The Physics of Personality (A Self-Critical Dialog)

Physics of Personality

Q=Question  A=Answer

Q.  PHYSICS OF PERSONALITY – That sounds like a set up for some new age theory that is trying to look scientific.  So, what is the point you are trying to make?

A.  The point is to try to stir our scientific imaginations.  Try to imagine how a physics of personality would look.  The very idea of a mechanistic approach to personality seems alien to most people. It’s hard to think of where you would start. After all, people aren’t machines.  But like all objects they move, and are moved in space in certain directions relative to various forces.  That’s basically sufficient to get started .  That’s what Isaac Newton had to work with for his explanation of mechanics.  Although the context may be different, patterns of human behavior ought to have an explanation. Unfortunately, the study of personality is stuck at the descriptive stage.

Q. What do you mean descriptive or classification stage?

A. Classifying is a way of getting started.  A jigsaw puzzle is an example of a problem that requires a sorting strategy.  Most people start out looking for the pieces with straight edges because that is the important feature to identify the boundary of a puzzle. Among the straight edged pieces, the search continues for the four critical right-angled pieces that identify the corners so that the top, bottom, left and right orientation can be determined.  Next, we might arrange groups within a color range. Colors are then sorted into groups with similar textures.  These are preparatory steps. The actual solution is fitting the pieces together with the result that the picture starts to emerge.  If you have a lot of time on your hand, you can always turn the pieces picture side down for an extra challenge.  This illustration has a lot in common with scientific research. When trying to apply the scientific method to an area of our world we need to explore by sorting and classifying until some basic elements and relations emerge. These elements can lead to proto-theoretical insights. Eventually you may arrive at scientific explanations that can be verified by predictability. In other words, the aim is to solve the puzzle.

Q. OK. I see the importance of classification at the start. But, how is personology stuck in the classification stage?  There is no shortage of theories in the study of personality.

A. Having too many theories is symptomatic of the problem. We need to be careful about what gets the label of being a theory.  A theory ought to do more than just describe things.  A theory needs to explain causes and ideally enable some degree of prediction.  This is not to say that describing things is unscientific. Description is an essential part of science.  That is where it starts.  However, it needs to go beyond that by explaining the cause.   Personology is a field littered with models. When you are pulling ideas out of thin air, there is no limit to the number of models.  Four-quadrant descriptions have been one of the dominant  structures.  Consultants love to display charts of their two-axis models as if they are magic squares that explain everything.  Some of these have even resulted in useful taxonomies. There seems to be a pen and paper instrument for just about everything.  These instruments have been used in evaluating people for career paths, leadership and even life mate selection.

Q. Well, isn’t the predictability of these tests evidence of real progress?  It seems to be better than relying on stereotypes and other kinds of guessing.  You mentioned the proliferation of four-quadrant models, are you overlooking the Five Factor Model? It’s become the dominant paradigm at least at the university research level.

A. It’s another model.  That’s why it’s called the Five Factor MODEL!  It’s claim to fame is that anyone who does the research that produced the FFM has a high probability of coming up with the same results.  Consistency of results is important to science because it involves a degree of predictability.  That’s why researchers like the FFM (also called the Big 5). By the way I’m not promoting the five factor model.

Q.  OK even though you aren’t promoting the five factor model do you know anything about the methodology behind it?  What is special about the methodology of the FFM that makes it different from other models so that it attracts serious researchers.?

A.   The methodology is called the lexical approach.  Lexical refers to the dictionary. In a sense, the lexical approach is a kind of theory. However, it’s not a theory of personality but rather a theory about word usage applied to personality.  It is the idea that the most important ways of looking at personality will be embedded in language. Personality descriptions use common words and in some cases might involve several words to express a trait.  The goal is to find clusters of words and phrases that correlate with the greatest number of descriptive words.  These clusters are generated by analyzing data from individuals who answer questions on a variety of trait inventories.  Advanced statistical techniques such as “factor analysis” are used to sort through the data. In spite of the sophistication of statistical analysis, it still is primarily a structure detecting procedure.  Although the FFM has made advances toward a more objective model of personality, it remains at the description stage.

