The idea that an individual’s personality is “inherently intertwined” with how they communicate has intrigued scholars since the late 1920s (Daly 2002). Indeed, many have observed that through our social interactions we drop clues about the essence of our personality and, in turn, learn about others. Everyday parlance is, in fact, filled with terms and phrases categorizing individuals’ personalities. Across essentially every human culture, for example, colloquial expressions like “He’s so quiet,” “She’s very assertive and to the point,” and “They just love to talk,” illustrate how attention to communicative perceptions and behaviors punctuates personality discernment in daily life (Weaver 1998).
This fundamental link between personality development and communicative perceptions and behaviors was first demonstrated in the pioneering work of Gordon Allport (1937). Recognizing the unique heuristic value of natural language terms, Allport employed a lexical approach to identify more than 18,000 words that described common personality dispositions or traits. Approximately a quarter of these terms, because they concerned distinctive human behavior (e.g., friendliness, shyness, talkativeness) were deemed particularly important. And, of these, a substantial portion involved some aspect of communicative perceptions and/or behaviors.
Reflecting this dispositional foundation, personality is broadly defined in contemporary theories as a dynamic and organized set of characteristics or personality dimensions, each incorporating an array of dispositions or traits, which uniquely influence an individual’s cognitions, motivations, and behaviors in various situations. Personality dimensions, which can differ among individuals, develop through the ongoing interaction between an individual’s unique genetic history and the variety of physical, social, and cultural environmental factors encountered throughout the life-span. Specifically, as individuals respond to personal, social, and cultural demands, personality dimensions emerge as relatively stable and enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about themselves and their environment.
Although there is considerable evidence for personality stability and continuity across the adult life-span, much less is understood about the complex interplay of constitutional and environmental factors during childhood from which personality develops. Research findings increasingly highlight the role of genetic influences in shaping virtually every aspect of personality functioning. Overall, the current heritability estimate for personality overall is approximately 40 percent, with some specific aspects of personality (e.g., temperament, social composure, and wit) evidencing substantial biological heritability. However, genetic influences, while powerful determinants of personality development, are not environmentally immutable. Environmental influences, such as culture, family, and parental characteristics, acting as social regulators, continually interact with genetic influences (i.e., biological regulators) to mediate both the enactment of behaviors and the emergence of individual differences.
Against this backdrop, it is now generally accepted that personality development during infancy and early childhood is shaped by a range of environmental factors. A stable child–caregiver relationship, for instance, that provides nurturing support appears crucial for normal personality development. Family dynamics are also significant, with several aspects – including cohesion, adaptability, and disciplinary practices – potentially affecting a child’s self-esteem, emotion regulation, and cognitive, intellectual, and social growth and, consequently, personality development. By middle childhood (6–11 years old) most children display considerable personality development continuity, with parental descriptions of their personality characteristics reflecting the same traits and dimensions commonly applied to adults (Halverson et al. 2003).
During adolescence, however, personality seems to involve some malleability, particularly in western cultures. Apparently instigated by an array of biological, environmental, and psychological determinants, adolescents often exhibit elevated aggressiveness, distractibility, impulsivity, public self-consciousness, and restlessness. These dispositional shifts, often corresponding with strong developmental spurts (i.e., pubertal onset), are seen as adolescence-limited differences that obscure, but do not significantly alter, stable personality characteristics. From young adulthood onward, personality development can continue and typically involves normative adjustments, reflecting increased self-control, pleasantness, and coping skills, that correspond with age-related biological, systemic, and social factors. Such adjustment does not occur evenly throughout adulthood, however, and is not evident in all individuals.
While modern theorists generally agree on these core aspects of personality development, there is considerable divergence in both the name (e.g., central dispositions, primary factors, supertraits, and types) and number (ranging from 3 to 16) of personality dimensions across modern personality theories (Ryckman 2008). Increasingly, communication theorists have adopted the psychobiological theory of personality developed by Hans J. Eysenck (1990) as a conceptual framework for delineating relationships between personality dimensions and communicative perceptions and behaviors. Several distinctive aspects of the psychobiological theory appear to underlie its broad application in communication research. Particularly prominent are: (1) a strong emphasis on inherited neurobiological and psychological determinants as primary in personality development; (2) utilization of large, culturally diverse samples in development and validation of key theoretical concepts; and (3) advancement of a parsimonious typology involving three essentially orthogonal behaviorally defined personality dimensions.
Two dimensions of Eysenck’s psychobiological typology are consistent with those identified in essentially all contemporary personality theories. The extraversion personality dimension is conceptualized as tapping traits such as an individual’s level of sociability, social adaptability and activity, and positive self-esteem. The neuroticism personality dimension, on the other hand, involves traits such as anxiety, emotionality, and a negative self-image. Unique to Eysenck’s typology, psychoticism is conceptualized as involving traits such as egocentricity, social autonomy and deviance, impulsivity, and callousness. The fact that many of the traits exemplifying each personality dimension are manifestations of communicative behaviors has not been overlooked by communication scholars.
Personality and Interpersonal Communication
Indeed, for many communication theorists, the three personality dimensions of the psychobiological typology are conceptualized as central components within the nexus of affective, cognitive, and physiological mechanisms guiding an individual’s daily interactions with their social environment (Weaver 1998, 2000). And, consistent with this expectation, there is a growing body of research evidence suggesting that the extent to which individuals exhibit psychoticism, extraversion, or neuroticism greatly facilitates explanation and prediction of their self-perceptions about communicating.
Drawing from the findings of several studies, for instance, it is possible to sketch out distinctive interpersonal communication profiles for each personality dimension. Individuals evidencing extraversion as their predominant personality dimension consistently perceive themselves as confident, patient, and skilled communicators. Extraverts tend to freely express sympathy for others, are perceptive and attentive, experience essentially no communication apprehension, and endorse a people-oriented approach to listening that reflects patience with and interest in others.
