So, You Probably Have 3 Selves

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Photo: Kentaroo Tryman/Getty Images

Sometimes, language betrays us: When I tell you “I still don’t really get why everyone is nuts about Pokémon Go,” it suggests that my apathy and antipathy for augmented-reality pocket monsters comes from a singular entity, I. And when you reply “Well, it is bringing people out of their homes and exploring their worlds in a way no video game has,” and I concede that you have a point, the “you” I’m addressing also appears to unified being, You. That’s why you and I are singular pronouns, after all.

But, once again, the language isn’t doing us any favors, at least according to Cambridge University personality psychologist Brian Little. For Little, as he details in his fantastic Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, there’s a much richer understanding of personality to be had if we take into account three layers of personality, like those adorable Russian matryoshka dolls, where one doll is sitting within the layer of the next. To not appreciate your layers, then, is to have a circumscribed appreciation of who you are. So let’s avoid that.

For Little, the first layer of personality is the “biogenic,” or what your genes dispose you to; the second is the “sociogenic,” or what your culture and family teach you; and the third is the “idiogenic,” or the projects that you decide are really important to you, and are thus down to organize your behavior around. There isn’t always harmony between all three: “A biogenic tendency to be assertive and stand out in the crowd may conflict with a cultural norm of ‘blending in quietly’ or our parent’s exasperated plea to ‘grow up and stop embarrassing the whole family’,” he writes. But if that same biogenic extroversion were placed into a family whose motto was “Go for it — be awesome!” then, Little continues, all those cartwheels and keg stands your genes dispose you to would more likely be met by high fives and chest-bumps than tut-tuts and pursed lips. Similarly, if you’re biogenically disagreeable, you might do great in New York City, but wouldn’t be able to suffer all the Minnesota Nice in the Twin Cities. This, one thinks, is part of the reason that college is such a relief for lots of people; you get to finally arrange your “sociogenic” context around your “biogenic” nature, if you so choose.

At the same time, it’s super important for Little that people not feel defined by their biogenics or sociogenics; that’s where the “idiogenic” comes in. If you’re a social butterfly with finals coming up, you might act the introvert because you want to raise the GPA that you neglected while partying all semester. If you’re a disagreeable, argumentative person who moved to New York from the Midwest to be with all the other jerks, then when you go home for the holidays you might don your Middle-Western Mask again in order to get along with your endlessly energetic little cousins. This is also why, as Little said in a recent interview, declaring “I’m an introvert” can be self-limiting: If that’s your predetermined social script for every situation, then you might pass up opportunities for things that are really important to you. Little loves to teach, so he performs the extrovert while he’s lecturing (like in this TED Talk). But, in order to take care of his biogenic, introversive nature, he hides in the bathroom so that his nerves can calm down. This is why, he says, our personalities aren’t merely a collection of traits and your personality doesn’t belong to a certain “type”: Everyone has projects, backgrounds, and genetic tendencies that combine to form a unique identity. He puts it in a maxim: “You’re like some other people,” he says, “and no other person.”