Q. Who came up with the FFM?

A. This method began back in the late 19th century with Galton and later in the middle of the 20th century, Allport, Thurstone, Cattell did extensive research with factor analysis. There was a major interruption in this effort because of shifting psychological paradigms. There was the Behaviorist period where all personality was considered learned behavior. This was followed by another significant interruption due to the popularity of Mischel’s theory that personality is not constant but varies with the situation. Real progress with the lexical approach was made at the point where computers became available to do the tedious calculations involved in factor analysis.  Various researchers started consistently coming up with the same five baskets of factors.   Consistently coming up with five major factors doesn’t explain the source of what’s in those baskets.   All that can be said is that the source is biological, social or both.

Q.  So, it’s still the nature/nurture problem!  Or, is that really a problem?

A. It’s only a problem when a researcher on one side of the question wants to torpedo the other side.  It’s easy to discredit an investigator with this issue. But, whichever side of this issue you want to weigh in on you will then be obligated to do some serious research to move the scale to your side.  The dominant approach seems to split it in half allowing either side to proceed with their research until something definitive emerges.

Q. So, where is all this going?

A. At this point, there is a serious search for biological causes of the FFM.  I think the problem is that they are looking in the wrong places.  You mentioned the nature/nurture problem, but there is another split that has confounded efforts at understanding personality. I’m referring to the mind-body split, which leads to the idea that you have a brain and a body and if you are going to learn about personality the answers are in the brain or nervous system part of the body.  Humans are obsessed with their big brains.

Q.  It seems logical to look for answers in the brain and nervous system.  What are you proposing?

A.  One of the most significant things about the FFM is that it has greatly reduced the number of elements that we need to explore. The FFM has made it respectable to have just a hand-full of dimensions.  If it really is the “BIG FIVE” then perhaps we ought to be looking at larger systems than the various sections of the brain and nervous system.  Maybe the problem is that we are overlooking something that is large and obvious.  If you are dissecting parts of the brain or looking at neurotransmitters you may find associations with the broader categories of human behavior, but those associations are not necessarily the cause of behavior.

Q. What could we possibly be overlooking?

A. This brings us back to the title of this discussion- “The Physics of Personality”.

Q. I asked you before and I don’t believe you answered my question. What do you mean when you say “The Physics of Personality”?

A. Physics is the ideal subject for science because you are dealing with “objects”.  Objectivity is the standard. But, how can that standard be achieved when constructing a theory about something as subjective as personality?  We can’t get out of our bodies. One thing we can do to maintain some objectivity is to avoid too much reliance on qualitative words when building the scaffold for our proposed theory.

Q. Can you explain what you mean by “too much reliance on qualitative words”?

A. Qualitative words are adjectives used to describe something from some perceiver’s viewpoint. Look at the major personality inventories.  They are mostly descriptive terms primarily  because they are at the description stage of research.  Jungians use words like intuition, sensation, thinking, and feeling.  DISC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness and compliance. The Big Five dimensions are openness, conscientiousness, steadiness, extraversion and neuroticism.  These are just adjectives that describe.  They don’t explain anything. Causation requires some nouns.  It requires things acting on things.  If we actually understood the causes we could finally clean up the field of psychology from a lot of  the vague spiritualistic terms currently in use by mental health practitioners.

Q. Aren’t you falling into a behaviorist orientation?  They wanted to explain everything with, stimulus, response and reinforcement.

A. Yes I am but with a wider scope than assigning all causes of behavior strictly to things outside of the body.  I will make this clearer in a moment.

