Study after study has shown that genes can affect behavior and mental life. Identical twins separated at birth (who share their genes but not their environment) are similar in their intellectual talents, their personality traits (such as introversion, conscientiousness, and antagonism), their average level of lifelong happiness, and personal quirks such as giggling incessantly or flushing the toilet both before and after using it. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes). And biological siblings (who share half their genes) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share none of their genes). It’s not only personality and intelligence that are partly heritable, but susceptibility to psychological maladies such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and major depression.
The discovery that genes have something to do with behavior came as a shock in an era in which people thought that the mind of a newborn was a blank slate and that anyone could do anything if only they strove hard enough. And it continues to set off alarm bells. Many people worry about a Brave New World in which parents or governments will try to re-engineer human nature. Others see genes as a threat to free will and personal responsibility, citing headlines such as “Man’s genes made him kill, his lawyers claim.” Behavioral geneticists are sometimes picketed, censored, or compared to Nazis.
With increasing knowledge of how the genome works, many beliefs about ourselves will indeed have to be rethought. But the worst fears of the genophobes are misplaced. It is easy to exaggerate the significance of behavioral genetics for our lives.
For one thing, genes cannot pull the strings of behavior directly. Behavior is caused by the activity of the brain, and the most the genes can do is affect its wiring, its size and shape, and its sensitivity to hormones and other molecules. Among the brain circuits laid down by the genes are ones that reflect on memories, current circumstance, and the anticipated consequences of various courses of action and that select behavior accordingly, in an intricate and not entirely predictable way. These circuits are what we call “free will,” and providing them with information about the likely consequences of behavioral options is what we call “holding people responsible.” All normal people have this circuitry, and that is why the existence of genes with effects on behavior should not be allowed to erode responsibility in the legal system or in everyday life.
Also, don’t count on the I’ll-let-you-go-now gene –or any other single gene with a large behavioral effect — being identified any time soon. Behavioral genetics has uncovered a paradox. Studies that measure similarities among twins and adoptees reliably show strong effects of sharing many genes (such as half a genome, or all of one). The outcome is so reliable that behavioral geneticists now speak of the First Law of their field: that all behavioral traits are partly heritable.
But studies that try to isolate a single gene for a behavioral trait have been fickle; many of putative genes-for-X have not held up in replications. Genes must exert their effects by acting together in complex combinations. A rough analogy: a computer program can have a trait, such as being easy to use, without necessarily having a single magical programming instruction that makes any program easy to use when added and any program hard to use when omitted.
So psychological engineering is more remote than the futurologists would have you believe. Though musical talent may be partly heritable, there is probably no single gene for musical talent that ambitious parents can have implanted into their unborn children. It might take hundreds or thousands of the right genes, with a different combination needed for each child.
Finally, the fact that genes matter doesn’t mean that other things don’t matter. Some of these causes are obvious. There are no genes for speaking English or for being a Presbyterian (though there may be sets of genes for verbal skill and religiosity). These depend entirely on one’s culture. Others are less obvious, such as germs, accidents, chance encounters in life, and random events in the development of the brain in utero.
And still other environmental factors may not act as we think they do. It’s easy to assume that the variation in behavior that is not caused by genes must be caused by parents. But it’s been surprisingly hard to demonstrate any long-term effects of growing up in a particular family within a culture. Identical twins reared together are similar, but they are not literally identical: one may be more anxious than the other, one may be gay and the other straight. This shows that genes are not everything – but since these twins grow up in the same family, it also shows that what isn’t explained by genes isn’t explained by family influences either. Similarly, children need to hear English to acquire it. But if their parents are immigrants, they end up with the accent of their peers, not their parents.
Though the effects of genes may be easy to overestimate, they are also easy to underestimate. Many failed utopias of the twentieth century dreamed of nurturing a “new man” free of selfishness, family ties, and individual differences. Some psychotherapists promise what they cannot deliver, such as transforming a shy person into a bold one or a sad sack into a barrel of monkeys.
None of this means that social and personal improvement are a waste of time. Even if each of us is born with a range of temperament and talent, we can try to reach the best point in that range. And even if we have a nature, part of that nature is an open-ended ingenuity that can think up possible solutions to our problems. Using our genes as an excuse for fatalism is unwise. But so is pretending that they don’t matter at all.
