Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Self Requisite For Causation? Part I

Hey folks, in this piece we will look at some issues that may help people in beginning an investigation. It seems the most natural assumption that the actions we take are as a result of us willing them. 
In terms of cause and effect, we like to think that we are the cause of our actions. So what we need to do is look at this picture and then investigate how this would work in real life, starting out with our regular dualistic assumptions about the self.

How would we carve up the world to account for this picture of self?

It seems obvious that we just posit ourselves as subjects, which we believe are some kind of self sufficient causal entity. This entity directs and influences various  processes including thought, action, planning etc.
 Given these types of processes, among others, we can divide these up into two different species, namely mental and physical causation. 

By mental causation we simply mean that this self sufficient entity directs and controls the thoughts and actions that appear. 
By physical causation we are referring to physical processes in the body, for example the firing of nerve fibres causes our muscles to move. In this model we have to account for how mental acts can cause physical effects. In contemporary philosophy this is referred to as the mind-body problem.

The Cartesian Picture

There are various solutions to this problem that have been posited over time.  Perhaps one of the more historically famous ones would be substance dualism, which is also known as Cartesian dualism. 
This doctrine holds that the mind and the body are two distinct substances. This is where the subjective realm exists as a distinctly separate substance from the objective realm and asserts that we are an incorporeal (non-physical) mind that exercises control and volition over a corporeal (physical) body.

 This entails that we have two distinct substances of mind and body and thus it is referred to as dualism. This way of looking at the mind-body problem is perhaps the most pervasive throughout our culture.
 Its religious credence alone means that this is the version taught, or should I say indoctrinated, to youngsters in schools. It seems to make  sense that we are a soul that interacts with the physical body, and this allows the possibility of surviving bodily death. 

The reason why dualism seems to be logical is simply because thoughts do not appear to be the same thing as physical matter. If I were to ask you "Where is a thought located?" 
It is not as though you can find it in a similar physical space to that which your TV remote occupies. Whilst this may seem a logical way of tackling the problem, it has been found to be completely incoherent and causes intractable problems.

 One of the ways in which it seems nonsensical is in how we theorise causation. This is known as the interactionism problem in contemporary philosophy and it goes like this. 

In order for us to account for mental causation, we would have to account for how something non-physical, such as a soul, can interact with physical matter. 

Given that the physical world is causally closed, that is to say in order to see physical effects there has to be some kind of physical cause, we are left with a puzzle of trying to account for how something non-physical could even possibly interact with  physical matter. 
Given that in order to move a physical object we have to apply a force to it, then we could question how on earth a mind could even possibly exert a force upon the body.

In order to propagate this theory of non-physical causation we would have to appeal to an auxiliary theory. This would have to be an account of how non-physical mental states can have physical effects in the world.

 For example, telekinesis would be a good example of mental states having an effect on the physical world, as would poltergeists. Unfortunately we are in no position to demonstrate this as yet and until someone steps forward to prove their powers, we can rightly assume that these things are an impossibility (please... don't even mention Uri Geller http://skepdic.com/geller.html ).

As Karl Popper remarked, a theories force is diminished when it has to appeal to an auxiliary theory in order to make itself work. However, this is not to say this alone is grounds for its falsity. 
What we can do though, is start to look at the Cartesian picture and see if it remains intelligible in light of our assumptions about a non-physical self, or as Gilbert Ryle coined it: The ghost in the machine.

Read Part II here

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Individual versus Society

One of the consequences of discovering the traditional notions of self-hood within the Cartesian picture are incoherent, is that it does challenge our conception of the individual in society. The Cartesian picture is based on the simple object-subject relations that we use to frame the world around us. 

When we say Cartesian picture, what we are referring to is Descartes' account of dualism, where we view subjects and objects as discrete causal entities. However, once we start looking at the concepts on which the illusion of self is based, we start discover that things aren't what they seemed initially and our assumptions don't hold water too well. 

Implicit in this Cartesian picture then, is the idea that there are other causal selves out there, who are separate from the world and act independently as agents. This brings us to a series of fundamental problems that have troubled social psychologists since the field began its empirical endeavours. 