Getting back to the idea of a “Physics of Personality”, we can start out by copying some basic procedures from physics. Isaac Newton developed his mechanics with the simple concept that everything in the universe is moving.   Mechanics then tries to predict the motions of objects as they interact. Shouldn’t we expect some aspects of motion would apply to humans and other living organisms since they are also in motion and part of the same universe.  When discussing the laws of motion we can infer some important things based on an objects motion.  We can say four things about all objects without resorting to qualitative descriptions.

1.  All objects can be traced back to a cause.

2.  Moving objects can move other objects.

3.  Moving objects are moving in a single direction

4.  Moving objects are moving in a certain space relative to all other objects

Q. Pardon me. But, at this point, I have to ask – so what? Humans and other animals are not simple chunks of matter orbiting each other.

A. Obviously, there is a difference between ordinary matter and living organisms. This difference can be accounted for by adding the prefix “self”. Living organisms are:

1. Self -Causing or Self-Forming.

2. Self-Moving

3. Self- Directing or Deciding

4. Self- Relating or Orienting

By adding the word “self” we are establishing the basic functions of an organism.  The next step is to look for the organismic structures that carry out the basic functions.  These structures are best described as organismic systems because they involve a coordination of structures.  Some structures share aspects of the basic functions but each has a main function.   Here is a list of the dominant structures and their associated functions:

1. Digestive or vegetative organs process materials that form the organism.

2. Muscular system enables the organism to move.

3. Nervous system directs the organism’s reactions.

4. Sensory system provides orienting information.

Q. Ok, I can see the connections between the various functions and systems but how do you get personality out of that?

A. If people vary according to a ranking of these four systems, how is that any different than a personality test with four factors?  The permutations of the ranking of four factors yields 24 possibilities.   Researchers seem to have no problem with the explanatory power of this kind of calculus.  The problem is a matter of coming to terms with the actuality of these relationships and that’s where real scientific explanation comes in.  While at least half of personality may involve these basic organismic functions, you can’t ignore the impact of adapting to the infinite number of influences from the environment. This is the nature/nurture (genotype/phenotype) question. Actually, we should change the phrase to the genotype/phenotype SITUATION.  Before we can understand environmental causes, we need to get a strong sense of what a person’s genetics contributes to the situation.

Q.  How could that be done? I mean, even though it seems reasonable that people vary in some sort of percentage of the systems you mention how can you measure the four systems in a way that it generates the proper proportion.

A.  It’s basically been done but like all theories it needs to be developed. In the last half of the 20th century, William H. Sheldon proposed a method for classifying the human physique. He called his taxonomy – somatotype. After sorting out 4,000 photographs, he could see a continuous variation of shape based on three variables.  Physiques centered in the gut he called endomorphs.  Those with emphasis on the chest and large muscle groups he called mesomorphs.  The ectormorphs appear thin as if stretched out.

Q. That’s only three.  What is the fourth dimension you are suggesting?

A. The fourth dimension is definitely a dimension but it is not in the same category as the other three because it is a derivative. It is derived from the condition of balance in the three major dimensions.  Just as each of the main components at their extreme are polar opposite of the other two dimensions, the extreme middle forms a pole opposite all three dimensions.  Sheldon acknowledged this situation and gave it quite a bit of attention in explaining temperament but he never systematized its influence by scaling it as he did with the other dimensions.  The math required to create a scale of balance is not complicated and I’ve done this, including it in the somatotype tables.  A person that is equal in endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy would be a seven in balance.  That’s as much as I want to go into the technical side of somatotype. It’s not very hard to learn Sheldon’s final “objective method” of somatotyping.  The inducement to learn the technique of somatotype is if you can see the possibility of its explanatory power.

Q.  I can see a relationship between endomorphy and digestion and the necessity of muscle for movement.  How does ectomorphy fit in?

A. The outer layer of the embryo, which is called the ectoderm, develops into the skin, brain and nervous system. By stretching an organism out you increase the ratio of surface to volume.  The focus on extension limits or crowds out the other two layers and eventually affects the pattern of influence on the organism as a whole.  The brain and nervous system specialize in coordinating the organism’s reactions.

