Free Trait Theory Explains How Personality Changes

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What is the free trait theory? How can it help explain the way people are able to have seemingly different personalities for different situations?

Free trait theory is the idea that some of our personality traits are changeable. Other psychologists argue that personality is fixed.

Read more about free trait theory.

Personality: Fixed vs. Free Trait Theory

Some introverts become so good at acting out of character that the people around them have no idea how out of character they really are. For instance, Professor Brian Little, by nature an introvert, pushed so hard to act like an extrovert that he seemed to have a dual personality. Before he retired, he was a Harvard University psychology lecturer and acclaimed teacher/performer who was so popular with students that his classes were standing room only and often ended in ovations. However, in his “off” time, Little lived in a cabin in the woods of Canada, with few visitors other than family. He spent his time there reading and writing in solitude.

Fixed and ‘Free’ Traits

A few psychologists—”situationists”—have argued that personality traits aren’t fixed—that we have various “selves” instead of a core personality and we shift or change our personality to suit the situation we find ourselves in. 

However, Little believes we have fixed traits that remain fairly constant throughout our lives and profoundly influence us. Most psychologists, including Carl Jung and more recent researchers, agree with this view.

So how can many introverts act out of character so convincingly? Little argues that we have both fixed and “free” personality traits. According to his “free trait theory,” we’re born with certain traits like introversion, but we can act out of character when pursuing “core personal projects” or goals that matter deeply to us.

For instance, an introvert might join the PTA at his daughter’s school because his family is important to him. Similarly, Little could be a passionate teacher because sharing his excitement for his subject was a “core project” to him.

You won’t succeed in acting out of character to advance a project you don’t care about. However, introverts may have difficulty identifying their core personal projects because they’re used to ignoring their own preferences and feeling uncomfortable in many situations. For an introvert functioning in an extrovert-dominated world, it’s like spending time in a foreign country —it can be exciting, but you don’t feel like you fit in.

Here are three steps to help identify your core personal projects:

  1. Consider the following: when asked as a child what you wanted to be one day, what was the impulse behind your answer—for example, wanting to be a firefighter because you wanted to help people in distress. Understanding what motivates you can help determine your core interests.
  2. Notice the type of work you gravitate to—for example, within your job, do you prefer mentoring over negotiating new deals?
  3. Notice what you envy—you often envy those who have what you want.
Free Trait Theory Explains How Personality Changes

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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