table 4.1 for a brief description).

Table 4.1 The Big 5 personality traits

Trait

Characteristics

Openness (to experience)

High score.

Imaginative and creative, but prone to boredom. Need a constant supply of new ideas and experiences.

Low score.

Down-to-earth. Prefer to turn an existing idea into reality. Prefer small steps to radical change. Follow well-established patterns and rules.

Conscientiousness

High score.

Methodical, well organised and dutiful. Perform at their best in highly structured and predictable environments.

Low score.

Laid back. Find it easy to enjoy life but require help when it comes to matters of self-discipline.

(continued)

Trait

Characteristics

Extraversion

High score.

Energised by the company of others. More alert in the evening (Owl). Motivated more by carrots than by sticks.

Low score (Introvert).

Happy working alone and in quiet surroundings. More alert in the morning (Lark). Motivated more by fear of punishment than the promise of rewards.

Agreeableness

High score.

Trusting, friendly and cooperative. Need to avoid situations when others might take advantage of their giving nature.

Low score.

More aggressive and competitive. Achieve in environments requiring tough thinking and straight talking.

Neuroticism (emotional stability)

High score.

Prone to insecurity and emotional distress. They avoid situations they find upsetting. Negative feelings take time to fade.

Low score.

Relaxed, less emotional and less prone to distress. Operate well in situations others find stressful.

Looking at the main descriptors, it's no doubt possible to locate these personalities in the classroom, although it's worth noting that personality exists on a continuum. Introverts and extraverts are perhaps the easiest to spot due to their excitability or lack thereof. The extravert might be more chatty than the majority in the class and have lots of friends. They may complete their work quickly but detail and care can suffer. The introvert, on the other hand, may appear more contemplative and inward focussing - you might call them shy, but this is a poor descriptor and one that most introverts really care little for. Other students may appear more anxious and worry about seemingly unimportant matters, while others still, come across as more caring or agreeable, never wanting to make a fuss and eager to please, even to the point of being taken advantage of. Some simply work hard, never give up and rarely let failure distract them from their task, but they may also be fiercely independent or approach problems in unique and creative ways. It's highly unlikely that you'll ever come across a pure personality type, and most will fall somewhere on their respective scale. All these behaviours, however, represent facets of the Big 5.

Ideally, if I were to complete, say, the EPQ-R scale (the most up-to-date measure of the personality dimensions developed by Hans Eysenck) and the Big 5 scale, my scores should roughly correlate. It's not always that simple of course, because some models may well include some traits that are absent in others. I'm pretty sure that I'm an introvert due to my results on both the EPQ-R and the Big 5; I've also completed the MBTI on a number of occasions and, although I do obtain slightly different results, it still leans towards introversion. It's a similar case with IQ. There are many different IQ scales available, but in the early days of IQ research, Charles Spearman (he of the Spearman-Rank Correlation Coefficient for the statisticians out there) discovered that results from different tests related to each other.

 
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