These problems are known as the 'agency-structure' divide, and 'individual-society' dualism. 
Let's unpack these terms and try to stipulate exactly what they mean.

Agency-Structure Dualism

What we mean by the Agency-structure divide is where we delineate individual agency from social practices, or the structure of of our social world. 

For example, we can consider peer pressure to start smoking cigarettes as an example of this. 
We might ask what role does individual agency play here, when the social structure people find themselves part of, may place pressure on its members to smoke? 

We may argue that peer pressure may influence our agency, however, if we knew smoking was harmful then why would we ever utilise our agency and choose to smoke? If we answered “Because everyone else is doing it” then we have clearly allowed societal pressure to influence our actions, and it is here where we ask; was it society making the structural conditions for action, or was it the self sufficient subject making a decision in isolation from the social world? 

Individual-Society Dualism

 With individual-society dualism, we are stepping outside of society metaphorically and looking at where an individual starts and ends. To what extent is someone an individual separate from society, and to what extent is society embroiled within the individual? 
Going back to our peer pressure example, the person being pressured in to smoking will use concepts and shared language from the social world and in this sense, the shared social world we inhabit, forms a part of each of the individuals within it. 

At this stage we might have an opinion about which of these is correct. For instance, we can argue away the agency structure divide by placing the onus on the individuals agency. In this sense we would like to claim that the executive function overrides peer pressure and people have a choice ultimately. 

However, when I look back at my own experience it seems to conflict with this account. If you can ever remember a time when you were subject to peer pressure, was it not the case you felt an urge to go along with the moment, and experienced the dissonance of thoughts related to the future negative outcomes of your actions? 

It seems counterintuitive to separate this into a simple matter of exercising rationality independently from the situation we are in. Were we to have the ability to do this, then phenomena such as peer pressure would not exist. 
This highlights the impoverished view of self sufficient Cartesian 'selves', that subsist separately from the social worlds we inhabit. 

In the Cartesian picture we have to view minds as self-sufficient entities that process intentional content. By intentional content, we simply mean content in the form of imagery, concepts, feelings, and the like, which 'cause' our actions or intentionality. 

We need not deny that there is intentional content, however, this does not necessarily entail this processing occurs independently or closed off from the situation we find ourselves in. 
It is clear this process is influenced according to circumstance, and it is our being in this situation which helps to shape our actions and responses. In this sense our cognition is embodied, and does not operate independently from such situations.

Drawing the Line?

This area has been contentious among social psychologists. It was the orthodox view to simply assume that individuals acted completely independently from the social world. However, we can clearly see from our peer pressure example that this view is untenable. 
What we are really talking about is the way in which we are interrelated with the social world, and on this account, it makes no sense to draw binary distinctions such as agency-structure, and individual–society and  claim they are mutually exclusive. 

This does raise questions about where we draw the line between agency and social structures, and the State versus the individual. Our justice system implicitly assumes the Cartesian picture is correct, and relies on it for notions of individual responsibility and guilt. Furthermore, this also brings into question the notions of left and Right wing politics which tacitly assume one side of the dualism. 

We might also ask is it being born into poverty that causes crime, or is it just a few bad eggs that need to be separated from the rest of us? 

Clearly the way in which we conceptualise the individual and society is quite important, since it is one of the cornerstones upon which the foundations of our society is based upon. Even the way we view ourselves as consumers presupposes that we are trying to further our own individual interests. Of course, we can view this as an extension from our animalistic survival instincts  but we are not just self interested, since we care about the people around us - our family and friends.  

What if we've had it all wrong? 

The point here is not to argue for or against a particular political system, but it is to highlight the way in which the individual and society is conceptualised. 

What if self interest was an illusion that we had subscribed to all our lives, and how would this influence the way we conceptualised the political field? 

How can we conceptualise individual agency and justice if there is no such thing as individual free will?

It seems these notions are empty in the sense that they inherently exist. We can make sense of them conventionally, although we can question the substance behind them.

