Friday, May 29, 2009

Breaking Down Personality

The story so far: We all want happiness and love and meaning in our lives. The people who have this tend to have positive emotions, an integrated personality, life satisfaction, and virtues (such as courage and wisdom). But to get there, we need to have a strong sense of self-awareness, we need to "know thyself."

Personality is adaptive and non-linear, and evolved from three basic systems: 1) Habit (non-rational, tied to basic emotions such as fear), 2) Propositions (rational, tied to secondary emotions such as empathy) 3) Narratives (rational and also self-aware, allows us to change).

The above is from a lecture last week at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting by leading personality expert Robert Cloninger MD, detailed in two blog posts (here and here).

Okay, let's break down personality. The slide you see below dates from Dr Cloninger's work in 1993. It breaks personality into two separate but interconnecting branches, temperament and character.

Temperament is about our habit systems (which roughly equates to the ancient Greek concept of the "four humors") namely:

  1. Harm avoidance - The fear system that mediates responding to punishment and pain.
  2. Novelty seeking - Looking for pleasure, which leads to rage when frustrated.
  3. Reward dependence - Allows us to be sensitive to social cues that in turn allows social intimacy.
  4. Persistence - Allows us to deal with expectations about whether we will get rewarded or not. We see it in very conscientious people.

But these traits don't stand alone. They're always interacting with the person's character, namely their view of who they are and how they relate to the rest of the world. You can describe these in terms of three cognitive sets: 1) Self-directedness, 2) cooperation, and 3) self-transcendence.

It's the communication between all these that allows us to say whether someone is healthy and in a state of well-being. This in turn influences your overall sense of who you are, which in turn allows you to shape the rest of your personality.

Thus, we have a model of mental self-government that allows us to regulate the competing urges from our basic biological drives.

Fine, but if our mental self-governance is closer to anarchy, can we impose order? If it's closer to autocracy, can we loosen the reins? In short, can we change?

Let's back up. Below is Dr Cloninger's "temperament cube," that he developed in 1987.

Don't worry. We will compassionately spare you the details. The gist of the model is the interplay between three of the four temperaments: novelty seeking (high and low), harm avoidance (high and low), and reward dependence (high and low).

Thus, someone with low harm avoidance tends to be carefree and risk-taking while those with high harm avoidance are characterized as anxious and pessimistic. Combine high harm avoidance with low novelty seeking and worlds collide.

Note, on the corners of the top we see the four Cluster B Axis II personality disorders, together with their prime descriptors, thus: histrionic (passionate), antisocial (adventurous), narcissistic (sensitive), and borderline (explosive).

The bottom corners produce another set of (opposite) extremes. Thus, the antithesis to someone with explosive borderline traits would be a methodical and obsessional individual. Fortunately, most of us don't cluster into the corners.

But life isn't that simple. This is where mental self-government and its three branches come in:

  1. Self-directedness equates to the executive branch that implements the rules and allows you to be responsible, purposeful, and resourceful.
  2. Cooperation equates to the legislative branch that gives you the rules to allow you to get along with other people, so you can be flexible, helpful, and compassionate.
  3. Self-transcendence (judiciary) gives you the flexibility to figure out when the rules apply and don't apply.

Voila, the "character cube."

The ones who seek help, Dr Cloninger said, tend to be schizotypal or depressed. Thus, if we look to the bottom corner of the cube, in Dr Cloninger's words: "I had a patient of mine describe this as, 'Life is hard, people are mean, and then you die.'"

This contrasts with those who hit the character trifecta with the Jungian prize of enlightenment and all the goodies that go with it. Those with the Freudian prize of being organized can take comfort in the fact that they can at least love and work.

Thus we see a spectrum from transcendence to psychopathology, with a lot of room in the middle, meaning there is no true separation between normal and abnormal personality.

In the slide below, the upper case letters (S,C,T) stand for high self-directedness, cooperation, and transcendence, while the lower case letters (s,c,t) stand for their polar opposites. Red is happiness, blue is sadness.

Take a look. If you're low in all three, you're really going to be depressed. And seeing that personality is fairly stable, you are likely to stay depressed. Not good.

But here's the good news: We can change, and change can occur fairly rapidly. Stay tuned ...


themadandwild said...

I've never given personalty theories much weight ever since I head about Mischel's 1968 book personality and assessment. Basically he pointed out that personalty traits are no good predictor for human behaviour, with only a correlation of .30.

John McManamy said...

Hey, themadandwild. I'm still learning, so I welcome your comments. Please keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

Dear John McManamy, I am Jannerson Girsang a biographer from Indonesia. Thank you for our explanation about interconnecting Personality, Character and Habits. Some times those makes me confused.


Jannerson Girsang

admin said...

What a useful post here. Very informative for me..TQ friends...

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