We are each born with special predilections and revulsions: some like to rock and roll, for example, while others prefer solitude and a book. That’s personality. But every moralist knows that we are each assessed and evaluated according to how our behavior meets certain standards evolved, over time, by the community. For example, the father who abandons his children is held in contempt, while the volunteer who helps strangers in a hospital inspires admiration.
Personality is given, a question of genetic endowment. Yet it controls inclinations, not actions; and it works generically, not to the specific event. We are, some of the time and to some unknown extent, free agents.
Character, therefore, is a combination of personality and habits — the latter acquired either haphazardly, or by what used to be called the will. We can be made by our personality or bend it to some higher purpose: that is the realm of morality. In either case, the moral consequences of our genetic predilections are large. The consequences to individual happiness are, if anything, even larger.
Researchers can now measure certain relative aspects of personality: sociability, for instance, or risk-taking. But they have only the vaguest notion of how the personality is formed in the first place. Freud has been pretty much discredited, along with his oddball theories. Evolutionary psychologists favor genetic predisposition, but can’t account for personality differences among identical twins. It is, to say the least, curious that something so important is so bereft of a theoretical explanation.
This review discusses a new book by Judith Rich Harris, which seeks to explain the development of individual personality — the first such theory, the reviewer maintains somewhat breathlessly, “since Freud.” Harris is a serious thinker, whose first book demolished many of the assumptions of the “nurture” school of human enhancement. For this achievement alone, I’ll be forever grateful to her.
How does Harris explain the formation of personality?
Basically, Mrs. Harris believes there are three “perpetrators” at work in the formation of the human personality, each associated with an aspect of a modular brain. One is the “relationship system,” designed to maintain favorable relationships in society. Another is the “Socialization System,” where the goal is to be a member of a group. The third is the “Status System,” where we compete with our peers for status.
The interplay among these systems accounts for the emergence of differences between individuals. So it is that even identical twins develop different personalities because the members of their community see them as unique individuals and treat them differently. Their individual striving for status propels them into different modes of competing, which in turn differentiates their personalities.
Maybe so, though I must say, as described above, individuals seem to become passive receptacles of others’ expectations: reactors rather than actors. Can a difference be found between this theory and the “society made me do it” school of thought? To learn the answer, I suspect, I’ll have to read the book.