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.


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