In the extreme, some good personality traits can turn bad

We may also benefit from allowing ourselves to be complex and even contradictory, rather than trying to fit neatly into a personality box

By Juliana Breines

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Published: Sun 25 Oct 2020, 1:53 PM

Last updated: Sun 25 Oct 2020, 2:27 PM

A high score on a positive personality trait is typically seen as a good thing. But the authors of a recent article argue that even for the most beneficial traits, extreme levels can backfire, causing problems in relationships, work, and mental health. Instead, they say, moderation may be healthier than we give it credit for. The following five traits are generally desirable, but they have their limits.

1. Agreeableness: Agreeable people are warm, kind, and cooperative, and these attributes make them great partners, friends, and colleagues. There is no question that an agreeable personality is an asset in many situations.

But research suggests that in the workplace, people with extreme levels of agreeableness, compared to those with more moderate levels, tend to have lower salaries, receive less mentorship, and may be less likely to voice creative ideas. Other research finds that too much agreeableness can be detrimental in relationships — for example, spouses who try to see the good in their partners’ actions even when those actions are very harmful may end up with bigger problems and lower marital satisfaction down the line.

2. Conscientiousness: Conscientiousness involves self-discipline, orderliness, and achievement-seeking. Benefits of this trait range from superior work and academic performance to better health and longer lifespans.

But the relationship between conscientiousness and well-being may look more like a curve than a straight line — it’s helpful to a point, but at higher levels it can be problematic, prompting obsessive-compulsive tendencies, perfectionism, and stress. Even its professional benefits may have a ceiling: for example, one study found that participants with mid-range scores had the highest incomes.

3. Extraversion: Extraverts are assertive, talkative, and friendly, and they are energised by social interactions. Compared to introverts, extroverts tend to score higher on measures of happiness, perhaps due to greater social engagement.

But there can be downsides to extreme extraversion, including a greater risk for delinquent behaviour, psychopathy, and even viral infection. In addition, one study found that the assumption that extroverts make the best salespeople may not be quite accurate: among call-centre representatives, it was the ambiverts (those who have a mix of introverted and extraverted attributes) who made the most sales, presumably due to their greater flexibility in speaking and listening.

4. Emotional stability: While neurotic individuals experience more frequent negative emotions, self-criticism, and heightened stress reactivity, emotionally stable people are calm, even-tempered, and good at managing stress. This trait has wide-ranging benefits, from less volatile relationships to a lower likelihood of suffering from mood disorders.

But there’s a reason so many people experience at least some degree of neurotic tendencies — fear and anxiety are hard-wired survival mechanisms that presumably evolved because they protect us from harm. Although this system can go awry when people see threats where they don’t exist, the other extreme can be just as dysfunctional: a total lack of fear can lead people to take unnecessary risks that result in injury or death. One study found that high emotional stability is common among people who engage in high-risk sports like skydiving. The line between risk and recklessness in this context may depend on whether calm confidence is balanced with appropriate levels of fear and caution.

The idea that higher is not always better when it comes to positive personality traits suggests that the difference between “good” and “bad” traits is not as black and white as it might seem. On each continuum—introvert to extrovert, neurotic to stable, and so on—there may be a broad range of scores that can be considered healthy and adaptive. We don’t need to be perfectly kind, responsible, friendly, open-minded, or calm. In fact, we may fare better by avoiding the extremes—in either direction.

We may also benefit from allowing ourselves to be complex and even contradictory, rather than trying to fit neatly into a personality box. We might tend to be more conscientious at work but have a carefree side with friends, or we might be generally agreeable but also have no qualms about being brutally honest when necessary. Honouring all sides of ourselves can increase our sense of authenticity.

Juliana Breines s a social and health psychologist based in the US. —Psychology Today

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