What Are the Myths You Hold About Your Personality?
New research suggests how myths about your personality shape your life story.
Self-concept can shape the way people recall key events in their life.
Personality traits such neuroticism and openness to experience may inform how people perceive and share their memories.
Confronting personal myths may help people develop a more realistic view of themselves and their past.
When you consider the past events in your life, what do you believe define those key turning points? How do you reply when people ask you to tell them about yourself? You might choose to focus on the so-called “objective” facts such as where you grew up and when you graduated from school. Or, if the situation calls for more reflective answers, you might talk a bit more about what it was like growing up in your family or what factors led you to make some of your major life choices.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that at each retelling of your past life experiences, some of your answers have taken on an automatic quality where you don’t even have to think about how to respond. As this so-called narrative about yourself starts to take shape, the details may shift, but overall, it will have some type of theme or organizing framework.
What Your Life Story Says About You
Introduced a number of years ago, the idea of the “life story” (Whitbourne, 1985; McAdams, 2015) defines this personal narrative as a reflection of your own sense of self, or identity. Some experiences in your life may have, in fact, a solid basis in reality, namely, those objective facts about your place and time of birth. Other experiences may, however, reflect your interpretation of your own life events. This is where identity starts to enter the narrative.
The prominent themes in your identity can emerge from certain characteristics you hold based on your gender, race or ethnicity, age, place where you live, and social class. The meaning of these characteristics that you hold can be shaped by social norms or expectations. You may also have prominent themes based on the way you define your personality. You may see yourself as an “eternal optimist,” or “an introvert,” or “a procrastinator.” The question is, are these themes based on accurate self-reflections, or are they myths? Are you really the introvert you think you are?
In a newly-published paper, University of California Riverside personality psychologist William Dunlop and colleagues (2021) contrast the so-called reality, or “consensus,” between ratings by observers of other people’s life stories with the personality ratings that the story-tellers made of themselves. As the authors note, there is a growing literature in this field, but “the key scenes representing the lifeblood of narrative identity have yet to be considered.”
Looked at in terms of these key scenes, the myths you hold about yourself may be organized around this “lifeblood” of big moments in which those qualities of your self-rated optimism, introversion, or procrastinator led you to some type of outcome. Because you’re such an optimist, for example, you were able to figure out a way to get through the last 12 months associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Or, because you were such an introvert, you spent the majority of your high school years listening to music alone in your room rather than going out with friends.
These myths are just two examples of the many that could color a narrative you tell to someone else. However, can another person discern your true personality from that retelling?
Judging Personality from Life Stories
To test the ability of raters to judge the personalities of targets from their life narratives, Dunlop and his fellow researchers asked 402 undergraduates (average age of 19 years old) to provide descriptions of the high, low, and turning points of their lives. The researchers then analyzed these stories for prominent motivational themes such as whether participants saw themselves in control of the events in their lives.
Participants then rated their own personality traits using a measure based on the Five Factor Model with questions such as “‘I see myself as someone who is talkative” and ‘‘I see myself as someone who is moody.” A small team of observers (4), who didn't know the participants, then went on to rate the personalities of the participants based on the content of the stories, using the same personality trait instrument.
Put yourself in the position of a participant in this study. What would be the high, low, and turning points of your life? As you reflect on these questions, how closely do they reveal your personality, or at least how you perceive your personality? Thinking about the words you used to create this narrative, do you think that someone who doesn’t know you at all could pick up on the myths that you believe define your life?
As it turns out, based on the study’s findings, even strangers should be able to provide moderately accurate judgements of your personality just by hearing this narrative. The correlations between participants and observer ratings, with +1.00 being the highest, ranged from .48 to .79 across all major points in the narratives.
The highest correlation involved the personality trait of neuroticism, suggesting that people who tend to engage in a great deal of worry, self-doubt, and anxiety are the easiest to rate based on the words alone that they use to tell their stories. By contrast, people high on the personality trait of openness to experience, or the willingness to entertain fantasies, enjoy the arts, and play with ideas, told stories that were most likely to disguise their self-rated traits.
You might think that people with this very open type of personality would be the easiest to rate, not the most difficult. However, as it turns out, the problem for the raters came not from the personality traits themselves but from the types of stories they told. As Dunlop et al. note, “we found that highly open individuals tended to disclose less conventional stories.” As the listener to such a story, then, you might find yourself puzzled by events that don’t conform to typical life experiences. Recall that the participants were young college students. It’s possible that their recollections from their childhoods focused not on the typical family-school types of events, but on ones that reflect their development as musicians or artists.
Challenging the Myths You Tell About Yourself
In concluding their paper, the UC Riverside researchers observe, “Storytelling represents a ubiquitous feature of social interactions.” You are always telling your story to others, but you also tell it to yourself. If your personality shapes that story, the question remains as to how closely the events you recall would actually conform to the objective qualities of the experiences themselves.
Think back, for example, on a story you might tell about the day you met your partner. You believe that you were the one who initiated the interaction that eventually led to your forming the relationship. After all, you are an extravert, right? But what would your partner say about those first moments together? Knowing that your life story can easily be shaped by your personality, it’s plausible that the situation was actually reversed. It may be time to revise that story you’ve told yourself for years and years.
Given that the participants in the study were just entering adulthood, the question remains an open one as to how the tales they told would have differed if they’d had more life experiences under their belt. As they continue to retell those stories, how would they change the way they present themselves? Even more to the point, how would the way they tell those stories change based on feedback they get from comparing their versions of reality to those of the people who know them? Maybe the highly open people would decide to curtail the fantasy in their narrations, or the neurotics would find ways to cover up their chronic pessimistic tendencies.
To sum up, understanding that myths can shape the way you see yourself and the events in your life can help give you clarity in understanding your identity, a process that can continue to shape fulfillment as you continue to merge new events into that ongoing saga.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.