Tuesday, 20 February 2007

On personality

Some time ago, my study buddies and I were discussing the diverse nature of psychology as a discipline. Before beginning formal study, many of us had a preconception of psychology as particularly concerning the study of the individual psyche. Despite our course having the quality of an exciting odyssey taking us from the depths of the unconscious through to the crisp peaks of statistical analysis, many of us still thought of ‘real’ psychology as that which focused on us as individual beings. Perhaps this is because each of us cherishes our personal foibles. Bearing this in mind, we may feel less comfortable with approaches which seem to undermine this.

Central to the idea of each of us being unique and special is the concept of personality. It’s almost a universal truth that each of us has a distinct and different personality. We occasionally even say that some people have more of it than others. Used in this lay fashion, the idea of personality seems to make a lot of sense. Clearly, some of us are quiet, some of us loud, some humourous, some brave and so on. It seems to me that the idea of ‘character’ is quite similar to that of personality, as in, “Oooh, that Amy Winehouse is a real character.” When I was at school, the term character also had a particular overtone. It tended to mean something like moral fibre, the ability to withstand difficult circumstances. All fine so far. But what do scientifically trained psychologists mean by personality?

Well, as I recall, the 21st century scientific notion of personality is not so different from the lay one. It is more differentiated, in that personality is thought of as being composed of separate traits (how many there are depends on which theorist one consults). These traits are held to be relatively stable over time and in different situations. They can also be measured using a range of specialized statistical techniques. So, while it isn’t really possible in this model for one individual to have more personality than another, it is possible for them to score less or more on the measurement of one particular aspect of their personality than the next person. To illustrate this approach, many of us have become familiar by osmosis with the late Prof Hans Eysenck’s personality scale. He conceptualized personality as consisting of a blend of characteristics along three axes: introverson-extraversion, neuroticism-stability, and psychoticism.

Freud did not view personality in this way. His work was unscientific in that it was based on case studies rather than the objective evaluation of large numbers of individuals. However, my suspicion (also wholly unscientific) is that as a neurologist, Freud did pave the way for a scientific understanding of personality. But we’ll find out more over the next couple of weeks.

I don’t feel that I can stop here without mentioning social psychology. Interestingly, social psychologists tend to attribute behaviour to circumstance rather than any inherent qualities of personality. Although there is plenty of experimental evidence to support this, I still find the notion unsettling. Are we really grasses bending in the wind of circumstance? Is stability of personality an illusion perpetuated by our unwillingness to place ourselves in a wide range of situations? Wiser people than I struggle to answer these questions. At least one bright aspect of the social psychology approach for me is that it emphasizes our common humanity.

21 comments:

David Hardman said...

Hi Lynn

Some would argue that the range of human universals are more impressive than individual differences. We are the product of the same evolutionary forces, thus the design "plan" (loosely speaking) is that we have two eyes, two legs, etc, and that our brains have the same structure of a hippocampus, occipital cortex, frontal cortex, and so on.
Likewise, visual perception, memory, and so on work the same way for everyone, except that some people's circuitry works a bit faster than others, and some people have a slightly larger short-term memory capacity than others.

Although personalities vary, they only vary in the sense that every individual varies along the same continua. That is, much of personality is captured by the Big 5 Model of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. No-one is unique in the sense of having some strange personality factor that no-one else has. In the same way, we all experience the same emotions, such as happiness, anger, jealously, and so on. Some people tend to get angrier than others, for example, but we're all operating with the same variables.

However, personality matters. I don't go along with the "straws in the wind" idea. Whilst social psychology research shows how people's behaviour can be affected by circumstances, what this view neglects is that people frequently choose the circumstances they enter into. And people with different personalities tend to place themselves in different circumstances. Thus, Sir Edmund Hillary didn't climb Everest because someone made him do it; he did it because he wanted to. And it turns out that mountain climbers tend to score lower than average on Neuroticism, and to score higher on certain measures of sensation-seeking. Likewise, the accident wards of hospitals have an over-representation of people who score high on extraversion.

The ridiculously prolific Daniel Nettle has linked personality variation to evolution. He notes that personality traits can be viewed as trade-offs between evolutionary fitness benefits and costs. This can vary according to the environment, which itself may change. Thus, extravert animals may be more successful when times are harsh, because they go out and explore to find food. However, when times are good, extraverts may suffer because they get into unnecessary fights when they encounter other creatures. Here are a couple of Dan's papers:

http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/daniel.nettle/american%20psychologist.pdf

http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/daniel.nettle/extraversion.pdf

David Hardman said...

Duh... did I say occipital "cortex"? I meant "lobe" (that's why I didn't do a PhD in biological psychology - I couldn't remember the names).

