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4 Reasons Why Your Personality May Not Matter Is it personality differences that make you the way you are, or something else?

4 Reasons Why Your Personality May Not Matter

Is it personality differences that make you the way you are, or something else?


A fundamental question in psychology relates to the relative influence of individual differences and environmental factors. How much of our behavior is volitional, meaning how much do our personal characteristics play a part in what we do, and how much does the social environment compel and shape us to behave in particular ways.

Most of us believe that we are the way we are because of our personalitytraits, but often personality may not matter as much as other factors in determining our behavior. Why is it important to understand the other factors that govern our behavior? All too often, people “default” to the personality argument (“I can’t help it, it’s the way I am.”), ignoring the role that other factors play in determining behavior. Here are other factors that govern our behavior beyond personality:

The Power of the Social Environment. Social psychology is replete with studies that emphasize that the social environment, in extreme or ambiguous circumstances, governs our behavior more than our personality. Famous studies by Milgram and Asch demonstrate the power of the social environment. In Milgram’s shock experiments, most individuals applied punishing shocks to another merely because they were told to do so by an authority figure. In Asch’s conformity studies, if others chose an incorrect response, people conformed to that choice even though it was incorrect. Personality didn’t matter as much as the situation.

The Power of the Role. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment demonstrates that regardless of personality, a strong role (prisoner or guard) was a more important determinant of how one behaved (e.g., guards behaving in aggressive, punitive ways) than was personality.

Skills and Abilities May Drive Our Behavior. While personality traits may predict behavior (e.g., extraverts engaging in more social behavior than introverts), it may be our interpersonal skills and abilities that are better predictors. For example, in one study we found a connection between extraversion and leadership, which has been well established. However, when we put social skills into the equation, the extraversion-to-leadership connection disappeared. This explains why great leaders can be either extraverted or introverted – it’s the skills that make them great leaders.

The Fundamental Attribution Error. We believe that personality is important because of this fundamental bias. When we watch someone behaving in some way, we immediately default to the belief that it is something about the person’s personality. “She doesn’t work hard because she’s lazy.” “He’s always telling jokes because he’s a jolly fellow.” We over-attribute the cause to personality and give less attention to the situational determinants that drive behavior.

Why Is This Important?

First, we can use personality, which is not very easy to change, as an excuse for our bad behavior (“I can’t help it.”).

Second, if we recognize the important of skills and abilities we will realize that we can work hard to change our behavior patterns. Personality matters some, but skills may matter more. In fact, studies that focus on nature vs. nurture suggest that social learning tends to be more important than genetic predispositions in governing complex behavior patterns.

Third, when evaluating others, we need to learn not to default to personality explanations, when the social environment or the power of the role may actually be the cause of another’s behavior. 

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