Posts tagged Nature versus nurture

emotions and personality: take 6

Cover of "Personality Disorders in Modern...

Cover of Personality Disorders in Modern Life


Today I learned that Theodore Millon died. I started reading ” personality disorders in modern life” as a tribute to him, but the monkey mind that mine is, ended up writing this post instead.


To recall, Theodore Millon’s model talked about four fundamental evolutionary problems faced by all humans: 1) existence 2) adaptation 3) replication and 4)¬† abstraction. There were also two polar ways of approaching each fundamental problem; that of pleasure-pain; activity-passivity; self-other and I added to it the fourth polarity of broad-narrow. Anyway those polarities need not concern us for this post.


There is an influential model of emotions – the PAD model which views emotions, not as discrete basic emotions, but as dimensional in nature and thus different emotions differ from each other not as entities in themselves, but as graded multi-dimensional affects.


To elaborate, while the lay man may think of emotions as a few basic discrete emotions like sadness, happiness, anger, love, wonder, disgust, fear , interest etc. , as per this theory the emotions are complex graded amalgamations of a few basic fundamental dimensions.


As per this PAD theory, the first dimension is valence / pleasure/ pleasantness etc. which tells us whether the emotion colloquially feels ‘good’ or ‘bad’ . As we all know , no emotion by itself is bad; negative emotions have their own benefits, if invoked for a short amount of time and are situation specific; and the benefits of positive emotions is self-evident. BTW, some people consider ‘flow’ which is a sort of neutral emotional condition to be better that either.


The second dimension is Arousal/ energy/ vigor etc which tells us how strong the emotion is and how much it arouses us. Some emotions like courage arouse greatly (not just the person displaying courage, but also subtly the people witnessing it) while other emotions can have a calming effect (like love and compassion { depends what sort of love one is talking about ūüôā } )


The third dimension is dominance/ potency etc. and to my mind represents the ability of emotion to take control of you (/ others ? ). The immediate example that springs to mind is anger, but then so can be interest/ fascination. In either case, you empower your emotions to rule over you than vice versa.


The for-now-final dimension that I (and others) have added to the PAD model is predictiviness/transparency of the emotion:  whether it is hard to predict/ discern in oneself/ others or is consistently and transparently available to self/ others.


How does this relate to personality?


While reading the first chapter of Millon, I had the insight that one analogous personality dimensional structure we can talk about is as follows:


1) Strength/ existence of personality: whether one has ‘a personality’ / quirks in the first place. How (ab) normal one is; where one fits on the normal curve of personality traits distribution. Analogous to emotions, personality quirks have a function; those familiar with evolutionary theory will know why outliers are necessary for survival (of the species).


2) Fitness/ adaptability of personality : whether one can fit in with the social norms/ changing landscapes. Lay men think of people in terms of having a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ personality; in reality people are just responding to the environment and adapting. The behavior of some people is flexible, while for many its more rigid.


3) Centrality/ hold of personality: whether the quirks that make you unique form the average person, are central to your self-definition or have peripheral value; whether you want to shape/ influence/ mold loved others (like spouse, child etc)  as per your values or are OK with the differences.


4) Consistency/ integrity of personality: whether you are consistent in your thoughts, words, actions etc. or are comfortable with contradictions. (as and aside, a philosophical question is whether there is consistency behind contradictions and contradiction behind {apparent} consistency). With the cognitive revolution, much focus has shifted here. Using a information processing metaphor, much of new personality research like Daryl Bem‘s self-perception theory or Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory revolve around the idea of being consistent; either by changing your behavior or your self-image or maybe the language and words you use etc. etc. For eg. my counseling teacher used to say you can either be as comfortable as Gandhi (who he said used to sleep peacefully like a child whenever he got some time) or you can be as uncomfortable as OSHO.


So how does this relate to my ABCD model (or even the PAD model outlined above??) ? I’ll leave that as a homework exercise for regular readers. For now, let me just briefly touch upon the terms we use in personality research.


1. Temperament : more about what ‘Nature’ has endowed you with. He has an ‘irritable temperament’


2. Character : more about how ‘Nurture’ has shaped this character.


3. Personality: more about what ‘passions’ drive you.


4. Image: more about being ‘prudent’.


Let me elaborate. I have previously blogged about false dichotomies. I believe Nature Vs Nurture is a false dichotomy.  Everyone knows that. What about the new dichotomy I am introducing (Passion vs. Prudence) ?  As I mention in my false dichotomy blog post, Passion is about habits- using the power of your sub/ un-conscious mind Рchoosing for once , by way of habits, rituals etc. what you want to choose in times of crisis (on auto-pilot etc.). Prudence is about trying to reason, using whatever information is available at hand (including your gut reactions)- not necessarily conscious- but using bounded rationality- coming to a decision afresh at each choice point.


As I had mentioned in my false dichotomy post, Passion via prudence is more about making meaningful choices and a belief in choice/ free will. Nature via Nurture is all about proving the right environment to people to make their best attributes shine out. Running out of how to phrase ({Passion via Prudence} via {Nature via Nurture}) and what it is all about. Maybe you can help?

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Dichotomies; or Psychology in a nutshell

"Two buckets" view of heritability.

