Skip to main content

Brian Little

Why do we think and behave the way we do? And what provokes us to act out of character?

After decades of studying the science of personality, acclaimed psychologist Dr. Brian Little has an explanation: Part of what shapes our personalities is biogenetic – we are born with certain dispositions and temperaments, he says. Part of it is sociogenetic – our cultural norms and social expectations encourage some traits and make us inhibit others. But in addition to these factors are idiogenic motives, the aspirations, commitments and personal projects we pursue in daily life, from the trivial, such as taking the dog for a walk, to the "core projects," such as raising a family, that provide us with a deep sense of meaning and define who we are.

In his new book, Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, Little, a distinguished research professor emeritus at Carleton University and a lecturer at Cambridge University, explains that this third influence on personality is why we find ourselves behaving in unexpected ways. The normally abrasive co-worker, for instance, becomes uncharacteristically agreeable when trying to be a nurturing parent. The naturally introverted professor, whom Little claims himself to be, adopts an extroverted persona when lecturing his students.

We reached Little by phone in Ottawa, where he lives part of the year:

You mention that William James, the famous philosopher-psychologist, said by the age of 30, our character is set like plaster. Was he right?

I believe James got it only 50-per-cent correct. We are, as humans, essentially half-plastered. Once you take the genetic temperamental aspects out of the equation, there's a lot left in what I call "free traits" of personality, which is, for instance, when somebody who is agreeable strategically acts disagreeably. And the personal projects in our lives are what really enjoin us to act out of character, and they also bring us joy and pleasure and meaning in our lives.

Are there stages of life when we act out of character more often than others?

During the adolescent period, you begin to have the capacity to act in ways that go against your natural impulses. As you get older, particularly as you get into professional jobs or occupations that may not accord with your relatively fixed temperament, then I think we do find ourselves doing it. So it begins in adolescence and it becomes almost mandatory in some cases in adult life, and when we're a little older, we may be able to relax a little more into our first natures.

How do we determine what our core projects actually are?

I don't think it can be easily done in a quick test. When we do analyses, we ask individuals to list what are their projects and we have various ways of discerning, "Is this something that you could easily give up? Is it something that influences other projects?" For instance, for a lot of women in midlife, it's "take care of mom's needs," as well as taking care of their kids' needs. Is it something that is optional in your life? Does it impact anything else?

The ultimate case is: If you were to give up a core project, would this make you question whether it's worth carrying on at all? It's an arresting way of looking at the claim that a core project has in your life.

What happens if a core project doesn't align with your personality?

If there's a misalignment that can mean those projects are even more demanding than they would be of somebody who has an aligned set of personality traits. But instead of simply avoiding them, the message that I give is that the pursuit of such core projects comprise acting out of character. And acting out of character has two meanings: One is that you act in ways that go against what you're normally like. But the second meaning is that it accords with your core values. Your project might be to do whatever you possibly can to protect the health of your young child. You're not a go-getting person. You're not a person who likes knocking yet again on the door of your doctor's office or writing a testy letter to the hospital. But you act out of character because you can do no other. It's a core project for you.

Of course, if it's less life and death, you can choose and commit to other projects that are in harmony with your first nature. But sometimes life doesn't work out that way.

Why is it bad to act out of character for long?

If you constantly act out of character, this might take a toll, particularly on the autonomic nervous system. It can lead to burnout. Over a very protracted period of time, I think it can bring you to your knees, unless you have what I call a "restorative niche" in your life. As someone who is naturally introverted, I tell my tale of my own escaping to the men's room [between giving presentations to recover from elevated levels of stimulation].

I actually argue that with our loved ones and our workmates, we should have a "free trait agreement." And that free trait agreement is, "I will act out of character for the firm or for the family if you grant me a restorative niche." That restorative niche for an introvert is very different than it is for an extrovert. For an extrovert, your restorative niche might be a completely wild and crazy party. And you need to make time – we all need to make time – to indulge our first natures as a restorative gesture.

This interview has been condensed and edited.