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.


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