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The field of psychology abounds with dichotomies– some of which are patently false/outdated, as per the grapevine. The familiar ones include Nature-nurture and mind-brain; in the former it is assumed that now everything is a mixture of both nature and nurture while in the latter both mind and brain have been conflated to be the same. However as separate disciplines of neurology and psychology attest , and the naive disorder classification system scientists themselves use, which squarely puts one disorder as psychological while other as more neurological attests, there is some merit in considering things at different level of explanation- at the brain or neuronal level of explanation and at the mind or self/ organism level of explanation,


In this article I argue that not only there is merit in these dichotomies, but that these dichotomies grasp fundamental aspects of being and all provide a glimpse of the proverbial elephant to the blind men that we are.


To begin with , the most fundamental dichotomy I consider is that of BRAIN-MIND or DETERMINISM-FREE WILL. To me the proponents of BRAIN fall on  the DETERMINISM side of the table, while those of MIND fall into the FREE WILL camp. Let me elaborate. On the one side is reductive materialism that believes everything can be reduced to and explained in terms of neural firings and that all behavior is predetermined( from say the time of the Big Bang); on the other hand are people who tout the  HARD problems and propose that qualia exists, subjectivity exists, agency exists, even if the basis for that be found only in quantum effects, or rather the basis for which will never be found in classical brain based accounts but will always be non-computable/ non -comprehensible but intuitively grasped by phenomenological experiences alone.  To me there is merit in both arguments and my personal belief is that we are both determined and free, both brain and mind and that one is not the same as other but entails a different sort of world view. If I can go out on a limb, the first view of BRAIN is mechanistic/autistic in nature; while the second view that of MIND is mentalistic/psychotic in nature.  But we are moving ahead of ourselves.

The first belief system, that based around BRAIN/ DETERMINISM, is not without its own challenges/dichotomies. Consider that the BRAIN is sculpted and so everything is pre-DETERMINED. Who sculpted the BRAIN? NATURE or NURTURE? Both GENES and ENVIRONMENT can be equally strongly deterministic and capable of shaping our brain and predisposing us to act in a particular way.  No matter whether you believe in the all-empowering GENES or in the power of SITUATION to elicit behavior, or in the childhood influences that still govern adult REACTIONS, or believe in middle ground of developmental unfolding and epigenetic mechanisms, the predominant theme is that of doom and gloom and predestination. So NATURE-NURTURE is the dichotomy relevant here.

What about the FREE WILL/MIND camp? They too have to answer some tough questions as to what causes agency- is it REASON or PASSION? Does the freedom come from a lifetime of UNCONSCIOUS HABIT that gets engrained as character/PASSION or do we make a CONSCIOUS and REASONED  DECISION every time we ACT ? Is it FREE because it is an inbuilt IMPULSE; or is it  WILL because it can veto and CONTROL? The focus is squarely on ACTIONS- but Actions driven by PASSIONS or Actions driven by REASON? Note that in the NATURE-NURTURE theme the focus was on REACTIONS- what hidden force (genes/environment) causes us to react so and so; here the focus is on actions and what drives them ;  here the focus is on the perennial battle between romanticism and enlightenment /rationalism.   We grant that someone acts- but what is the basis of that action- is it PASSION or is it REASON? is it hidden, unconscious and spontaneous or is it deliberate, conscious and planned? the basic dichotomy here is between PASSION and REASON as the drivers of human action.


What about finer levels of dichotomies. Here again , on further analysis one can see that NATURE /GENES has a dichotomy in terms of Paternal genes or Maternal genes (working at cross-purposes at times as per genomic imprinting theory) ? NURTURE/ENVIRONMENT has a dichotomy in terms of SHARED (or PASSIVE) ENV. influences versus nons0hared or ACTIVE (niche constructing) ENV. influences.  PASSION has tensions between SPONTANEITY/random/Life force/EROS versus HABIT/ingrained/Death instinct/THANTOS; while  REASON has to balance between IRRATIONAL (mythos/chaotic) reasons versus RATIONAL (logos/orderly) reasons .

GENES are historical past facing; ENVIRONMENT is organism past + present facing; PASSION is Present + organism future  facing; while REASON is totally future facing.

So where am I getting from here.  It is to my ABCD model of psychology. Affect, Behavior , Desire/Motivation and Cognition.

To me, BRAIN-MIND/ DETERMINISM-FREE WILL debate is a manifestation of debates between primacy of Affect/behavior over motivation/cognition. Motivation /cognition are not directly observable/ measurable while in some sense affect and behavior are . Further, in BRAIN side there is tension between Affect (mostly inbuilt or genetic)  and  Behavior (mostly learned and a result of environmental influences) ; in a similar view, on the MIND side there is tension between Motivation (FREE/ PASSION) and Cognition (WILL/REASON).


Of course, there are finer levels of dichotomies embedded in ABCD as per the eight stage model where each of ABCD splits in two components based around- that of pleasure-pain, active-passive, self-other and broad-narrow. To me these dichotomies make perfect sense now.

To extend to one particular domain of personality psychology: you have deterministic personality theories emphasizing traits or behaviorism and you see a conflict/debate in personality theory in terms of Person (genes/traits) vs. situation(environment) variables.   On the other hand are free-will theories of personality centered around Psychoanalytic theories and Phenomenological/existential theories where the fundamental conflicts is between conscious/ and unconscious; between past and future orientation, between passion/libido and reason/actualization.


To extend to another domain – that of psychopathology- Motivation defects in EROS and THANTOS lead to Mania and Depression respectively and remain in conflict with each other; Cognitive deficits in REASONs, that is, in MYTHOS based chaotic/dreamy/irrational reasoning versus LOGOS based orderly/reality-oriented and logical reasoning lead to the opposed and yet conflated phenotypes of Autism spectrum disorders and Psychotic spectrum disorders.

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