Of course, we will not be able to put this to bed in one foul swoop, but I hope we can apply what we have learned to our phenomenological investigations (AKA Looking), that you are hopefully undertaking as a result of coming across www.ghostvirus.com 

We have a tendency to think within the constraints of the subject-object dichotomy and this has been conditioned into us from the very beginning. When it comes to delineating ourselves from society, it becomes difficult purely for the fact that we are carving up cause-and-effect into the subject-object regime. What we need to do is bracket off this preconception, and apply the results from our experimentation into the mix. 

 There seems to be a real difficulty in trying to carve up the individual as some discrete entity separate from the world itself, when our very being is intertwined with the ever changing world which constantly throws up new scenarios, and the cultural practices that shape our thinking. 

Anywhere we try to find a dividing line between discrete individuals and society, we run in to major problems. Of course, it makes sense that we try to provide accounts of how individuals behave and reason etc which has been the goal of psychology. 
However, we find that psychology is always in a social context and to theorise the individual as being isolated from the social world, creates a subject-object dualism that cannot be consistently maintained.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part VIII (conclusion)


Having outlined the notion of personality traits here, it seems that many new questions are raised. One of the first ones that may appear is why I've gone to the trouble of highlighting Eyesenck's flawed personality trait studies. 
Surely I could be accused of constructing a strawman argument from 1960s research and launching an attack against that? Furthermore, you may be wondering why I have written such a lengthy mini series and how this is relevant. Well, I will spell out why I went to the trouble of doing this semi-academic piece, and highlight what it might achieve.

It is of little surprise that Eyesenck's ideas have caught on. The basic ideas behind his argument have formed the basis for much on going research. It is only within the last 10 years that the voices of critics like Mischel have been heeded in the mainstream. 
 Meanwhile, the mainstream has had to try and fight off the eliminative materialist claims that we should be abandoning the folk theory and trying to form a proper theory of mind over the past 30 years. 

 It seems we are at the stage where we have to pay attention to the way in which we have carved up the psychological domain. This means we're going to have to re-evaluate the categorisations that we have traditionally imposed. 
 The endurance of Eyesenck's theory bears testament to the fact that he appeals to common sense and appeals to the way in which we have been carving up the psychological domain.

The main problem with trait theory centres around the assumption that traits actually exist. There are newer, and presumably better, personality theories around these days but they all make the assumption that we fit in to categories or types. 
As I have stated in this discussion, we do conform to predictable patterns of behaviour at times and we certainly do not need to deny this. Nor do we need to deny that categories have practical use. We have also admitted that we have a cultural assumption that traits exist built right in to our language. 

It is the tendency of the human mind to divide the world in to categories and using traits is one way in which people in our social worlds become intelligible.

Implicit in this view is that these traits are independent from our agency. That is, we have no control over our tendency to get angry, be pessimistic etc. In this sense we are referring to some kind of mechanism that we have no control over. Interestingly enough, we identify strongly with our personality traits and we believe them to make some kind of statement about who we really are. 

We might be tempted to identify other aspects of our body which we have no control over, like being ginger or being optimistic. We may identify with things that we consciously choose, like being a raver or whatever it is the kids call themselves these days (Yes, I'm not down with the kids anymore!). However, it is usually just the case that we utilise circular logic to form a web of deceit, which masquerades as our identity, that prevents us from entertaining the truth about the illusory self.

The notion of self hood is reliant in part on the multiple “I am 'a', I am also 'b', and 'c'” modes of identification. E.g. I am ginger, I am optimistic, I am a raver. It is likely that during your phenomenological investigation in to the self you will try to say that the self is identical to x, y, or z. 
E.g. The self is the brain, the self is the body, The self is memory and so on.

Nobody ever takes the time to look behind what these concepts refer to in real life, as these modes are representative of the constraints in which we think.

This is why it is not a logical endeavour to realise Anatta.

The trick to getting this Anatta insight is in part exposing the emptiness of those a, b, c labels, and then refuting the assumptions that the self is x, y, or z. 
Once these notions have been smashed to pieces, then it is a simple case of honest looking. I am going to post the above paragraph in numerous places because it is a succinct outline of the basic process you need to use. 

