What makes you “you”?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

Our personalities are made up of hundreds of individual traits, but which are shared by most people, and which are the ones that mark you out from other people; those that make you you? Below are two lists of fifty personality traits (randomly chosen from a much longer list available here). From each, tick off all that apply.

List A: Prudent, Kind, Mature, Forgiving, Polished, Self-critical, Anticipative, Patriotic, High-minded, Appreciative, Understanding, Hardworking, Stable, Courteous, Incisive, Loyal, Caring, Planful, Realistic, Tasteful, Insightful, Scholarly, Strong, Impressive, Playful, Peaceful, Trusting, Intuitive, Felicific, Calm, Invulnerable, Articulate, Decent, Sociable, Reflective, Clever, Self-sufficient, Cultured, Observant, Enthusiastic, Exciting, Self-defacing, Contemplative, Passionate, Educated, Solid, Hearty, Reliable, Systematic, Daring.

List B: Irrational, Venal, Reactionary, Abrupt, Insulting, Blunt, Money-minded, Mannerless, Intolerant, Unpolished, Aloof, Delicate, Narcissistic, Disorganized, Expedient, Insensitive, Aimless, Weak-willed, Uncharitable, Assertive, Possessive, Tactless, Hesitant, Charmless, Extreme, Softheaded, Oppressed, Disrespectful, Ritualistic, Easily Discouraged, Self-indulgent, Gloomy, Treacherous, Desperate, Vague, Sordid, Prim, Egocentric, Stiff, Libidinous, Grim, Impulsive, Childish, Ruined, Criminal, Un-self-critical, Outrageous, Dishonest, Obsessive, Disputatious.

In general, the traits that you ticked from List A (generally positive) are, in the main, not those that separate you from those around you. Unfortunately, it’s those you ticked from List B (generally negative) that make you you. Why? A recent study by Hans Alves and colleagues from the University of Cologne found that positive traits are simply too common to be unique (most people describe themselves, and most people they know, as kind, courteous and intuitive). But if you meet someone who is – say – childish, egocentric and impulsive, he will almost certainly stand out from the crowd.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Are You Smarter Than A Chimpanzee? by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £12.99) for £11.04 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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