The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 24, 2011

Linda Cannon, book review: Book helps you get a read on people

By Linda Cannon
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I’m always trying to figure people out. To that end, I checked out “Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality,” by Samuel Barondes. Barondes is the Jeanne Sanford Robinson Professor and Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Concerned that we all need to evaluate the people we come in contact with but that we don’t have an efficient method for doing so, he has come up with a system. Even if our intuition gives us a good or bad feeling about someone, we often want to be able to know or explain why we mistrust someone or to validate our sense of someone’s personality, and this book may help with that.

The first part of this book sets out a system consisting of two sets of vocabularies, one of characteristics, one of behaviors or traits. After that he discusses the brain circuits, strongly influenced by genetics, that go into creating those characteristics and behaviors. Finally, he addresses values and outlines what qualifies as “good character” based on widely accepted “virtues.”

The Big Five characteristics are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. Everyone falls somewhere along a continuum on all five of those characteristics (from extremely extroverted to extremely introverted or highly neurotic to very emotionally stable, for example).

Each characteristic has different facets. Facets of conscientiousness include competence, order, dutifulness, achievement, self-discipline and deliberation.

The top 10 traits (or personality patterns) are again scaled on a continuum. They are antisocial, avoidant, borderline, compulsive, dependent, histrionic, narcissistic, paranoid, schizoid and schizotypal.

Combined with a person’s Big Five characteristics, these traits can give a very good idea of what can generally be expected of the person with those characteristics and traits. A highly introverted person who rates high on the schizoid scale is very different from one who rates high on the schizotypal scale.

I’d suggest you avoid the second and you won’t need to avoid the first Ñ they’ll avoid you.

There is also a table dividing the top 10 traits into their usual place within opinions of self and others. There are four of these opinions: I’m special, I’m right, I’m vulnerable and I’m detached. For example, most narcissistic people fall into “I’m special” and therefore believe themselves to be entitled and others to be inferior (to greater or lesser degrees, naturally, based on their degree of narcissism).

Barondes uses two major political figures here to demonstrate the characteristics and behaviors delineated: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. At first blush, some may think them very similar, given their political leanings and command of rhetoric, but they are highly dissimilar in most of their personalities and that is well expressed here.

Among other well-known people used as examples of characteristics and traits are Steve Jobs, Ralph Nader and O. J. Simpson. I found those examples to be very interesting and illustrative of Barondes’ methods.

The second section was less interesting to me, whether because the pure science isn’t as interesting to me or because I’ve already read a lot about the nature/nuture debate; I’m not sure. Science buffs might enjoy it more.

The third section addresses the question: “What’s good character?” It finds that in the major Eastern and Western traditions, the same qualities are found to be desirable: temperance, courage, humanity, justice, wisdom and transcendence.

Of course, within those desirable qualities, there are variations in degrees and understandings according to societal norms and customs. Some value community more highly while others value individualism more and that influences their view of humanity, and so on. Basically, though, the values are the same but maybe a different spot on the continuum.

Benjamin Franklin is used as an example of how someone might be viewed by people with different cultural expectations. We often judge people most specifically on these qualities, even more than their characteristics as outlined in the first part of the book. But a knowledge of characteristics and traits can help us understand those whose values are different from our own.

I found the book thought provoking, and I may do a little arm-chair psychology on those around me. I can only hope to improve my ability to read people a little better with some practice. Maybe you can, too!


Linda Cannon is a circulation librarian for the Joplin Public Library.