Flex: Do Something Different

Flex: Do Something Different

by Ben (C) Fletcher, Karen J. Pine

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781907396540
Publisher: University of Hertfordshire Press
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

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Do Something Different How to Use the Other 9/10ths of Your Personality

By Ben (C) Fletcher, Karen J Pine

University of Hertfordshire Press

Copyright © 2012 Ben (C) Fletcher and Karen J Pine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907396-68-7


How many kinds of people are there?

This may seem an inauspicious beginning but a pivotal point in my academic career happened in a Chinese restaurant near Hatfield, not far from where I was working at the University of Hertfordshire. It was the late 1970s. The waiter was young and eager. He made polite conversation while serving us and he found out that I was a psychologist. When I was paying the bill, he asked if I would mind answering a question for him. I said I would if I could. His question has stayed with me in the decades since because it encapsulates a common misconception about people.

The waiter asked me this:

'How many kinds of people are there?'

I'll tell you the answer I gave him in due course. But I did not shy away from the question. It would have been easy to sidestep it by saying something like, 'It depends what you mean' or 'What definition of "kinds" do you have in mind?' (Psychologists always carry a whole armoury of sidestepping statements around with them.) After a little discussion, though, I knew exactly what he meant. It all became clear when the word 'personality' cropped up.

What is a reasonable answer? Given that we are all individuals, perhaps it could have been, 'As many kinds as there are people in the world.' Or even a very large number since we are all individuals. But that does not seem to be the case. Psychologists believe they have the answer to how many kinds of people there are because, in principle, people have personalities that fit into certain categories. Psychologists can, by various ways and means, fit them into a finite number of categories – usually described by between two and five personality traits. For example, in the 'big five' these are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and openness to experience.

Why should this be so? Humans are habit machines and they tend to behave predictably. People tend to behave the same in different situations. It seems safe to say that, if we know someone, we've a good idea of what to expect of them. We often say, 'Oh, that's just typical of Bill.' Or, 'I might have known Jenny would say that!' In fact, we can even figure out something about a person we don't know very well. Just being told about 'Simon, who wears lizard skin shoes,' might lead you to make certain assumptions about the type of person Simon is. Or hearing that 'Lucy reacted very badly to the criticism' would help you predict how she would respond to a cutting remark in the future.

So my answer to the waiter's question, 'How many kinds of people are there?' at that time led me to tell him that empirical psychological research had come up with five 'big' personality traits. That's what my academic studies had taught me. But I remember also questioning the sense of dividing personality into five categories. It seemed as absurd to me as the twelve astrological signs of horoscopes. His question led me to ponder why people should be categorised. Might they not become imprisoned by the category they were assigned to? Wouldn't it be more important to be able to behave in the best and most appropriate way as required by the situation? Like a tree that bends with the wind, to have a fluid and flexible personality that could flex according to need?

I told the waiter I found the 'big five' strange and I did not know why it was such a popular idea. And I also began to suspect that assigning people to a personality type might not be such a good thing because of the dangers of it becoming self-limiting. Couldn't people benefit from having a personality that was more dynamic and even allowed them to move between the types if circumstances required it?

Today I would have told him about flex.


The personality trap

On the face of it, it just doesn't make sense for a person to behave the same way in all types of different situations. The world is constantly changing, families are dynamic, people die, jobs change or are lost, finances grow and shrink and these changes call for adaptability and different responses. The more fixed a person's personality is, the harder they'll find it to adapt to the new. The more vulnerable they will be to stress.

Life is so varied and so changeable that there isn't one personality 'type' suited to it. How can a person make the most of what life throws at them if they have fixed ways of being? If they approach today's situations with yesterday's strategies? No wonder people often commit faux pas, make fools of themselves, feel overwhelmed or out of their depth. How can we develop and grow unless we learn from the old and adapt our wisdom to the new? People's failure to do so explains a whole catalogue of missed opportunities, misunderstandings and dysfunction.

And yet most humans are predictable in the extreme. Most have a limited repertoire of fairly predictable behaviours. That's why psychologists can assign them a personality category. Yet many people are vain enough – some would even say deluded enough – to believe, when they reflect on something they have done, that they acted out of choice. Moreover, that they were able to put their personality aside for a moment and act in the 'best' way. They would say that they meant to take the course of action they did and that there was some careful consideration involved.

Even though anyone who knew them could have predicted they would behave as they did.

The rather unpalatable truth is that most of our seemingly conscious intentions are just illusions. Our past habits, which make up our personality, hijack our ability to exercise free will or act differently. They inhibit awareness and take the decision out of our hands. Many intentions to act, or choices, are not the result of having judged the situation and made a conscious choice. They are more likely to spring from past behavioural patterns. From our autopilot. We do what we do in a new situation because we did that kind of thing in the past. But if we cannot flex ourselves, we will become prisoners of our personality.

Extroversion-introversion is one of the 'big five' personality traits. Yet consider for a moment the extrovert who is the life and soul of the party and happy being the centre of attention. His extroversion is not always an asset. In fact it becomes a handicap when he's forced to have a quiet night in, or on a visit to his girlfriend's sombre parents. The introvert on the other hand may cling to the walls at a wild party, but knows how to enjoy his own company or that of more serious folk. A person who can flex, using extroversion and introversion traits appropriately, is equally comfortable in either context. His personality does not alienate him from any corner of the world.

This is why we refer to the 'personality trap'. It may keep us from doing the best for ourselves, from coping with all facets of our world, and we'll talk more about that later. But you may be thinking that having a definite personality has some advantages too. And indeed it does. We like to be seen to be consistent. People like to feel they know us and know what to expect from us. They like to be able to label us and put us in a box. That predictability – our personality – becomes our personal trademark. It defines who we are and is our behavioural footprint on the world. There are personal and social benefits, for ourselves and others, from being consistent in how we behave. It is also a highly energy-efficient way for the human system to operate, as we'll see in the next section.


People on autopilot

When a pilot switches his controls to autopilot he can relax a little. He no longer needs to be hyper-attentive to all the aircraft's operations. As we go about our daily life we too can switch our operating system to autopilot. This means we don't have to think too much and so we reduce the demands on our cognitive and processing systems. We can probably spend around 90 per cent of our day in this state. Going through the motions. Doing what we usually do. Trotting out the same well-worn sayings. I often refer to it as 'sleeping with our eyes open'. It would be too demanding, even exhausting, to stay alert and conscious of everything we do and think every second of the day. Imagine contemplating every thought you had, every sensation you experienced and every breath you took from the moment you awoke. You'd never get out of bed. A simple question like 'How are you?' would require agonising self-examination, comparisons and introspection. Every decision would be torturous. As well as being personally stressful, this would simply bamboozle your brain. The brain is hard-wired precisely to avoid this overload by operating on the efficiency principle. It creates automaticity to stop us over-thinking.

Have you ever been driving somewhere and found you've taken your usual route to work instead of where you were meant to be driving to? Or found yourself putting sugar in your partner's tea when you know they have given up? Or throwing rubbish into a wastepaper bin that has been moved? These all demonstrate how unconscious and automatic much of our behaviour is when we are operating 'efficiently' or without thought.

So this efficiency principle has a cost. There's a downside to being able to assign so much of living to an automatic pilot and not just in the errors described above. Sure, efficiency and automaticity conserve our brain's valuable resources. And it may be handy for people to know how we're likely to react in given situations. To know, for example, that if we said we would arrive at eight o'clock, we will do so. Or that if asked to treat something in confidence we can be relied on not to blab. But this has to be weighed against the times when doing what we always do leads us to act without thinking. To let our personality take over. To produce an automatic response to a situation where another, more considered reaction would have been more appropriate. To use just 1/10th of our potential personality.

Automaticity – being at the mercy of our narrow personality – means there will be new experiences that we try to solve with old models. Our constantly changing life will present us with opportunities that we will fail to notice. Decisions made when we are on autopilot will not always be the right ones. There will be unguarded occasions when our mindlessness allows others to manipulate us for their own ends. Unless we can flex we will fail to act upon life as it is in this very moment.



flex is about taking charge of ourselves when it is important. It's about not giving ourselves over to automaticity. It's about avoiding the personality trap. When we flex we do not lose ourselves but can adapt to what is happening in the moment.

One way to consider the need to flex comes from understanding the enormous costs to the individual of being too habitual. I'll go into that more later. But I also have a more positive motivation for introducing the benefits of flex. The waiter in the Chinese restaurant prompted me to develop a new notion about personality.

I believe that we all have the capacity to be different people. In fact, the extent of our success in life will depend on the extent to which we develop that capacity. By that I do not mean being a charlatan or a fake individual. I mean a person making the most of every situation, the familiar and the new, by acting with integrity for the good of themselves and others.

We use only a fraction of our potential personality. We have a toolkit full of useful behaviours, yet repeatedly pull out the same one. We have myriad ways of reacting to situations, yet we do as we have always done. As long as we do this there will be a mismatch between life's conditions and the strategies we use to cope with them. About 9/10ths of our tools for life are lying, gathering dust, in our brain's toolbox.

We have seen repeatedly how flex is the key to overcoming many of the problems and struggles that people face. It does this by first helping people break the stranglehold of habits and automaticity. There may be only one world 'out there' but in practice everyone's experience of the world varies enormously. The reason for this difference lies in the very different capacities of individuals to make the most of what life brings. Some of these differences we can do little or nothing about – our genes and our upbringing, for example. But we do have an enormously powerful tool at our disposal to change the reactions and responses of those around us – how we behave.

Take two people who each encounter the same problem in their life. One may view it as a personal disaster, the other as a challenge. Their reaction will determine how they respond, the first being beaten down by the problem and the second fired up to overcome it. flex is about understanding that we all have those choices. Whoever we are and whatever our background. And it's about knowing that when we choose a different behaviour, from the unused 9/10ths of our personality, it brings about a totally different effect in both us and others.

If we flex we can change and expand our world. And with a little conscious effort we have the capacity to dramatically alter the world we live in. flex is world-altering in this sense.

We all have the capacity to be different people. We limit our life by being only ourselves, by using just 1/10th of our personality.


People shrink their worlds

Our automatic habits of thought and action lead us to create a world for ourselves that is much smaller than it needs to be. I would even go so far as to say that some people shrink their worlds so much that they create problems and difficulties for themselves. Life produces struggles, demands and worries for us all, of course. But some people attract problems by their behaviours and habits. Their trials and tribulations come in all forms. Unwanted addictions, being overweight or stressed, being unloved, not getting on in life and so on. It's tempting to assume that the person who's struggling is a victim of circumstances. Some unfortunate people undoubtedly are. But, more often than not, people are as much a victim of their own habits, repetitive patterns and their inability to yield and flex themselves.

You have probably noticed, for example, that as some people get older their world seems to contract, to get smaller. Some older people seem less tolerant; they are more resistant to change and less open to new things. They will often say that they don't like change or that they are set in their ways. This is because, by consistently repeating the same patterns of behaviour, their thoughts and actions have become more automated and less conscious. Their world has become smaller in a real sense. No wonder that time flies as we get older, as more and more is done automatically. Ageing is in some ways a self-fulfilling process. It does not have to be like that. Modern medicine now increasingly recognises the value of getting older people to expand their world. They are urged to try new things – take up dancing, get a dog, rent an allotment – to increase their social networks and stay physically and mentally active. Whether this will ward off Alzheimer's is a question for the gerontologists, but it will make life more fun and more rewarding.


We are all capable of change

In this book we will show you how being able to flex could enrich your old age, beat stress, bring you loving relationships and open your mind to opportunities that might otherwise pass you by. We will help you to put it into practice with examples and practical guidance. Meanwhile, there is another reason I urge you to consider the benefits of flex.

In general, I have found that the differences between people in terms of the things about them that are alterable are far greater and more important than the differences between them in terms of the parts that are fixed or harder to change (perhaps their IQ, educational history, genes or age). We cannot change the structural things, but we do have the capability to change many fluid aspects of our own behaviours and personality traits. You no doubt know two people who are of the same chronological age, but one thinks like an energetic teenager and the other has a decaying mindset. How does that happen? It isn't all fixed and predetermined. Many characteristics we hold are changeable, even though it may not seem so because they have become habitual. We can do something about so many facets of who we are. That is another reason for flex.

Many people find change difficult. In my personal and professional life I have seen countless examples of people honestly saying one thing yet doing another. An example might be the man who says he wishes to lose weight but reaches for a second helping of dessert. The girl who orders a giant-sized hamburger and a 'diet' cola. The woman who wants to take up jogging but says she can't give up smoking. People struggle, it seems, even to make the changes that they know would transform their lives. Then there are people who repeat the same mistakes and appear not to notice, driven as they are by their habitual behaviour patterns. The man who pays his wife no attention, yet complains that she 'nags'. The woman who constantly breaks arrangements and wonders why her friends avoid her.


Excerpted from Flex by Ben (C) Fletcher, Karen J Pine. Copyright © 2012 Ben (C) Fletcher and Karen J Pine. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Section 1 – The human habit machine,
1. How many kinds of people are there?,
2. The personality trap,
3. People on autopilot,
4. flexing,
5. People shrink their worlds,
6. We are all capable of change,
7. Shaping a life,
8. Why the past doesn't help our future,
9. We are all habit machines,
10. Habits come in many forms,
11. The myth of willpower,
12. Becoming habit-free,
13. Inertia and the status quo bias,
14. The pull of the past,
15. Shaping a new self,
16. Show me a stressed person and I'll show you a habit machine,
17. Small changes, big consequences,
18. Alleviating stress,
Section 2 – Behavioural flexibility,
19. The birth of FIT Science,
20. Inner FITness – constancies,
21. Awareness,
22. Fearlessness,
23. Self-responsibility,
24. Balance,
25. Conscience,
26. Harmony among the constancies,
27. Outer FITness – behavioural flexibility,
28. Behavioural dimensions,
29. Doing the right thing,
30. The stress and inefficiency zone,
31. Behaving differently with different people,
32. The optimal behavioural range,
33. Making the most of a situation includes you too,
34. flex transition – relabelling feelings and repetition,
35. Moving on and expanding tastes too,
36. Back to stress and the discomfort zone,
37. New behaviours have effects on others,
38. Does a leopard change its spots?,
Section 3 – Doing something different, personal coherence and decision-making,
39. Do Something Different,
40. What does a Do Something Different intervention look like?,
41. How does Do Something Different work?,
42. Interactions between the two selves,
43. Experiencing and reflecting on our own development,
44. The 'golden rules' for behaviour change,
45. Bringing about long-term behaviour change,
46. Coherence comes from doing the right thing,
47. Towards greater personal coherence,
48. Levels of coherence,
49. How personal coherence has consequences over time,
50. Coherence units,
51. Apparent and real incoherence,
52. Why greater coherence leads to better decisions,
53. Choices do get made, even if we feel we don't make them,
54. The myth about decision-making,
55. Choice/decision is illusory,
56. Why people get paid for making 'big decisions',
57. DSD and decision-making,
58. Why does DSD improve decisions?,
59. People are not choice machines,
60. Self-lying and self-deception,
Section 4 – Global issues and flex,
61. A modest claim – flex can change the world!,
62. Advantages of flex at a personal level,
63. Advantages of flex for the organisation,
64. Advantages of flex in the social domain,
65. flex and world issues,

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