Two people arrive at a party. One, happy to have the chance to meet many new people, strides in and joins the nearest group. The other beelines for a quiet corner of the room, where they’ve spotted a couple of long-time friends.
How can we understand these different experiences – and what can they tell us about careers?
As an adult educator and career counsellor, I use theories from personality psychology and personality neuroscience to help people understand which career paths are best suited to them. In this article, I explore the origins of personality and why it is so helpful for career decision-making.
The Big 5 Personality Traits
The Big 5 survey measures five constructs of personality:
- Openness to Experience: Reflects a desire to be creative and/or scientifically minded
- Conscientiousness: People high in this trait love being busy and are organized
- Extraversion: This is a positive emotional state which manifests as sociability
- Agreeableness: People high in this are compassionate, take an interest in others
- Neurosis: This is a negative emotion trait; people high in this experience high levels of anxiety
We all demonstrate these five traits, and we sit on a spectrum between one extreme and the other. It is common to have at least one trait whereby we score highly in one direction or the other. The Big 5 is a lexical approach to defining personality, meaning that we discovered these personality traits by asking people questions via surveys (a robust method for testing theories in psychology when done correctly). Nonetheless, determining personality via surveys only tells us a certain amount; it does not tell us anything about the mechanics of personality.
This is where neuroscience has been so important, as it can corroborate what the Big 5 survey has been demonstrating since the middle of the 20th century. While this discipline is still very early in its development, we are now able to essentially “see” personality in the brain via technologies such as functional MRI scans and an electroencephalogram (EEG). We can also test for personality via studies on genetics.
Punishment and reward
It is worth understanding just how deeply engrained personality is in our biology. Work by Jaak Panksepp and Kenneth Davis demonstrated that humans and animals share the same emotion systems with each other: a desire to explore, anger, fear, a need to care, grief and playfulness.
It is out of these emotion systems that personality traits have emerged as more sophisticated structures because of the highly developed cortical region of our brains. In this article I would like to focus on two neurological networks that influence personality formation, identified by psychologist Jeffrey Gray as follows:
- The behavioural inhibition system (BIS), which is anxiety based and responsible for the desire to avoid pain; and
- The behavioural activation system (BAS), which is excitement oriented and dictates eagerness to pursue positive emotions.
These systems constitute separate neurological structures that we all have, and they determine why people react differently to the same external situations. Precisely how these systems influence people to differing levels is still being studied. However, we know that the person who can’t wait to meet new people is highly driven by the BAS, while the one who prefers to connect with familiar faces is driven by the BIS. From a social perspective, we would define these people as extroverted and introverted.
This information alone is a good clue as to potential education and career paths for both these people. One might do well in sales, as it requires the pursuit of social situations like winning new clients. The second person may be better suited to the more reserved environment of a library or laboratory.
While the BIS/BAS correlates with extraversion and neurosis; researchers are currently attempting to understand the entire neurobiology of all five personality traits, with research still in the early stages. For example, almost nothing is known about the origins of conscientiousness other than that it appears to be associated with the pre-frontal cortex.
How can the Big 5 be used by career counsellors?
I previously published research using the BIS/BAS model to study how people motivate themselves when seeking to return to employment. I found this study fascinating because it showed how a model taken from neuroscience can be used in everyday career counselling situations.
Gray stated in 1990 that the basic systems that we share with animals that lead to our emotions also mediate our thinking. So, when we are thinking about our career, we are drawing on ancient neurological systems which drive emotions first, then our thoughts. Furthermore, recent studies demonstrate that these primal neurological processes can be adapted with training. In other words, we can use the plasticity of the brain to help the clients we work with increase their capacity to activate the BAS system. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity; it is what happens when we make long-term changes to our behaviour. For example, we can help our clients increase levels of extraversion and decrease neuroticism, which in turn will lead to better career performance. (In future articles, I will write about specific strategies to help clients achieve this aim).
I started to use this approach to career counselling in my work with MBA students at Trinity College Dublin. At the beginning of this academic year (2021/2022), I invited the students to undertake the Big 5 survey, which was followed closely with an initial consultation to discuss which personality traits they wanted to adapt in advance of graduation. I explained to the students how the brain can change, which leads to new patterns of thinking and behaving. Introverted people can become more extroverted, anxious people can learn to be more relaxed, people who score highly on agreeableness and perceive themselves as being pushovers or people pleasers can learn to stand their ground, or clients who struggle to implement structure can learn to be more conscientious.
I presented the BIS/BAS system in this article as it is one of the few neurological models that we have for personality, but there is still so much to learn. So, while personality psychology and personality neuroscience have application to career counselling in the present moment, there is still a long way to go to fully understand how we can utilise these fields in career counselling. It is worth the effort as the Big 5 traits are important predictors of career success!