Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part IV

Traits of Temperament & Character

At this point it may be argued that persistence or 'relaible' is the wrong sort of thing to constitute a fixed trait. We might divide the trait realm in to traits of character and traits of temprament. This is an argument favoured by Helen Fisher in 'This Will Make You Smarter'

"Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are". (Fisher, 2013)

Here we see that Fisher divides the trait domain in to two components which consist of temperament and character. She claims that temperament is the foundation of who you are. Then, we also have traits developed by experience, that is our character. In this sense, she is trying to say there is some fixed essence to us, but also a malleable component much like Eyesenck. Given that in our previous example, my persistence was learned, we could pass this off as a trait of experience, if we could really call it a trait at all. A trait theorist may reject my persistence is a trait of temperament, and try to run another argument in favour of traits which might run like this.

John is an introvert who clearly has a shy trait since he has a social anxiety disorder of some kind. It is evident that we observe consistent and regular withdrawal behaviours when he is surrounded by strangers, and he has always been like this. This points to an enduring mechanism that causes this behaviour, therefore, traits do exist.

Constructing an argument in this way, we have delineated between experience and some fixed essence of an individual. That is to say, persistence is the kind of thing derived from our experience, but there is some particular immutable hard wired aspect to our personality which is the biological foundation of what we refer to as ourselves.

However, this might not be a tenable claim to make if we consider the following. If we take John and put him in a different situation i.e. with two friends he knows well, it might be reasonable to suggest this shy trait would disappear. This means that the appearance of the trait is contingent on a specific context, namely when confronted with strangers. In this instance, it would appear that a specific stimulus is required in order to trigger this disposition. Here, an explanation might look like this.

Stimulus – Perceptual recognition - Neurotransmitters released - Behavioural response

This may well be observable in a series of events and it is reasonable to draw this conclusion, however, we need not hold to the claim this is a fixed enduring disposition. It is recognised by psychologists that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can affect changes to people who suffer with social anxiety disorder. 

Essentially, if we take someone like John we could put him through a series of therapy sessions and over time he could well become cured of his social anxiety. On this account it seems that these dispositions are not enduring at all, they are actually malleable and a product of his dysfunctional thinking. In this sense, we can question the assumption that there are hard wired biological aspects to our personality.

Proponents of trait theory try to appeal to certain aspects of personality being malleable, and others which are not. It is clear here that in order to account for this, a trait theorist points to both an experiential component, and a fixed biological component. However, by appealing to these dual mechanisms, trait theorists are both having their cake and eating it. How can we justifiably claim that on the one hand there are experiential traits that are malleable and fixed biological traits that are also malleable? In order to assert a solid foundation for this “I am”, it would be necessary to put this shyness trait in to a biological category. How could one possibly be shy and this not be part of their temperament?

Right here we run in to a clear contradiction in terms. This division in to traits of temperament and character appears to be underspecified at best and at worst incoherent. It is recognised that people can go through major changes to their behaviour, especially when we consider the transition from a child to an adult. It might be pertinent to assign an aggressive temperament to a child, but how then do we explain this transition to a calm and relaxed adult using the idea of fixed traits? Clearly, the distinction between temperament and character cannot be maintained since we need to appeal to malleability of temperament, and it seems this division is clearly a product of reification. That is, we have mistakenly granted this conceptual division concrete existence, when it does not exist. It would be incumbent on a trait theorist to specify this difference coherently, and it appears that this difficulty is insurmountable.

The other option available here is to bite the bullet and say there are no fixed traits. That even our temperament is malleable, as we are beings that change over time. In this sense, Trait theory could incorporate John's cure and allow that this foundation of who we are can shift over time.

However, the difficulties for trait theory begin to become apparent once we expose the assumptions needed for this idea to work... 
Part V here...


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