I used to harp on about looking, but it is also necessary to smash apart the web of deceit by utilising a bit of logic first. When you see these assumptions no longer work logically you can discard them and systematically demolish the foundations upon which the illusory self is based.

We all start out from a position where we are bounded by the belief that we are an enduring self that has such and such 'properties'. We have a tendency to objectify ourselves as having the 'properties' of traits, much like we can treat other people as objects of experience. I wanted to draw this parallel here, not because we normally treat friends and family like objects, but because we think in terms of all 'things' as having enduring properties.

What we mean here is the way we describe subjects and objects in dualistic terms, results in us assigning attributes to people which are of course consistent with our categorisation of traits.

These traits are predicated as aspects of the self, much like properties are the predicates of objects in our language.

So take the 'outgoing' trait as an example. Imagine that you are outgoing and sociable and by some awful freak event, you lose the use of your vocal cords and become dumb. What would happen to this personality trait then? You might claim 'I'm outgoing and sociable' previously. 
However, what would we make of this claim if you were struck down with this awful tragedy?

Nothing would have changed about your so called traits, however, this outgoing trait is contingent on your being able to talk. In this sense, the predicate would become unintelligible to somebody who just met you, and did not know you prior to your unfortunate change in circumstance. 

Clearly, these constructs are quite empty when we consider such extremes.

When we are talking about contingencies of circumstance these are rather fleeting things which can easily change, instead of being the solid and enduring things we think they are. We can start to look at our own personality traits and look at the ways in which we think they define us. 
The point of this whole piece really, is to smash apart the solidity of personality traits and highlight the shaky grounds on which they are based. 

It is not so much that we needed to disprove traits exist (although I have cast serious doubt on the claim), it is just to show that the solid assumptions we use to prop up our notions of selfhood are really quite flimsy when we examine them with a degree of scrutiny.
Once we start to hack away at the logic behind personality traits, it seems more and more likely that we are really dealing with an arbitrary notion of category construction, that is purely linguistic.

It should be noted at this point, that different cultures have different categories of behaviour. As such, cross-cultural trait models have a cut down five trait model, to try and apply it universally across the board. In this sense it is only our arrogance that leads us to assume that there are a definitive of set of objective trait correlates, that conform to the English language.
The reality seems to suggest that traits are merely the construction of personal values using shared language. In more scientific terms, traits theory is an attempt to treat people as having objective aspects, that can be medically categorised and diagnosed.

This of course has its roots in the orthodoxy of physicalism, which is now an untenable position in philosophy of mind and has since been superseded with functionalism. I argued earlier that we cannot delineate between traits and our personal construction of meaning convincingly. 
For this reason, I am convinced that a revised functionalist account of trait theory could not work, but functionalism certainly may be able to account for behaviour by identifying patterning in neural networks. However, this would constitute an as yet unspecified theory, and would abandon the constraints of traditional notions of traits. 
This new theory would be something that perhaps many eliminative materialists would endorse.

The evidence for the personal construction theory of traits seems to fit our observations. The lack of evidence for traditional notions of traits is compounded by the problems we have when we point to conventions of language.

Could it really be the case that nobody has objective personality traits, and the myth of the enduring personality is a fiction? For me, the fact that our ideas about personality are completely empty could be somewhat disconcerting and radical on the one hand. 
It seems that when I think about the ones I love and that they have no personality, other than what I construct in my own mind is counter intuitive. However, once we factor in the multiplicity of events and the vicissitudes of our different behaviours, it becomes clear that these categorisations of traits are too rigid for the rich and wonderful varieties of behaviour that our fellow human beings are capable of.

When viewed in this sense, it seems that quite the opposite is the case and traits are counter-intuitive.

The notion of trying to apply a narrow series of categories that apply to traits, would be far too restrictive to account for the dynamic nature of the unfolding of our lives. If we were only capable of behaving along a dimensional axis for each trait, then we would be somewhat robotic and more predictable in our responses to life's events. 
The fact of the matter is that we are far more unpredictable and are capable of surprising acts, and confounding expectations. We try to impose order on the world by using traits but this does not entail that the way we do so, or the way we learned culturally to do so, is definitive in any way.

