Counterintuitive, Episode 6: Confrontation – How Deep is the OCEAN: Personality and Its Hidden Depths

After the start of the three-part miniseries about human nature in the last episode, this time we return to the topic with a more intense topic: personality! More specifically, this instalment is dedicated to the question of how stable our personalities really are. You can find new episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, YouTube, or SoundCloud. Below, you’ll find the transcript of this episode with some references / further reading hyperlinks. The music for this episode comes from FreeSound, specifically these pieces:



The question of who we are is often synonymous with an inquiry into our personality. But what exactly is personality? Personality is fundamentally individual, it’s supposed to characterize you as a character, as someone who has character. It should be like a fingerprint, unique to yourself as a person, but also something you share, to some degree, with others, a commonality which can lead to like or dislike. And even more importantly, it determines the course of your life and therefore can be used to predict your life, or at least the average life, to a certain extent. Decades of psychological research have identified five factors, five personality traits which seem to dwarf all others in importance. They loom so large that they’re referred to as the ‘Big Five’. Each of them represents a spectrum with opposing traits at its respective ends. This is the bedrock, the underpinning, the essence of personality. Which is why we will launch a frontal attack against the Big Five. Because if they topple, if they so much as flinch, personality as a concept in its current form comes crashing down with it. Let’s see if they do.


You’re listening to Counterintuitive, the podcast about things which are not what they seem to be, and my name is Daniel Bojar. This episode is part of a three-part series about human nature. Last time we wrestled with preferences and their influence on our decisions. This time we’ll go after more challenging prey, what many would consider the core of our very being, our personalities. We’ll have a critical look if they truly are as clear-cut as intuition and a substantial body of research would have us believe. And then, next time, we will have our finale, in which we use everything from the first two episodes to address a puzzling conundrum affecting every single one of us that you are, most likely, not even aware of. Yet. But first things first. Off we go into the maze of personality.


“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” – Oscar Wilde in The Relation of Dress to Art

Back to the Big Five. Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Or, in short as an acronym, OCEAN. There is probably no area in psychology which attracts so much attention and research as the Big Five. And perhaps rightly so, as these personality variables have been successfully used to predict your performance in school and life, your happiness (individually and in relationships), and so, so much more. They indeed seem like a firm foundation to build a field on top of.

Here’s a question though: if an acquaintance of yours regularly but unpredictably changed their height, on a range from the smallest person you know to the largest person you know, would you buy them clothes fitting their average height? Put another way, maybe revealing my game here, would the average height be indicative, be relevant to describe the stature of your acquaintance? And if not, then what would be indicative as a description? Keep this conundrum in mind for a while.

In one of my favorite research articles in the last couple of months, William Fleeson, psychology professor at Wake Forest University, analyzed a unique aspect of the Big Five, an aspect which at first sight let’s us question the solidity of our bedrock in personality research. I say ‘in the last couple of months’ because I recently stumbled upon this article. But it was originally published in 2001, nearly 20 years ago by now. I cannot stress enough how crucial this piece of information is. If you forget most of the content of this episode, this is one of the bits you should remember. A paper comes out nearly two decades ago, calls into question a cherished, intuitive concept by new data or new methods, and then is promptly discarded or ignored by most of the scientific community and the public. It’s a pattern you see again and again, if you just look. I could make at least a whole episode just about these kinds of scenarios. But I digress. What we’re interested in right now is of course the content of Fleeson’s article.

For this, you first have to understand how personality traits are typically assessed in scientific studies. Either participants venture to the laboratory to fill out some questionnaires or researchers, in a way, come to the participants, in the form of phone surveys or questionnaires filled out online. There are of course variations on this theme but that’s still the standard, orthodox way of data collection, today and certainly in 2001. Why is this important information? Let me recap some elements of the last episode for you. Last time, preferences were the main topic of interest. Specifically, the lack of stability in our preferences, which seemed to be swayed by irrelevant details in our environment. Specifically, by the context of a situation. Assessing the preference of a person in a laboratory or in their home during another activity will most likely leave you with two quite different answers. Even if you take multiple measurements, if they’re all done in the same context, the laboratory, the context will reliably exercise its power over the participants and make their preferences seemingly stable. Because the context is stable, the assessed preference is assumed to be stable. So, where do we collect most of the personality trait data? Ohh…

So Fleeson comes along in 2001 and has a different type of data in his pocket. For two to three weeks, his study participants had to use a handheld computer every three hours to record their feelings and actions. Then, on the last day of the study, the same participants also completed a standard questionnaire-type Big Five assessment for comparison. Of course today all of this is not such an unusual study setup but keep in mind this is twenty years ago. So his study participants go about their normal lives, with activities, stress, joy, and drama, and enter their data. Fleeson goes about analyzing this data – and finds something spectacular.

