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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Do Cultures Have Personality?

When people talk about culture and personality, the normal top-of-the-mind concern is whether cultures affect personality and if so to what extent?

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of t...

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: World Secular-Rational and Self Expression Values as a map of world cultures based on World Values Survey data. Svenska: En Världskulturkarta av Inglehart-Welzel typ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personality, or enduring individual differences in thinking, feeling, motivations and behavior among have been shown to be partly heritable and under genetic effect; they are partly shaped by the culture and early life experiences also.

However, this post is not about the culture’s effect on personality; rather just like individuals differ from each other on certain universal traits (say the Big Five) and this individual difference is what typically comes to mind when one talks of personality of an individual (i.e. so-and-so is extarverted as compared to population mean etc) , so too cultures show differences from each other and one may conceive of these differences as enduring and differentiating aspect of that culture vis-a-vis other cultures, in essence its personality.

A name that is quite well-known in this context is that of Geert Hofstede. He, initially, in the 1970s, analyzed values data from IBM employees, from over 50 countries to arrive at four dimensions on which the cultures differed. He later extended this work and analyzed data from World Values Survey and work by him and others later led to addition of two more dimensions. The six dimensions, on which cultures differ, in his own words [pdf] are:

1. Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality;
2. Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future;
3. Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into primary groups;
4. Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between women and men;
5. Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life.

Lets analyze this a bit further.

Power Distance has been defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

To me it seems all about relationships among people- whether the hierarchical relationships are accepted or resisted. If one could extend an analogy to individual differences in personality, this may be analogous to the trait of Agreeableness in individuals- whether you are kind and nice or aggressive towards others.

Uncertainty Avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.

To my mind it is absolutely clear that is a cognitive dimension and analogous to Openness to Experience in individual variation. Both share the underlying theme of being open and exploratory and tolerant of ambiguity.

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find cultures in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the
collectivist side we find cultures in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, and oppose other ingroups.

To me this looks like an analog of Extraversion-introversion in individuals. One end is quite while the other is quite engaged with outside activities. In cultural terms, one end is characterized by close knit families while the other with more individualistic pursuits.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found.

I cannot find a ready analogue of this in individual differences in personality in terms of the Big Five. In cultural terms this is related to whether gender roles are heavily differentiated (masculine cultures) or less so (feminine cultures).

Values found at this pole (long term orientation) were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability.

This can be equated easily with the Conscientiousness individual difference, one pole of which is associated with self-control etc.

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.

This focus on happiness/ well-being versus constraint and repression of desires may be the analogous of neuroticism and emotional stability, where one end may have repressed desires at individual level while other exhibits more stability.

I know this is a far conjecture, and by no means am I suggesting that if a culture is high in Uncertainty avoidance, the individuals within it will have low openness to experience; the relationship between cultures and personality is more complex than that; but it is a good way to think about cultures that they too have a unique personality and its structure may be on the same lines as individual differences personality.

The Four Neural Sub-Types of Depression

Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will be familiar with my obsession with knowing how nature is carved at its joints or in other words what are the natural categories or basic kinds.

Anhedonia (The Graduate album)

Anhedonia (The Graduate album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This translates into thinking a lot about what are the fundamental drives, basic emotions and personalty traits and what taxonomic system of mental illness is most reflective of underlying fundamental nosological differences.

While synthesizing the work of others, has great value, and one derives many valuable theoretical insights based on such musings; there is nothing better than finding empirical studies that shed some light on such matters.

For example, I have argued that one set of disorders that arise form emotional polarity of fear/interest is Anxiety disorders and Obsession disorders. When fear is disproportional/ inappropriate  to circumstances, it leads to anxiety; when interest is disproportional/ inappropriate it leads to Obsession. Fear and interest though opposed are two separate constructs as per the first tenet of positive psychology that good is not the absence of bad.

Similarly, the set of disorders that arise form sadness/ Joy polarity is depressive disorders and manic disorders. I am deliberately using plural form while defining depressive/ manic disorders as they contain sub-types – as we  will soon see in the case of depression.

