What Makes Some People So Insensitive?

A just-published study explores how extraversion relates to insensitivity.

Posted Aug 20, 2019

You’re speaking to someone you don’t know that well, and much to your chagrin, this person enters into a small tirade about your many flaws. Although you normally feel confident in your sense of self, this little attack leaves you feeling that something must be pretty wrong about yourself.

As you’re forced to endure this set of barbs, it dawns on you that this person just seems horribly rude and insensitive. You decide to let the person know that you didn’t like being talked to in that way. “Oh,” says this person, “I was just being frank. I wanted to help you.”

When does “frankness” turn into rudeness? Do people have the right to confront you with unpleasant observations about your personality? Why do some people feel the right to “speak their mind,” you wonder? Why do they take it upon themselves to offer criticism in the guise of unwanted advice?

According to a newly published study by University of Notre Dame’s David Watson et al. (2019), these so-called frank comments can be attributed to aspects of people’s personalities that fall into the well-established Five Factor Model (FFM). To recap, the FFM organizes personality into the domains of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (i.e. “OCEAN”). As an approach to understanding personality, the FFM is regarded as providing a comprehensive descriptive framework of everything that makes you tick—but as Watson and his colleagues point out, it’s not enough to look at the OCEAN factors alone (known as “domains”). In the original FFM, those five factors are each made up of six facets, providing a more precise way to represent individual differences. It is by using these underlying facets that, as suggested in the Notre Dame study, you can start to approach an understanding of those rude, "frank" people in your life.

As revealed in the Watson et al., study, the domain of extraversion has the greatest relevance to understanding what leads people to profess their views too assertively. The facets within that domain include assertiveness (dominating and being the center of attention), sociability (enjoying the company of others), positive emotionality (being cheerful and enthusiastic), and experience seeking (enjoying intense sensations). Yet, even this more fine-tuned approach can miss some of personality’s nuances, Watson et al. argue. The “nuances,” as suggested by FFM co-creator Robert McCrae, are “the distinctive types of content subsumed within facets” (p. 2). Other researchers believe that there’s an intermediate level between domains and facets known as “aspects” that combine related facets into unique types of traits.

If all of this seems overly theoretical and academic to you, go back and consider what it means to be high on some of the extraversion facets. Do they really capture the quality of being overly frank? If you take the aspect approach, you might put enthusiasm and assertiveness together in one grouping that would produce that eagerly opinionated person who comes out with potentially intrusive personal comments. However, from Watson et al.’s perspective, this won’t get to the heart of the matter.

A better way to understand how extraversion can lead people to overstep their bounds is by dividing its “communal” or prosocially-oriented variety, from the “agentic” variety, or that more individualistically oriented version that leads individuals to assert themselves in ways that other people resent. People high in communal extraversion should be well adapted because they’re outgoing enough to be interested in people and nice enough to express that interest in positive ways.

By contrast, Watson et al. maintain, people high in agentic extraversion translate their outgoing nature into antagonism and a desire to overpower others. They may also be more prone to seeking excitement and be unable to suppress their expression of emotions, making them vulnerable to developing bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Narcissism, as well, could be part of the mix in the psychopathology of people high in agentic extraversion who think it is their right to express their opinions without the benefit of tact.

Thus, returning to the basic question of who becomes annoyingly frank and who shows greater social restraint, the Notre Dame researchers would predict that the agentic extraverts would be the ones to overstep the bounds of propriety, perhaps out of a conviction that their opinion is always correct, and they should therefore feel free to share it liberally.

Watson and his fellow researchers tested the prediction that agentic, but not communal, extraversion would be related to particular forms of psychopathology, across a series of three studies involving both self-report and clinical interviews. Included in their study were not just correlational analyses, but also a prospective approach that tested people’s traits at one point in time and then, 10 months later, examined subsequent psychopathology scores. The participants were adults drawn from the community in South Bend, Indiana recruited through various outlets, including mental health clinics (but not necessarily clinical samples). The total sample across the three studies included 345 adults who completed the self-report questionnaires, and 342 who were interviewed in person. Their ages covered the adult years from 18 to 83, with from 53 to 63 percent identifying as non-White. The majority of participants were female.

The FFM personality questionnaire included 41 items assessing extraversion, organized into the five facets of Temperament (“I generally enjoy life), Sociability (“I prefer activities that let me be with other people”), Venturesomeness (“I like places that are crowded and exciting”), Ascendance (“I usually take charge in a group of people”), and Frankness (“I speak my mind”). Participants high in the communal extraversion factor, taken from across these scales, rated themselves as being “cheerful, enthusiastic, and energetic individuals who enjoy spending time with others.”

Those high in agentic extraversion, by contrast, described themselves on the self-report items as “blunt, assertive, and exhibitionistic individuals who enjoy thrilling experiences and seek out positions of power.” To assess psychopathology, the authors included extensive self-report and interview measures of personality disorders, depression, mania, substance abuse, dissociation, social anxiety, and narcissism. Interviewers also provided ratings of participants in the third (prospective) study along major diagnostic categories, including the four personality disorders of narcissistic, antisocial, histrionic (overly dramatic), and avoidant.  

As you can see, these were extensive evaluations of a variety of forms of psychopathology. The authors decided which disorders to include based on potential relationships to the two forms of extraversion. Summing up the analyses, the authors concluded that, as expected, people high in communal extraversion were psychologically robust with personalities that were highly adaptive. These individuals were socially engaged with others, less likely to be socially anxious, and happier.

By contrast, the individuals with high scores on agentic extraversion were more likely to show what is called “externalizing pathology,” meaning that they are likely to experience manic levels of emotional excitement, as well as behaviors that are narcissistic, attention-seeking, exhibitionisitic, grandiose, domineering, manipulative, and histrionic. In other words, “the unique component of agentic extraversion is largely maladaptive in nature” (p. 13).

Because people so often connect extraversion to positive aspects of personality, the Watson et al. findings may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t these the happy, gregarious people who are so socially adept that they would never be so intolerably rude? Apparently, the answer is: “It depends.” If someone’s extraversion fits into the agentic category, it can be as poisonous—if not more so—than some forms of narcissism. You'll get more grief, in other words, from the agentic extravert than from the person high in narcissism alone.

As clear as this finding appears from the evidence, an understanding of its theoretical roots presents more of a challenge, according to the authors. From a motivational perspective, they suggest, the difference may boil down to what people from the two extraversion camps find rewarding. Agentically extraverted people may “want” rewards, and demand them if they don’t get them. The way they seek those rewards, in the extreme cases bordering on psychopathology, is to hold “inappropriate wants” that override the ability or willingness to have those needs met through sharing. The communally oriented “enjoy” the rewards that life provides them and are more likely to work so that everyone else can reap the benefits of those rewards as well.

To sum up, this investigation represents perhaps the deepest dive to date into the concept of extraversion and its potential role in the development of psychological disorders and interpersonal problems.

The good news, according to the authors, is that personality traits are not as immutable as was once thought. It may be possible to treat the agentic form of narcissism once the distinction from the communal version gets made. You may not have to put up indefinitely with those frank people in your life who upset your equanimity with their attempts to be “helpful” in their criticism.

However, even if they don’t change, you can promote your own resilience by reminding yourself that the “wants” of the insensitively frank do not have to become your “shoulds.”

Facebook image: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

References

Watson, D., Ellickson-Larew, S., Stanton, K., Levin-Aspenson, H. F., Khoo, S., Stasik-O’Brien, S. M., & Clark, L. A. (2019). Aspects of extraversion and their associations with psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. doi:10.1037/abn0000459.