I wanna tell you a story…

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

Look at the picture below


Now please spend 4-5 minutes writing a short story about this person. If you’re reading the online version, feel free to share your story in the comments section (if you don’t mind other people analysing you!).



What does your story say about you? To find out, give yourself one point for each “Yes”

  • Does the central character see the situation as a challenge, or invest herself in some way?
  • Does she set herself a goal (other than one that fulfils a purely physical need)?
  • Does she undertake some activity that she has chosen herself, in order to move towards a goal?
  • Does she discuss or think about her own motives or those of other characters, or obstacles in the world that need to be overcome?
  • Does she show evidence of taking personal responsibility?
  • Does she show confidence in herself or satisfaction in her achievements, or achieve her goal?

The theory behind this test is that the stories we come up with reflect our own personalities; specifically – in this case – need for autonomy: the need to feel that we can make our own choices, do our own thing. Indeed, people who score highly on these story-generation tasks also tend to score highly on questionnaires that ask about these things directly.

A recent study found that people with an average-to-high need for autonomy experience greater psychological wellbeing (i.e., they report greater feelings of happiness, need satisfaction and “feeling alive” on questionnaires) when, for example, their boss asks their opinion on how to proceed, rather than just giving an order. They also experience more “flow”: that nebulous feeling that musicians and athletes always talk about – when you’re totally absorbed in an activity at which you are an expert. People with a low need for autonomy don’t show this pattern; they’re not bothered (and don’t experience more flow) if their boss simply tells them what to do, rather than consulting with them first. But for most of us, the lesson is that we can’t achieve happiness solely through material wealth, or even – important though they are – friends and family. We also need to feel that we are masters of our own destiny.


A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

1 Comment

  1. Her wrist was killing her but her rhythm did not falter. The purification was a success after four months of setbacks. Transformation into bacterial hosts was complete. All that was left to do was optimising the aerosolisation and DV41 would be ready for field testing.

    Today, Moscow. Tomorrow, the world.

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