Lynn said...

Ha ha. Thanks David. I'll certainly check out Nettle - sounds really interesting.

I wonder if Sir Edmund and his ilk really are the exception rather than the norm? They certainly seem to be, but the rash of injuries around me now that ski time is having its last gasp suggests not.

Anonymous said...

And what about the effect on personality of fluctuations in brain chemistry? I have a friend who is bipolar - and functions well with Lithium - and really not well at all without it. Which is her true personality - the screaming and aggressive ... one or the calmer more balanced one?
Sandra

Pete said...

some of these psychological ways of "measuring" personality seem a bit crude from a very ignorant outsider's perspective. I am fairly sure that I have gone through phases of my life when I would have been considered sensation-seeking and phases of my life when I would rank higher on other categories. But - without wanting to sound too fuzzy about this - surely we are changing all the time? So I'm still left wondering what exactly personality is? How, if at all, does it differ from simply the assemblage of our actions and behaviours? Is personality simply that or is it something underlying all of that? Is there anything at all underlying that? if there is, then that something is also presumably something that is not static.

And surely personalities do change. Some people become less neurotic, less introverted. What's happening in these cases? It seems a bit naive to think that they are coming closer to their "real" personality. On the other hand, such people often seem to become more "natural", a very impressionistic but nevertheless quite tangible characteristic.

Anyway, I'm just wittering here, but if you or another Psychologist or someone else could offer me a description of what you think personality actually is, that would be great. At the moment, I think we are talking about personality traits and so forth, which might be fine, but I am wondering if we can go further. If we can't, it would be useful to know. And what did Freud say and should we care?

Also: it seems that a lot of our personality must be because of our ways of thinking. Some of us think we can take on the world, others are scared to get out of bed in the morning. And this kind of thinking is going to dominate how our personality comes across in all that we do. Surely this is an argument in favour of a social approach -- this kind of thing is likely to be a result of our conditioning and we can obviously work on our problems and change them and then change our personality (or should I say allow our personality to emerge? probably not...). I'm not quite sure why you find the social psychology approach unsettling. It ought to be quite liberating to know that we can undo some of the damage that our parents and societies inflict on us! And surely there are dominant personality types in different cultures -- protestant northern Europe vs catholic south, for example,to throw out just one stereotype.

Anyway, they are just some random, out-of-my-depth thoughts.... apologies for length

David said...

Pete - Personality refers to those behaviours that we tend to exhibit consistently across situations. The various personality traits are measured using questionnaires. You are right, though, that aspects of our personality can change. This is the interaction of genes and environment. About 50% of the population variance in some personality trait is due to inheritance, leaving the rest to be explained by aspects of the environment. I'm not sure that we know much about the nature of such interactions, but maybe there are other readers who can say more about this. Certainly, siblings can exhibit differences right from the word go. Many mothers comment that one child was never any trouble as a baby, whereas another cried all the time and demanded attention.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that people who deny the reality of personality are denying the evidence of their own eyes. For instance, when students agree that they like one lecturer more than another, it's on the basis that they've observed a consistency in their behaviour; e.g. one person is pretty happy and friendly towards students, another seems distant, another is too pedantic, etc. Or take footballers -- some footballers stay calm in the face of perceived provocation, whereas others (like Wayne Rooney) will thump you so much as look at you! We can see those same behaviours playing themselves out repeatedly across time.

Lynn said...

Hello Pete,

The idea of a dynamic unconscious, which Freud originated, rests on the notion that although emotional responses have been banned from conscious awareness (by defence mechanisms such as repression etc), they still operate, influencing us quite powerfully. So yes, the interior aspect of personality in that sense can be said to consist of experience b multiplied by unconscious factor x (I think Melanie Klein referred to this factor as phantasy). Hence, my admiring remark to one of my dearest friends that he is a very still person (meant in the Zen sense) was transformed in his psyche to the insult, "you're really lazy".

If you subscribe to this model of the unconscious, all behaviour is a form of communication ripe for interpretation. Perhaps personality (which I read today is derived from lat. 'per sonare', the mouthpiece of a theatrical mask)is our behaviour as communication with our social world, whereas character (derived from the gr. for engraving, imprinting) is closer to the transformative effect of x. Engraving, maybe in the sense of a palimpsest? And yes, Freud thought that the exact nature of x came about as a result of our negotiation of the so-called psychosexual stages, of our interface with our world.

Anyway. When you speak of our having a 'real' personality, maybe you are actually on to something. Freud saw our purpose as being one of tension reduction. When I think of newborn infants, their first drive is to make contact, to latch on to the breast and thereby reduce their anxiety at finding themselves outside the womb. Perhaps this is in some way our essence - personality is what tries to guide us home, helps us connect with something larger than our petty individual self.