Now while depression is characterized by excessive low affect (sadness), one way to conceive Mania is as having excessive energy; the opposite of manic symptoms thus might be conceived of as fatigue or anergia. Anxiety is of course marked by excess anxiety while Obsession is too much interest; a possible opposite of obsession may be anhedonia– a sort of disinterest or apathy.

Now, its common to find depression and anxiety disorders comorbid with each other and just like treating bipolar as well as schizophrenia under one umbrella of psychosis, one may conceivably treat depression/ anxiety / anergia and anhedonia under a common nomenclature- in this case that of depression.

But we are perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. Lets backtrack a bit and go straight to this new study that found four neural subtypes of depression.

Basically, Liston and colleagues, used resting state fMRI to look at the functional connectivity of depressed patients and developed an algorithm to predict who has depression and who does not have in a sample consisting of both depressed patients and healthy controls. They found abnormal functional connectivity in frontostraital and limbic systems in teh depressive patients.

They also used clustering techniques to find that their depressive subset of patients clustered around two dimensions- one of which they called anxiety dimension and the other anhedonia. When one takes into account that there could be 2×2 = 4 combinations of anxiety and anhedoinia they found that their patients neatly clustered in those four quadrants.

If you note in the figure 1f accompanying the article,

  • cluster 1 subjects have low scores on anhedonia and high scores on anxiety
  • cluster 2 subjects have neither anxiety nor anhedonia
  • cluster 3 have high anhedonia but low anxiety
  • cluster 4 have both high anxiety and high anhedonia

The authors note that all subjects had low mood (sadness, hoplessness, helplessness) and that is why they were classified as depressed patients in the first place. The core depressive signature was also associetd with anergia and anhedonia with majority of patients showing these symptoms across all subtypes.

They also found slightly different neural signatures for all the four subtypes. For eg. cluster 1 & 4 characterized by high anxiety had reduced frontoamygdalar connectivity, linking it with fear circuit. Cluster 3 & 4 were associated with hyper connectivity between thalamic and frontostriatal networks and had high anhedonia and psychomotor retardation associated with them. And cluster 1 & 2 had reduced connectivity between anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal coretx involved in reward and incentive salience and guess what they showed anergia or fatigue.

To me it seems apparent that what we are seeing here are different effects of low mood, anxiety, anhedonia and anergia playing out as four clusters.

Cluster 3 I would classify as primarily anehdoina related; cluster 4 as primarily anxiety related; cluster 1 may be thought of as  anergia related and clusetr 2 as pure depression or low mood related.

If my hunches are true we should find similar subdivisions in diagnosed anxiety disorders, obsessive disorders , manic disorders too. Of  course that is an empirical fact to be proved.

The Four Shades of Dark

People since time immemorial have been fascinated by the problem of evil; some consider it a philosophical (why does evil exist?) and religious problem (Why does god allow evil if he is omnipotent and benevolent?) while some others have taken a more scientific approach.

Prominent psychologists from Roy Baumeister to Simon Baron-Cohen have written about evil and I first got drawn into psychology when I read ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness‘ by Erich Fromm in 1992, while still in college. As a matter of fact Fromm first came up with the term ‘malignant narcissism’ which was a sort of predecessor to the modern theory of an evil personality.

The modern theory of evil personality has recognized the existence of a dark triad- Narcissism,  Machiavellianissm and Psychopathy, and recent studies and conceptualization have extended this to include a fourth trait called Sadism to make it a dark tetrad.

Research has shown that these four traits are moderately correlated to each other but are separate constructs.

But first lets understand what we mean by these terms.

Sadism: Everyday sadism, includes but is not limited to sadism in a sexual context. Put simply, it is a tendency to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, either directly or vicariously. Normally, if we hurt someone else we feel guilt and shame and distress etc; sadists instead become addicted to such hurting others events as they feel diminished negative affect in hurting someone and instead feel pleasure.

