23.03.2012 Mahler's Musings 4 Comments

Personality Stability, Cultural Flux

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our minds carve out the sensation of stability and continuity in a world of continual flux.  What continual flux, you ask?  Well, at a minimum there is day into night, season into season, life into death, etc. all the time.  Children grow up, neighborhoods change and so on.  That’s not counting changes in world affairs, technology, climate and so on.  Let’s leave those to the side for a moment and just think about the first fluxes.   Think in terms of circularity – that these changes are not linear but circular and repeated; thus, the stability we feel despite all this change might be derived from the predictability of these cycles.  And I argue that predictability is really the key factor for the brain.  Without predictability our brains would devote too much energy to trying to figure things out constantly, over and over again.  When most of what we experience is packaged into known routines which are stored and recalled when needed, then we don’t have to spend that energy re-analyzing similar experiences as they occur.  That’s how, as I like to say, “new” becomes “known.”

We do live at a point in human existence when cultural change does feel faster and faster (although people writing a century or so ago also expressed similar feelings of huge changes.  After all, a hundred years ago peasants were being converted into workers at an unprecedented pace and agricultural life was being whisked away from most people and replaced by urban, industrial life…).  If we feel this, then how is it that we feel any stability at all in a proverbial “sea of change”?  As I think about it, I return to what I wrote about in the first paragraph.  As a cultural species, we learn cultural practices as routines, as ritualized behaviors and they are stored in our neural wiring.  They reside largely in our subconscious.  Repeating similar behaviors (and thinking similar thoughts) provides a great mechanism for feeling stability during times of great change.  Try it out with your personal routines.  Maybe you’re feeling stressed out.  A perfect antidote is a personal ritual that you can do which is calming because it’s known not new and because it’s repeated which makes it predictable.  If it’s a routine that takes just a little bit of conscious thought, even better.  In that case, it will take your conscious mind away from its fretting and planning so that you stop those worries and just “rest” with the routine.   Meditation and yoga can be great for this but you can invent any ritual which does the trick.

But there is an additional factor I’ve been thinking about and that’s personality.   Psychologists and others who write about personality typically argue that it is quite stable across the lifespan.  We have something that is often referred to as a “set point” which means that we know what is our own normal state of mind and emotions.  We might get anxious or depressed or exuberant or stressed for a while, but we will return to our personality set point and feel ourselves being “back to normal.”  Normal for each of us, that is.   Which leads me to another point.

I find it really interesting and quite fascinating that a randomizing factor in human life (personality) plays quite the opposite role (i.e. stability) in our perception of life.  Let me explain.  If you have not already read this book, I highly recommend reading Quirk by Hannah Holmes.   It is very accessible and even entertaining.  What Holmes argues is that personality is a complex concept with different aspects to it.  Each person’s “personality” is actually an amalgam of different factors.  We get only about half of our personality amalgam genetically and the other half seems to be a random draw.  This helps explain why children raised in the same household can be so different.  What’s more, it is not just people who have personalities but animals as well.  And this is for important evolutionary reasons.  For example, take risk.  Some animals need to take more personal risk while others need to be more reticent.  A species needs both types in order for the species to survive during different circumstances.  Resources are scarce?  You want a risk taker to go out and look for new resources.  Resources abundant?  You don’t want to lose members of your group who take risks that are costly; you want members who are good at preserving what you have for a rainy day.  And the same is true for other components of personality.  When you take different individuals’ mixes of different factors, you get a whole lot of variation in “personality” which means that even if you have cultural norms that everyone abides by, you are still going to have the recipe for cultural change due to different people doing different things, taking different approaches, etc.  That’s how personality can introduce variation into a pretty stable cultural system – as would have been more likely in generations gone by than for today.  (Just imagine an individual living in a food foraging society who likes to innovate – take some risks.  Even if the rest of the group tries to quell this person’s quirkiness, she may succeed in finding a new way to do something that is useful to her group before being pressured to conform…) The point is that the quirks of personality would produce on occasion variations, as it does today.

However, from the perspective of any given individual, personality helps provide psychological stability even as different personalities might produce cultural variations or shifts.  And in our world today with so much change all around us, this sensation of stability with our own personality set point can provide emotional security.  We need security and most of our security comes from subconscious predictability, I argue.  Subconsciously we can thus predict ourselves which is, of course, very helpful.  Our everyday lives are full of moving from one cultural context to another and what seems to be resilient to these changes is our own personality.  We do shift a lot of how we interact with others based on context but we typically do not view our personality as shifting.

Now the question I am wondering about and would love to get your comments on is whether or not the stability we derive from our personality set point subconsciously makes our cultural life appear more stable than it actually is.  To say it another way, does the experience of having a largely stable personality aid us in producing, subconsciously, the expectation that our “culture” (most of us think of ourselves as having A culture much like we think we have A personality) is also stable – or at least should be stable?  If we have this expectation as I suspect, then this might help us understand why so many people resist cultural change.  We think of cultural change as the exception, not the norm.  I think of cultural change as quite normative and there are lots of good reasons why.  But if most people think of culture as a “thing” and, much like personality, they regard it as stable and enduring, then this would help explain resistance to changes in culture, especially resistance to changes that appear to be exerted from outside one’s group.

Just my musings for today.  What do you think?  Please comment.