Acting Out of Character in the Immortal Profession: Toward a Free Trait Agreement

Man holding up a photo of another man's face in front of his own face

Sometimes, the academic life demands that faculty deny their fundamental personality traits. But if collegial respect includes allowing colleagues the latitude to nurture their true characters, academics can survive and thrive amidst the challenges of academic life.

It often comes down to personality. Despite the candidate’s obvious brilliance, tenure is denied. The comment “insufferably arrogant,” uttered almost sotto voce just before the vote, helps tip the scales.  Across campus a dedicated but painfully shy associate professor is reading the term’s teaching evaluations and, once again, is simply devastated. And over at the faculty club, a newly minted Professor Emeritus bounces into the retirement party to find only three attendees at the event, trying in vain to create the illusion of a throng. Later, at the bar, the reluctant pseudo-celebrants agree on one thing — this wouldn’t have happened to any of their other colleagues. Personality matters.

Human personality plays a striking and subtle role in shaping the course of our lives in the immortal profession. Arrogance, shyness, bounciness, and hundreds of other traits of personality influence how others see us and how we see ourselves. They have important consequences for the shape of our lives. What do we know about these influences? How are they striking? What’s so subtle?

Light can be shone on these questions by contemporary research in the field of personality science. Personality science studies a broad spectrum of influences upon human conduct, ranging from neurons to narratives. One of its most important sub-fields explores relatively fixed traits of human personality. William James, the philosopher/psychologist, proposed that such traits, by the age of thirty, are “set like plaster.” Was James right? Are our professorial styles attributable to traits that are essentially immutable? Was that arrogance apparent early on? Can that shyness be a life sentence? Is that bounciness irrepressible? Trait psychologists would argue that the answer is “yes” to each of these questions, and I partially agree. However, I will argue that the notion of fixed traits being set like plaster goes too far. I propose that human beings are essentially half-plastered. Let’s explore further.

Personality Traits: The Big Five

Many personality researchers have concluded that the hundreds of different trait dimensions can be reduced to five major factors that consistently emerge in data collected across different cultures and language groups. The so-called big five dimensions are: open to experience (vs. closed-minded), coscientious (vs. careless), extraverted (vs. introverted), agreeable (vs. disagreeable) and neurotic (vs. stable). These dimensions are statistically independent of each other, so that one’s status on any big five dimension is independent of that on any other. An extraverted professor, for example, may be open or closed, stable or neurotic, sweet or surly.

Each of the big five dimensions can be linked to important aspects of human flourishing, such as marital stability, creative achievement, and health. For example, conscientiousness is associated with greater success, particularly in conventional areas of achievement and is also linked to better physical health. However, in at least one occupation, that of jazz musicians, greater conscientiousness is associated with less success as rated by other musicians. Why do conscientious jazz musicians strike a discordant note with fellow musicians? I suspect that the focus and orderliness associated with conscientiousness interferes with the capacity to detect subtle intimations of key transformations or pitch changes. Open individuals excel in creative domains, while conscientious ones do better in more conventional areas. Agreeable people are particularly successful at group activities, and disagreeable ones are particularly at risk for cardiovascular disorders. 

Most professionals are expected to be open, conscientious, moderately extraverted, initially agreeable, and stable rather than neurotic.  I believe that this profile holds for academics as well, although we have greater latitude of acceptance of variations.  Extreme deviations from these traits, however, are often seen as strange—including deviations on the more “positive” side. A colleague who is closed, careless, and cranky is unlikely to be seen as a valued colleague, except perhaps by those with similar personalities. But being overly open, too, can be seen as inappropriate and indiscreet. Undue conscientiousness might be construed as prissiness, while excessive agreeableness might convey weakness.

How about neuroticism or its contrasting trait, stability? Someone who is anxious, depressed, and vulnerable is unlikely to wear well with either students or colleagues. And although it seems difficult to fault an undue level of stability in one’s colleagues, I suspect we have all served on committees where a professor’s invulnerability, calm, and self-assurance may have raised some questions. Where’s the fire?  Does he actually care deeply about his field? Is her deep calm a sign of a lack ofinterest? Where’s the edge?

Extraversion and the Academic Life

Let’s explore in greater detail one of the most important of the big five traits, extraversion. Like other dimensions of the big five, extraversion is known to have a moderately high degree of heritability. One biological model of this dimension postulates that differences in extraversion reflect differences in the arousal level of certain neo-cortical areas in the brain; those high in extraversion have low levels of arousal, while introverts have high levels.  Given that effective performance on daily tasks requires on optimal level of arousal, extraverts are typically seeking to increase their levels of arousal, while introverts are trying to lower theirs.

