The big T in personality; thrill-seeking often produces the best achievers buy it can also create the worst criminals – includes 2 related articles on sexual behavior and the United States as a Type T nation
The Big T in Personality
Comic John Belushi
DNA researcher Sir Francis Crick
Daredevil Evel Knievel
Aviator Amelia Earhart
Bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde
What do these people have in common with each other and with many people you know?
Based on my 20 years of psychological research, I’ll hazard a guess: They probably share a common cluster of characteristics that make up what I call the “Type T personality.’ The “T’ stands for thrillseekers. These high-profile people are risk-takers and adventurers who seek excitement and stimulation wherever they can find or create it. For some, the thrills are mainly in the physical domain; for others, they’re mainly mental and for still others they’re a mix of both. I believe that thrill-seeking can lead some Type T’s to outstanding creativity (I call this “T plus’), but it can lead others to extremely destructive, even criminal, behavior (“T minus’).
The Type T Personality (or “Big T’) is one end of a continuum; at the opposite pole is the “Type t personality’ (“Little t’): someone who clings to certainty and predictability, avoiding risks and the unfamiliar. Such people are usually neither criminal nor creative –they’re gray compared with the bold red of the Type T Personality.
Big T and Little t people are far contributes both to creative and destructive aspects of our society. The people shown are presumed examples of the major subtypes. People at the opposite end of the personality spectrum (Type t or Little t) are rarely public figures.
Bit T and Little t people are far from rare, but they are certainly in the minority in our population. Most of the world falls somewhere between these two extremes, neither as hungry for novelty and excitement as the Big T nor as protectively routinized as the Little t. I have studied both ends of this stimulation-seeking continuum, but I have concentrated on the Big T because I believe these are the people who are likely to have enormous impact on our society’s character–for good and ill.
What makes someone become a Big T or Little t person? Incorporating the work of many other research psychologists, such as Daniel Berlyne of the University of Toronto, Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware and Hans Eysenck of the University of London, I suggest that the answer probably lies in a person’s biological, possibly genetic, makeup. Experiences around the time of birth or perhaps early nutrition may also play a role.
It has been proposed that we all seek unconsciously to maintain an optimal level of “arousal’ or activity in the central nervous system, particularly in that part known as the reticular activating system. If arousal is too high or too low, we try to adjust it to some middle ground, often by choosing environments and experiences that are either soothing or stimulating.
Some people may be born with unusually low arousability; they’re not very responsive to mental or physical stimuli. Thus, they need very high levels of such stimulation to “rev’ them up to optimal levels; they need the world to turn them on. Others, just the opposite, may be excessively responsive. They therefore choose low levels of stimulation to calm their hyped-up nervous system. Most people, having neither very high nor very low levels of arousability, seek some middle level of stimulation.
In keeping with this scheme, Big T people, who seek various kinds of highly stimulating experiences and environments, should have low physiological arousability. Conversely, Little t people, who seem to keep stimulation to a minimum, should have high arousability. Some of our research and that of others implicates such physiological arousability as the basis for stimulation-seeking, while other research suggests a role for biochemistry (such as monoamine oxidase or testosterone). These interpretations may not be incompatible, but the precise biological bases are not certain at present.
Through the years, my colleagues and I have worked with an index of the arousal value of many mental and physical stimuli–such as works of art, natural and man-made environments, even crimes and sexual activities–so we can study why Big T’s and Little t’s do what they do and like what they like.
Beyond their presumed biological differences, many other characteristics set Big T’s and Little t’s apart. For example, we and others have found that Big T’s, as a group, tend to be more creative and more extroverted, take more risks, have more experimental artistic preferences and prefer more variety in their sex lives than do Little t’s. They also tend to be more delinquent, possibly more hyperactive and more reckless as drivers.
One particularly interesting difference shows up in their thinking styles. Big T’s are what I call “transmutative thinkers.’ Some of our research suggests that they are exceptionally facile at shifting from one cognitive process to another and at transforming one mode of mental representation into another. They may move with greater ease from the abstract to the concrete and back compared with Little t’s.
This facile style of thinking is probably related to the high degree of creativity seen in some Big T’s. They can approach a problem from many angles and have many entry points into its solution, flexibly transforming the data into a variety of representations, thus increasing the likelihood of new solutions and insights. Their tendency to seek the novel, unknown and uncertain, combined with their risk-taking characteristic, further enhances their likelihood of being creative. Conversely, Little t’s, who usually don’t have this cognitive style and avoid uncertainty, novelty and risk-taking, are unlikely to be highly creative.