Freud's view - and mine, incidentally, although it is a wholly subjective impression - is not necessarily that our personalities change over time, but that we have the possibilities of adding to our unconscious or of using insight to extract some of the contents into the bright light of awareness. We therefore become either more or less automatic over time, more or less influenced by x. Also, we tend to take into greater account the presence of the harsh facts of life as we age. So, I still think lots about what it's like to, for example, surf a heavy right in Fuerteventura, get that little lift of excitement, and then I remember the bit of rock still embedded in my thigh. Sigh. Harsh reality.

Perhaps my little wobble upon encountering social psychology was caused by my anal-retentive personality. I have, it seems, issues with the mastery of my world :-)

Lynn said...

Oh yes. One last thing. Does it matter what Freud said? Well, I think yes. If it's really true, or even if there's the smallest grain of truth in the idea, that we can use our insight to free ourselves from damaging automaticity, then we must try. Imagine a world where nobody ever 'just follows orders.' Bring it on.

Pete said...

Lynn - yes, a "persona" is the mask that a Greek actor would wear when assuming a role. And don't forget that a single Greek actor might have to play two or three roles in the same play! We are playing roles in our lives, of course, but our personality is our personality - it's what lies beneath these roles perhaps?

"Persona" does indeed derive from "sound through", and I quite like the idea that one's personality is that which is emerges even through the masks which we are constantly putting up in face of the world. If we drop the masks, then our personality is revealed in its full splendour, perhaps? But I am not expecting agreement on any of this!

There are some famous lines near the start of Lucretius book three (I know, but indulge me...). If you want to know who a man is, you should look at him in times of peril. For then you'll hear his real voice from the bottom of his heart. "Then the mask is snatched away, only the reality remains". (persona eripitur, manet res -- this expression is so wonderful that classicists naturally want to emend it away, but we'll ignore that!).

Could one not say that that which is putting up the barriers helps create our character - this character is perhaps the "characteristic" way in which we mediate between ourselves and the world. The stuff of the British upper lip and all that. Character is surely that which is a result of habit and conditioning and all that generally bad stuff.

Anyway, thanks to David and to you for your interesting posts... which I will ponder more on tomorrow.

I should apologise for going on at length again - that makes it twice in two posts that I have done that. Now is that a personality trait or a character trait?

Lynn said...

Hello again Pete and David,

Oooh no, Pete, you certainly shouldn't apologise for speculating at length here. Lively debate is a wonderful thing!

Interestingly, I read that Freud eschewed the term 'personality' in favour of 'character'. His thinking strikes me so far as being quite deterministic, so perhaps he felt that the thing to emphasise was our essential character as human animals, shaped by recurrent clashes with reality (the third doughnut vs nicely-fitting jeans conundrum, which of course can also be seen as having a more fundamental importance as a reproductive strategy).

I feel those strong, animalistic drives every day (grrrr...) and reflect upon the fact that conditioned responses have a bright side. I know that not only will my tuchus be (more, ahem) lardy if I eat three doughnuts, but more immediately, I'll feel very very sick. So, unless I've had a lot to drink I'll just pick at one of them in a bird-like fashion (yeah, righ. Ed.).

I suppose this is the reality principle Freud spoke of. Interestingly, psychotherapists say that a desirable outcome of therapy is an increase in ego strength, which I guess we can caricature as being an increased ability to say no to gratifying our animal drives. This seems to bring us back to a more lay concept of character.

Anyway, reality bites yet again. Must go and do other work.

David said...

On a somewhat less scientific note, in relation to the notion of personality as character...
I recently watched a film on BBC2, called The Great Kahuna. It was about three salesmen at a convention. One of them was a very young man; the other two were old hands, one of whom was gung-ho and the other of whom had become jaded. The film revolves around a conversation the young chap has with a very important potential client, but instead of talking business, the young man only talks about Jesus. This causes some conflict with the gung-ho salesman. At the end of the film, the older jaded salesman tells the youngster that he doesn't yet have personality, the reason being that he doesn't regret anything. So the youngster asks "You mean I need to do something I'll regret before I can have personality?". And the older man tells him, "No, you've already done things you'll regret. You just don't realise it yet".

Along similar lines, I have a book by Richard Williams, who is a sports writer who started out as a music reviewer. In the preface to this book, he explains that he became slightly disenchanted as a music reviewer, because he realised that you rarely get a glimpse of the true person beneath the artist. That is, people can sing happily about love, whilst beating up their spouses in private. On the other hand, in sport people's true characters are usually revealed, notably under pressure.

There apparently is some work happening in the area of character, though it's not something I've caught up with.

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