When it comes to psychology, my interest is aroused very quickly. Some of you might have noticed this.
I read a book about the big five personality traits this year and I was grabbed because it explained each of the traits in terms of evolutionary psychology – in other words, why it would be beneficial to (those living in a primitive society) to have people with greater and lesser amounts of each of these personality traits. For me, that made this particular model more substantial and valid and less like a wafty science! Personally I can cope with waft, but when I am persuading others, I am always aware that a dollop of logic goes a long way.
O.C.E.A.N. – is how the five traits are remembered. Unlike Myers Briggs, these traits do not have ‘opposites,’ you just have a greater or lesser amount of each one.
Openness to experience – to me this has strong links with creativity and hyper-connectivity of the brain. Those that score high on openness are more receptive to unusual ideas, creative, appreciate art and are curious. Those with low levels are more likely to be conventional, conformist and down-to-earth. In the book I read, it linked extremely high levels of openness to psychosis! It stated that while many extremely creative people in history have not themselves suffered from psychosis (or they would not have been able to achieve what they did) you could frequently find close family members that did suffer. In the book I read, the evolutionary justification for high levels appeared to be linked to the fact that with intelligence, humans have potentially become ‘attractive to mates’ through higher level brain functions e.g. skilled use of language, ability to create art etc. Low levels are beneficial to those that maintain day-to-day necessities – like growing crops!
Conscientiousness – Those with high levels of conscientiousness like to make plans and stick to them. Those with low levels are more spontaneous and easily distracted. In other words it’s whether we are someone who controls our impulses or not. Those with high levels of conscientiousness are needed in a ‘society’ to ensure that daily maintenance jobs are fulfilled. But if you imagine the farming settlement that is under threat, it is those low in conscientiousness that are more readily going to adapt to the changes needed to survive. Really low levels of conscientiousness makes a person a non-finisher. Really high levels have been linked to OCPD – obsessive compulsive personality disorder (not to be confused with OCD - which is the one where people have to check the gas hob is off several times before bedtime!). OCPD renders people unable to change their plans and needing to be completely in control such that they become completely agitated if something unexpected happens.
Extraversion – This has some overlaps with the extraversion described by Myers Briggs in terms of how it describes behavioural tendencies. However, research revealed that high scorers in extraversion received a bigger ‘reward sensation’ from going out and doing stuff –whether that stuff was socialising, travelling, sky diving etc. Lower scorers could do the same things but would not get the same ‘buzz’ as high scorers. This ultimately makes low scorers not overly bothered about getting out there! In evolutionary terms, high and low levels are needed again for maintenance but also ability to go off and hunt out new things to increase the chances of survival.
Agreeableness – this is fundamentally about the ability to empathise. High scorers are usually ‘pleasers’ and tune in to others and their needs. Low scorers are less competent at reading other people, are more self interested and are likely to be suspicious of or feel contempt towards others. Psychopaths are extremely low scorers in agreeableness (and conscientiousness and neuroticism)! They can inflict harm on others without any ability to tune into the pain they are causing. There are undoubtedly gender generalisations with this one - with women tending to score higher than men. In evolutionary terms it seems odd for a species to be able to put others first (what with survival of the fittest etc). However, to not be able to maintain harmonious relationships with others in your ‘tribe’ can cause ostracism. Ostracism from your 'tribe' could significantly harm your chances of survival.
Neuroticism – high scorers in neuroticism are wired up to worry and generally experience more negative emotions than low scorers. In evolutionary terms it is explained as needing to have some people that are permanently worrying – even if 99% of the time the worries are completely unfounded - because they will be the people that will be permanently 'on guard' and spot that single real danger. Those with low levels tend to climb mountains and jump out of planes. It is hard to imagine why having a high neuroticism score could be a positive thing but research has shown that high scorers are slightly more likely to be high achievers because of a need for things to be good – so they are not worried about whatever they have done! High scorers, however are more likely to suffer from mental illness.
Of course after I read this book, I assessed myself. (There are free online tests)
I am definitely very high on openness – occasionally psychotic as well! My poor six year old son has clearly got this going on too as he regularly complains that there are parts of his brain he just cannot control and these parts fill his head up with far too many thoughts.
Conscientiousness - medium low – I am a finisher but I have to push myself and distraction is my middle name – but that might also be linked to the high levels of openness.
Extraversion – high – I like to go exploring, but sometimes that exploring is in the made-up land inside my head!
Agreeableness – Medium but low for a female!?? I can empathise with emotions readily but don’t automatically put myself in other’s shoes to anticipate their needs!!! People know to make their own tea when they visit.
Neuroticism – low – I can get stressed but most times I am pretty laid back – possibly because I haven’t noticed the lion that is about to eat me.
So psychotic and not neurotic...that makes sense.