Autobiographers, Oral History Interviewees, Self, and Personality

This week, I’m very much back on the writing - specifically, about how only children described the their personalities as children (spoiler: they didn’t fit the stereotypes and there was a lot more to determining someone’s personality than just being an only child!).  Before I got to write about the only children themselves, though, I had to unpack the ideas of ‘self’ and ‘personality’ to set the scene.  This sent me into the realms of psychology and philosophy.  Again.

My first challenge was to establish my position on where personality comes from.  I’ve been particularly won over by Steven Pinker’s argument in The Blank Slate/the personality-psychology theory set out by Dan P. McAdams in The Person: A New Introduction to Personality Psychology, that personality arises out of a VERY complicated mixture of inherited genes (which in turn interact with each other), and environment - including historical context, social class, gender, ethnicity, upbringing and, well, just random accidents that occur in life.[1]  This explanation makes the most sense to me in terms of how siblings can turn out so different from each other, and how only children can be so different to other only children - though I do wonder if, by setting out this stall in the introduction, I’m massively spoilering what I’m going to say about onlies, or ‘putting myself into my work’ too much.

I also needed to know how well people actually remember their childhood personalities.  The good news is, according to personality psychologists, in most cases, they’re actually pretty accurate about them, despite inevitably making comparisons with their current personalities.[2]  I’m not expecting my autobiographers and interviewees to be 100% accurate about their childhood personalities, as that would be incredibly messy and difficult, but I trust them to give me the important bits, as defined by them.  It’s unavoidable that, as with autobiographies in general, people pick and choose their best bits from their current standpoint.[3]  The constant reinterpretation of past experiences, as well as the theory that people don’t accept others’ views of them wholesale but put them through their own filter,[4] are problematic, but hopefully as childhood was a long time ago for my subjects, their interpretation of it will be relatively settled.  I also found out that ‘semantic’ descriptions (i.e. descriptions such as ‘I am introverted’) and ‘autobiographical’ descriptions (i.e. memories of situations where you acted in an introverted way) are stored in different parts of the brain,[5] which might go some way towards explaining why autobiographers were more likely to give examples of themselves performing certain traits than oral history interviewees - they had more time to cook up examples, while the interviewees, when they were asked at all, often had the question ‘describe your personality as a child’, which didn’t really lend itself to description of events.

Something I also had to think about was that people act differently in different situations.  This is particularly pertinent when talking about introversion and extraversion, as so many contemporary writers wrote that only children were outgoing with adults and timid with other children.  Personality psychologists recognise that people possess ‘dispositional traits’, which are always present, and ‘characteristic adaptations’ depending on the situation at hand; and the more situations they show a certain trait in over time, the stronger the trait is thought to be.[6]  As autobiographies especially give us a window into how people were actually feeling about their actions, we can sometimes see Erving Goffman’s ideas about presentation of self coming into play, as some only children were expected to act in a certain way around visitors, but didn’t like doing so.[7]

So far, I’ve written about only children who followed the stereotype of being shy with children and comfortable with adults, though my research shows factors extra to being an only child that could have influenced their personalities in that way.  I’m partway through writing about onlies who were talkative/sociable in all situations and will go on to write about onlies who were shy and quiet in all situations.  I also want to address change over time, the idea that solitariness didn’t always equate to loneliness (while some only children were sociable but also liked to be alone), and non-onlies who were introverted.  From there, it’s precocity/non-precocity, spoiltness/un-spoiltness (in terms of personality), badly-behaved/well-behaved at school and home, and imaginative/unimaginative - in other words, I’m addressing lots of stereotypes in this chapter!


People can turn out totally different from their parents because they’re twice as genetically related to themselves than to them, and grow up in a completely different environment - the home only counts for so much.  If Calvin had a sibling they could be totally different due to a combination of genes and environment, including differential parental treatment![8]

[1] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, (London, 2002), pp. 152-3, 179, 373, 396; Dan P. McAdams, The Person: A New Introduction to Personality Psychology, _(New Jersey, 2006), pp. 91-6, 211, 216, 220.
[2] Michael Ross and Roger Buehler, ‘Identity Through Time: Constructing Personal Pasts and Futures’, in Marilynn B. Brewer and Miles Hewstone (eds.), _Self and Social Identity
, (Oxford, 2004), p. 29.
[3] David A. Jopling, Self-Knowledge and the Self, (New York, 2000), pp. 48, 49, 54-5, 67; Ross and Buehler, ‘Identity Through Time’, p. 26.
[4] Jopling, Self-Knowledge and the Self, _pp. 48, 49, 54-5, 67; Ross and Buehler, ‘Identity Through Time, p. 26; Daphna Oyserman, ‘Self-concept and Identity’, in Brewer and Hewstone (eds.), _Self and Social Identity, p. 7.
[5] John F. Ruhlstrom, Jennifer S. Beer and Stanley B., Klein, ‘Self and Identity as Memory, in Mark R. Leary and June Price Tangney (eds.), Handbook of Self and Identity, (New York, 2003), pp. 71, 79; Oyserman, ‘Self-concept and Identity’, p. 10.
[6] McAdams, The Person, pp. 8, 115.
[7] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (New York, 1959), pp. 18, 27, 28.
[8] McAdams, The Person, pp. 222, 227.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK