Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Is the Science of Personality Too Limiting?

Written by: on April 6, 2022

Daniel Nettle, a professor at Newcastle University, is a behavioral and social scientist and the author of several books. One of his books, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, addresses the importance of understanding the science behind personality. Whereas cognitive psychology and the function of the brain have been a focal point of research in the past number of years, human personality has been largely overlooked. According to Nettle, a “new science is emerging of individual differences in brain structure and functioning, and the results of this science can be mapped back to the big five personality dimensions.”[1] Whereas the map of William Smith forever changed science and the way we view the world, the concept of personality mapping is critical for a sociological understanding of people, thus, leadership.

Nettle states that personality traits are inherited, and while several factors may influence them, they are largely unchangeable. He writes, “Each of the big five, then, should be thought of as variation in some underlying brain circuit which affects a whole family of related psychological functions.”[2] In addressing the question of whether we can change our personality traits, Nettle says,

The positive message of this book is that there is no reason to wish one’s basic personality dispositions to be anything other than what they are… any of the big five is advantageous in some ways whilst being disadvantageous in others.[3]

While the science seems to indicate that one can’t change their personality, much like Friedman and Busch, Nettle gives a strong indication that self-awareness of our personality type provides pathways to best engage or curb our personalities for the greatest good.

Nettle unpacks the particulars of each personality type throughout the book while also addressing the influence of non-hereditary factors. The big five personalities are briefly summarized in Table 3:


Type High scorers are… Low scorers are…
Extraversion Outgoing, enthusiastic Aloof, quiet
Neuroticism Prone to stress and worry Emotionally stable
Conscientiousness Organized, self-directed Spontaneous, careless
Agreeableness Trusting, empathetic Uncooperative, hostile
Openness Creative, imaginative, eccentric Practical, conventional[4]


Undoubtedly, each personality trait has both benefits as well as cons, which Nettle abridged in Table 4:


Dimension Core Mechanism Benefits Cons
Extraversion Response to reward (dopamine) Increased reward pursuit Physical dangers, family instability
Neuroticism Response to threat (amygdala, serotonin) Vigilance, striving Anxiety, depression
Conscientiousness Response to inhibition Planning, self-control Rigidity, lack of spontaneous response
Agreeableness Regard for others (empathy) Harmonious social relationships Not putting self first, lost status
Openness Breadth of mental association Artistic sensibility, divergent thought Unusual beliefs, proneness to psychosis[5]


In reading the assessment of each personality type, it is my opinion that the most favorable personality trait is Agreeableness, or the empathizers. For those who score high in this personality trait, Nettle claims they “help others more, have harmonious interpersonal relationships, enjoy good social support, and relatively rarely fall out with or insult people.”[6] However, on the other end of the spectrum, very low Agreeableness demonstrates psychopathy. “The psychopath is an individual who is completely egocentric, remorseless, dishonest, incapable of love, and disposed to use others entirely to forward his or her own ends.”[7] This dichotomy goes to show the benefits and cons of each personality trait.

As I consider my personality trait, while I have not taken the assessment, I assume that I would most demonstrate the Extravert trait. These individuals like “active sports, travel, and novelty. All in all, they are perceived as highly active people who can lay their hands on fast scores of energy in pursuit of goals.”[8] For better or worse, this certainly describes my personality to a large degree. However, with Nettle’s description, I also struggle to fully embrace his scientific approach as I believe it limits the restoration of identity found through new life in Christ. A key concept for my NPO project, a leadership development curriculum for vulnerable communities, is to reclaim our true identity of imago Dei as we were made to be in a fully restored relationship with God, self, others, and creation. It is my opinion that at this point, science diverges from kingdom implications as it is limited in divine understanding. As Christian leaders, we need to maintain a kingdom-orientation, while at the same time, fully engage the current cultural context as we lead and inspire others toward renewed life in Christ.

[1] Daniel Nettle, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Ibid., 244.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 208.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 167.

[8] Ibid., 83.

About the Author


Eric Basye

Disciple, husband, and father, committed to seeking shalom.

16 responses to “Is the Science of Personality Too Limiting?”

  1. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Hi Eric, thank you for your summary in highlighting the big five. I was curious, what are your thoughts on personality tests. Should it be a subject or curriculum that should be included in leadership development? If so, do you have ones that you would use for a leadership development curriculum for vulnerable communities?

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      In my opinion, yes, as it paves the way for better self-understanding and understanding of others. The reality is that the need (and desire) to know oneself is the same for the vulnerable as it is anyone else, in my opinion. I have an entire section of my curriculum devoted to “self-awareness,” including the use of some assessments.