Optimal Level of Arousal

In everyday interactions at the university, introverts may avoid highly stimulating settings not because they are antisocial but because they realize that their performance is often compromised in such environments. Extraverts, on the other hand, may seek out such settings precisely because they have learned that they perform better when engaged in the cut and thrust of animated, even heated, exchanges.

Reaching an optimal level of arousal can also be achieved by the ingestion of beverages that have a direct impact on neo-cortical arousal.  Alcohol, at least initially, has the effect of lowering arousal. At the faculty club bar after a couple of glasses of wine, the extraverts are more likely to dip below the optimal arousal level while their introverted friends, nudged closer to optimal arousal, may appear unexpectedly garrulous.  Coffee, being a stimulant, has the opposite effect. After ingesting about two cups of coffee, extraverts carry out tasks more efficiently, while introverts perform less well. This deficit is magnified if the task they are engaged in is quantitative, and if it is done under time pressure. For an introverted professor, an innocent couple of cups of coffee before a meeting may prove challenging, particularly if the purpose of the meeting is a rapid-fire discussion of budget projections or similar quantitative concerns. In the same meeting, an extraverted colleague is likely to benefit from a caffeine kick that creates, in the eyes of the introverts, an illusion of competency.

Performance and Achievement: Twin Piques

Differences in extraversion also play a role in intellectual achievement. Generally speaking, and except for  one grade, introverts achieve higher marks in school so that by the time they are in university they are more likely to obtain a first- class graduating average. Why is this? Could it be that extraverts are simply less intelligent? The research suggests this is not so; there are no reliable differences in I.Q. between those scoring high and low on extraversion. I believe that it is the learning environment that is critical. Extraverts learn more in environments that are stimulating and engaging, and conventional schools may not be able to provide such an environment.

Consistent with the notion that engagement is central for extraverts, the introvert advantage in marks disappears when we look only at laboratory classes. And the one grade exception, where extraverts come home with a better report card? Kindergarten. Though tempting, it is probably not wise to predict later academic achievement on the basis of how our children did in kindergarten. Our extraverted children may well have peaked then!

There are two other areas of intellectual achievement where there are notable differences between those who are high and low on extraversion. Extraverts have better memories than introverts but only in short term memory. Introverts do better on long- term memory tasks. Also, when we engage in tasks, we can adopt two different strategies involving a quality/quantity tradeoff. We can do things quickly and make a few mistakes, or do things slowly and get it perfect. Extraverts are more likely to opt for quantity, introverts for quality.  These intellectual and cognitive differences can give rise to conflicts or at least mutual eyeball rolling between colleagues, especially when they are working on joint projects. Introverts, preferring a slow and careful approach to their tasks, see their extraverted colleagues as too “crash, bang, wallop” and want to rein them in. Extraverts can become exasperated at the style of their introverted colleague. They want them to speed up and get things done, even if there are a few little mistakes.  As any department chair can attest, when such creatures are housed together, periods of protracted pique can ensue.

Social Interaction: Communication Styles

If we watch social interactions in our university departments, we can easily spot the difference between introverted and extraverted styles. Their non-verbal interaction styles differ sharply. Extraverts stand closer but speak more loudly; they tend to touch and poke.  Introverts are less intense, more subdued, and definitely less pokey. As a result of these differences, when extraverts and introverts interact, it can look like a rather bizarre dance:-a series of alternating lunges, retreats, pokes, and aversions. This is not suave.

They also have contrasting verbal styles. Extraverts use direct, simple, concrete language. Introverts have a tendency to craft more oblique, contingently complex, weasel-word communications (more or less, at times, or so it appears).  Like that. Such differences can create all manner of friction within our departments with, once again, much rolling of eyes and gritting of teeth.

Although I hope to have shown that examining our relatively fixed traits of personality helps to explain some aspects of daily academic life, I suggested at the outset that I only partially agreed with the trait theorists. To explain my reservations I need to introduce a very different way of explaining human personality.  If we want to understand human personalities, I think we need to know not only the traits that people have but also the deeds that they do.  In those doings of daily life we begin to see some of the subtleties that are missed when we restrict ourselves to notions of fixed traits.