Narcissism: Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self; they also feel very entitled; they are exploitative and demonstrate attention-seeking behavior.

Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism is basically having no qualms in manipulating people; they are also very good at such manipulations and are calculating and cold in their calculations..

Psychopathy: Psychopaths, apart from demonstrating anti-social behavior, are characteristic by their callous and unemotional attitude towards others people suffering. some people believe they lack empathy, while others believe they can cognitively know what it feels like, but do not affectively feel in the same way as their victims.

There is a rich body of literature linking the dark tetrad to many negative outcomes ranging from over-representation in internet trolling to more juvenile delinquency.

There is also some evidence linking these traits diffferentially to the big HEXACO/big five traits. for eg. Narcissism is associated with Extraversion, while Machiavellianism is associated with less Agreeablness; Sadism with less Emotionality, while Psychopathy with less Conscientiousness. The lowered scores on Humility-Honesty dimension of HEXACO are associated with all the four dark triad traits.

Similarly, the traits react differently when provoked: Narcissists aggression is insecurity driven; sadistic persons pleasure driven while that of a psychopath revenge driven.

Referring to my previous post, one can even conjecture that sadism is the Life schema/ Pain-pleasure axis gone wrong; Narcissism is due to inflated self schema; Machiavellianism a result of dysfunctional Others schema, while Psychopathy tied to deficiencies in the World schema.

It would be a mistake to presume that this dark triad is a categorical difference- its a dimensional difference and of degree rather than kind. All of us demonstrate some Machiavellian behavior or say everyday Sadism and its only a matter of time if these tendencies go unchecked you end up on the other side. As the popular saying goes, there are two wolves inside of us, the one which grows  depends on which wolf you feed.

Basic Needs, Basic Beliefs, Basic Pathologies

Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow‘ elucidates the two type of thinking processes involved- a system I consisting of fast, intuitive processing, and a system II consisting of slower, more deliberate processing. Lesser known is the fact that a similar dual process theory of personality that precedes his work is by Seymour Epstien.

The Pleasure Principle (song)

The Pleasure Principle (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epstien is know for his Cognitive-Experiential Self theory of Personalty (CEST), according to which he reintroduced the concept of unconscious in psychology, in the form of the Experiential system, but his unconscious was not maladaptive and instinct driven, but more adaptive in nature.

Essentially, Epstien acknowledges the massive role Experiential system has on the rational system, postulating that most of the behavior is Experiential driven and only pots hoc rationalized by the Rational system.

The Experiential system, though unconscious is not made up of repressed desires or works on the Pleasure principle, but instead is geared towards satisfying four basic needs. He later added two super-ordinate needs – one related to Valence or positive affcet- negative affect polarity and the other related to Arousal. Its pertinent to note that the Experiential system of CEST is very much affect driven and ‘hot’ rather than ‘cold’ in nature.

Essentially, Epstien himself tacitly split the four needs into eight by claiming that each need can be split around the super-ordinate need of positive affect- negative affect polarity. Here are the four basic needs made explicit.

In classical Freudian theory, the one most basic need before his introduction of a death instinct was the pleasure principle, which refers to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of and pain (Freud, 1924/1960). Some learning theorists such as Thorndike (1927) make a similar assumption in their view of the importance of affective reinforcement. For object-relations theorists, most notably Bowlby (1988), the most fundamental need is the need for relatedness. For Rogers (1951) and other phenomenological psychologists, it is the need to maintain the stability and coherence of a person’s conceptual system. For Allport (1961) and Kohut (1971), it is the need to enhance self-esteem. (For a more thorough discussion of these proposals see Epstein, 1993, 1998b.) From the perspective of CEST, the four proposed basic needs all meet the following criteria for a basic need: the need is universal, the need can dominate the other basic needs, a failure to fulfill the need can destabilize the overall conceptual system.

