I think of myself as a fairly easy-going guy—tolerant, not easily riled up. That is, unless a rude driver cuts me off in traffic. Rudeness triggers the worst in me, and I doubt anyone would describe me as congenial under those circumstances. I can also get moody when I’m tired, and I’m much more affable once I’ve had my morning coffee. I’m probably more cheerful on Sundays than on Tuesdays. Still, on balance I think most my friends would describe me as easy-going.
What I’m describing here—this seeming contradiction—is the difference between my global personality and my more nuanced, situational “if-then” profile. Nobody has a unified, completely stable personality, with attitudes and actions that are consistent from day to day, from one situation to another. We do have broad and enduring traits—like friendliness and shyness—but we also react to what life throws at us. Different things push different people’s buttons—or raise their spirits—and this assortment of reactions also defines who we are.
In fact, these if-then triggers may be more important in some ways than our global traits—especially in close and enduring relationships. At least that’s the theory of two psychological scientists at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University. Lara Kammrath and Charity Friesen suspected that, while broad personality traits may be crucial in getting relationships started in the first place, nurturing deep and supportive relationships over the long haul may require a more fine-grained understanding of others’ quirks and idiosyncratic triggers. They decided to put this idea to the test.
They recruited a group of young men and women for a study, each of whom invited a good friend to participate as well. Working separately, the friends completed what’s called a trigger profile questionnaire. This questionnaire consists of brief descriptions of 72 common behaviors and attitudes that are potentially bothersome in a relationship. Gullibility is a good example: Some people may find it especially irksome that a friend is so easily bamboozled, while others may not even notice this characteristic. Or perhaps you find your friend’s perfectionism grating at times. Or he’s too boisterous, or she’s a space cadet. You get the idea. The scientists asked the volunteers to complete the profile not only for themselves, but also for their friends.
Then they had them complete an inventory of their relationship, a set of questions about perceived frustration and conflict in their friendship. This also included questions about how deep and supportive the relationship had become over time.
The idea was to see if nuanced understanding of a friend’s if-then profile was related to the quality of the friendship. And it was, clearly. As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, the more insightful a person was about his friend’s pattern of reactions, the less conflict that friend experienced in the relationship. In addition, those who described their friendship as deep tended to have a better feel for their friend’s triggers.
These pairs had been friends more than four years on average. Tellingly, they were all over the map in the accuracy of their knowledge about their friends. That is, some were very tuned in to what things pushed their friends’ buttons, while others were clueless. This might be in part because such rich and contextual understanding of another person does not come easily or quickly. We know very quickly if we find another’s big personality traits attractive or off-putting—and whether or not we want to risk initiating a friendship. But learning someone else’s “ifs” is a continuing and painstaking discovery that requires paying close attention over years.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, is published by Crown. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.