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The Normal Personality


It was back in 2013 when I read Steven Reiss’ book Who Am I?. Reiss, a professor emeritus of Ohio State, proposed that there were 16 motivations that can be used to describe a person and how they’ll react. Shortly after reading Who Am I?, I picked up The Normal Personality – another of his books. However, it sat in my virtual bookshelf as my curiosity (one of his characteristics) led me in other directions. However, after finishing The Cult of Personality Testing and Science and Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology, I felt like I needed to get back to Reiss’ work on personality testing and more importantly motivations.

Compared to the other models that I’ve looked at, there are numerous aspects of the Reiss model which seem to be able to more accurately predict how people will behave and the normal predispositions that they’ll have. While the model is still a difficult model to internalize for daily use, it is a good framework for understanding others.

Defining Abnormal

Much was made in The Cult of Personality Testing about the tendency for some tests, particularly Rorschach, to over pathologize people. In other words, there is a bias towards saying that there is something wrong with people. Given the context of that test—and others – for use of screening for mental defects, I suppose that this is a reasonable conclusion. However, it makes the tests far less useful when you’re trying to define what normal people look like, what motivates them, and how to engage them fully.

It seems that most personality tests – perhaps with the exception of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – are designed to tell you what’s wrong with someone, not how they function well under normal circumstances. I’ve mentioned that I tend to build a MBTI in my head unconsciously for the folks I’m interacting with. I’m trying to understand how to interact with them in the best possible way. Reiss believes the MBTI to be a useful – but narrow – instrument. This makes sense. Where the MBTI uses four dimensions, Reiss model is based on 16 factors. The level of precision capable when you have more dimensions is noticeably broader. Additionally, MBTI tends to define people as either-or and makes no attempt to identify which factors are more important to the person’s personality.

The tricky part with defining normal is that it’s not one thing. You can define a mental disease or defect with relatively specific precision about what constitutes the disorder, however, normal is the mass of possibilities in the middle and is therefore difficult to pin down.

Reiss even states at one point that it’s unlikely that someone has a mental health problem because most (but not all) people with mental health problems are unhappy. So even the rules that you could possibly use to define normal have boundary conditions.

Prioritizing Motivations

When you fail to predict the behaviors of another person whom you believe you know well, the normal reaction is to be surprised and stunned. Most of the time the reason for the failed prediction is that the person has a competing value system that was in play – and was more important at that moment. When values are in conflict it’s difficult to know which value will be the most important. Consider a scenario where a person who is highly motivated by Family but also intensely motivated in Power or Status. When the question comes up about whether to stay at work late – the answer might be that family wins out and they come home – getting online later instead of going to bed. However, when a prestigious opportunity comes up which requires substantially more travel, it may be that the family loses their parent to work and to the road. (See Our Kids for an interesting note about how parents are denying themselves for their children.)

When multiple value systems align into a single behavior they can sometimes – and do sometimes – overpower a single stronger motivation. In Reiss’ model the motivations aren’t viewed in a vacuum. They don’t exist without any outside circumstances. Kurt Lewin says that behavior is a function of both person and environment. It’s wrong to say that a person isn’t influenced by their environment both in micro and macro ways. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt speaks to the power that the path has in his rider-elephant-path model. We cannot exclude the environment in terms of culture or pressing needs when evaluating how others will behave.

Motivations exist in a world of competing forces. Each motivation seeking to reach its point of equilibrium.

Personality Equilibrium

No one wants chaos – or the complete loss of control. However, a motivation for order will tell just how far we’re willing to get out on the limb of lack of control. Some folks need everything in neat little boxes. Some folks need to have a large degree of order in their lives. They need neat and tidy to feel OK with who they are and where they are. Others are willing to live seemingly without any order. They don’t bother to book hotel rooms in advance. They tend to play the worst case scenario game – and win. They decide that the worst case scenario is they’ll sleep in their car.

It’s not that either of these perspectives – orderly and planned or spontaneous – is right or wrong. It’s just different. However, there is a normal range. That is a range where people can sometimes be orderly – or sometimes accept uncertainty. Those who struggle with uncertainty are closer to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which I often tease that they call CDO – so the letters are in their “correct” alphabetical order. On the other end of the spectrum might be a homeless by choice person who likes not knowing where their next meal will come from or where they’ll spend the night.

The reality is that people will seek to obtain their natural equilibrium where their level for a motivating factor has been achieved. When placed in a chaotic situation we’ll almost all try to impose some order. When placed in highly rule bound and defined places we’ll seek to create levity and deflect the perception of too much order.