If we take the view of Heidegger, the subject/ object dichotomy is merely one way of being, and is a useful way to look at the world. However, restricting ourselves to this view means that we miss out on the modes of being where we don't view people as having properties. Such times would be when we are in the throes of sporting competition, having a laugh with friends in the pub, or losing yourself in a lovers kiss.

The point here, is simply that we need to differentiate between the way we think about people objectively when we reflect on them, and the way we experience them in the flow of life. It makes sense that we try to make predictions about how others might behave, or rationalise and criticise peoples actions. 
When doing this though, we are always doing it in a temporal sense outside of the present moment. When using traits we are talking about past and future actions.

I will leave it for you to decide where trait theory fits in to the present moment, but rest assured you will find it difficult to find relevance in the present moment, other than within a temporal narrative about time. That is, every time we think about traits it is in a temporal sense and does not conform to our 'being in the world' direct experience of socialising. 

We could of course be talking about drama when socialising in the present moment, and we could be focussed on why someone acted in such and such a manner. Again though, we would be referring to our temporal ideas and our experience of traits in the present moment would be limited to the act of talking itself, and the mental phenomena that arises during our chain of reasoning.

It seems then, that the notion of an enduring personality is nothing more than a myth in the grand scheme of things. Particularly where we use the categorisations available in our linguistic community. 
It was an unfounded assumption that these categorisations actually related to physical states and whilst it appears logical to divide the domain of traits in this way, we've seen that this is actually empty. 

It seems that personality is a mysterious phenomenon that we think we can know, but we cannot easily, or coherently, conceptualise it in the way we thought we could.


  • Butt, T. (2012) 'Critical Readings in Social Psychology', Ch. 3, 2nd edition, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
  • Butt, T. (2004) 'Understanding People', ch.1, Basingstoke & New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Eysenck, H.J & Rachman, S. (2012 [1965]) 'Dimensions of Personality', in Butt, T (2012) 'Critical Readings in Social Psychology', ch.3, 2nd edition, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
  • Fisher, H (2013) Extract of essay taken from 'On Temperament' in Brockman, J (2013 [2012]) This will make you smarter.
    Last Accessed 23/11/14
  • Holloway, W. (2012) 'Social Psychology Matters', ch.3, 2nd edition, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
  • Richards, G. (2002) 'Putting Psychology in its Place:A Critical Historical Overview', ch. 18, 2nd edition, Sussex, Psychology Press.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part VII

F.A.E - The Fundamental Attribution Error

In rating people we have a propensity to commit the 'fundamental attribution error' which is where we overvalue the effect of human agency, and underestimate the effect of the present situation in explaining behaviour (Butt, 2004). To illustrate, when we have to slam on the breaks because of someone's driving, we may well blame the poor skill and idiotic driving of another. 
However, we might be overlooking the fact that they are lost and are unsure of where they are going, and had a moment of panic. In this sense, we are biased towards prioritising human agency, and underestimate the degree to which a situation determines behaviour.

If we apply this to Eysenck, he assumed widespread use of words by the general population pointed to the underlying objectivity of traits. Whilst we need not deny there are stable patterns in peoples behaviour, Eysenck's research was situated within this folk psychology paradigm and any results he derived were simply reinforcing his theories about the existence of traits, without an attempt to test the validity of them. 
In this sense, his entire research project begged the question, since he simply assumed that our categorisations pointed to real enduring qualities. In any case, any results he derived were simply a collection of people committing the fundamental attribution error, and this undermines his claim to objective validity.

The fundamental attribution error demonstrates our propensity to conform to the general populations assumptions about traits in everyday discourse, and assume these shape our agency. However, what we find is that Eyesenck simply reinforced these assumptions, by getting people to take part in his research program and not, even undertaking an independent verification of the existence of such traits. Moreover, his statistical measurement technology was flawed and we see that the case for objectivity here is very flimsy.

Check out Dustinland's wicked cartoons: http://dustinland.com/archives/archives626.html

This problem arises because Eyesenck simply drew a pattern from statistical inference of observations as justification for his theory. As Richards (2002) points out, the very psychometric survey measurements that we undertake can cause reification; where we falsely grant objective reality to the thing being measured.

