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‘Quirk’: Author Hannah Holmes Spills the Five Factors That Shape Personality
Posted Mar 7th 2011 at 1:45PM by Amanda Chatel
People are weird; this is a fact. People are strange, flawed, and to use author Hannah Holmes’ word, “peculiar.” We’re a society of complicated individuals whose personalities run the gamut, even if we hate to admit it, she says in her new book “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality.”
Through research using mice and applying the Five Factor Model (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness) and the minor facets that fall under each category, Holmes breaks down exactly how each of our personalities has developed.
Mice, like us, are capable of a diverse range of personality traits, and through them scientists can learn more about disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, and in doing so are able to help people who suffer from such illnesses. Holmes combines research from laboratories all over the globe with the “quirky” behavior of herself, friends and family and makes all of us feel less alone. With her wit guiding the way, she makes this science book easy to comprehend, lighthearted and fun, all while teaching you what makes you, well, you.
MyDaily: First of all, where did you come up with the concept for the book? Was it because of your own struggles with anxiety that you wanted to shed some light on the topic?
Hannah Holmes: I got to wondering: If personality is genetic — and it is — then all the temperaments around us must be good for something. They must help our species to thrive. That begs the question: What’s so great and helpful about an obnoxious personality? I started there, but then looked at the usefulness of all personality types. And so I came to understand the magic of diversity, in both humans and mice.
I realize that the five factors (extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness) have been narrowed down from a much larger list. I also realize that his limited scope of possible personality traits has received both criticism and support, but why do scientists rely on only these five factors? If we’re a combo of all the factors, how does that help us in the evolutionary scheme?
Personality traits are like the dials on a stove, but there are 30 of them — six under each of the five factors. Your “anxiety” dial might be set on 9, your “morality” dial on 7, and your “self-discipline” dial on 1.
Researchers prefer this model because they can measure your settings one dial at a time, and make a fair prediction of how you’ll behave in a given situation, and even if you’re at risk for a personality disorder. I, for instance, am high in anxiety, which predicts that I’m not an impulsive shopper, and I’m bad at standing up for myself. My anxiety setting also puts me at risk for disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, and phobia. No personality model is perfect, but scientists feel that this one strikes a balance between complexity and over-simplification. And now that they can use MRI and other imagining techniques to spy on living brains, they’re getting even better at predicting our strengths and weaknesses.
Recent work, for instance, finds that the activity level of your brain’s tiny amygdala can predict your vulnerability to PTSD.
What, for our readers who are wondering, are the specific benefits if you’re any one of these of factors and/or facets? Is it possible to be just one?
If you’re high in Neuroticism, as I am, you’re a watchdog. Our brains are quick to notice frowning or sad expressions on the faces around us, presumably because those faces indicate danger. We are lookers before leapers. We complement Extraverts, because they are leapers before lookers — they’re our designated explorers and good-timers. If you’re really high in Openness, you stimulate the mind of our species, pushing our culture forward with creative, new ideas.
The Conscientious among us provide the horsepower to get things done, to turn plans into reality. And highly Agreeable people help us all to get along when our personalities clash: Their brains are naturally altruistic, which makes it easy for them to sacrifice for the good of the group. But again, we all contain all five factors, so even if you’re highly Extraverted, you might also have high Conscientiousness, which would counteract your impulsivity.
What was the most surprising evolutionary reason for a specific personality type to exist?
I was delighted to recognize the benefit of having selfish, aggressive people among us! Picture an ancient village of 100 people, living hand to mouth. Across the plains, a wildfire is approaching. The Agreeable people rush around helping their neighbors to collect their stone tools and babies and food. As they try to reach consensus on where to go, they’re overtaken by the fire. Meanwhile, the low-Agreeability people have grabbed their kids and bolted. They didn’t have to take a poll, they didn’t have to be fair. Their brains were set on “me first.” And because of that, they survived. That personality may not be warm and fuzzy, but it can be wonderfully goal-oriented and efficient.
