What Trait Theory Says About the Cause of Your Fears
Not long ago, I talked about insecure attachment styles as a possible cause of travel anxiety, but maybe the way you were raised has nothing to do with your fears.
Here’s another idea. Maybe you were born that way.
Just as children come into the world looking very different on the outside, they’re different on the inside too. If you’re a parent, you already know this. You know Jacy cried for the first twelve months of her life, that Jamal never met a stranger, and that Jadonna slept through the night from the first time you laid her down on her soft Buddha belly. You know that Betty was an easy baby, the polar opposite of Bobby, her belligerent brother.
Children come into this world with their own personalities and they retain at least traces of their defining characteristics throughout life. How can we explain this?
Trait theorists say we’re all born with some combination of a limited number of human characteristics. There’s minor disagreement about which traits are common to our species but one of the most popular personality models is known as the Big 5. You can find Big 5 tests online using the links on the sidebar, and I hope you’ll take one if you’re curious about what combination of traits (extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) make up your own temperament.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that most hodophobes have a pretty (un)healthy dose of neuroticism. This means just what you already know, that we’re a tad more timid than other people. We worry and take things to heart. We’re sensitive and easily knocked off balance.
But even if you identify with trait theory and believe you were born to be scared instead of wild, don’t jump to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be done about it. Traits are malleable.
Don’t believe me? Here’s proof.
In the research study I’ve linked to above, students who had signed up to participate in foreign exchange programs were tested using an instrument that measured their mix of inborn traits. Not surprisingly, they were shown to be naturally high on the “open to experience” scale of the Big 5. That makes sense, right? These are folks who have self-selected to pursue their education in a place that’s unfamiliar to them, so we could draw the conclusion that love for novelty is part of their personalities.
The surprising part is that when these students come home, they’re even higher on that scale. They’ve had direct experiences that taught them that going into the unknown is safe. They’ve done it time and time again in their travels and nothing bad has happened. Instead, they were rewarded with good things. They met new people, explored new landscapes, learned new languages, and considered new ways of looking at the world.
The trait of agreeableness also went up in the personality profiles of these young travelers. They’d learned to play well with others, to ask for help when they needed it, and to help out as a way to establish themselves in their host communities.
Perhaps even more importantly, as their scores for agreeableness and openness to experience were rising, their scores for neuroticism were headed in the opposite direction. That’s because they’d taken the opportunity to prove to themselves that they were competent human beings. They’d learned they could figure out purchases in a foreign currency and find their way around in an unfamiliar place using a map or the GPS on their cell phones.
They had little choice but to accept the evidence that told them they could take care of themselves out in the world. As a result, their very personalities, the identities they were born with, changed.
The Nice Thing About Trait Theory
One thing I like about trait theory is the way it frees us from guilt and blame. Our fears about ranging too far afield don’t have to come from damage we sustained as children; maybe they’re just an outcome of the way our genes combined.
And regardless of your fears’ origins, change is possible. That’s a major takeaway from the exchange program study. In fact, when we engage in new experiences, change is more than just possible. Change is likely. It’s expected. It’s the norm.
Are you ready to for change? My gut says you are. That’s why you’re reading this blog.
But you don’t have to enroll in a study-abroad program to start reaping the benefits of travel. For now, just commit to following the evidence-based practices you’ll be reading about throughout this blog, and in my book, From Fear to There: Becoming a Confident Traveler. Giving yourself a new travel experience is transformative. It can change your basic nature. You can become the person you’ve always wanted to be.
That little package of potential Mother Nature threw into the mix before you were born was just your starting point. Now it’s time for nurture to have a say.