Recipe for Underachievement

Some kids get along just fine in school and some do not. When viewed from the lens of motivational psychology there are some patterns that emerge for those who don’t do well in school:

  1. Low Curiosity – The kids just literally aren’t that interested in things.
  2. Low Ambition – They have no need to become anything. They’re happy with the status quo.
  3. High Vengeance – Folks with high vengeance are looking for opportunities for their vengeance to be satisfied. That is, they’re looking for trouble.
  4. High Acceptance – If you want others to like you too much (high acceptance) then failure becomes an untenable option. You avoid doing something because then people can’t demonstrate that you failed at it.
  5. Low Honor – Those with low honor are expedient. They’ll do whatever just to get to an answer and if being honorable takes too much effort, they’ll take the shortcut.
  6. Low Order – Spontaneous people can be the life of the party but when it comes to planning the party spontaneity isn’t the best strategy. Kids with low order didn’t seem to do as well as their high (or moderate) order colleagues

Some of my best friends weren’t overachievers in high school. They made their way through but not without their challenges. In life they drifted until they found a home that for them is what they needed. Just because someone isn’t doing well in school doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It can mean that their skills and talents aren’t matched to academic learning.

Normal Range

The trick as we seek to maximize our happiness and the happiness of others we love isn’t to create copycat clones of ourselves. (See Multipliers for more on the negative consequences of creating clones.) The trick is to help build skills that allow us to operate in the “normal” range. You don’t have to take your artist and turn them into an accountant (or vice versa.) However, everyone needs a way to function in this world. They may not need to know how to balance a checkbook any longer. However, everyone needs enough awareness to be able to be aware of their financial health. Similarly, everyone should be able to appreciate aesthetic beauty. Whether you’re an accountant or a coal miner, your happiness is influenced by your ability to appreciate beauty in the world.

As we’re coaching underachieving adolescents we need to remember that they don’t have to become the best at things they’re not currently good at. They need only get sufficient levels of skills to ensure that they’re not being held back by those lack of skills. They don’t have to be motivated by curiosity. However, they need to create enough curiosity inside of themselves to ensure their long-term success, survival, and thrival. (Thrival is the ability to thrive.)

Recipe for a Cheater

I was sitting at a church meeting. This was a special meeting in that it was designed to help struggling people get more peace with their life and align it more with their purpose. I was sitting across from a guy I’ll call Bill who was describing how he was currently having sexual relationships with 12 other women – besides his wife. After setting aside the moral concerns and letting go of any judgement, which is a part of this group that functions more like a 12 step program than a traditional church function, I was confused.

I was confused like I am with the idea of polygamy. I love my wife – but I can’t imagine having the emotional energy of managing that sort of an intimate relationship with multiple wives. Bill explained to me that they weren’t relationships that they were just sex. I still don’t understand it really but at least I understood that to him the women were a way of satisfying his desire for romance. His motivation for honor and family were very low. I don’t know how things worked out with Bill, I never really saw him after a few meetings, however, I know that when you mix a person with high romance and low honor, you have a recipe for a cheater.

Someone with low honor is often described as expedient. That is, they’ll do the honorable thing if it’s easy but they won’t go much (if any) out of their way to do the honorable thing.

Morals and Values

One of the topics delicately avoided in the normal personality was whether particular motivations are moral. That is whether motivations are good or bad. It’s more accurate to say that the motivations themselves aren’t good or bad – it’s what we do with them that makes them good or bad. A high desire for power isn’t bad. However, when it creates Nazi Germany which seeks to exterminate an entire race of people, most folks would call that bad. The relative ease with which people can be motivated to behave outside of what they would say their standards are, is frightening. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me))

Buddhists describe emotions as afflictive (causing harm) or non-afflictive. (See Destructive Emotions and Emotional Awareness for more about Buddhist beliefs about emotions.) The relatively quirky point of view here is that the emotion may or may not be afflictive. It’s appropriate, for instance, to be angry at times. Anger is disappointment directed. There are times when disappointment is the right feeling. The key is whether this causes harm to yourself or others.

Spiritual Evolution walked through the connection between what we value and evolution. There are certain evolutionary advantages of caring and socialization. There are some advantages of high trust societies (See Building Trust in Politics, Relationships and Life for more on the economic impact of trust.) Morals are beneficial to society. They become the framework on which laws and positions can be based.

In general, morals and values and the laws that are passed to provide structure to them are designed to protect society. They delineate between the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of motivations as measured by societal norms or legal consequences.

For instance, in the United States, alcohol is relatively universally available to adults at 21 years of age. The age for voting and other “adult-ness” is typically 18. Whether someone is an adult at 18 or 21 is relatively arbitrary, however, it’s this standard that has worked its way into law – in an inconsistent way. Is it “right” for someone who is driven by eating to have a glass of wine with dinner? Morally and legally the question is ambiguous. In the United States, if the person is under 21, the answer is no. If we cross the border to the north if the person is 18, 19, or 20 they’re OK. In Europe where there’s no established minimum alcohol consumption age, the person of any age will be legally OK but perhaps not morally. (I’m not recommending including wine in a baby’s bottle.)

Largely morals and values operate outside of motivations. It’s only when strong motivations drive a person to behave in a way outside of the established norms and laws that problems arise.

Sex in the City

While viewed from a short term perspective it may seem like morals are fixed. However, when you start to look at the way that morals have changed over time you begin to realize that they’re really a shared experience more than they are fixed and unchanging. For instance, in the early days of television, married co-stars (both in real life and on screen) were shown sleeping in separate twin beds. Words like sex and pregnant were considered too sensitive to appear on air. When you evaluate TV of the 50s and TV of today – even broadcast TV to say nothing of cable – it becomes clear that the moral standards at least as they are expressed through public eyes is very different.

