13 Small Habits That Actually Reveal a Lot About Your Personality
You can read volumes into an innocent hair pull, a handshake or a seemingly insignificant fashion choice. Here's what behavior experts say.
It’s the little things
Personality tests are everywhere these days, and it makes sense—we all enjoy learning more about who we are and why we do the things we do. Some, like the Myers-Briggs personality type or the career personality test, can give you useful information. But beware of the overly simplistic tests on social media. You really can’t get an accurate read on someone based on their favorite ice cream flavor or car color. (No surprise there.) But you don’t have to shell out a lot of cash for expensive personality tests. There is one thing that can tell you a lot about yourself and others: behavior.
“Most personality tests are a bunch of hooey because they are too superficial,” says Christine B.L. Adams, MD, a psychiatrist and researcher who has studied personality development for more than 40 years. “If you want to really understand yourself or others, you need to look at behaviors to understand their underlying emotions and motivations.”
Every day, you act in ways that share clues about your personality, and these tiny little things add up over time to give a good picture of who you are and what motivates you, Dr. Adams says. Read on to learn more about the small habits that speak volumes and reveal more about your personality than you may think.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more psychology, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
The way you walk
Walk this way … for a big personality reveal, says body-language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, creator of the online program Body Language for Leaders. For instance, someone who walks with a measured, even stride and with their head up conveys a confident personality and tends to be socially adept and open. There’s a reason so many celebrities and politicians use this “power walk,” she says. On the other hand, walking with a “caved-in” posture—shoulders slumped, head down, curled in—shows that you’re feeling vulnerable. This can indicate a very self-conscious personality type or someone who is often lost in their own thoughts.
These behavioral clues you’re subconsciously sharing can have serious implications. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences in 2021 found that students with psychopathic tendencies were able to judge vulnerability and pick potential victims simply by viewing the way people walk. Knowing this, you might want to adopt a more assertive style of walking, even if it isn’t your “normal” stride.
Your handshake expresses a lot about you in just a few seconds, according to Patrick Wanis, PhD, a human behavior expert and author who has developed multiple online psychological, behavioral and personality assessments. A simple firm and brief handshake with one up-and-down motion shows you have a confident personality, while a limp handshake indicates you are insecure, afraid or shut down, he says. If you use the two-hand arm shake, it indicates aggressiveness or an attempt to dominate. Similarly, shaking hands with your palm down shows that you are dominant, controlling and possibly aggressive. Wanis offers one more signal to consider: “Never wipe your hand just after you have shaken hands with someone, because that communicates that you find the person dirty or that you are someone who is overly worried about germs.”
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology backs this up. In the experiment, judges were trained to assess eight characteristics of a handshake: completeness of grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigor, texture and eye contact. The results indicate that participants with firmer handshakes described themselves as more emotionally expressive, extroverted and positive than others. Those with looser grips were more shy and neurotic. The judges’ first impressions correlated with this—they agreed that the participants with firmer handshakes were more confident and less socially anxious. Interestingly, women who shook hands firmly tended to be more intellectual, educated, liberal and open to experiences.
Your email etiquette
If you’re trying to pick up cues from your co-worker, the answer may lie in their emails. There is a connection between our email persona and our real-life character, says Dr. Adams. And how you write emails, what you write and when you write them can be pretty accurate in predicting your personality, with studies finding associations between certain keywords and major traits. Narcissists will generally use words such as I, me and mine frequently. Extroverts tend to be more casual and talk about fun things, like music and parties.
Of course, it’s not only what you say—it’s also how you say it. An absence of typos is a sign of someone’s conscientiousness, perfectionism and potential obsessions, whereas poor grammar can indicate lower levels of IQ and academic intelligence. Interestingly, long emails reflect energy and thoroughness but also some degree of neediness.
Are you a nail biter or skin picker? Scientists call these “body-focused repetitive behaviors” and say they are physical manifestations of your inward state. One 2022 study published in Brain Sciences notes that there is a vicious cycle of emotions and tic behaviors: The more people feel anxiety, tension, stress and frustration, the more exacerbated their tics become.
The type of tic you have may also say something about your personality. For instance, people who compulsively tug on their hair or bite their nails tend to be perfectionists. Their actions are a result of trying to soothe boredom, irritation and dissatisfaction, because it feels better to do something instead of nothing. As a result, the repetitive behavior proves comforting.
Whether you arrive early, on time or late sends a powerful message about your personality, etiquette and what motivates you, says Dr. Adams. People who value punctuality are often rule followers and people pleasers, while those who are chronically late may be more self-focused. (That said, Goman adds that chronic lateness is also a trait of ADHD, so this trait should be considered as part of a larger personality picture.)
A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2006 suggests that punctuality is an accurate assessment of positive character traits. In the study, researchers asked participants to complete a personality assessment at home and come to the laboratory for a group experiment. By analyzing the participants’ time of arrival, they found that punctual people were more conscientious and agreeable. Being early, on the other hand, was connected to neuroticism, while those who were chronically late tended to be more laid-back.
Your eating habits
You are what you eat—but you are also how you eat, says Goman. What you choose to eat, your favorite foods, when you eat, how much you eat and your eating etiquette all give clues to your personality. Slow eaters are often conscientious people who like to be in control, but fast eaters tend to be ambitious and impatient. The adventurous eater is a thrill-seeker and risk-taker, while picky eaters are likely to exhibit anxiety and neuroticism. Last, if you’re someone who likes to separate different foods on their plate, you’re very cautious and detail oriented in your everyday life.