Did you let your subconsciousness work on our problem with your height-changing acquaintance? Is their average height or the spread between minimum and maximum height the relevant characteristic? What if it’s both? The statement that you need both kinds of information tells you that both aspects are informative in their own way. So the average height of your acquaintance would not tell you all too much about the range of heights they reach on any given day, and vice versa. Because if you could completely infer one quantity from the other, you wouldn’t need both for description.

By now you may have already guessed what Fleeson found in his data. Psychologists speak of within-person variability when they want to stress that the same person varies in some respect across time or situations, in contrast to between-person variability which tabulates variance between different people. When Fleeson analyzed the within-person variability with regard to behavior indicating Big Five states, he found this: within-person variability was high. Incredibly high. So high, in fact, that, and I quote, “the typical individual regularly and routinely manifested nearly all levels of all traits in his or her everyday behavior.” End of quote.

This is disturbing news. Especially if you connect it with another finding, that two behaviors of the same person are hardly related at all, with a correlation of around 0.3; that’s awful. So the conclusion of this seems to be that your behavior in one situation is more or less unrelated to your behavior in other situations. Given that behavior is strictly linked to personality, this erratic relation between behaviors at different occasions of course cast doubts on the immutability of the underlying personality. If you’re still on the fence, here’s the biggest result from Fleeson’s analysis: for all Big Five traits, within-person variability was equal to or higher than between-person variability. Just think about that for a second. Two random people from the street differ less in their personality on average than the same person in different environments! This is insane. Who you are depends on where you are.

We’re left with a paradox now. The extreme variability of personality traits in the same individual demonstrates that the mean value of a trait doesn’t properly reflect the individual behaviors of a person. But still, working with these mean values has resulted in a panoply of successful studies in which all kinds of things were correctly predicted. So obviously there is information present in the mean values, but why and how?

Combine that with another compounding factor, results from the Scottish Mental Study which followed participants for 63 years for six personality characteristics. Results suggested quite low stability of these personality aspects over time, robbing personality at least partially from its aura of temporal stability. A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies investigating the change of personality over time confirmed this view of weakening the personality stability theory.

And it doesn’t end there. There is a fully different beast lurking in personality research which we won’t have time to properly treat here. It’s intuition. Just to give you an idea why this is an issue, let’s have a quick look at one aspect of personality: self-esteem. Your subjective sense of self-worth may not be a trait among the illustrious Big Five but it’s still an ample source for scientific studies. Thousands and thousands of scientific studies in fact. Studies which investigate the effects your level of self-esteem and the interactions of self-esteem with your environment have on all kinds of things. Because it’s intoxicatingly intuitive that it should make a difference how high you view your self-worth.

Luckily, researchers are fond of reviewing an existing body of research every couple of years or so. That’s why, for instance, there is a magnificent meta-review by Thomas Scheff and David Fearon which looked at the whole field of self-esteem research. Around 15 000 academic publications. Here’s the gist of it: the strongest effect any study found, the strongest, explained around two percent of the variance. Two percent. Predicting anything with that is utterly useless. And nearly all other “effects” were even well below two percent. Statistically significant they may have been, but these effects don’t affect anything. Here’s some choice bits from their text (and I quote): “…studies of the relationship between social class and self‐esteem have reported findings that are ‘competing, inconclusive, and inconsistent.’ ” and “…studies of the relationship between crime and self‐esteem are ‘rife with contradictory or weak findings.’ “. End of quote.

So, bottom line: self-esteem doesn’t seem to be reliably important for anything. That’s already bad, as we would have expected it to matter at least somewhat. But the worst thing is that, even after this withering critique of their field, self-esteem researchers merrily went along and continued to churn out thousands of more-of-the-same papers in the following years. If this sounds familiar to Fleeson’s article from earlier on, you’re on the right track. Of course people rarely radically restructure their professional lives after such a blow to their worldview. Instead, we rather have to wait for the next generation growing up with a new, hopefully better, worldview instilled during their education, as we touched upon in an earlier episode. But I still think something more insidious is going on here. The intuitive belief that attributes such as self-esteem have to matter, have to make a difference is just nigh-irresistible for most. Why else would there not even be a mention of this meta-review or other doubts cast on the concept and importance of self-esteem on its Wikipedia page, 15 years after this subject has been so thoroughly broached? Counterintuition is hard and uncomfortable, which is why it’s a constant process rather than a one-off thing.