These four basic needs may be satisfied to various degrees during critical developmental periods and lead to four basic types of beliefs. Even a scale has been created to measure these basic beliefs:

The Basic Beliefs Inventory (BBI). The BBI  (Catlin & Epstein, 1992) is a 102-item measure of beliefs associated with the satisfaction of four basic needs that motivate behavior according to CEST (see Epstein, 1991). The four basic beliefs are (1) the belief that the world is benign versus malevolent; (2) the belief that the world is meaningful (i.e., predictable, controllable, and just) versus chaotic (i.e., unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unjust); (3) the belief that relations with others are supportive versus threatening; and (4) the belief that the self is worthy (i.e., competent, good, and lovable) versus unworthy (i.e., incompetent, bad, and unlovable).

To me this aligns very well with the fundamental four model. To recap , as per the fundamental four model there are four polarities of basic motivations or drives: pleasure/ pain; active/passive; self/other and broad/narrow.

I would like to take this opportunity to expand the CEST and merge it with the fundamental four framework.

As per CEST, we all have beliefs or schema or models about self, others, the inanimate world and these are significantly involved in psychopathology.

I would propose that we have four basic models with 2 sub-models each. The four basic models are related to Life (where self and others or environment is not typically distinguished from each other), a Self model, an Other model and a World model.

Life model:

Life-past-and-present:  How do we view life that has already happened? If the experiences were mostly good, we see life as beautiful or benign; if the experiences were mostly bad, we view life as sucking or malevolent.

Life-yet-to-come: How do expect the future to be like? if we expect life to be full of adventure and hope we feel life is promising;  if we expect life to be mostly downhill, we feel that life is bleak.

Self model:

Self’s-impact-on-Env: How much control do we feel we have over our environment? Are we in control, can we chose our niches and are our efforts rewarded and effective? If yes we have feelings of positive self – esteem, otherwise we feel incompetent.

Env-Impact-on-self: Does our environment allow us any autonomy in regulating our behavior? Does it act for our benefit or to our advantage? If the environment provides unconditional positive regard, we develop positive self-worth and feel competent dealing with life’s curve-balls ; else we end up feeling worthless.

Other model:

Others-same-as-me: Am I part of the In-group? If we are accepted as part of the ingroup, our needs of belonging are satisfied; else we feel lonely.

Others-different-than-me: Can I trust them? Will they trust me? After all they are an outgroup. If we are able to rise above our fears and distrust, our needs for connection are satisfied, else we remain isolated.

World model:

Physical-World:Is the physical universe lawful? is it determined and non-miraculous? If our precepts lead us to believe that we live in a lawful universe, we have a stable overarching schema; whenever we witness something not inline with the laws of nature, that schema goes for a toss.

Social-World: Is the social world predictable? do actions of people make sense or is there too much randomness? If the social world seems predictable and lawful in its own sense, then we can maintain a coherent worldview; else if we encounter too many behaviors or events of which we cannot make sense we risk becoming incoherent.

It is my contention that dysfunctional beliefs at each of these eight sub-models lead to different types of psychopathology. For eg. the Life model that say that life is malevolent/ bleak may lead to anxiety ; a Self model claiming that the self is worthless/ incompetent may lead to depression; while a World model were events/percepts don’t make sense and is incoherent/unstable may lead to psychosis.

And of course this may be mediated by early life experiences/ genetic propensities that give rise to differences in brain neurotransmitter systems. But a detailed model about that should be the subject of a new post.

Different Frames, Different Outcomes, Different Emotions

Most readers I presume are familiar with the work of Kahneman and Tversky on how statements framed in either loss or gain lead to different outcomes; however this is not a post about prospect theory. Instead this is about a different type of framing: whether the goals you set for yourself are in terms of approach or avoidance, and is loosely based around the work of AJ Elliot as also that of Higgins around prevention and promotion focus.

English: Emotions Q-sort

English: Emotions Q-sort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One can set an approach goal or a goal with promotion focus (I’m using these interchangeably in this post though there are important theoretical differences) wherein one is very much focused on achieving a positive outcome. Or one could set an avoidance goal or a goal with prevention focus whereby one is overtly focused on not achieving or ending up in a negative state.