Who is likely to be a Big T? First, it’s more likely to be a man than a woman; men usually score slightly higher on Type T measures than do women. Perhaps the “T’ in the Type T personality also stands for that important hormone, testosterone. A number of studies have shown that men who are high in stimulation-seeking also have rather high testosterone levels. But since they also have somewhat high estrogen levels, the meaning of their elevated testosterone remains unclear.
Second, it’s likely to be a young person. The Type T personality is most often found among those in the 16-to-24 age range. From then it drops off gradually, as my colleagues and I found in two large studies of people from approximately 10 to 75 years old. This general trend also has been shown in a number of other studies. Although we compared people of different ages and did not test the same people as they grew older, we believe that most people reach their strongest expression of Type T in their late teens to early 20s, with a decline into old age. However, we would still expect people with Type T personalities to seek more stimulation than other people throughout their life spans.
A number of studies have found a significant relationship between the Type T personality and creativity. But the Big T also has a negative side: its criminal facet (T minus). Delinquency, crime and the rejection of social and legal rules and strictures and also hall-marks of the Type T personality. Destructive Type T people seek stimulation and thrills, take risks and pursue the unknown, the novel and the uncertain on the dark side of the street.
We have found juvenile delinquents to be more Type T than nondelinquents matched on age, gender, race and social class. Among delinquents themselves, those highest in Type T characteristics are the hardest to manage in prison. In 1972, my late wife Sonja and I found that among female delinquents in prison, being a Type T person was significantly related to fighting, disobeying supervisors and attempting to escape. When we compared the most and least Type T inmates, we found that escape attempts were four times more frequent among the former. Fighting was eight times more frequent and punishment for disobedience twice as frequent among these young women. We hypothesized then that extreme stimulation-seeking and an unusually low level of physiological arousal were factors in juvenile delinquency.
Results of a follow-up study of imprisoned male delinquents, undertaken with Maria Astorga, then a graduate student, were even more dramatic. Using both physiological and psychological measures of Big T, we found that escape rates among inmates highest in Big T characteristics were seven times higher than those of inmates lowest in these characteristics. The escape rate is of particular interest because the thrills, risk and excitement of escape and the ensuing hunt seem tailor-made for people with Big T motivation.
Since Type T people may have physiological and personality characteristics that can lead toward either creative or destructive behavior, a key question is: What leads them to choose one path or the other? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some clues. Biology seems to set the stage for being a Big T, but social circumstances probably determine in large measure whether a Big T person will become a creator or a destroyer.
This suggests that we need to pay close attention to the inordinate stimulation needs, thrill-seeking and risk propensities of Big T children so that they can be directed toward exciting and creative ideas, science, arts and sports instead of delinquent activities. Environments that do not meet the stimulation needs of these children may inadvertently direct them into socially destructive paths, such as joining delinquent gangs, running away and getting in trouble with the law.
An exploratory study of adolescents conducted with another graduate student, Clarence Allen, provides some support for this idea. We assumed that we could use socioeconomic status as a very rough indicator of the type of environmental stimulation the adolescents received. It seemed to us that the “bells and whistles,’ the socially approved but exciting stimulation sought by Type T adolescents, could be better provided by a higher social and economic environment than a lower one.
Comparing adolescents from two broad social levels, we tried to predict measures of creativity and delinquency in each group from a measure of Type T. We found that creativity but not delinquency was significantly predicted in the higher social group and delinquency but not creativity in the lower social group. Clearly, better measures of environmental stimulation are needed, and that’s the research direction we are now taking. But these results lend some credence to the notion that the environment plays an important role in determining which path Type T adolescents will follow.
Although the socioeconomic conditions of families and many aspects of the home environment are often difficult to change, many environmental factors can be altered to bring out the best potential of Big T children (see “The Arousal Value of Stimulation’ and “Type T and Adaptive Education’). These ideas can provide the bases for testable strategies parents and others can use to encourage the Big T child’s most constructive growth and development, regardless of family income level.
Consider, for example, how these concepts might be applied to education. The American educational system assumes that individual differences among children should be taken into account. Indeed, “adaptive education,’ in which education is tailored to individual needs and characteristics, is often advocated and practiced. But we usually concentrate on intellectual and ability differences, not personality differences. Few researchers have provided a theoretical reason for linking the full range of educational strategies to the measurable personality of the learner. Even fewer have tried to base such strategies on a presumably biologically based personality variable such as the Type T personality.
To aid in applying our Type T research to school settings, I have developed a scheme for individualizing education for Big T and Little t youngsters. It provides a basis for adaptive education in which instruction, the learning environment and teacher characteristics are all matched to the learner’s personality. In essence, this means that for Big T children, all aspects of the learning environment should be highly stimulating (such as having a dramatic, Big T teacher, being in an open classroom and learning through discovery), while the learning environment for Little t children should be structured and low in stimulation (such as having a low-key teacher, a traditional classroom and conventional didactic teaching).
