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Type A or Type B: Which one are you?

Which personality type best describes you? 

Are you one of those highly driven, goal-oriented, tightly focused (and, some would say, tightly wound), ambitious, controlling, competitive Type A’s?  Or are you a more laid back, patient, “live-and-let-live” Type B?  You probably already have figured out for yourself or been told which category you fit into; the “Type A/Type B” comparison has been a part of our culture’s common lexicon for over a half century and most adults, if asked, know or think they know which best describes them.  As police officers (or the partner, family, friend, or fan of one), into which category would you place most of your colleagues (or the cops you know)?  If you don’t know, or aren’t sure, think about it as you read this; there’s a reason we ask, and possible implications for your physical and emotional well-being. 

Thoughts from the Hana Highway

The convergence of some surprising good fortune that gave me a vacation over the New Year’s holiday, a huge pile of accumulated UAL flight miles, and Althea’s facility for always finding the best time share trades available recently  allowed us to escape Illinois for the island of Maui.  Travel for us is a hobby and favorite pastime – as some folks might collect stamps we collect places and adventures – and a really pretty convenient one as well, as we both can enjoy a fair amount of time off and flexibility in our work and raise pets rather than kids (and yes, we know, what about the “joy of children” and all that?  Maybe, but not one of our animals has ever demanded the latest fashion, totaled a car, or whined about wanting to go to college because they want to get a good job or some such…).

This was the first time to Hawaii for either of us, and whenever we hit a new destination taking in as much of the local sights and flavor as we can is a top priority and one of our favorite activities are organized tours.  Setting off on our own can be fun - and certainly cheaper - but we like learning and soaking in as much about the places we visit as possible, so we’re generally glad to bolster the local economy by paying experts to do the driving and share their knowledge.  That’s why, a few days into our trip, we found ourselves in a small van, on the Road to Hana, driven by a gentleman and longtime local font of information named Tim Hughes.  Besides, we had heard horror stories of and from couples who had tried to make the trip on their own only to turn back in frustration, or undergo relational stress of a magnitude to ruin the rest of their vacation (some had even taken to euphemistically calling the Hana Highway “The Road to Divorce”).  No thanks!

Whenever we go on a tour, we always try to place ourselves as close to the guides as we can to optimally pester them with questions (Hey, we tip well so they gotta earn it!).  On this tour we landed directly behind Tim as he drove and immediately took advantage of the chance to chat and, during a quick breakfast stop about 40 minutes into the trip, Tim said, “Mike, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do for a living?”  I explained I am a cop, and also that together Althea and I do training and writing. 

“I thought you might be a police officer.  You have that look… that presence,” he said, “that’s why I asked.  I get a lot of cops that go on my tours and you tend to carry yourselves a certain way.”  This is not that first time I’ve heard that or been made as a cop (even in total vacation-chillaxation mode).  Tim went on to ask if I have trouble relaxing or turning off on-duty instincts, explaining that a lot of the cops he meets seem intense or constantly vigilant and talk about “always feeling on” or being unable to let go of on-duty wariness. 

“No,” I said, “I’m maybe more alert to my surroundings than most people but I’m pretty good at relaxing and making the most of my vacation time.  But I know exactly what you mean.”  

All of us probably know exactly the type of officer that Tim was talking about and can name example after example from among our colleagues.  In fact, I’m sure a lot of you readily admit to being just that officer yourself and probably wonder how a cop could be any other way.  I have heard said many times the belief that, “All cops have type A personalities… they have to in order to be successful at this job“ from inside the profession and out, or that if an officer wasn’t a Type A to begin with then the characteristic traits would surely develop soon enough, or even that there is no room in this job for the far more easy-going Type B’s.  I completely disagree with all these sentiments. 

As someone proudly and comfortably of the predominantly Type B persuasion – and who does pretty well as a cop despite the affliction of this terrible “handicap” – I take exception to the belief that only Type A’s can succeed as LEOs.  Moreover, I know plenty of others like me who do just fine in this job.  The truth is, ours is a profession that can encompass varied and eclectic personalities.  There is certainly a value in the hard-charging Type A’s among us, without a doubt, but what price might they pay if they are not careful?

Type A or Type B:  Which one are you?

The practice of dividing personalities into two categories of “Type A” and “Type B” originated over 50 years ago after two cardiologists, Drs Meyer Friedman and Mike Jordan, had conducted a decade long study of healthy men between the ages of 35 and 59 to examine coronary risk factors.  One group of men, whom they categorized and labeled Type A, was found to be at twice the risk of developing heart disease.  Now, it should be noted that Friedman and Jordan’s research methodology and conclusions have been widely criticized – their sampling was poorly conceived and executed, their conclusions too broad, and confounding factors received scant attention among, other concerns – and are actually considered obsolete insofar as the original intent of the research.  Further, there exist well-constructed and far more scientifically sound and comprehensive personality inventories (such as the Jungian-based Myers-Briggs test that was developed contemporaneous to Friedman and Jordan’s work, and that divides personality typologies into sixteen categories).  Nonetheless, their work did help usher in the important field of health psychology and their terms “Type A” and “Type B” have become part of our cultural lexicon and still maintain value as easily understood, if rough, categorizations of personality archetypes.

The Type A personality is typically characterized as ambitious and achievement-oriented, businesslike and focused, competitive and often aggressive, controlling, and status-conscious.  They hold high standards for themselves and the people around them and can be intense in their insistence these standards be met.  Of course, being ambitious or focused on achievement is not, in itself, a bad thing.  There is value to being businesslike, and competition has certain intrinsic value.  There is nothing inherently wrong with possessing these Type A personality traits as long as they do not become dysfunctional!  The problem is their tendency toward inordinate stress and anxiety and the negative impact they can have.

In a subsequent book (Type A Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment) Friedman reports three common and significant symptoms of maladaptive behavior associated with this personality type.  These are: free-floating, easily triggered hostility, impatience causing frequent irritation, and an overdeveloped competitive drive resulting in stress and an “achievement-driven” mentality; they will even invent competition with others where none existed.  When these symptoms appear they can have a wide-ranging negative impact on both physical and emotional health, interpersonal relationships, job performance, and even unrelated people within the Type A’s sphere of influence.  Friedman and Jordan’s research may not have been perfect in making their original point, but they may have prescient in other ways, as those who’ve been caught up in the wave of destruction an out-of-control Type A can leave behind will attest.

The Type B personality, by contrast, is generally more relaxed and easy-going, patient, and with a more recreational outlook.  This is not to say Type B’s lack ambition, although they may, or are less poised for success.  They are just less all-consuming or intense in their drives.  They tend to work more steadily, are less stressed, and more likely to be introspective.  To many Type A’s, the Type B seems lazy or disengaged even while being very successful.  Of course, like the Type A’s, taken to an extreme the Type B personality can be overly leisurely, lackadaisical, or relaxed and miss or blow opportunities for success.  Without knowing how or when to increase the intensity level, a lot of Type B’s may settle for mediocrity when greater effort or intensity is called for.  Unchecked, this person can create as much dysfunction as their more intensely focused counterpoint.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either personality type but, as in all things, moderation is critical.  In our next column we will look at the importance of finding balance no matter what your type as we consider some of what we consider the “lessons of Aloha."


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.