The Free Trait Agreement: It’s Time to Act Out of Character

Have you ever knowingly made a ‘free trait agreement’?

Perhaps you stepped out of your comfort zone to make something happen, even though doing so was ‘out of character’ for you.

Free Trait Agreement

This time last year I was preparing to travel to Cyprus to give my first performance at a TEDx conference.

Anyone who has spoken with me about performance will know that I love performing, but find the other necessary parts (travelling to unknown places, mingling with lots of new people etc) really tiring and uncomfortable. TEDx was this in the extreme. But it was also my dream to appear at a TED event and nothing was going to stop me, not even myself (or Parisian baggage handlers).

So I invoked a free trait agreement.

We make these kinds of agreements all the time. Professor Brian Little who came up with the notion says this is why people confuse him for an extrovert:

“Even though I’m a classic introvert, when I give a lecture for my students I perform with great passion. Introverts, when they are ‘on,’ become pseudo-extraverts. Can you tell the difference between a born extravert and a pseudo-extravert? Usually you cannot.”

He suggests that we all have this capacity to ‘act out of character’, which can be construed in two ways.

  1. Acting in a way that doesn’t fit a ‘fixed trait’ view of who we are (doing something that might be unexpected or seen as unusual by others)
  2. Acting contrary to our natural disposition for the sake of something deeper than our own immediate comfort (acting out of our character – character being moral strength)

When it comes to thinking about our personalities we often have a tendency to discuss it outside of their context. We might say ‘I don’t like parties’, ‘I hate crowds’, or ‘I can’t stand the phone’.

Yet in reality, rather than using those preferences to ensure our own future happiness we will still go to a party, stand in a crowd, and make a phone call when the situation requires it. Or at least we CAN.

The 5 Big Personality Traits (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) are not completely fixed. Little describes them as making up an arpeggio rather than a chord.

As an introvert I may enter a free trait agreement for example, to arrange a party for someone I care about, to go and be a part of a crowd to watch a band or sport that I truly want to see in person. Or to call a friend who really needs some support right now.

So what is the factor that dictates our openness and acceptance of free trait agreements? 

The outcome.

Or as Professor Little frames it: “Personal projects”, which “are the stuff of everyday life. They can range from the very trivial pursuits of a Thursday morning (e.g., “put out the dog”) to the overriding aspirations of our lives (e.g., “liberate my people”)”. 

When we become invested in stuff that matters we become able to temporarily put on hold our natural desire (maybe to sit at home with a book) and do something less comfortable.

What areas of life might we see this playing out?

1. Family

Professor Little uses the example of free trait agreements within an introvert/extrovert relationship:

“If your gregarious wife, after two weeks of concentrated and isolated work, heads off for a wild and wacky weekend with her girlfriends, consider the possibility that she isn’t doing it because she doesn’t love you; she’s doing it for fun and release but also in part because she knows it enables her to love you better when she returns restored to her extraverted self.”

The personal project or motivation is to be a loving wife and she has worked out how to best do that, which requires maintenance of a natural temperament. It’s the same for those of us who are introverts. We may agree to attend or host social gatherings with an extroverted family member because we care about them and want to show them that we love them. And this expenditure of energy and self may be restored by some quality solitude later on.

2. Friends

When you go to your extraverted friends’ wedding/stag/hen night or birthday party, it’s a free trait agreement. You are perhaps acting out of character, to say ‘my love for you is worth spending myself on’.

3. Work

Even if you work self-employed, alone from home you will still find yourself making free trait agreements for the sake of personal or broader projects. You may need to do something (a presentation, dealing with a customer, addressing a problem, launching a new project etc) that requires you to periodically act out of character.

4. Creative Ambition

Many highly creative people (artists, programmers, business leaders etc) are also introverted. So they must engage in free trait agreements for the sake of their belief in moving their idea down the line.

5. Health

The health and wellbeing project can require free trait agreements. Perhaps it’s acting out character to join (and visit) the gym, or to play a team sport/go out running with other people because you know it’s the only way you’ll actually get exercise.

A ‘Little’ Warning

It is important to bear in mind that we are not talking about changing fixed traits. Although you can engage in free trait agreements (appear temporarily more extroverted), you can’t BECOME more extroverted.

Professor Little warns that although we can move the needle on personal projects prolonged exposure to doing so “exacts a price in health, and can cause burnout unless you have a restorative niche where you can indulge your first nature.”

Our restorative niches are unique and personal. Do you know yours? One of mine is going swimming, entering my own little space and getting into a rhythm as I glide up and down the pool.

Little suggests that there is give and take when we are in free trait agreements with others. He says “with spouses and bosses, we can strike a bargain: I’ll act out of character to advance our joint project if you will grant me a restorative niche. What we need is a Free Trait Agreement.”

Over to You

Can you think of any free trait agreements that you engage in (whether conscious or unconscious)? Do you have a restorative niche that keeps you from burning out or doing damage to your health? Please leave your response in the comments below.

3 comments
  1. The recent one I can think of is when once or twice a year I need to go to trade shows for work, and then I am on merchandise duty. Then I go into my “Sales Mode” where I am engaging, informative, and talkative about the CDs and other items for sale for a weekend. This is acceptable for me, because it is temorary and I do not have to do it on a daily basis. I used up my stored energy, but after 4 days I need to be on my own time not filled with strangers I am trying to convince to buy some Hi-Res albums.

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