The notion of an adaptive environment for Type T people may also hold for career counseling and job placement –even for rehabilitating delinquents. In general, the workplace would probably be a happier, more productive environment if personality were taken into account in matching people to jobs. More good matches might lessen stress disorders, absenteeism and job dropouts.
For example, Big T’s are likely to be unhappy and ineffective in a highly structured work environment, particularly one that emphasizes routinized performance and rigid top-down management, such as an assembly line. Providing them with the right work environment–one low in structure and authoritarianism but high in arousal value–may be the ticket to great creative production. Although little research has been done on the Type T in business, industry or other work settings, many businesses probably owe their success to giving their freewheeling creative types the loose but stimulating environment they need, letting other, more conventionally organized staff members engineer Type T ideas into reality.
The special occupational needs of Big T people often go unrecognized, even in places where such people abound, such as prisons. For example, those who try to rehabilitate delinquents often prepare them in traditional trades such as carpentry and plumbing, which are rule-governed, relatively routinized and leave little room for innovation. Few realize that Type T delinquents are probably illsuited for the trades, and in them are likely to become bored, have problems at work, drop out and revert to the more exciting life of crime.
I believe that Big T delinquents, like other Big T’s, are far more likely to respond to training in fields that provide the types of high mental or physical stimulation that they seek. One possibility is training in the arts–music, graphics, TV, theater and advertising –fields that tap more of their creative potential. These less rule-bound fields also provide higher levels of arousal. A related approach would be exposure to adventurous, thrilling activities and occupations, such as rodeo performer, cowboy/cowgirl or explorer. VisionQuest, a Tucson, Arizonabased program for hard-core delinquents, has reported spectacular success in reducing delinquent behavior by involving these youths in such adventures as wild-horse breaking, wagon trains and ocean sailing, although no long-term follow-up has been undertaken.
Whether in the arts or in physically adventurous fields, these occupations are likely to be particularly interesting and motivating to Type T delinquents, eliciting their best efforts, contributing to their sense of competence and self-worth, retaining their work commitment and reducing their chances of returning to crime. Obviously, these are rosy predictions for such a long-unsolved problem as the “correction’ of delinquents, but little else has worked, and the hypothesis is readily testable.
By now, my general approach to dealing with Type T people should be apparent. If their needs for stimulation and risk-taking can be satisfied by providing appropriate environments and experiences, they’re less likely to get into trouble. And even if they do, providing the right kinds of stimulating environments and experiences can probably aid their rehabilitation.
There are many applications of the same principles. For example, hyperactive children, who, like Type T’s, seem to be high stimulation-seekers, are likely to benefit from school and home environments designed to provide the special stimulation they need. Perhaps some of them would respond as well, or better, to such environments than to the stimulant medication many now receive.
Similarly, many of the Vietnam veterans who performed well in battle but became derailed after they returned home (succumbing to posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic unemployment, criminal careers or drug addiction) are probably Type T’s who found combat more congenial than life on Main Street, U.S.A. If I’m right, those charged with their rehabilitation need to consider using therapeutic techniques appropriate for their special Type T needs–those very high in arousal value.
In a similar vein, understanding the characteristics of Type T people may help to lessen the carnage on our nation’s highways. Clues to the potential role of Type T people in highway tragedy come from many quarters. Several studies have suggested that risk-takers and stimulation-seekers tend to drive fast and to have traffic violations, and there is a similar age distribution for the Type T personality data and the traffic-accident statistics (both curves peak in the late teens to early 20s).
Intrigued by these data, my colleagues and I compared the driving-accident rates for Big T and Little t people whose average age was very close to the peak of risk for such accidents. As we expected, driving accidents were almost twice as frequent among the Big T’s.
We are just beginning to explore this area, but if Big T’s do prove to be excessively involved in highway accidents, society’s most successful preventive solutions might be psychological, not legal or technological: preventing a lethal life-style by providing Big T youth with the home and school experiences they need, bolstered, if necessary, by counseling.
With the Type T personality notion I have attempted to organize some major aspects of the need for stimulation and arousal into a framework that relates many aspects of stimulation-seeking (positive and negative, mental and physical) to biological, psychological and sociohistorical contexts. The overall picture I have drawn of the Type T personality is still speculative and incomplete. The same information might be presented and interpreted quite differently by other personality researchers. But if the very uncertainty of our field leads others to take up brushes, complete the picture and portray the “truth’ more accurately, I, for one, will be thrilled.
Table: Type T and Adaptive Education
Photo: The Type T personality (Big T),
Photo: Amelia Earhart: first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (May 20, 1932.) Men are more likely to be Big T’s than women, but women have their share of adventurous thrill-seekers.
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