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Personality, extroversion & compassion 1


If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.       Dalai Lama

I have a lot of experience of interpersonal group work - both with participating in and running groups that provide a chance to learn more about ourselves and how we relate with other people.  At a recent group involving 37 people, I remember going in feeling like a musician - maybe somebody with a good few years of experience playing a violin or other instrument.  We worked sometimes in small support groups of four (string quartets), mostly in groups of twelve to thirteen (chamber orchestras) and occasionally with all thirty seven of us (the full symphony orchestra).  I know the numbers probably don't really fit with quartet, chamber & symphony orchestra, but the metaphor feels helpful for me.  So my challenge is to play my violin - be myself - as truly, honestly, awarely as I can.  The challenge, the learning, will vary somewhat depending on the size of the group I'm in.  And that happened.  I found it fascinating and helpful exploring how to be, how to relate well in these groups of different sizes.

Recently though I've felt this "orchestra" metaphor can also be helpful for each of us as individuals.  Our personalities are made up of different qualities.  The classic Big Five model of personality sees each of us as a mix of varying amounts of Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.  In fact more recent research splits each of these qualities into a further two parts (DeYoung, Quilty et al. 2007).  So we have Volatility & Withdrawal tendencies making up Neuroticism. Enthusiasm & Assertiveness comprises Extroversion.  Intellect & Imagination make up Openness to Experience.  Conscientiousness consists of Industriousness & Orderliness, and Agreeableness is made up of Politeness & Compassion.  I find the research convincing and fascinating.  Each of us can be seen as a conductor working with the mixture of qualities that make up our unique personal blend of these personalities facets.  I've attached a questionnaire that assesses each of these ten qualities (see the BFAS below).  It's fairly long - ten questions per quality, making a hundred item questionnaire.  But it is fascinating and if you were a conductor who knew they were going to be working with a ten piece orchestra for many years, you would take the time to learn more about each of the players making up your orchestra.  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  How can they be encouraged to work together to produce superb music?  What aspects do you want to encourage, and what aspects do you need to guard against?

Extroversion's Enthusiasm & Assertiveness are interesting examples of a couple of these internal "musicians" we want to work with as well as we can.  Extroversion on the whole is a "good" quality.  Being quite extroverted tends to be associated with greater levels of happiness (Lyubomirsky, Tkach et al. 2006) and a somewhat longer life (Terracciano, Lockenhoff et al. 2008).  It might be most helpful to see Extroversion as an evolutionary strategy for gaining attention (Ashton, Lee et al. 2002).  One can see how this could be adaptive and promote survival - by creating more alliances with others, increasing access to mating opportunities, and encouraging other forms of achievement.  It comes at a cost though.  Extroversion can lead to misdirected activity, conflict, jealousy, and - when it's mixed with narcissism (Arehart-Treichel 2008) - it can be associated with insensitivity, arrogance and selfishness.

How does the good conductor - how do you or I - work with our Extroversion?  This is where I see values coming in.  How to conduct & work well with our inner qualities & personality will depend hugely on our values.  (The "Respected Figures Exercise" below is one of many ways of clarifying values).  For many of us, a major value involves qualities like love, compassion, and kindness.  Interestingly trying our best to live our inner values is associated with greater wellbeing and a fuller, happier life - so it's typically a win-win situation trying to live values like compassion.  Quoting the Dalai Lama (as at the top of this post) "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion."   For more on this, see the recent blog postings on Egosystem & ecosystem and on Self-determination theory.

So there's a thought for the day for my inner conductor.  If I have low extroversion, it may well be sensible to push myself at times to be more extroverted, at least in some areas e.g. appropriate assertiveness.  This may be easier when I'm reaching out or taking a stand for the needs of others.  Interestingly, personality can change.  Extroversion, for example, can gradually increase given the right circumstances and intention (Scollon and Diener 2006).  If I'm already quite high in extroversion, it's likely to be both sensible and helpful to use the Enthusiasm and Assertiveness to serve Compassion.  Good use of our internal orchestra!      

See too tomorrow's post for more on these points. 

Arehart-Treichel, J. (2008). "Narcissists Come Into Focus as Data Clarify Disorder." Psychiatr News 43(17): 18-.  [Free Full Text]
Ashton, M. C., K. Lee, et al. (2002). "What is the central feature of extraversion? Social attention versus reward sensitivity." J Pers Soc Psychol 83(1): 245-52.  [PubMed]
DeYoung, C. G., L. C. Quilty, et al. (2007). "Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the Big Five." J Pers Soc Psychol 93(5): 880-96.  [PubMed]
DeYoung, C. G., L. C. Quilty, et al. (2007). "The big five aspects scales (BFAS)" and background comments.
Hawkins, J.  "The respected figures exercise"  [Free Full Text]  
Lyubomirsky, S., C. Tkach, et al. (2006). "What are the differences between happiness and self-esteem?" Social Indicators Research 78: 363-404.  [Free Full Text]
Scollon, C. N. and E. Diener (2006). "Love, work, and changes in extraversion and neuroticism over time." J Pers Soc Psychol 91(6): 1152-65.  [PubMed]
Terracciano, A., C. E. Lockenhoff, et al. (2008). "Personality Predictors of Longevity: Activity, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness." Psychosom Med 70(6): 621-627.  [Abstract/Full Text]


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