Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Myth of The Enduring Personality I

Part 1 of 8

Are we different from each other? This might seem a very obvious question to ask on the face of it. Immediately we can think of various ways in which we do differ. For instance, we might point to obvious physical facts such as hair colour. We would then point to genetic differences as being the cause of these differences. 
This is only superficial though, and one of the more fundamental things that we want to explain is how are we individually different from each other in psychological terms? One question we might want to explain as psychologists is this.

Why do we behave differently from each other?

It is at this point that we like to invoke the concept of personality traits. Attributing personality traits to describe the enduring ways in which individuals differ is everyday common practice. We have all done this in the past and a common example might look something like this. 
I may describe someone as 'shy' and upon meeting them you might notice they seem guarded. You would infer the cause for their behaviour is because of the 'shy trait' I described, which determines their behaviour.

The main reasons for thinking that individuals have traits are that if we take two people and apply the same stimulus, we may see different behavioural outcomes. 
We may infer that there is a fixed trait that determines this behaviour, and in future instances we can predict relatively accurately how this person may behave in similar circumstances.

So having outlined this basic assumption that we have fixed 'traits' that determine our behaviour, it is now my aim to attack this conception, and demonstrate that personality traits are actually a fiction. They are an artefact of an outdated 'folk psychology' conception of mind. 
By folk psychology, we mean the general taken for granted concepts we use to explain how the mind operates. For example, to explain someone's thought processes, I might use concepts to say they 'believe', they have 'attitude' X, they are 'emotional', they have trait Y and so forth.

What we have discovered is that these concepts are underspecified and incoherent in explaining the workings of the mind on a scientific basis.

That is, using these categorisations of mental states does not conform to how the mind works. It might be plausible for us to say that someone needs to change their attitude, and this common sense description captures what we mean. However, when we try to find the mental state that conforms to the concept 'attitude', we draw a blank. 
Essentially our problem boils down to the way in which we divide the psychological domain in to language. Given that over 2000 years ago these concepts were formed for explanatory purposes, there is no reason to suppose that these concepts have any relation to any state that occurs in the brain. For this reason, we refer to these concepts as folk psychology, much like we refer to historical stories as 'folklore'.

This position where we reject folk psychologies categorisations is known as eliminative materialism (See Churchland 1979). Eliminative materialism denies that these common folk categories of mental states actually exist in real life. The idea that we possess enduring 'behavioural traits' has been called in to question by numerous researchers. Trying to explain the mind in terms of this primitive concept has been unsuccessful thus far. 
The problem is that this framework, which has guided much of our research, used to assume that these traits were fixed dispositions that had causal relationships with our behaviour. I will try to show there is no conceivable way in which these traits can be separated out in to these simple categories. Whilst our linguistic construction of folk concepts and common sense notions are useful in communication, they have had little success in the sciences. 

Eliminative materialism supposes that we reject the folk conception of the mind in favour of a proper scientific theory of mind. This newer fine grained theory will usurp our categories and make folk psychologies primitive notions of traits, attitudes, beliefs, etc, redundant.
Whilst this investigation is not an endorsement of eliminative materialism per se, I share the view that we should completely reject the way that folk psychology has carved up the mental domain.

It is certainly a useful heuristic for everyday communication, however, it ultimately has no relevance to any kind of explanatory framework that will yield anything fruitful in the sciences. Others have rejected the account of individual differences explained by traits, and I am not the first to explore this area by any means. 
I propose to explain the theoretical underpinnings of trait theory and then refute it on the grounds that it is incoherent. I will show the traits that we actually think exist, are actually in the eye of the beholder. That is, we make judgements about people that rarely have any kind of objective grounding, and we fool ourselves in to believing that we are identifying traits in others.

What might cause these different traits we claim to observe?

To start with, we might want to look at what might give us this idea. At this level of explanation we are accustomed to look towards the neurological wiring of the brain as providing us with a suitable explanation. We are all familiar with the concept of nature and nurture, which is where we are looking to discover whether genetic factors or someone's early conditioning is what determines their behaviour. 
A 'shy trait' then, means that we are describing some kind of enduring biological or psychological mechanism, or perhaps a combination of the two, which determines behaviour and causes people to act in predictable ways.

This would be a useful description for us to use because, as human beings, we have a tendency and need to predict peoples behaviour.

As a general rule we like to assign a variety of traits to people. When we are asked to describe a person, lets say a friend, how would you do this? Most often we would reel off a shopping list of traits like kind, generous, and so forth. These are the type of words we would use to give an objective description of people we know, however, we run into a problem rather quickly.


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