Here are a number of definitions of personality from across the years:
‘The dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustment to his environment’ – Allport, 1937
‘that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation.’ – Cattell, 1965
‘One’s habits and usual style, but also…ability to play roles.’ – Cronbach, 1984
‘personality traits are the key antecedent of an individual’s cognitions and affective states that may influence his or her task and interpersonal or socio-emotional role behavior (in teams). – Moynihan and Peterson, 2001
Measurement of personality
Measured as ‘a set of items, usually questions or statements about feelings, or behavior, to which subjects have to respond by answering the question, or agreeing or disagreeing with the statements.’ – Kline, 1993
‘Measure of both internal dimensions, or feelings, and external dimensions, or behaviors’ – Searle, 2003
In practice, personality is how we see ourselves and others. It is how we describe a person as noisy, thoughtful, decisive and so on. In fact the language is laden with descriptors that we use every day to describe personality.
Measurement of personality is used often to help recruit the right person into a job. In some ways it also appears in mystic prediction system such as astrology.
There are a range of models relating to personality. although some are more about preferences and typing than inherent personality. These include:
- 16PF: Cattell’s sixteen basic personality factors. Test
- Big Five factors: A simplification to five factors from the 16PF. Test
- DISC Types: Four simple types. Test
- Freud’s Personality Factors: Id, Ego, cathexis and other classic stuff.
- MMPI: Clinical psychiatric conditions.
- Jungian Type Inventory: The oldest modern typing system. Test
- Sheldon’s Body Personality: You are what your shape is.
- Satir’s Stress Responders: Five types in response to stress.
- Type A and Type B personalities: Prone to heart attacks or not? Test
People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another.
“Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames,” write David Luna (Baruch College), Torsten Ringberg, and Laura A. Peracchio (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of “frame-shifting” (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants-those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals.
The authors found that the women classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. They also had significantly different perceptions of women in ads when the ads were in Spanish versus English. “In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted,” write the authors.
In one of the studies, a group of bilingual U.S. Hispanic women viewed ads that featured women in different scenarios. The participants saw the ads in one language (English or Spanish) and then, six months later, they viewed the same ads in the other language. Their perceptions of themselves and the women in the ads shifted depending on the language. “One respondent, for example, saw an ad’s main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version,” write the authors.
The shift in perception seems to happen unconsciously, and may have broad implications for consumer behavior and political choices among biculturals.
People filled with self-loathing typically imagine they dislike every part of themselves, but this is rarely, if ever, true. More commonly, if asked what specific parts of themselves they dislike, they’re able to provide specific answers: their physical appearance, their inability to excel academically or at a job, or maybe their inability to accomplish their dreams. Yet when presented, for example, a scenario in which they come upon a child trapped under a car at the scene of an accident, that they recoil in horror and would want urgently to do something to help rarely causes them to credit themselves for the humanity such a reaction indicates.
Why do self-loathers so readily overlook the good parts of themselves? The answer in most cases turns out to relate not to the fact that they have negative qualities but to the disproportionate weight they lend them. People who dislike themselves may acknowledge they have positive attributes but any emotional impact they have simply gets blotted out.
Which makes learning to like oneself no easy task. Many people, in fact, spend a lifetime in therapy in pursuit of self-love, struggling as if learning a new language as an adult rather than as a child.
Before such a change will occur, however, the essential cause of one’s self-loathing needs to be apprehended. By this I don’t mean the historical cause. The circumstances that initially lead people to dislike themselves do so by triggering a thought process of self-loathing that continues long after the circumstances that set it in motion have resolved, a thought process that continues to gain momentum the longer it remains unchallenged, much like a boulder picks up speed rolling down a mountain as long as nothing gets in its way. For example, your parents may have failed to praise you or support your accomplishments in school when you were young—perhaps even largely ignored you—which led you to conclude they didn’t care about you, which then led you to conclude you’re not worth caring about. It’s this last idea, not the memory of your parents ignoring you, that gathers the power within your life to make you loathe yourself if not checked by adult reasoning early on. Once a narrative of worthlessness embeds itself in one’s mind, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to disbelieve it, especially when one can find evidence that it represents a true account.