The problem with personality psychology is how personal it can become when talking about specific individuals. If you are a cognitive psychologist you can speak generally about cognitive phenomena such as memory and decision-making without singling out any one person. The same is true of those who study emotions in general.
If, however, you study personality — the system of an individual's psychological processes — and you want to describe how personality leads to what the individual does, the conversation often begs to become about someone in particular. Rather than the cognitive psychologist, who is concerned with memory in general — anyone's memory — the personality psychologist outlines processes and dynamics that can be quite particular to a certain sort of person. This specificity leads, rather inescapably, to the desire to call forth an example to clinch the case. A natural choice in public discussions of personality is to refer to a public figure for this purpose because such individuals provide known instances of behavior and behavior that is sometimes quite vivid. People disagree, however, as to whether referring to a public figure in this way is a good idea.
Singling out a public figure raises the ethical concern that doing so may not be fair to the individual involved (background here). I wondered whether some approaches to describing a public figure are better than others in yielding kinder, gentler judgments. Employing prudent judgments might mitigate some ethical concerns.
It seems self-evident, for example, that saying positive things about a person (depicted as the green plus in the figure below) is better than saying negative things (the red minus). The problem with saying only positive things, however, is that all-positive, all the time is rarely helpfully informative. We need the negative sometimes as well — it is part of being analytical.
Best, then, may be to integrate positive and negative in descriptions (the purple center). This is informative and yet does not single out the negative in a person. So, balance in depictions is almost always desirable, with the exception of the seriously deplorable person or act.
Another variable involved in describing a person's character is whether the description characterizes the whole person or is focused on a more specific part of a person (see figure below).
An example of characterizing a whole person in a way that is brief enough to include here would be to refer to a type of person. I will use a negative example, but without identifying anyone in particular so as to illustrate the potential harm of such a descripton:
"Overall a talented egotist who is out for her own advantage, abuses those in close relationships and is willing to exploit as many people around her as necessary to achieve fame — so watch out!"
Consider, by contrast, the analysis of just one quality: "Exploitative of others, relative to the average." Using just one characteristic, it seems to me, allows readers who are so inclined to at least imagine that the person has other positive qualities. So, perhaps more limited analyses are preferable when dealing with negative attributes.
Another variable when speaking about others is how many examples to use. We can speak of one person alone — a single Hollywood star — or discuss a number of figures together as a group, such as Hollywood stars in the plural.
Saying that a particular star exhibits irresponsible, unreliable behavior draws attention to one unfortunate person.
Saying that a particular group of stars exhibit irresponsible, unreliable behavior spreads the attention around. This has the advantage of lessening the focus on any one such star, but entrapping more of them in the analysis. Perhaps neither of these two approaches is better in terms of protecting others.
More broadly, focusing on personality itself to the exclusion of a person's environment can be problematic. We might comment that a star's irresponsible behavior (to continue with the example) is deplorable. However, such irresponsibility can be found in many members of our communities. Many of us have had meltdowns in the privalcy of our own homes.
The settings inhabited by public figures — television studios, expensive hotels, famous resorts — along with the greater scrutiny their everyday situations bring about, including the occasional interview with an expert journalist and the like, and the visibility of those settings and situations, affords the public figures with a national megaphone in the form of the media.
Stars may often use the media for their advantage, but when things go south, that sudden turn downwards can be dramatic, if not catastrophic for certain unfortunate figures. The audience, in turn, is complicit in taking on the power of a moralistic mob, delighting in dissecting another's undoing.
The diagram below (with personality to the middle left) reminds us pictorially, that personality is but one element in an ecosystem surrounding the person that includes the individual's brain, the person's physical setting (lower right), a situation (right), and higher level groups to which the person belongs (top). The groups might include the person's family, religious organizations, community, and nationality.
I have considered just a few of the ways by which an individual's personality might be judged: positively or negatively, in whole or in part, and so on. These varied approaches suggest some intriguing conclusions. Usually, a balanced commentary that integrates the good and bad will be superior (in terms of informing, at least), to emphasizing only the positive or negative. Commenting on a person's overall qualities has the potential for greater mischief with someone's reputation than commenting on a single part of personality, because global descriptions leave less to the imagination relative to what other positive qualities a person might possess. Generally speaking, whether one comments on a single identified individual or a small group of them may not matter much, although using a small group might reduce the potential for a commentator to single out someone unfairly. Finally, when commenting on personality it is useful to remember that none of us operates as isolate beings. Rather each one of us is influenced by our brains, our setting, our to-be-faced situations, and our group allegiences. We are responsible for ourselves to a great degree, I believe, but that responsibility is not always complete, and some of us deal with forces that are easier to contend with than do others.
Please note: The next post in this series is scheduled for March 28th
Addendum, 3/30/11: The next post has been rescheduled for April 4th.
The last depiction of personality (amidst the brain, setting, situation, and groups) is from the positional model of the Systems Framework for Personality. The model situates personality amidst its neighboring systems in three dimensions: molecular-molar (or biopsychosocial; vertical), inside the person versus outside (horizontal), and across time. The model has appeared in a number of articles, most recently in Mayer, J. D. & Korogodsky, M. (2011). A really big picture of personality. Social and Personality Compass, 5, 104-117 (abstract here; a full-length treatment here - see especially Fig. 1).
Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer