Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part III

Part I of the series here

The Self Delusion of Personality

The traits that we use in everyday conversation appear in the form of a predicate in grammatical terms. That is, they form the part of the clause that describes the subject. So for example, we could say “John is shy” and the 'is shy' portion is our predicate. This is how we tend to describe people in an objective capacity. However, this does become problematic when we try and apply it across the board.

A trait that I liked to apply to myself was my strong level of persistence. Since Eyesenck does not use the word persistent, I find the closest matching trait from his chart which is reliable. I do not get easily dissuaded and I have an unwavering ability to push forward towards my goals even in difficult circumstances. This is perhaps my strongest trait and something I considered to make me who I am. 

This description is rather inaccurate though because I was not always so persistent. In fact, I used to be a quitter and found it difficult to see things through when I was younger. I sometimes used to look at things that had a degree of difficulty and did not even bother entertaining giving it a go, quickly dismissing them as too difficult. When I did try, I often ran out of momentum and my interest waned quickly.

In later life I developed an interest in many difficult things such as producing music, writing philosophy, and martial arts. These are not things you can just give a quick go and become a master at. These are things that require a serious degree of commitment and also many failures through trial and error. By applying myself to certain endeavours, I found I got a great deal of satisfaction from them and I was willing to persist at them for this reason. 

When completing my degree I did not find the same level of satisfaction in doing the work, but I did focus on the end result, which I believed would give me a great deal of satisfaction. Even though there were times when studying drove me to despair, especially when I was sat in the house whilst it was 30° outside during the summer, I managed to stick it out right through till the end. In this sense, when we perceive that it is something of value then persistence becomes something that naturally flows from this.

When we look at it in this sense it seems I actually learned to become persistent rather than having it as a natural trait. However, if someone in a job interview asked me “What is your strongest trait”?
I would reply “My persistence”. It is plain then I have led myself into self deceit and there is no enduring quality about me that is persistent.

It is just simply the fact that I persist at doing things that I deem to be of value.

I would not demand to continue a picnic when the weather turned inclement, and clearly my persistence trait would disappear on such an occasion. Personally, I find more value in sticking at difficult tasks, and I do not find things that come with little effort very rewarding. However, this does not mean it is some enduring quality that I possess more so than anybody else.

We are all willing to persist at something that we believe is of value to us, and to say this is a personality trait, would be conflating it with our preferences. Our preferences are real but we were trying to point to enduring 'traits' in order to predict our behaviour. Our preferences, as we know, change over time and sometimes quite drastically too. 

For instance, you probably didn't like the taste of alcohol or olives when you were younger, and I seriously doubt that you are interested in playing with action figures or Dolls any more. Anyhow, I digress here and this is a subject worthy of future exploration in its own right.

The main point is this.

Do you see how easy it is to concoct an identity story?

By overcoming adversity at University and persisting with my endeavours through all the difficult parts, I have constructed an enduring quality about myself that is grounded in fiction. In the past I could have used this as a device to delude myself about my triumph over adversity, or to try and coerce or manipulate the way people might think about me.

The reality is sometimes I persist at things and other times I don't.

That is about as far as any chain of reasoning can be established here, and all we are left with is a miserable tautology, when we expected to find some enduring quality of my 'personality'. The thing that determines whether or not I do persist is simply whether I deem it to be of value. Very simply, we are looking to contingencies of circumstance that determine whether or not we perform particular behaviours.

That is, the context we find ourselves in is the factor which determines our behaviour.

To point to some enduring quality that 'makes me the person who I am' clearly seems to point to the mistakes we made in the first part of this essay. This is where we referred to 'categorisation' as being an incoherent means of assigning traits to people, since there is a dimensional quality to their behaviours. Furthermore, we can invent new categories to rationalise our stories, and the above is an instance where I have conjured up a personality trait out of thin air.

It seems that we all find it too easy to make the error of rigidly categorising ourselves and to compound this problem, some of our categorisations may not be positive traits like persistence. Have you ever categorised yourself as a loser, unlovable, clumsy?

Well guess what.

You are using the very same mechanism of delusion to conceptualise yourself. When we take a look at the imposing fortress of such categorisations, we need only revise our view point, and realise it was folly all along.

This argument might not hold with some folk though, and we might say this is the wrong sort of thing to call a trait, and challenge this argument by splitting traits in to two types....


Post a Comment

Popular Posts