To give an example, we could design a religious survey in 1700 say, that tried to measure devoutness to Christianity. We could make statements such as "Homosexuality is a sin and punishable by death", or "Witchcraft is rife in this village". 
We could collate a number of psychometric surveys and provide statistically derived empirical results. However, from these results all we have achieved is measuring a bunch of worthless religious assumptions. 

We have not proved that these assumptions are true, we have merely taken for granted their truth and produced a load of mathematical workings out to support our folly. 

Furthermore, these questions may have seemed valid in 1700 but were we to try and ask them now, they would sound quite ridiculous to any Christian. In this case, if we have supposedly measured devoutness to religion and the statements are irrelevant now, we can ask what exactly would we have measured back then? 
The simple answer is that we have reified the concept devoutness to religion and would have been engaged in sophistry.

What this tells us is that any psychometric studies are based on assumptions, and they produce a load of clever sounding mathematics that purport to back up these assumptions. All this is done without ever actually backing up these assumptions with evidence. 

What we really find is that this methodology is utterly worthless as a measure of truth, and in fact, this has been utilised as a tool by those of lowly scruples, to engage in the most wretched acts of deceit. 
It should be of little surprise that this is the tool of choice for charlatans in marketing, studies of 'public opinion', and your impotent government.
 This dangerous tool has been used to subvert the need to make claims based on evidence, and you should be suspicious of any statistical manipulations that are thrown at you.

 However, we can forgive Eyesenck as these facts were not known at the time, and he genuinely believed he was advancing science. It should be clear to you now though, that this questionnaire style methodology is fundamentally flawed and is still abused to this day by those who engage in the art of statistical manipulation.

Mischel's Criticisms

To cast further doubt on Eyesenck's research, Mischel (1968) started to assess the evidence for trait theories and found the key assumption that Eysenck had made was incorrect. It should be starting to become clear that Eyesenck had simply assumed stable personalities were based on a structural arrangement of traits. 
What Mischel discovered was that this assumption is not justified. Mischel cited extensive evidence that suggested the attributing of traits reflected the prejudice of the person doing the attributing, who had to draw on a culturally shared trait theory to frame their observations. Given that we use trait theory in everyday parlance, any observation is necessarily going to be couched in terms of traits. However, this does not necessarily mean our cultural categorisations are pointing to anything concrete.

Mischel cited a study that used Eyesenck's methodology of rating people from behind a screen, and using a psychometric survey to measure the responses. However, this time they observed strangers briefly in one condition, and in another observed people whom they knew personally. 
This study yielded a striking finding that went right to the heart of this kind of objective methodology. It was found that those doing the rating, produced the same stable trait structure in strangers that they observed very briefly, as in those that they knew well (Butt, 2012). 

This showed that under controlled conditions, subjects were prejudicial in their attribution of personality traits to strangers, and were willing to attribute them on very little evidence. It also showed that these attributions were based on the way they personally attributed traits to those they knew well (Butt, 2004).

This clearly demonstrated the error on which personality research was based. It is only natural, given the knowledge was situated in a paradigm that accepted folk psychological doctrine, that through seeing statistical patterns, practitioners could devise psychological categories for people in order to determine treatments. 
This kind of categorisation is now widely acknowledged to be unreliable and PCT actually denies this is useful, since it aims to understand the individual and acknowledges there are many individual differences, rather than narrow categorical dimensions.

Interestingly, PCT would embrace this subjective aspect of a person doing the personality construction, because when listening to how they construct someone's personality we can uncover some of the meanings this process has for them, and how they perceive the world. 
To this extent as a phenomenological exercise we can discover how people form their constructions, and perhaps some of the assumptions participants make. However, this endeavour fits in to the field of social psychology, and we would be moving beyond the scope of this essay.