To illustrate by way of an example, if I am studying and appearing for an exam in near future, I may phrase my approach goal as ‘I want to pass in this exam’ or I may phrase my avoidance goal as ‘I don’t want to fail in this exam’. From a lay reading both goals may seem equivalent but they are not. They have different repercussions in terms of emotions felt while pursuing the goals etc.

Research has also shown that some people have a more approach oriented temperament and other more avoidance or preventive focused.

Avoidance goals are typically related to your fears and anxieties while approach goals to what you look forward to and are excited about.

Consider a scenario where you don’t currently have any overarching, activated goal. If you frame this lack of goals in avoidance terms that ‘I don’t have anything to be worried about’ you are likely to feel calm; on the other hand phrasing it as ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to’ will lead to you likely feeling bored.

Thus, while presence of an avoidance goal leads to fear, an absence of the same leads to calm; the presence of an approach goal leads to excitement/ Interest/ curiosity while the absence of same leads to boredom.

Another important theory by Carver and Scheier stresses the emergence of emotions as indicators of progress towards goals- with positive emotions arising if you are making progress toward the goal and negative emotions if you are not making sufficient progress.

Applying the same to the two different framing of goals, if you are progressing towards an approach goal say ‘I am likely to pass the exam’ you are likely to feel quite happy about the fact; however if you are far from achieving the approach goal say ‘I am unlikely to pass the exam’, you may become sad. Similarly, if you are progressing well towards an avoidance goal (‘I am likely to not fail’) you may feel relief; while if you are not making progress towards the avoidance goal (‘I am likely to fail’ ) then you will feel much stress.

Next consider the avoidance/ approach goal to be framed in zero-sum or non-zero sum game terms. A zero sum game is where if one person wins then the other loses; a non zero sum game is where there can be multiple winners and nobody’s payoff gets diminished due to others winning.

A zero sum avoidance game sees either winner or loser in a social situation and believes that the only way to not fail is to not let others succeed too and may phrase its goal like ‘I don’t want to be the loser’.  This may justifiably lead to feelings of anger and aggression when interacting socially with other con-specifics while trying to pursue this goal; On the other hand a  non-zero sum avoidance goal assumes that it is possible that everyone may fail or everyone may win and the attitude is more compassionate towards con-specifics who are all suffering and focused on not failing. The phrasing of goal is slightly different ‘I don’t want to be a loser’.

A zero sum approach game again sees either a winner or a loser in any social interaction but is focused on winning ‘I want to be the winner’ . This leads to justifiable competitiveness; a non zero sum reading of the same situation ‘I want to be a winner’ leads to much more altruistic and kind emotions and behaviors.

I can vouch for this from personal experience too- when I was preparing for JEE I just wanted to be one of the top 100 and did not look at my friends who were also preparing as competitors but as collaborators- because I wanted to be ‘a’ winner, not ‘the’ winner.

The last set of emotions tied to these different framing are when one either satisfactorily completes the avoidance/ approach goal or fails to do so.

Consider satisfactory completion of an avoidance goal- ‘I did not fail’ – because the initial goal if farmed negatively one may be surprised at the results; if however on does fail one may be filled with disgust.

Satisfactory completion of an approach goal – ‘I passed’ may lead to feelings of wonder/ awe/ gratitude while unsatisfactory completion or failure- I did not pass’  may lead to feelings of shock etc.

Thus, I believe there are at least 16 different types of emotional responses eight tied to approach goals and eight to avoidance goals- approach goals related emotions are excitement/ boredom; happiness/sadness; competition/ kindness; and wonder/ shock. Avoidance related emotions are fear/ calm; relief/ stress; aggression/ compassion ; and disgust/ surprise.

This of course is based on theory as well as my reading of some empirical work done on emotions related to approach/ avoidance. However, there is a lot of scope for additional research to validate these predictions- I hope someone out there does do some research around this framework.

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