David Brooks has written yet another wonderful column on the mind. This time he explores the nagging gap between our intuitions about personality – we each express a particular set of character traits, which can be traced back to our early childhood – and the scientific facts, which suggest that the vague personality traits measured by the Myers-Briggs are too vague to mean much of anything. Here’s Brooks:
In Homer’s poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct.
In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate.
These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous.
The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”
The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context.
One of the first (and fiercest) critics of the fixed trait model of personality – this idea that character is quantifiable, like an IQ score of the soul – is Walter Mischel. I wrote about his groundbreaking research in a recent New Yorker article:
In 1958, Mischel became an assistant professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. One of his first tasks was to develop a survey course on “personality assessment,” but Mischel quickly concluded that, while prevailing theories held personality traits to be broadly consistent, the available data didn’t back up this assumption. Personality, at least as it was then conceived, couldn’t be reliably assessed at all. A few years later, he was hired as a consultant on a personality assessment initiated by the Peace Corps. Early Peace Corps volunteers had sparked several embarrassing international incidents–one mailed a postcard on which she expressed disgust at the sanitary habits of her host country–so the Kennedy Administration wanted a screening process to eliminate people unsuited for foreign assignments. Volunteers were tested for standard personality traits, and Mischel compared the results with ratings of how well the volunteers performed in the field. He found no correlation; the time-consuming tests predicted nothing. At this point, Mischel realized that the problem wasn’t the tests–it was their premise. Psychologists had spent decades searching for traits that exist independently of circumstance, but what if personality can’t be separated from context? “It went against the way we’d been thinking about personality since the four humors and the ancient Greeks,” he says.
One of Mischel’s classic studies documented the aggressive behavior of children in a variety of situations at a summer camp in New Hampshire. Most psychologists assumed that aggression was a stable trait, but Mischel found that children’s responses depended on the details of the interaction. The same child might consistently lash out when teased by a peer, but readily submit to adult punishment. Another might react badly to a warning from a counsellor, but play well with his bunkmates. Aggression was best assessed in terms of what Mischel called “if-then patterns.” If a certain child was teased by a peer, then he would be aggressive.
Mischel’s favorite metaphor for this model of personality, known as interactionism, concerns a car making a screeching noise. How does a mechanic solve the problem? He begins by trying to identify the specific conditions that trigger the noise. Is there a screech when the car is accelerating, or when it’s shifting gears, or turning at slow speeds? Unless the mechanic can give the screech a context, he’ll never find the broken part. Mischel wanted psychologists to think like mechanics, and look at people’s responses under particular conditions.
So if personality is so context-dependent, then why do we believe so fiercely in the constancy of character? Why does everyone know their Myers-Briggs score? The answer returns us to the biased brain, and a mental flaw known as the fundamental attribution error. It turns out that when we evaluate the behavior of others we naturally overemphasize the role of personality – we assume people are always aggressive or always dishonest or always sarcastic – and undervalue the role of context and the pervasive influence of situations. Nobody, it turns out, is always anything.