The color of your clothes
The style, cost and even color of your outfit are all very revealing, according to a 2020 study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Researchers found that people who wore brightly colored or flashy clothes and expensive or designer accessories were much more likely to be insecure, have low self-esteem and be less authentic. Why? Seeking attention and trying to fit in with a perceived “highbrow” culture are often signs of narcissism. However, that’s not always the case, cautions Goman. People who express their personalities through their clothing (rather than choosing clothes and accessories to attract attention from others) are often creative and imaginative types.
Your shopping habits
Want to get to know someone better? Take them to the mall. People who love to shop and tend to shop too much are more likely to have personalities classified as hedonistic, extroverted, impulsive, open to new experiences and maybe a little neurotic, to boot, according to a study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services in 2022. However, people who just shopped for what they needed were more likely to have agreeable and conscientious personalities.
Wanis notes that spending habits can also be an indication of someone’s personality type in a relationship. Folks who hide money, overspend or rack up debt are also more likely to be untrustworthy and unstable in their romantic relationships. In fact, financial infidelity is one form of cheating.
How often you take selfies
To study the link between social media accounts and personality, researchers asked college students to fill out two surveys: one that looked at their selfie-posting behaviors, and one personality assessment. The results, published in The Journal of Open Psychology in 2022, were fascinating. The more often someone posted selfies, the less emotionally stable they were and the lower their self-esteem. However, frequent selfie-takers were also more likely to be extroverted and value relationships with others. The younger the person, the more pronounced these effects were, the researchers added.
Graphology is the analysis of handwriting and how it relates to personality, and it has been a science since the days of Aristotle. In fact, your handwriting is such a good measure of who you are that one 2018 study found that using a computer program to analyze a person’s handwriting could predict their personality type with about 80% accuracy.
All the ins and outs (and loops and swirls) of how to analyze handwriting varies, but handwriting experts say they can detect more than 5,000 personality traits from your scrawl. People who write large, for example, are people-oriented and attention-seeking, whereas those with small handwriting are introverted and capable of acute concentration. Writing with a slight right slant means you’re friendly and impulsive; a left slant means you’re reserved and individualistic. No slant suggests you’re logical and pragmatic. Last, handwriting with heavy pressure indicates you have strong emotions and are quick to react, but a light pressure implies an easiness and the ability to move from place to place.
What you drink
You may mindlessly throw that 12-pack of soda into your shopping cart or order a large piña colada on a night out, but you might want to think twice about what your drink choice reveals about you, according to a study published in Personality & Individual Differences in 2021. Researchers found that the people who drank sugary beverages were less likely to think about future consequences and instead tended to make choices to live in the moment. (Which makes a lot of sense, when you think about it!) These people were impulsive and open. On the other hand, the people who were more conscientious about their health spent more time predicting future consequences and were less likely to drink that sugar bomb.
If you deflect compliments
If your first instinct when someone compliments you is to deflect, contradict, explain or otherwise negate the sentiment, you may think you’re being humble and that accepting a compliment makes you seem prideful. But this habit actually shows that you aren’t comfortable in who you are, have low self-esteem and may suffer from imposter syndrome, Dr. Adams says.
The truly terrible part about this habit is that it can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, making you the type of person you don’t actually want to be, she says. Believing you don’t deserve compliments can make you accept negative interpretations of your personality while rejecting positive takes. This, in turn, can make it harder to function and achieve your goals. Left unchecked, these subtle self-doubts can spiral into obsessive thoughts and deeply painful feelings.
Constantly checking your reflection
Do you often find yourself checking your makeup on your camera app, smoothing your pants, readjusting your jewelry or looking at your outfit in window reflections? People who are overly aware of their clothes and body and are constantly adjusting things come across as perfectionists, nervous and unconfident, Wanis says. Worse, they may be perceived as insecure, narcissistic and unhappy if it happens all the time. And those who take “body checking” to the extreme may suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, according to a study published in Behavioral Therapy in 2020.
On the flip side, some people who frequently check their appearance are simply more detail-oriented and concerned with making things visually appealing or congruent. Here, the motivation and manifestation is obviously different.
About the experts
- Christine B.L. Adams, MD, is a psychiatrist and researcher who has studied personality development for more than 40 years. She is also the author of Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
- Patrick Wanis, PhD, is a human behavior expert, researcher and author. He has developed multiple online psychological, behavioral and personality assessments.
- Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is a body language expert and the creator of the online course Body Language for Leaders.
- Journal of Personality and Individual Differences: “‘Evil’ intentions: Examining the relationship between the Dark Tetrad and victim selection based on nonverbal gait cues”
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Handshaking, Gender, Personality, and First Impressions”
- User Modeling, Adaptation, and Personalization: “Understanding Email Writers: Personality Prediction from Email Messages”
- Brain Sciences: “Tics and Emotions”
- Journal of Research in Personality: “Who is late and who is early? Big Five personality factors and punctuality in attending psychological experiments”
- Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services: “Consumers’ personality and compulsive buying behavior: The role of hedonistic shopping experiences and gender in mediating-moderating relationships”
- The Open Psychology Journal: “Selfie behaviors and personality traits: More than meets the eye.”
- EURASIP Journal on Image and Video Processing: “Predicting the Big Five personality traits from handwriting”
- Personality & Individual Differences: “You Are What You Repeatedly Do: Links Between Personality and Habit”
- Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts: “How insecure narcissists become cultural omnivores: Consuming highbrow culture for status seeking and lowbrow culture for integrity signaling.”
- Behavioral Therapy: “Consequences of Repeated Critical Versus Neutral Body Checking in Women with High Shape or Weight Concern”