      What do you think? Important or not?

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Eric: Great synopsis of this material. In the back of my mind I was always asking myself what parts of my personality are seen in his five categories? We can’t help ourselves when it comes to trying to better grasp why we behave the way that we do. It was an insightful book. How does this book compare to the other personality tests that are out there? I’ve taken the Meyers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and a couple others I think. They are all helpful and they all have their strengths.

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      I liked the book in understanding personalities. However, I did not take the assessment, but from reading the descriptions, I have a good idea of where I would fall. See my response to Kayli. I like the Enneagram assessment, but have also found this website with various assessments as being helpful: https://www.truity.com/.

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Eric: Do you have a personality assessment that you are planning to embed into your NPO? I’d be interested to hear more on how you’re planning to address utilizing skill/personality/strengths into your curriculum.

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Eric, such an enjoyable read! I like how you connected this reading to a “map.” Personality is mysterious and hard to understand. I don’t know about you, but I found his theories about evolutionary thought around personality confusing. “Your genetics determine a lot about you – and people are diverse as a survival strategy” sounded contradictory to me. Maybe I missed something in his argument? I’m curious as to why you view the “Agreeableness” as the top trait. Is it because relationships are so key to, well, everything? Also, praying for your transition…

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      I have been thinking about the Agreeableness lately, and in preparing for my syntopical essay (and reading my notes on the Molecule of More), I had this thought: if we only had Agreeableness, things wouldn’t get done! So, it “sounds” the most easy personality type to be around (perhaps they are more of the Shepherd-type), but also, I realize that I have an unsettled drive that would make it hard for me to fall under a leader who is wired that way, unless I was given a lot of autonomy.

  5. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Eric, excellent review of Nettle with clearly outlined tables that capture the essence of his framework. As one who works within vulnerable communities, I would love to read your proposed NPO leadership development curriculum when completed. Given your convictions about Imago Dei, how would you advise a biblical counselor interested in developing a test that is both scriptural and scientific?

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      I would be more than happy to share anything I have with you. In response to your question, I think it is what you have demonstrated with your blogs… what can be gleaned from what is provided, but then filter it through the lens of the Scripture, if that makes sense. I am not familiar with any great assessments on identity from a biblical perspective, but I think we can glean and apply in our gospel-centered framework without a doubt.

  6. Elmarie Parker says:

    Eric, thank you so very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking interaction with Nettle’s book. One of my take-aways from his book is that we are all a constellation of the five-factors he discusses…we vary on where we fall on any one dimension, but we all have all five characteristics to one degree or another. From your post, it sounds like you came away with a different understanding…that we each have only one dominant characteristic (of the five-factors). Am I correctly understanding your understanding :)?

    If we each are a constellation of all five factors, does that change your assessment of how his approach interacts with an “imago Dei” redemptive approach?

    I love what you said about our true identity being rooted in “imago Dei”. I’ve wondered to what degree our journey of redemption/sanctification is a ‘perfecting’ of our particular ‘wiring’ so that we can more fully reflect God’s character and values and priorities (including a restoration of relationship in the fullness you’ve described)? And, that somehow, the full body of Christ encompasses more of the ‘whole’ of God’s character, values, and priorities? Or is it possible this can all happen within one individual? I think I’m ultimately asking–what does it look like to reclaim our true identity of ‘imago Dei’? How do we know when we’ve moved closer to the ‘imago Dei’? Maybe that is really a different set of question. Your thoughts on any or all of the above?

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      First off, good catch on the constellation concept. I had missed that, but that makes a LOT more sense. Thanks! As to the imago Dei question, it is my believe that “sanctification” really is about the Lord reshaping His imgao Dei within us. It is a process, and while done individually, it also has corporate implications as WE are the Body of Christ and He is readying His Bride (not brides). So, while “independent,” very much connected, if that makes sense. Just my thoughts.

  7. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Thank you for a thorough summary of the book Eric!

    How might you compare and contrast personality vs identity? Are they synonymous? How might employing them both be embodied in your theology of leadership?

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      Good question Nicole. I am guessing that they are very much related and dependent upon one another. Our personality type helps shape our identity, so we can’t remove our personality completely. However, the question remains, what portion(s) of our lives need to be reshaped to our true identity in Christ?

  8. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Thank you for this descriptive summary of Nettle. I appreciate your side-by-side charts of the elements of personality. I agree with you on his lack of space for the redemptive nature of Christ. I am curious about how you might interface Nettle with your work?

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