In stark contrast, individuals reporting neuroticism as their predominant personality dimension tend to be extremely apprehensive, imperceptive, and defensive during social interactions. Lacking both patience and finesse when communicating, neurotics often ardently filter both verbal and nonverbal conversation content and seem susceptible to information overload and confusion. Consequently, neurotics frequently display a unique “social shyness,” appearing, on the one hand, as acquiescent and demure communicators who prefer minimal contact with others, but, on the other hand, reporting considerable hostility and frustration during social interactions.
Reflecting considerable callousness toward others, individuals reporting psychoticism as their predominant personality dimension tend to be unsupportive, unresponsive, and verbally aggressive during social interactions. Reporting moderate communication apprehension, psychotics appear to lack empathy and sympathy for others, seem imperceptive and inattentive in interpersonal settings, and endorse an approach to listening defined by impatience with and indifference toward others. Psychotics frequently seek to dominate or control interpersonal interactions through rudeness and/ or by infusing conversations with culturally avant-garde or marginalized jargon.
The findings of a recent study on communicator style illustrate how the three distinctively different personality dimensions moderate perceptions about interpersonal communication (Weaver 2005). Specifically, three aspects of communicator style – the way individuals perceive themselves communicating and interacting with others (Norton & Brenders 1996) – and the three dimensions of personality were assessed in a large sample. The three aspects of communicator style are: (1) a nondirective style typical of an attentive communicator who encourages, accommodates, and acknowledges others; (2) a directive style characteristic of a dominating communicator who talks frequently, comes on strong, and takes control in social situations; and (3) an illusive style assumed by a communicator who is acquiescent yet deceptive in interpersonal interactions.
The investigation revealed considerable correspondence between the personality dimensions and the communicator styles. Individuals evidencing the extraversion personality dimension endorsed the nondirective communicator style; those evidencing the psychoticism personality dimension endorsed the directive communicator style; and those evidencing the neuroticism personality dimension endorsed the illusive communicator style. Further, within each personality dimension, the alternative communicator styles were essentially rejected.
Personality and Mass Media Use
Consideration of the personality characteristics of media audiences has long been recognized as a key component to understanding both the uses and effects of the mass media (Weaver 2000). Early research, for example, identified numerous unique individual characteristics – such as emotional insecurity, social isolation, intellectual ability, and predispositions and personality patterns – that influence media content preferences and the consequences of exposure.
To this end, the psychobiological theory of personality has also provided an effective theoretical framework. However, application of the three personality dimensions to problems concerning media uses and effects involves a different conceptual orientation. Recognizing that few, if any, media use behaviors share the imminent centrality to personality manifest through interpersonal communication behaviors, media scholars have focused principal attention on segmentation of the mass media audience across the three personality dimensions.
Traditionally, segmentation strategies based on demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and race have dominated and remain the standard practice of many media and marketing researchers. Although strategies employing psychographics, which involve “fuzzier” concepts such as lifestyle and/or psychological profiles, have been developed, evidence of their effectiveness is limited.
A growing body of research suggests, however, that Eysenck’s personality dimensions may more effectively segment individuals into three distinct subsets that project fairly homogeneous media use attitudes, needs, and behaviors. Individuals displaying the neuroticism personality dimension, for example, express a strong preference for informative/ news television content and “downbeat” music, and tend to avoid lighthearted comedy and action/adventure fare. Content facilitating sociability, such as “club” or “party” music, and content promoting social activities, such as partythemed movies, are strongly preferred by individuals exhibiting extroversion. Individuals presenting the psychoticism personality dimension evidenced a strong preference for socially deviant content such as graphically violent horror movies and “hard” or “rebellious” rock music videos (Weaver 2000). Significantly, similar patterns of congruency between the personality dimensions and media content preferences have been observed among children and adolescents (Weaver 2006).
The explanatory utility of the tripartite psychobiological typology as a segmentation tool has also been demonstrated in research on self-reported motives for television viewing (Weaver 2003). Individuals evidencing the neuroticism personality dimension, compared with those in the extraversion and psychoticism groups, strongly endorse using television as a replacement for social companionship, to pass the time, and for both relaxation and stimulation. And, consistent with expectations, individuals exhibiting the socially outgoing extraversion personality dimension strongly rejected the notion of using television as a functional alternative to interpersonal companionship. Personality dimension segmentation has also been successfully applied to understanding Internet preferences and use (Amiel & Sargent 2004).
Evidence from diverse programs of research summarized here leaves little doubt that personality development and communication are entwined and that crucial work to untangle and clarify the conceptual linkages binding these two theoretical domains is under way. One prominent outcome of this inquiry has been the articulation of a “communibiological perspective” by Michael Beatty and his associates. A derivative of Eysenck’s psychobiological model, the communibiological perspective emphasizes the influence of genetic and neurobiological mechanisms on communication behavior.
The developing research literature points to other conceptualizations that should provide fruitful avenues for future research and theory. Application of Albert Bandura’s (1997) self-efficacy notion to social interactions, for example, could prove provocative. Specifically, the concept of social self-efficacy, reflecting an individual’s assessment of engaging in social interactions, could provide a theoretical framework highlighting individual differences in cognition and affect as casual predictor communicative behaviors. Finally, addressing the interesting question of whether similar interrelationships between personality and communication are reliably evident across a variety of cultures demands empirical attention. Some evidence suggests we can answer with a qualified “yes” so long as we recognize that culturally grounded communication practices vary considerably, even across cultures sharing common heritages.
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