Personal Projects and Free Traits:On Acting Out of Character

One way of thinking about daily deeds is to explore the personal projects that guide them. Personal projects can range from the trivial pursuits of typical Tuesdays to the overarching commitments of a lifetime, and they provide a vital link between people and their institutions. Our academic lives are constructed around personal projects such as “get tenure,” “teach well,” or “terminate with a least a shred of dignity.”  Whether our projects go well or not depends, in part, upon relatively fixed traits of personality.  However, personal projects also give rise to what I call “free traits”, and these play a subtle, yet powerful, role in influencing the shape of lives.

Free traits are strategic displays that run counter to a person’s fixed traits but that advance that person’s personal projects. In two different senses such free- trait behavior can be said to be acting out of character. It is out of character in the sense that it involves acting against one’s first nature.  It is also an expression of one’s “character” and the values that enjoin us to rise to occasions. There are both costs and benefits to acting out of character. To the extent that the free trait is enacted successfully, the person’s project has been advanced. Short bursts of acting out of character need not be costly; these are the brief occasions we rise to, quickly, and then beat a hasty retreat to the faculty club to recover from, slowly. But protractedly acting out of character can extract a cost, including increased activity of the fight-flight reaction in the sympathetic nervous system and potential burnout.

Consider, for example, a biological introvert who has a core personal project of exciting students about the course material. Such a  professor may engage in “pseudo-extraverted” behaviour in order to help advance the teaching project.  It is possible that that the project might fail; there may be too much of a discrepancy between the professor’s natural orientation and the free trait that is being expressed.  But if the free-trait enactment is successful, the students are excited, and the project is accomplished. But even if successful in class, acting out of character can extract a toll. Fortunately, there are ways of mitigating these costs, but they require a change in the way that we relate to our colleagues.

Restorative Niches: A Free Trait Agreement for Academia

The costs of acting out of character can be mitigated by the availability of restorative niches in which one’s first nature can be indulged on occasion.  For example, I happen to be an introvert who frequently engages in extraverted free-trait behaviour in the classroom. If I can give some engaging anecdotes or involve the students in playful banter, then I do it happily but not really naturally. A far more congenial style for me is teaching one-on-one, which is a classic introvert preference. If you were to observe me in lecture, however, I suspect you would not detect any signs of introversion. However, there is one clear clue that emerges during the break we have half way through the lecture. A true extravert would find the break a great time to chat with the students and get energized for the second half of the lecture. But I need to get away from the stimulation that has been building during the extraverted performance. So at the break I seek out a restorative niche. If the lecture hall is near my office, I can find peace behind a closed door. But when the lecture is some distance from my office, I need to be more creative. Many years ago I discovered that the men’s room afforded me just the respite I needed. I would find a quiet cubicle, lower my level of arousal, and nurture my first nature. However, extraverts have a way of tracking professors down, and after a few instances of intrusive, inter-cubicle chats, I had to refine my escape tactics. So now, at the break, you will find me in the men’s room, in the last cubicle, restoring myself. But to avoid detection, my feet are up.

Free-trait enactment is not restricted to introverts who give extraverted performance. Extraverts in academe often need to switch into introvert mode, and their restorative niche would not be solitude but, rather, the most stimulating place on campus. Highly agreeable professors may, at times, need to be disagreeable; it comes with the turf in senior administrative positions, for example. But if being disagreeable moves from being an occasional tactic to a chronic commitment, then a naturally agreeable person will need frequent restoration to make it through without burning out. A restorative niche in this case would be a context in which cynicism is left at the door, and bitterness banned for the duration.

Each of these instances of professors acting out of character could be addressed if we were to agree to a Free Trait Agreement. Of course this wouldn’t be a formal agreement; it would be a set of shared understanding about how to respect our colleagues’ needs for restoration after they have been acting out of character in the services of the immortal profession. It would basically say that we will act out of character to advance the needs of our students and our universities, provided they, in turn, grant us, as needed, restorative niches in which we can nurture our natures. Such an agreement is already in place in departments and institutions that place a premium on collegial respect. With that respect and with those restorative resources, we can more than muddle through the challenges of academic life. Without them, the pressures of professing can be truly punitive and they can bring us to our knees. 

Brian R. Little is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. This article began as a keynote presentation at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carleton University in 2009.

  • Ali

    Very well written and explained. I came across this article in the process of trying to work out how I can make academia work for an introvert like me. I’m still not sure if I can but it makes me feel less alone.