“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.” – Jawaharal Nehru
The May/June 2011 issue of Psychology Today boasts a fascinating cover story about “Six Clues to Character.” These six enduring traits or personal attributes have been proven to be incredibly useful indicators of what to expect from the future behavior of our children, partners, friends, colleagues – ourselves. I believe that one of most practical uses of psychological knowledge lies in our ability to use the knowledge that we currently have to predict future behavior. This does not mean that we are powerless to change the future. What it does mean is that we should make intelligent decisions about what we can expect from ourselves and others in the future based on the knowledge that we have now.
Even though there are particular predictors of overall character that are relatively stable over time, we are still capable of taking what we have to work with and using those personality traits and attributes in a productive way to bring about positive change and growth. We are only doomed to repeat the past when we refuse to learn the lesson that particular outcomes are trying (tirelessly!) to teach us.
Clues to Character
While many traits and attributes can be shaped and molded with diligent practice over a sustained period of time, others are not so malleable. Let’s explore these six glimpses into the crystal ball and discover what bits of knowledge we can take away to better guide our experiences with ourselves and with others in the future.
This attribute is considered at the top of the heap as far as things to consider in another person. Intelligence is quite stable over time and is mostly the result of genetic factors beyond the individual’s control. That being said, intelligence can wither or blossom given undesirable or desirable environmental factors. While intelligence makes no false promises about being able to derive deep meaning from life, it does imply the ability to deal with complexity. There are two primary types of intelligence of interest here: controlled and spontaneous. Controlled intelligence is what we generally think of when we think of intelligence measured on traditional IQ tests. This type of intelligence requires “conscious, deliberate, abstract thinking,” according to cognitive psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman. Spontaneous intelligence allows for mental dexterity and involved the ability to acquire information automatically through implicit learning. There is a great deal of what we think of as intuition involved here.
Look for: How a person thinks and develops arguments. The idea here is to look for clarity in thought process and clearly defined “edges” to ideas. The ability to spontaneously use humor is viewed as a robust sign of intelligence by evolutionary psychologists, due to humor’s necessity of using a complex combination of cognitive skills/abstract thinking.
Most of our know someone in our lives who seems particularly “driven.” It may be difficult to even define what this means, but is generally thought of as intrinsically motivated and sustained effort – the motivation to persist at what we love. The trick here is that we have to have something important in our lives to love and be passionate about. Researchers have found that the drive to success correlates with the Big Five personality trait of conscientiousness – preparedness, organization, and ability to control impulses.
Look for: How a person talks about problems in his or her life. How do they respond when met with challenges? Are obstacles energizing or defeating? A healthy sense of drive also means being able to assess the self in a realistic balanced way, which includes accepting the inherent randomness of life.
Psychologists and philosophers alike typically think of happiness as springing from having a true sense of purpose and feeling useful. Unfortunately, we are immersed in a Western culture based on acquisition of material objects and consumption of goods. So much of what we are told will make us happy involves getting more “stuff” (e.g., a new plasma TV or even a job promotion). Ask yourself if these types of supposed “gain” leave you feeling content, full, and satisfied. What kind of a sense of purpose or usefulness do we really derive from purchasing goods or climbing the corporate ladder? Findings in neuroscience tell us that happiness is actually a byproduct of other things – e.g., working towards meaningful goals.
Look for: How realistic a person is about their own weaknesses. How willing are they to behave in ways that are in line with their purported beliefs and values (even in the face of criticism or rejection)? A big part of happiness is resilience – the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
How have you experienced the effects of intelligence, drive, and happiness on the overall character of yourself and people in your life? It is important to take knowledge about what important aspects of these traits we can improve and cultivate in ourselves. Just because we may not have had the ideal starting point in life or all of our needs responded to ideally (or even adequately) over time, it does not mean that we cannot take control over who we want to be today. How can you take this knowledge to begin to notice your own areas of strength and areas of improvement?
I look forward to sharing three more glimpses into the crystal ball of character with you tomorrow!
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Marano, H.E. (2011, May/June). Clues to character. Psychology Today, 54-60.
Featured image: Crystal Ball by Dan Queiroz / CC BY 2.0