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A Good Read, but Short, and Not Exactly What I Expected
on June 30, 2011
Humans are psychologically complicated, and it would be nice if there was a way to classify people in a way that is both broad (making it convenient) and yet somewhat specific (making it accurate). Samuel Barondes provides the solution with this book - kind of.
This book focuses on two main points, classifying human personality, and how personality is formed. Barondes breaks down basic personality into what he calls the "Big Five." They are extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. We all have varying degrees of each trait. For example, in terms of extroversion, some people are very outgoing, while others prefer being alone. Barondes classifies extremes in each category as a personality disorder. For example, an extremely extroverted person might have histrionic personality disorder, while someone who is an extreme loner might be schizotypal (like chess champion and misanthrope Bobby Fischer). After covering the "Big Five" in some depth, Barondes explains the interaction of nature (genetics) and nurture in forming personality, brain plasticity (the brain makes new connections even to adulthood, so personality is never rigidly fixed, although the adult brain is much less plastic than a child's brain), moral character, and ways we create our own stories.
I enjoyed this book, and I believe it did live up to its subtitle, i.e. it tries to "decode the mysteries of personality." The "Big Five" are helpful when sizing people up, including ourselves. The book provides a link to an online test that classifies where you (or someone else, if you fill it out with them in mind) fall under each category. I scored high on extroversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. However, being too agreeable is often correlated with lower pay. Many leaders are not really agreeable. Steve Jobs, according to the book, scores low in agreeableness (he is a bit of an unpredictable jerk at times). Thus, the book provides reasons for altering your personality (although it doesn't provide tools to do so).
I should note this book is not a step-by-step "how to" guide about reading people or people's personalities. Decoding personality is a different concept than being a people reader. This book explores the complexity of human personality, and how each person's unique personality is formed, by both nature and nurture. The first two chapters, and last chapter, are related to sizing people up, but the middle chapters are more academic and theoretical. I found the contents fascinating, even though it did seem a bit random at times, since the opening material implies a more practical use for the book, even though the long middle chapters are more theoretical and academic in nature.
One major drawback is this book's size. Even though it is listed as 240 pages (my review copy ended before the index, so I will take Amazon's word it is 240 pages), the end notes begin on page 151. That is almost a hundred pages of end notes, references, and index material. I am glad the book is well-researched, but the price seems steep for the amount of actual material.
Overall, I enjoyed this book about a very fascinating topic. Even though the topic is academic, Barondes explains it in an easily understood manner. The book is too short for the price, and the material seems a bit disconnected at times (is it an academic book about personality development, or a book about sizing people up?), but I am more effective at classifying different personalities because I have read it.