Can we change our personalities, or is the way we are more or less hardwired?
Personality is stable throughout life. Impulsivity is one exception. We all become more impulsive during adolescence when the prefrontal cortex takes a mysterious leave-of-absence. Then we all become steadily less impulsive with age. Drugs are another exception. I take a popular serotonin drug that alters the anxiety level in my brain. But we can also change the behavior that flows forth from our personality. Mindfulness is a practice of reflecting on our behavior in real time: What am I doing, and why? This is like strength training for the prefrontal cortex, giving it better control over the primitive regions in which personality dwells.
You’re quite candid about your own depression (specifically SAD), and anxiety.
Was there ever a question to leave those intimate details out, or did you find it was important to include those facts about yourself to give the book a personal touch… the feeling that readers aren’t alone?
Brain illness is no different from heart illness or gut illness, I’ve always thought: One person is born with wonky insulin and the next is born with wonky serotonin. Likewise, our stressful environment can tip an anxious personality into an anxiety disorder, just as a food-filled environment can tip a person who stores fat efficiently into an insulin disorder. These are the facts of life, for mouse and man. Now, after writing the book, I even question the term “disorder.” High anxiety and ADHD were excellent brain styles, in the unpredictable environment of our ancient past. Now I think the disorder arises from a time-honored brain style clashing with the crazy environment we’ve created for ourselves. I come by my personality honestly, and it causes me no shame. Plenty of frustration, but no shame!
It was fascinating that mice could be bred to have so many human traits. At this point, however, there is no “Orderly Mouse.” Is there even the slightest possibility that one could be genetically engineered over time? What makes humans “orderly” or “disorderly”?
To start with humans, an orderly person deals with the environment in a methodical way, while a not-so-orderly person doesn’t invest time analyzing and planning action. A low-orderly personality is tuned to grab short-term opportunities, instead of investing in those “best laid plans that so oft go astray.
So, mice: I’m certain there are mice who are more, or less, thorough in completing their tasks. So, yes, scientists could breed a line of mice that were good at finishing tasks. But mice do so few chores that it’s hard to know what each one signifies. Would you interpret a messy nest as a sign of low orderliness, or high distractibility, or low intelligence? Although mice demonstrate the five major factors of personality, the giant brain of a human allows for more nuanced behavior, and a finer dissection of personality than mice will ever have.
Your affinity for the mice in the labs, and animals in general, is endearing. Have you since added to your desk mice? Perhaps, given Mitzi and Maxi a few more friends?
I ADORED my mice, and bawled my head off when they died. But compared to their wild kin who are totally happy in your basement, “feeder mice” are fragile and prone to something like tuberculosis. In my effort to keep them healthy I turned my office into a mouse sanatorium, complete with heater and humidifier. And still they would sneeze if the temperature changed a couple of degrees. I was a wreck. For the sake of my empathic brain, I have to stick with more durable animals. It’s a happy side effect of the social human brain that we can feel empathy and love for other species. You don’t see orcas starting a chapter of “Save the Seals,” or chimpanzees choosing a vegetarian lifestyle to spare the colobus monkeys. The downside of our affectionate brain, of course, is that it feels miserable when our beloved animals die.
Several times throughout the book, you reference friends and family and their own “quirks” and disorders. Was it difficult for the people in your life to be willing to reveal these aspects of themselves in such a grand and public way?
Every human alive is curious about what makes him or her tick. So recruiting [human] guinea pigs to take the big personality test was no trouble. And each of the friends I wrote about took a fake name. My impulsive and extroverted husband has enough years of recovery under his belt that he didn’t mind going public with his addiction-prone personality. He read my account of his catastrophe-studded youth and smiled ruefully. “I can’t argue with it,” he said. And the bottom line of the book is that every personality type, whether impulsive or aggressive or fearful, is essential to keep our species operating in the black. Nature produces opportunities and hazards so unpredictably that no one temperament can navigate them all. We complement each other.