What is personality for

Personality: Psychology: How we develop our strengths

Almost everyone strives to improve their being. But instead of optimizing ourselves, we should use our strength to realize ourselves, according to the psychologist Jens Asendorpf

GEO WISSEN: Professor Asendorpf, can one aim to be a little more optimistic?

Jens Asendorpf: That is not impossible. But to find out, you have to first clarify what kind of personality you are. Because in order to become more confident in general, you have to change your character a little bit.

GEO knowledge: What is "personality"?

In a sense, the "essence" of a person. In other words, the sum of everything that distinguishes them from their fellow human beings: their individual way of feeling, thinking and acting. We are constantly comparing ourselves with each other and discovering differences. We perceive some people as particularly daring, others as closed, interested, creative. We use these differences to characterize others - and thus also define ourselves.

GEO knowledge: can the personality be captured with scientific methods?

Yes, very well. Psychologists have developed a precise instrument for this, the “Big Five”. It is a scheme that includes five essentials: extraversion, compatibility, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. In a sense, these are the five basic building blocks that make up every personality.

GEO Knowledge: Can you briefly explain what the terms mean?

Each trait denotes a human characteristic that can be either strong or weak. If, for example, my extraversion is highly developed, I am particularly sociable, enjoy approaching others, socialize and talk a lot. If it is weak, I am more reserved, calm, and quite happy to be alone at times. Most people are somewhere between these two poles.

GEO Knowledge: And the other four characteristics?

Compatibility means that I am cooperative, good-natured, sociable, compassionate and concerned about harmony; or, in the case of poor tolerance, highly competitive, aggressive and not very sensitive. An elbow person.

Neuroticism describes how concerned someone is, whether they are more prone to self-pity and depression, or whether they go through life satisfied and confident.

Conscientiousness shows when I'm more of a decent person who writes down a list for everything and works it off thoroughly. If this characteristic is weak, I usually come too late, forget half of it when shopping and find it difficult to meet deadlines.

GEO knowledge: Is there a connection between the individual features?

No. Each of the five factors is independent of the others. So I can be sociable, aggressive, confident, chaotic and narrow-minded at the same time. Or cautious, cooperative, reliable, doubting myself and interested in many things. Any combination is possible, which is what makes the personalities so diverse.

GEO Knowledge: How did psychologists come up with these five factors?

The starting point was one question: what standards do people use to evaluate their counterparts, how do they distinguish themselves from one another, what words do they use to characterize one another? To find out, two US scientists have chosen a dictionary and compiled all the adjectives with which we describe other people. How many do you estimate there are?

GEO knowledge: Maybe 4000?

There are almost 18,000. From this, the researchers deleted synonyms, outdated and rarely used terms, after which 200 remained. In the next step, they asked test persons to assess which of these 200 adjectives always appear together in people, for example "creative" and "inquisitive", and which have nothing to do with each other, for example "good-natured" and "imaginative". From all these evaluations, they used statistical methods to filter out five dominant groups of properties that can be distinguished from one another: the Big Five.

GEO Knowledge: Isn't it a little too simple to infer universally valid personality traits from everyday language?

I have a different opinion. After all, we humans are masters at assessing others, fathoming their character and their intentions: Should I lend my new colleague money? Will he give it back to me? Can I trust the babysitter? Will she treat my child well?

All of this is reflected in everyday language. And practice shows that the Big Five scheme can be used to describe a personality quite comprehensively.

GEO Wissen: Now the Big Five have been derived from the English language. Do they also help to describe personalities in other nations?

The Big Five personality dimensions can be used to describe all people on earth - people in the USA as well as in Germany, China or Korea. Researchers have verified this in dozens of studies around the world.

GEO knowledge: Can we also assess ourselves well?

Yes, but only to a limited extent. By and large, our self-image corresponds to the impression that close friends of us have. But we usually overestimate ourselves in our positive qualities.

GEO knowledge: How do optimism and pessimism fit into the scheme of the Big Five?

These two terms do not designate isolated properties like the Big Five, but a combination of at least two characteristics. Those who are optimistic are usually characterized by a pronounced extraversion and low level of neuroticism. So he approaches other people openly and confidently.

The pessimist, on the other hand, is introverted - that is, shows low values ​​for the factor extraversion - and very neurotic. He avoids other people and is more concerned about himself and others.

GEO Wissen: It sounds as if these properties are always stable. In fact, there are days when you are more positive and sociable, and others when you seem to be unsuccessful and you prefer to stay to yourself. How pass

What you are describing are moods. They can fluctuate a lot, but they don't necessarily change your personality. You can think of your personality as a rubber band: depending on whether you have a good or a bad day, it stretches in one direction or the other - that is the mood. But it always remains the same elastic band, snapping back into its starting position again and again. That is the personality.

In order to correctly assess this in a person, observation for at least three weeks is necessary. Then a person can get a very good impression of the personality of his counterpart - regardless of his mood.

GEO Knowledge: Some nations are said to be more optimistic than others. Does the cultural background play a role in personal development?

Social expectations certainly have an influence on which personalities can be found more often in a country than others.

For example, scientists compared how school children in Shanghai were perceived over time. The result: In the past, restraint was considered a virtue in China, and extraverted people were less popular. Accordingly, one quality was cultivated, the other one tried to suppress. With increasing westernization, the picture has changed: Extraverted children are now popular and are actively encouraged by families and schools. Despite such findings, one should not overestimate the cultural influence.

GEO knowledge: why not?

Because personality psychology shows that the influences are there, but small. For example, researchers have investigated how extroverted the inhabitants of the small Italian islands were compared to those who lived in the nearest port city, where there was of course a lot of tourist traffic and everyday life was more varied.

The result: the people who lived at the port were significantly more extroverted than those on the islands. At first glance, one could conclude from this that life on the islands or at the port would have shaped people into different personalities.

GEO Knowledge: But was it really different?

In truth, the extraverts have moved from the islands to the port cities. Life on the islets was too boring for them, they wanted to experience something new. Those who stayed at home - they were the introverted islanders. So it was not society that formed personalities, rather a community has broken down into a "selection effect".

GEO Wissen: Can that be transferred, for example to the allegedly pessimistic Europe and the more optimistic USA?

As a matter of fact. In 17th century Europe everyone had their place in the social order, goods were distributed over generations. But people who wanted to experience and achieve something or who had the courage to change took the opportunity to emigrate to the newly discovered America.

This pattern has continued over the centuries, so that gradually people in the USA gathered who are naturally positive, willing to take risks, open-hearted. That is why it is still more natural there than in Europe to be open-minded, to approach others, to be inspired rather than put off by innovations.

GEO Knowledge: If culture doesn't determine personality, what then: hereditary disposition? Education? The partner?

To find out, genetically identical identical twins were compared with dizygoti twins, who share only 50 percent of the genetic make-up. The result: About half of our personality is determined by the biochemical inheritance of our parents.

The other half is due to environmental influences. This includes upbringing - albeit to a much lesser extent than long thought - friends, work, partners and of course everyday experiences such as successes and failures, illnesses and losses. All of this forms what is already genetically inherent in us.

You can read the entire interview in the new issue of GEO WISSEN "Confidence - the power of positive thinking".

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