Q. It seems the sensory system is all that remains in this scheme and the only empty chair is what you call balance.  Is that a correct assumption?

A. Yes and it is the most difficult for people to comprehend.  In discussions with others who were fans and associates of Sheldon’s I discovered that they all seemed to have a reluctance to see the need for a scale of system balance.  Like all theories some have trouble with modifying their orthodoxy to adjust to newer insights. They have become so obsessed with the triangle that they lose their ability to think “into” the structure.  Although there are significant correlations between somatotype and temperament I believe the inclusion of a measure of openness such as is found in the Five Factor Model would improve the correlations.

Q. Aren’t sensory receptors an extension of the nervous system? So, shouldn’t orientation be sitting on the same chair as the nervous system, even if it sits on its lap?

A. In reality all aspects of an organism emerge from the basic need to find nourishment to be metabolized.   As the fertilized egg keeps dividing, it forms a spherical structure. There are initially no organs.  At that point, you had no blood for a heart to pump, no brain, no stomach, bones, teeth, or anything else that would resemble an organ. In a sense all of the organs are an extension of what comes before it. The first real sign that some differentiation is taking place is the appearance of the three layers that Sheldon adopted for naming the basic dimensions of somatotype.

Q. How then does balance lead to sensory dominance?

A. Sensory dominance is orientational or exploratory behavior.  When a person is balanced in their basic systems, they are confronted with the problem of what they should do next. This starts a process of playing around with the environment looking for something that will organize their behavior. There is a cycling through their basic needs while they explore their environment until something clicks.  This is the core of the Big Five trait of openness which correlates with creativity.  Balance shouldn’t be confused with stability.  Stability results from a strong or dominant influence.  It’s like a parent on one end of the teeter-totter and a little child on the other.  The more closely balanced the two ends are the more effortlessly the desired up and down motion can occur.  A balanced system is sensitive to environmental changes. You could even say it’s extraverted.

This has been a quick view of the elements of a system that is big enough to qualify as real causes of the big behavior suggested by the Big Five. Most personality systems do a good job of defining the relationships between clusters of behavior.  Where these schemas go wrong is focusing on the brain, nervous system and neuro-chemicals to explain things like temperament and personality.

Q.  Are you saying that taking MRI’s of the brain is a waste of time?

A.  No.  But, it shouldn’t be done to the exclusion of other methods such as somatotyping.  Causation is a very complicated thing to prove.  While it may be true that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could start a cascade that ends up in a hurricane you will never find that butterfly.  The butterfly is embedded in much larger forces that need to reach certain critical levels before it can have the possibility of tipping the process toward the formation of a hurricane.  Water temperature, air temperature, humidity, mild upper atmosphere winds are the big causes.  Originally this scenario involved the flapping of a gull’s wings.  Later the more poetic butterfly became the favorite symbol.  Meteorologists don’t investigate the population and movements of butterflies and gulls in order to predict hurricanes. They look at the big causes. Probing the brain with million dollar MRI machines is “sexy” but it is missing the big causes.  We have become trapped by our popular metaphors.  We like to talk about how people are “wired” instead of how they are constructed.  People forget that our plastic brains are embedded in a physique.  Another way of saying this is that the brain is “housed” by the body.  The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word  “oikos” for house.  Shouldn’t we pay attention to the immediate ecology of our bodies?

Q. Since you brought up ecology, what about the external world in which the human body itself is embedded.

A. The influences from outside the body can’t be ignored.  Research involving twins has shown that the heritability of the Big Five hovers around 50%. These conclusions are fairly accurate because they involve a comparison of results with identical twins, fraternal twins and siblings. This means that external forces definitely influence our personalities.  But these studies introduce the question of whether the increased blood flow in certain parts of the brain observed in fMRI studies is the cause of associated behaviors or is the increased blood flow the result of repeated behaviors under some other causal influence. The limited research into somatotype and temperament suggest significant correlative evidence that somatotype does influence behavior. Unfortunately, the fact that research has actually been done that correlates temperament and somatotype has been institutionally censored as quackery in a brazenly arbitrary way.  Discussions in textbooks, fail to mention that there is published research supporting the influence of somatotype on behavior.

Q. Weren’t there some serious flaws to Sheldon’s research?

A. Sheldon’s early research produced high correlations between somatotype and temperament.  Sheldon’s research was judged as flawed because he rated the subjects on temperament and also determined their somatotypes.  Some have made their judgement for all time based on Sheldon’s “too-good-to-be-true” results.  Sheldon wasn’t trying to pull a fast one.  He was aware of the hazards of the halo effect and discussed it thoroughly in his book The Varieties of Human Temperament. His defensive arguments are very sophisticated and robust.  It would be easier for someone to try to replicate his research than to verbally rebut his arguments. And, basically he made that challenge.  A few researchers took up that challenge and while not replicating exactly what Sheldon did, they still came up with correlations that were respectable enough to encourage others with a serious interest in primary causes of personality differences to design their own experiments.  One example is the research performed by Cortes and Gatti where the experimenters determined the somatotype and the subjects rated their own temperament based on a paper and pencil test based on Sheldon’s predicted traits. The subjects consisted of 79 boys and 100 girls. The correlations varied from 43% to 60%. I don’t want to go into detail but the research can be examined thoroughly in the article they published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology in 1965.

Q. OK.  Even if you have research that correlates somatotype with temperament traits that still doesn’t prove causation.

A. That’s true.  As I touched on before correlation and its associated statistical techniques are sorting tools.  They are searching for likely places to drill deeper or define a boundary.  Courses on statistics are quick to point out that correlation doesn’t prove causation.  But there is another facet to this truism. Lack of linear correlation doesn’t disprove causation.

Q. This may be slightly off topic but I think you are wrong on that point.  If the correlation is zero it means that there is definitely no relationship.

A. Researchers sometimes encounter situations where the calculations for correlation indicate low to zero correlation.  However, when they observe the actual scatter plot of the data points there is a pattern that is clearly evident.  That kind of pattern suggests some sort of non-linear correlation. Even if there is zero linear correlation and no indication of some non-linear relationship there can still be problems with an experiments design.  In setting up the research there are all sorts of things that can be changed that can make a difference in the final results.  To conclude dogmatically that zero correlation means zero causation assumes the researcher understands the area of investigation so thoroughly that they probably don’t even need to do the research in the first place.

Q.  I suppose if you wanted to,  you could use that philosophy to reject almost any correlative findings!  So why even do correlations?

A. Once again, keep in mind that checking correlations is an indispensable tool.  Since research is expensive and is often paid for by grants, you want to find the robust linear indications.  This sidetrack about correlation while informative is unnecessary because there have been other researchers besides Sheldon who have found solid correlations between physique and temperament. The most significant part of Sheldon’s research is that somatotype is an objective physical measurement whereas evaluation of temperament by means of paper and pencil tests is more susceptible to error .

Most of the theories of human personality depend on self-report tests.  These tests are evaluated on reliability and validity.  But the context is entirely descriptive.  Are the traits described in a way that people get the same results when they retake the test?  What does that prove?  It proves that people will choose the same self-description when given the opportunity.  When it comes to validity, the question is whether the descriptions cluster around some core description.  Once again, you are dealing with description.

Q. So how does somatotype do any better?

A. Somatotype deals with important forces that can be understood objectively.  Then using the laws of self-motion, we can at least begin to move beyond description to the point where we approach the problem of causality. The laws of self-motion can be elaborated in a physics or mechanics of personality in a way that is as objective as Newton’s laws of motion.  Like Newton’s laws, a physics of personality takes into consideration all forces acting on human behavior but especially the large forces.  If we are going to predict the weather we need to be meteorologists not entomologists.

Perhaps there will be future conversations like this.  Stay tuned.

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