Conclusion here

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part VI

Part I of the series here

The Eye of the Beholder

Having outlined the idea of trait theory and why it does not seem to work, we will look to Personal Construct Theory (PCT), which suggests that we construct peoples personalities. To explain this we might look towards one of the common paradoxes that arises in assigning traits.
For example, Fred may perceive upon meeting Gerald that he is loud and obnoxious. However, Harry may may meet Gerald and perceive him as outgoing and fun. In this sense, we look to the way Fred and Harry attribute these traits and construct Gerald's personality. In this sense we are looking towards our personal construction of meaning.

In theorising about personalities, we need to consider the extent to which we construct our own versions of individual differences. This PCT suggests that personality attribution is based on our own theories about ourselves and others, which are directly influenced by our preferences and meanings.
In this sense, PCT is a form of phenomenological description extracted from individuals and makes it a qualitative methodology that steps out of the experimental paradigm, and focuses on understanding individuals rather than categorising them (Butt, 2012).

In our above example it is plain to see that Gerald is constructed differently by Fred and Harry, so which, if either of them, is correct? If we are talking about objectively true traits, then a trait theorist would maintain one of them has to be wrong. It may be that Harry is correctly being objective and Fred has taken a disliking to Gerald.

How could we be sure who was correct though?

How each person makes sense of the world, influences how they perceive things. The only way to be sure would be to go through an objective assessment in a psychology lab. We will show this is problematic as our next task, but an alternative to trait theory might be to listen to Fred and Harry's construction of meaning through their own phenomenological accounts.

We would discover the meanings they bring to bear on the world and in this sense, PCT would seek to understand rather than try to carve up the domain in to categories. PCT would take account of the fact that we all have different likes and dislikes, which a trait theory would fail to capture.

This leaves trait theory stuck trying to capture the objective qualities of a person, independent of our experience of them. Implicit in the assumption of trait theory is that people have objective and measurable qualities, that are distinct and enduring.
The reality shows us that we actually bring our own presuppositions and preferences to the table when deciding what opinion we make of people. Trait theory does not take account of this fact, and tries to claim that people have objective qualities regardless of our view of them.

However, what we see is that this so called objective view cannot be separated from our opinion. For example, even if we are told Gerald is fun and outgoing, we may simply dislike him. It is not irrational to dislike somebody, even if we find no good logical reason. We may be questioned about why we dislike someone, but it is somewhat absurd to claim that really he is an objectively outgoing person, when we find him annoying and rude.
This is because we may never experience this 'fact'. We might assent that we have made an error of judgement, however, this can have no bearing upon the validity of our intuition towards people, or influence our viewpoint.

Here we are looking towards the fact that trait theory is faced with the absurdity of trying to say that the multiple ways of constructing people are incorrect, and there is one true objective account of an individual. However, in real life people do not show up in such a manner and this should point us to the error in this chain of reasoning.

Having outlined the basics of PCT, we can start to make use of the criticisms its advocates have made towards Trait theory, and show how a trait theorists objective analysis and laboratory work is fraught with problems.

Firstly, the very foundations of Eysenck's research is challenged, since it made use of statistical analyses to derive his personality index. Remember, he used a factor analysis in order to group descriptions together to form his list of 32 traits. To achieve this, he used a psychometric questionnaire of the type where a mark is placed on a numbered scale.
Such surveys are characterised by 'strongly agree' or 'strongly disagree' being placed at either end of this scale, and the respondent simply circles a number to state the degree to which they agree or disagree with a statement.

The methodology of Eyesenck's work was to have subjects with these style questionnaires sat behind a one way window, where they observed people in a room. 

The idea was that the observers rated the personality of those being observed. After a significant number of repetitions with different observers, Eyesenck collected the results together and conducted his factor analysis. In this sense he had the significance of mathematics and empirically valid results to work from. 

However, it is at this stage where multiple problems emerge.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part V

Part I of the series here


At this point, a trait theory might like to invoke the concept of neurotransmitters. Implicit in trait theory is the need to point to neurotransmitters as being the cause of behaviour. It may seem so far that I have ignored the idea of neurotransmitters being influential in this process, and am dismissing their importance. 
It may be the case that since physical and mental states are one and the same thing, John's new way of thinking after CBT is a result of a change in the balance of neurotransmitters. 