The Marketing of Evil seemed intent on describing a sinister plot to these changes, however, observationally, these changes seem to reflect naturally occurring responses to changes in society. There were movements that made birth control more acceptable to speak of in the 1920s and beyond but it was the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1950s that changed the consequences of sex.

With condoms (which have been available for substantially longer) combined with an oral contraceptive the effective pregnancy rate is very, very low. Add to this the controversial – even today — Roe v. Wade decision making abortions legal and the result is an even lower unwanted birth rate. (See Freakonomics for more on how abortions changed crime rates.) Thus the social consequences for sex – an unplanned child which would need to be supported – were reduced to such a small rate that they no longer represented a societal problem. Even the teen pregnancy rates which skyrocketed in the late 1980s to four times that of most western countries fell 52% from 1991 to 2012 as a response to aggressive campaigns to reduce this societal concern. (See Defensive Routines for more on the causes.)

Ultimately our views of unwed sex have changed. Gallup in their post titled “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues” demonstrates how over time the values of the people they’re polling continue to move towards the direction of what some might call moral decline. I’m more inclined to call it moral shift. For instance, in 2001 only 53% thought it was morally acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to have sex. In 2015 that number is 68%. In the space of the relatively short 14 years our attitudes shifted 15%. While not every metric moves that fast, it’s an indication that our moral fiber isn’t as rigid as we’d like to believe.

Made in Marriage

John Gray in his book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus asserts that men and women are different. Reiss is able to support this assertion from his data but cannot say whether these are nature or nurture – whether they are programmed into our biology or are a result of our culture.

These differences it seems can be persistent thorns in our sides. That’s why sites like and other profile matching sites can be helpful. Reiss says that many divorces are the results of bad matches and not necessarily character defects in either party. Gottman says that 69 percent of marital conflicts are persistent – without a solution. (See The Science of Trust for more of Gottman’s work.) Reiss asserts that it’s better to find the right person than pay for therapy to try to make a bad match work.

Low Curiosity and Intimacy Anorexia

One of the stories Reiss relates in The Normal Personality is of a wife who isn’t interested in talking with her husband. This is assigned to a low curiosity. I wonder, however, if this particular example may cross over from the normal needing to regulate how deep and how frequent conversations should be to reach a satisfying state or whether this example represents Intimacy Anorexia. It’s hard to know where the line is sometimes between healthy – but on the edge – behavior and abnormal or errant behavior.

In Emotional IntelligenceGoleman quotes a report in Science which describes isolation as “as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” In short, isolation or separation from others is a serious health risk. Reiss makes the point that his perspective of motivational psychology and a desire to avoid over diagnosing people isn’t without the awareness that mental illnesses are real and do exist.

Perhaps the wife is perfectly fine being emotionally intimate with her girlfriends, family, and others just not her husband. While this is a marker for more serious problems in the relationship it may not be a clinical condition. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy and the path to it.)

Biology and Psychology

Virtually everyone knows about Darwin’s survival of the fittest perspective on evolution and genetics. We’ve advanced in our understanding to be able to educate parents on the probabilities of having a baby with a genetic defect. The counseling provides an awareness of what might happen so that folks can be prepared but ultimately have no control on what genes are passed on.

However, with our frontal lobes we have another factor where survival of the fittest comes into play. That is the idea of memes. Memes are like viruses imprinting on others the same idea through communication, conversation, and thought.

Ways of thinking – memes – necessarily lead us towards some approaches and away from others. Consider that in English we put the modifier (adjectives) before the noun which they modify. In French and other languages, the modifiers come after the noun which they modify. It’s not that one is right or wrong. What’s important is that we necessarily think differently based on this change in language.

Our success in getting close to another person – in order to do reproduction – is now based at least in part by the ideas that we hold. We tend to connect better with those people who hold similar ways of thinking and processing as us.

Like More Alike

Reiss shares that sociology has definitively settled on the idea that we are attracted to those who are more like us and repelled by those who are different. It’s on this basis that you’re likely to have friends who are similar to you. You’re likely to have a spouse that is similar to you.

The quick rebuttal is often that your wife is very different than you. Competitors in a market tend to focus on the differences between their products and the competition where customers tend to focus on the similarities. (See The Challenger Sale for more.) My point isn’t to say that you and your wife are competitors – rather my point is to say that because of your extremely close proximity you’re more apt to see the relatively minor differences that people at a distance wouldn’t see.

As mentioned earlier, finding a mate that is more similar to you makes the maintenance of a marriage easier.

Know Thyself

The best platitude advice ever given is Socrates “Know thyself.” It’s impossibly hard to do and deceptively simple. We all believe we know ourselves but the more we look the more we realize that we don’t know ourselves very well. There are so many dimensions and depths to our psyche that we can spend a lifetime attempting to discover them and still not have scratched the surface. However, perhaps that’s what it’s like to have a The Normal Personality – a continual striving to know ourselves better.