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Personality in action!

My last post, entitled “the big 5 of personality psychology,” spoke about how psychologists are commonly breaking down psychological factors these days. The question on most people’s mind is, “why does personality matter?” That is honestly a great question, and we should take a look at a few examples of the practical applications of this.

Some theorist suggest that placing yourself in an environment that clashes with your personality can actually become problematic for your stress level. As we all know, if you experience large amounts of stress over time, this leads to a higher incidence rate of illness. So let us first establish the importance of matching your personality with something critical, like your career.

Little (2008) authored an interesting paper entitled  “Personal projects and free traits: Personality and motivation reconsidered.” In this article Little (2008) discusses what free traits are and what happens when we use them in excess. Imagine for a moment, that you are a high scoring extrovert. You enjoy being around other people because you find it gives you energy and eases your stress. The problem is, however, that your current job is a night watchmen in a pretty boring area. You spend most of your time alone, perhaps listening to the radio, but not much else. When you are forced into these situations, you begin using what Little (2008) calls free traits. This is like a temporary mask we put on to help us cope with our environment. So we adopt an introverts behavior for a short period of time until we are no longer in that situation. To put it more precisely, we adopt a set of behaviors that will allow us to achieve our goals (in this case, getting through a boring shift).

So what happens when we use this free trait too often? Well the more the free trait differs from our natural personality, the harsher the backlash. So if you are a high scoring extrovert and you put yourself in situations that force you to inhibit extroverted behavior, it will lead you to much greater amounts of stress. This obviously leads to greater incidence of issues, illness, mental health annoyances, etc.

So what should one do to avoid these types of problems?

Once you have an understanding of your natural tendencies, it is best to follow a career path that will allow you to avoid excessive use of free traits. I know we’ve all heard of taking a personality test to find the right career for you, and it does sound silly. However, there is some relevance to it. Some people who are extroverted and analytic may want to spend time as a professor, while someone who is less extroverted would enjoy being a researcher.

Are there dangers to using personality to guide career choices?

Well this is an interesting dilemma. When we think of people in Human Resources, they want to make sure the employees are doing well and you avoid situations where people have excess work disruptions. So if you screen candidates for a position and you find two individuals that are equally qualified, but one has the better matching personality, what do you do? For the sake of business sense, you go with the person who will use less free traits, thus they have less incidence of illness right? Well… that may actually be unethical.

Heritability of traits

The Big Five is considered to be at least 50% heritable. This gets a bit tricky, of course as we get into greater detail. The best guide we have for the heritability of traits is through twins studies (when separated at birth). This means that the environment in which you are raised determines the other 50% of your personality. So how much control do you have as an adult over the personality you developed through your childhood? Clearly, judging someone’s personality and denying them a job over something they did not control should be considered unethical.

How can we use it?

Simply put, when a student is deciding their career path as they prepare to leave college, they should take a look at what their best matches by personality should be. If they take the personality assessments truthfully, they should find that the types of careers suggested are things they would find quite interesting. For example, I’ve had assessments tell me I would enjoy a career as a research, a psychologist, and other types of scientists.  While I haven’t started my career in earnest, I’d say it was pretty accurate about what I would find most enjoyable!

In the end, a personality assessment should never be used as a tool to screen out employees. This is an excellent tool to help people find a path that best suites their natural tendencies.


Little. B. R. (2008).  Personal projects and free traits: Personality and motivation reconsidered.  Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1235-1254.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting and I am proof of what you talk about. I was stuck in an industry for years that just didn’t suit me and eventually it got the better of me – stress, burnout and misery. Luckily I have managed to step back and review everything and am working towards a career that will suit my personality better – it feels good already – wish me luck!!

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