Author: Daniel Nettle
This book is an exploration of ‘the big five‘ personality dispositions which determine our human nature. It is based on the five-factor model of personality which influences how each of us behave (pages 8-9). The book reviews the genetic and biological foundations of personality, and delves into how our character is shaped by environmental factors such as maternal stress, birth order, and parenting.
Perhaps the more readily recognised personality dimension is extraversion, a trait characterised by a tendency to be outgoing and ambitious, and by having ‘more states of joy, desire, enthusiasm, and excitement‘ (page 82-84). Neuroticism on the other hand is distinguished by strong negative emotions such as ‘fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust, and sadness‘, and it ‘infuses everything with suffering‘ because it ’causes awful, private, lifelong pain‘ (pages 108-119 and 243 ). The author describes people who score high on the third personality trait, agreeableness, as tending to be ‘co-operative, trusting, and empathetic‘, and they often nurture harmonious interpersonal relationships and enjoy ‘moral pleasure‘ (pages 163-164). The author describes conscientiousness, the fourth trait, as ‘the most reliable personality predictor of occupational success‘ because it enables people to follow through with their ‘internally set goals or plans‘ (page 142).
Perhaps the most intriguing personality dimension is openness to experience, something the author characterises as ‘the most mysterious and difficult to pin down’ (page 183). People who are high in this trait have a ‘propensity to seek out and explore complex cognitive stimuli‘, and are driven to seek ‘complex recreational practices‘ (page 184). Many artists and poets meet the criteria for openness to experience which include ‘restless unconventionality, supernatural beliefs, and psychosis-like experiences‘ (pages 185-189). People high in this personality type tend to be less observant of social taboos, but their tendency to loose associations enables them to discover creative solutions to difficult problems (pages 194 and 200-201).
An important theme throughout the book is how these personality types impact on people’s life outcomes. The author shows, for example, how low conscientiousness strongly predicts early death, and this is partly because it is associated with harmful habits such as smoking, drinking, and substance abuse (pages 34-35, 101, and 136). Neuroticism on the other hand predicts psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, phobias, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, insomnia, and headaches (pages 114-117). Interestingly, people high in openness to experience are also at risk of depression and mental illness (page 190). Wider social implications of the different personality dimensions include an increased risk of divorce if either partner is high in neuroticism or low in conscientiousness, and an increased chance of child abuse if a step-parent is high in extraversion (pages 33 and 100). The author however emphasised that our personality types are more frequently ‘a resource to be drawn on, not a curse to be wished away’ (page 245).
The author, a renowned psychologist, makes several recommendations for people to manage the downsides of their personality type. He advised, for example, that ‘if your personality is giving you trouble and worry, you need to find alternative, and less destructive, outlets for the same characteristics’ (page 239). He suggested avoiding the company of people ‘who bring out the worst in you’, and keeping away from situations where negative aspects of your personality are likely to emerge (page 240). Other approaches he recommends are reframing the story, changing behaviour, and, in some cases, treatment such as with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) (pages 241-242).
The book makes several references to relevant recent and historical personalities such as Francis Galton, who first set out to measure personality, and Simon Baron Cohen, the autism researcher who developed the empathy quotient score (pages 17, 159 and 162). The author makes references to Charles Darwin in relation to his study of Galapagos finches and his theory of fluctuating natural selection, to the dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and to the artist Allen Ginsberg (pages 57-69). The book makes many interesting observations, such as the existence of personality traits in other species such as chimpanzees, the spineless octopus, guppy fish, and the great tit (page 71-75).
This is a very comprehensive book which explores all the major personality traits, and defines the characteristics of each in exquisite detail. It brings together a wide breadth of research which explores the biological and genetic foundations of personality. Most importantly, it reviews the impact of each trait on health and other life outcomes. On the practical side, by showing the stability and consistency of personality, it demonstrates the opportunity for health policy makers to prevent the negative social and health outcomes associated with each personality trait.
Personality determines behaviour and has wide social implications. The book highlighted the important social consequences of personality, and it made many helpful recommendations. These are particularly relevant to health care where excellent team work relies on understanding the personalities of each team member. It is also relevant because of the opportunity to use the knowledge of personality to influence health and social outcomes. This is an important book and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Date: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
Number of Chapters: 9
Number of Pages: 298
5 Star Rating: 4 stars