In The Anatomy of a Great Executive John Wareham quotes Lucretius that
So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.
As a practical matter, however, we seldom have the opportunity to see a person in times of peril. Thus a more useful technique is to apply what I call the principle of the opposite image.
A person will often present a facade founded upon the aspect of his or her personality that he/she most fears — or knows — to be missing.
So he recommends analyzing a person by asking
What is the impression that this individual takes the greatest trouble to convey to me?
and then assuming that
the real person may likely turn out to be the exact opposite of this facade
I think that’s a great question to ask, but I’m skeptical it reveals anything more in most people than what they fear about themselves, not what they know about themselves. (Don’t overestimate self-knowledge.)
What characteristic do you try hardest to project? That may reveal a major fear. Three good reasons to think about it:
- It may not be true. You may still be listening to long-gone authority figures and bullies. Would a reasonable person looking at the evidence conclude that your alleged character flaw is more pronounced in you than in other people?
- It may not be a flaw. Maybe your character is just fine, and it’s the long-gone authority figures and bullies who were the ones with the character flaws?
- It’s probably obvious to a skilled manipulator. The average person may not see through your act, but an experienced bad guy will. A bad guy that now knows your deepest fear. If you can’t drop the fear, drop the act.
See also “Why do I want to believe this?“.