We could argue about the plasticity of the brain and how it adapts over time, and this relates to the experiential component we described previously. Going back to John's condition, a trait theorist could bite the bullet and suggest that being shy is an experiential disposition, or 'trait of character' as Fisher writes. 
John was only affected by anxiety in the presence of strangers, and a trait theorist could claim that this is a purely experiential component. If we were able to establish a link between neurotransmitters and behaviour this would support this line of argumentation.

Implicit to such a counter-argument is that we will act the same way in similar situations because we have enduring traits. To account for any deviation from this we have to appeal to dimensionality and allow that neurotransmitters influence our behaviour along a dimensional axis. 

However, this leaves little room for manoeuvre when we consider that we may have major life events that cause our behaviour to change drastically from the traits we are ascribed. A death or traumatic event in the family may cause our behaviour to deviate from these fluctuations in dimensionality. 
This might mean we are enveloped in a terrible sense of melancholy that is somewhat out of character and is of a temporal duration. It is pushing the bounds of trait theory too far if we were to suggest that new traits appear, or we swing to extremes on fixed dimensional planes. 

This account would be missing out on the kind of volatile mood swings, memories, and projections that would feedback into our psychological world during a traumatic time. A functionalist account might be better placed to capture this aspect because it would not rely solely on neurotransmitters*. It allows causal interactions between our mental and physical states, however, trait theory is not afforded this luxury, since its aim is to explain psychological differences in purely physical terms.

* Footnote: A more advanced trait theory might like to try and exploit this functionalist view, however, this would be untenable for reasons we will outline shortly. Essentially, this boils down to the fact that we cannot clearly delineate between traits and our own personal view point. We will treat this matter fully in due course.

Perhaps more damaging to trait theory is the whole edifice of this argument stands or falls on the assumption that neurotransmitters are the cause of our behaviours. Butt pointed out that neurotransmitters may be sufficient but not necessary to cause behaviours, and the simplistic notion of neurotransmitter changes driving behaviour has no empirical support (Butt, 2004). 

Despite all the appeals to neurotransmitters, it has never been established in any studies that they are the causal mechanism for our behaviour. 
Certain behaviours may be correlated with changes in neurotransmitters, however, this alone is insufficient for any explanation of behaviour. For instance, testosterone may be said to make us more aggressive and research has shown that playing sports produces high levels of testosterone. However, this does not necessarily mean aggressive behaviour and violence will result, although we can observe there is a correlation (cited in Butt, 2004). 

This suggests that dimensionality cannot be explained in terms of neurotransmitters alone, and consequently we are unable to account for the complexities of human behaviour by merely appealing to neurotransmitters pushing us back and forth along a categorised dimension.

A New Approach to Traits

Assigning traits and categorisations is a natural propensity to social beings like us. These descriptions are useful in our day to day lives and interpersonal relationships. However, once the light of reality is allowed to illuminate the landscape, we find nothing tangible and no solid basis for grounding traits. In this orthodox trait theory we have found that there are no grounds to assert that neurotransmitters are a necessary cause of behaviours. 

We need not deny there is any correlation or that they play a role, but it is certainly asking far too much to suppose that neurotransmitters can fully account for the dimensionality of our behaviour. 
Furthermore, such an account has no coherent justification for explaining how extremes of uncharacteristic behaviour occur in traumatic circumstances. We can go from the pits of despair to elation in an instant, and we can ask for an account of how neurotransmitters can fluctuate so much so as to cause this, particularly when we are trying to make sense of behaviour in terms of traits? 

Clearly, we are giving an impoverished account by pointing merely to fixed traits. As we have seen there is little basis for them, nor is there any evidence to suggest any enduring mechanism is responsible for them.

So, given that there clearly are patterns in peoples behaviour, does it not make sense to try and categorise them? 

Yes, it does make sense and we use these terms when describing people, however, we are now left with the question of where do these categorisations originate from, if not from psychological and biological dispositions? 
It is one thing to deny the existence of these traits, yet we must be able to convincingly account for why the notion of traits is so widespread. So, where does this illusion come from?

Part VI here...

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