Home » Brian Little: Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality at TED Talk (Transcript)

Brian Little: Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality at TED Talk (Transcript)

So here are the consequences that are really quite intriguing: we’re not always what seem to be, and that takes me to my next point. I should say, before getting to this, something about sexual intercourse, although I may not have time. And so, if you would like me to — yes, you would? OK.

There are studies done on the frequency with which individuals engage in the conjugal act, as broken down by male, female; introvert, extrovert. So I ask you: How many times per minute — oh, I’m sorry, that was a rat study — How many times per month do introverted men engage in the act? 3.0. Extroverted men? More or less? Yes, more. 5.5 — almost twice as much. Introverted women: 3.1. Extroverted women? Frankly, speaking as an introverted male, which I will explain later — they are heroic. 7.5. They not only handle all the male extroverts, they pick up a few introverts as well.

We communicate differently, extroverts and introverts. Extroverts, when they interact, want to have lots of social encounter punctuated by closeness. They’d like to stand close for comfortable communication. They like to have a lot of eye contact, or mutual gaze. We found in some research that they use more diminutive terms when they meet somebody. So when an extrovert meets a Charles, it rapidly becomes “Charlie,” and then “Chuck,” and then “Chuckles Baby.” Whereas for introverts, it remains “Charles,” until he’s given a pass to be more intimate by the person he’s talking to.

We speak differently. Extroverts prefer black-and-white, concrete, simple language. Introverts prefer — and I must again tell you that I am as extreme an introvert as you could possibly imagine — we speak differently. We prefer contextually complex, contingent, weasel-word sentences — more or less. As it were. Not to put too fine a point upon it — like that.

When we talk, we sometimes talk past each other. I had a consulting contract I shared with a colleague who’s as different from me as two people can possibly be. First, his name is Tom. Mine isn’t. Secondly, he’s six foot five. I have a tendency not to be. And thirdly, he’s as extroverted a person as you could find. I am seriously introverted. I overload so much, I can’t even have a cup of coffee after three in the afternoon and expect to sleep in the evening.

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We had seconded to this project a fellow called Michael. And Michael almost brought the project to a crashing halt. So the person who seconded him asked Tom and me, “What do you make of Michael?” Well, I’ll tell you what Tom said in a minute. He spoke in classic “extrovert-ese.” And here is how extroverted ears heard what I said, which is actually pretty accurate. I said, “Well Michael does have a tendency at times of behaving in a way that some of us might see as perhaps more assertive than is normally called for.”

Tom rolled his eyes and he said, “Brian, that’s what I said: he’s an asshole!”

Now, as an introvert, I might gently allude to certain “assholic” qualities in this man’s behavior, but I’m not going to lunge for the a-word. But the extrovert says, “If he walks like one, if he talks like one, I call him one.” And we go past each other.

Now is this something that we should be heedful of? Of course. It’s important that we know this. Is that all we are? Are we just a bunch of traits? No, we’re not. Remember, you’re like some other people and like no other person. How about that idiosyncratic you? As Elizabeth or as George, you may share your extroversion or your neuroticism. But are there some distinctively Elizabethan features of your behavior, or Georgian of yours, that make us understand you better than just a bunch of traits? That make us love you? Not just because you’re a certain type of person.

I’m uncomfortable putting people in pigeonholes. I don’t even think pigeons belong in pigeonholes. So what is it that makes us different? It’s the doings that we have in our life — the personal projects. You have a personal project right now, but nobody may know it here. It relates to your kid — you’ve been back three times to the hospital, and they still don’t know what’s wrong. Or it could be your mom. And you’d been acting out of character. These are free traits. You’re very agreeable, but you act disagreeably in order to break down those barriers of administrative torpor in the hospital, to get something for your mom or your child.

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What are these free traits? They’re where we enact a script in order to advance a core project in our lives. And they are what matters. Don’t ask people what type you are; ask them, “What are your core projects in your life?” And we enact those free traits. I’m an introvert, but I have a core project, which is to profess. I’m a professor. And I adore my students, and I adore my field. And I can’t wait to tell them about what’s new, what’s exciting, what I can’t wait to tell them about. And so I act in an extroverted way, because at eight in the morning, the students need a little bit of humor, a little bit of engagement to keep them going in arduous days of study.

But we need to be very careful when we act protractedly out of character. Sometimes we may find that we don’t take care of ourselves. I find, for example, after a period of pseudo-extroverted behavior, I need to repair somewhere on my own. As Susan Cain said in her “Quiet” book, in a chapter that featured the strange Canadian professor who was teaching at the time at Harvard, I sometimes go to the men’s room to escape the slings and arrows of outrageous extroverts.

I remember one particular day when I was retired to a cubicle, trying to avoid overstimulation. And a real extrovert came in beside me — not right in my cubicle, but in the next cubicle over — and I could hear various evacuatory noises, which we hate — even our own, that’s why we flush during as well as after.

And then I heard this gravelly voice saying, “Hey, is that Dr. Little?”

If anything is guaranteed to constipate an introvert for six months, it’s talking on the john. That’s where I’m going now. Don’t follow me.

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