Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part II

The Dimensionality of Personality

We all have a friend who is happy go lucky, fun, and bounces around the place. We may have a reasonable basis to assign an 'optimistic trait' to this person. However, I am sure that you have seen this exact same person have an 'off day' where they are down in the dumps and melancholic.

We might ask what has happened to this optimistic trait?

Clearly, our description is not relevant every second of the day, and our list of traits may not necessarily describe someone at a particular given point in time with any accuracy. Basically, we are looking to a more fluid dimension to peoples behaviour rather than a fixed immovable aspect. We are subject to the vicissitudes of our ever changing fortunes, successes, and failures. As a result our behaviour is dynamic and adaptive to the circumstances we find ourselves subject to. 

The notion of strictly categorising traits is problematic because we see this 'dimensional' aspect to ones personality. Categorising someone as 'optimistic' is too rigid, when really they operate on a dimension where they are more or less optimistic at different times. 
This has been traditionally considered a problem to our simple notion of assigning traits, since our descriptions may not be coherent with a persons behaviour.

An Attempting at Solving This Paradox

One such theorist who sought to explain this problem was called Eysenck in the 1960s. He challenged the orthodox stimulus-response model by claiming 'the organism' intervenes in the stimulus-response chain (Butt, 2012). For this intervention Eysenck looked towards the physiology of the brain in explaining these differences in behaviour. Eysenck acknowledged that nature and nurture were interrelated and that both of these forces influenced the traits we developed (Butt, 2004). In this sense, he was trying to say that personality is partially determined by nature but also shaped by nurture.

Eysenck's research suggested we had a default range of cortical arousal in the nervous system which determined whether we were introverted or extroverted. Introversion and extroversion were viewed as fixed, although we have somewhat revised our concept these days. 
We might allow that this has a degree of fluidity although we will show that this conception is problematic later. 

Eyesenck then looked to autonomic nervous responses which determined emotional stability (Butt, 2004). This allowed him to suggest that our personality traits were determined by a mixture of genetics and classical conditioning. He claimed personality was a biological function that imposed limits on our abilities, but he also allowed there were malleable aspects of our neurophysiology which could change over time (Butt, 2004).

In this respect he could point to different arousal states in the autonomic nervous system, as causing the differences in our behaviour, and could explain why someone optimistic could have an off day. On Eysenck's account then, it was simply a matter of neurotransmitters, triggered by the nervous system, that caused a fluctuation in our behaviour.

Eysenck's methodology

There are many words describing traits and if we take the notion of 'melancholic' we could use a variety of words indicative of this disposition e.g. pessimistic, moody, etc. If a group of us were asked to observe a melancholic, we may come up with different words describing this same disposition. 
In order to capture a detailed enough description, Eysenck based his theory on a 'factor analysis'. This involved people observing subjects in a laboratory, who rated them according to a questionnaire. 

From this, he conducted a statistical analysis that grouped certain traits together and thus derived a personality index, where the traits were arranged on the axes of stability and how introvert/extrovert someone was. In this way, he removed the overlap of certain descriptions of traits, and managed to group multiple descriptions to a particular trait, as in our melancholic example above. 

By looking at each of the traits in the diagram, I'm sure you can come up with multiple ways of describing someone exhibiting some of these behaviours. In this sense, Eyesenck was looking for uniformity in our descriptions of traits and whittled the list down to 32 traits.

On the face of it, this appears to be a satisfactory explanation, and an objective way of carving up the psychological domain of traits. Furthermore, this is what scientific orthodoxy tells us, and it also conforms to our natural use of language. 
We all intuitively understand what these traits refer to and mean when we describe someone. 

Naturally, there are specialists who appear under the branch of 'personality psychology' who have taken this idea and had developed it much further. There are many tests and variations of quizzes, which claim to determine our own personality traits by answering a set of multiple choice questions. Given that this is accepted as a meaningful science among the general population, then we can ask are there any grounds to question such an assertion?

It turns out that we can level multiple challenges against these lines of thinking. Welcome to the myth of the enduring personality…


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