There’s a silver lining in Fleeson’s uncovering the variability of our personalities though. Fleeson refers to the spread of personality traits around their mean values as distributions which indicate the frequency of any type of behavior over the whole spectrum. The shape of these distributions then can potentially give you finer insight into the behavioral tendencies of an individual than the mean value. And most excitingly, this shape is an individual characteristic, akin to a fingerprint. You could identify people from the shape of their personality trait distributions. And it all boils down to your reactivity to context.

Let’s say you’re with a group of friends. No matter how extraverted you typically are, on average your extraversion increases with the time of the day (more extraverted in the evening than in the morning) and with the size of your group of friends (more extraverted in a larger group). But by how much your extraversion increases is specific to you as a person. Individuals can be more or less reactive to situational cues and their reactivity also depends on the respective trait. So a person may be more reactive in, say, their extraversion, than in their openness to experience.

With this, we again reach our central question: do we have stable personalities? And, again, the answer is: Yes and no. The mean values of Big Five traits are certainly predictive and valuable for research. Their purpose is to provide a long-term description of behavioral tendencies. If you’re high on extraversion in your Big Five assessment, you’re slightly more likely to react extraverted in any given situation. And this counts in the long run, at least to the extent it allows us to make predictions. But in the short-term these mean values are not optimal, though also not useless, to predict your behavior in any specific situation or for a period of time.

The extreme context-dependence of your personality makes the trait distribution a better description of your personality in everyday life. And it also, again, leads us to the conclusion that, in the specific interactions with others and your environment, personality is a process rather than a stable trait. Only in the long-term, between-people comparison is the concept of stable personality traits useful. To paraphrase William Fleeson again, this time from a later paper, the trait concept is useful for explaining behavioral trends while the process concept is useful for explaining actual behavior in the moment. And indeed, efforts have been started to build a social context-based personality model in addition to the trait-based model.

The problem is not that personality and your resulting behavior is fluctuating wildly and randomly over time. The problem rather is that these things are systematically influenced by your surroundings. So a friend who only meets you in large groups for late-night outings might perceive you as being far more extraverted than another friend who predominantly meets you alone for brunch. And both can be true simultaneously, because you really and authentically can be two different people in two different contexts. Because there is no single value that would describe how you react in every circumstance.

So the concept of personality, which is at least a merger of trait and process, has to change. Because imagine if you have another friend who knows you in different contexts and perceives your level of extraversion across these contexts as inconsistent. We often condemn inconsistency as hypocrisy or being inauthentic. But inconsistency is the norm, in so far as a plethora of different contexts in your life is typical. We should use the whole distribution, with mean value and everything else, to describe personality, not just one single number per trait. Because then, and only then, can we return to the concept of a stable personality, in which the whole distribution in its shape and position is stable. But in our current framework, personality is decidedly not stable, it’s fluid, erratic, idiosyncratic. At least to the outside. But if you look closer, you notice a pattern. An ocean consists of innumerable water molecules, each of them moving randomly and erratic. But if you zoom out and take in the whole concept, you notice patterns. Rippling waves, gliding across the waterscape not randomly but organized and in response to their environment.

P.S.: I mentioned the potential danger of labeling someone as inauthentic because of the inconsistency in their personality. But I neglected to address how the person him- or herself thinks of their behavior and personality. In a study, researchers investigated this connection between behaviors and authenticity. You would expect that behavior closest to their actual trait levels would elicit the highest levels of authenticity, of being your true self. But of course that’s not what happened. Rather, regardless of their actual traits, everyone was feeling more authentic when they were being extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and intelligent. This is madness. An introvert felt more authentic when acting more extravert, not when acting more introvert. Makes you wonder about the ideal personality we set as a society and its effects on the aspirations and feelings of authenticity of everyone not adhering to these ideal standards. Oh by the way, do you want to venture a guess who one of the two authors of this article was? Together with Joshua Wilt, it was, of course, William Fleeson. Who else.


That’s it for this episode of Counterintuitive! Don’t forget to check in next time when we wrap up this three-part miniseries. As always, you can find references and further reading for this episode in the show notes. If you like what you hear, please share it with your friends and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast from. It’s really appreciated. Every second Thursday a new episode will be uploaded. My name is Daniel Bojar and you’ve listened to Counterintuitive, the critical thinking podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. You can follow me on Twitter at @daniel_bojar or on my website, where you will find articles about other counterintuitive phenomena or concepts. Until next time!

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