What is beneath personality?

When I was in secondary school in the 1950s I encountered the idea of personality. It seemed to be something that other students understood but I never got the hang of. And I still haven’t some 60 years later. Types of personality have the feel of something that might be a very rough approximation of something else that might be interesting, or not. They feel like something that will be forgotten when something else, layers below them, is understood. We certainly differ from one another in how we go about living our lives and people see archetypes in their friends and aquaintances like they see architypeal faces – but that does not make a system.
The inventory of types of personality changes too often; the list is not stable. And it is assumed to be at least partially inherited but there is only problematic evidence for this. Here is part of Jonah Lehrer’s report (here) of some research on the subject:

There’s an interesting new paper in Biological Psychiatry on the genetic variations underlying human personality. The study relied on a standard inventory of temperaments – novelty-seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence and persistence – as measured in 5,117 Australian adults. What did the scientists find? Mostly nothing. The vast genetic search came up empty. (and later about Peace Corp testing) Mischel realized that the problem wasn’t the tests—it was their premise. Psychologists had spent decades searching for traits that exist independently of circumstance, but what if personality can’t be separated from context?… This led Mischel to construct a new metaphor for human personality. While modern psychology still clung to a model of personality rooted in the humors of the ancient Greeks – we were born with a certain amount of choleric temperament and that was it – Mischel proposed a model of personality called interactionism. … And this might be why the Australian study came up empty: We’re trying to find the genes for personality constructs that don’t exist. (not genetic)

Reading answers to the Edge question (here), I ran across personality again. Once by Geoffrey Miller showing that not much has changed since I first accountered personality:

To understand insanity, we have to understand personality. There’s a scientific consensus that personality traits can be well-described by five main dimensions of variation. These “Big Five” personality traits are called openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. The Big Five are all normally distributed in a bell curve, statistically independent of each other, genetically heritable, stable across the life-course, unconsciously judged when choosing mates or friends, and found in other species such as chimpanzees. They predict a wide range of behavior in school, work, marriage, parenting, crime, economics, and politics.

I doubt there is the consensus that Miller claims.

Also in the Edge answers is an article that may start to point at what might be under the surface. Helen Fisher first divides personality into two components: character and temperament. She puts what we inherit into temperament and what we acquire in our lives into character. This sound like my pet peeve of nature verses nuture – I insist that every single solitary aspect of living organisms is both a mixture, an interaction, between genes and environment and almost always cannot be quantified as to how much it is due to one or the other.

Leave that – and go on to what she has to say about temperament:

Some 40% to 60% of the observed variance in personality is due to traits of temperament. They are heritable, relatively stable across the life course, and linked to specific gene pathways and/or hormone or neurotransmitter systems. Moreover, our temperament traits congregate in constellations, each aggregation associated with one of four broad, interrelated yet distinct brain systems: those associated with dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen/oxytocin. Each constellation of temperament traits constitutes a distinct temperament dimension.
For example, specific alleles in the dopamine system have been linked with exploratory behavior, thrill, experience and adventure seeking, susceptibility to boredom and lack of inhibition. Enthusiasm has been coupled with variations in the dopamine system, as have lack of introspection, increased energy and motivation, physical and intellectual exploration, cognitive flexibility, curiosity, idea generation and verbal and non-linguistic creativity.
The suite of traits associated with the serotonin system includes sociability, lower levels of anxiety, higher scores on scales of extroversion, and lower scores on a scale of “No Close Friends,” as well as positive mood, religiosity, conformity, orderliness, conscientiousness, concrete thinking, self-control, sustained attention, low novelty seeking, and figural and numeric creativity.
Heightened attention to detail, intensified focus, and narrow interests are some of the traits linked with prenatal testosterone expression. But testosterone activity is also associated with emotional containment, emotional flooding (particularly rage), social dominance and aggressiveness, less social sensitivity, and heightened spatial and mathematical acuity.
Last, the constellation of traits associated with the estrogen and related oxytocin system include verbal fluency and other language skills, empathy, nurturing, the drive to make social attachments and other prosocial aptitudes, contextual thinking, imagination, and mental flexibility.

This still seems simplistic and a ‘just so’ explanation. But it is, at least, a start at looking at what is behind our feeling of archetypes in behavior.

What does this have to do with consciousness? Perhaps nothing.

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