Trait Troubles

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Trait theorists conceptualize the self as a series of attributes. Individuals receive a set of scores based on the degree to which they possess the attribute in question: conscientiousness level 22, neuroticism level 15, etc. But can the self be reduced to a series of dimensions? There is an argument to be made that it cannot. The self as a collection of attributes is inert, passive, still. But, after all, consciousness is dynamic and protean; it can conceive of attributes and then decide to embody/imitate them.

But perhaps there are limits to the self's mutability. Individual differences exist that can be extrapolated from the self's movements and behaviors, even if they don't strictly bind the "I" like a rigid protocol or list of ingredients. Attributes can be inferred.

The question is, what do our "attributes" actually describe. Do they refer to a pattern of behaviors? Or do they point to qualities of consciousness, qualities of subjectivity? Does it feel different to inhabit a neurotic mind than it does to occupy a non-neurotic mind (o.k. the answer to that one is easy)? If we were to express an individual's instantaneous consciousness as a picture, would the picture look different if we increased his or her extraversion score by a couple of points?

Of course, the answer is that our attributes have both an external and an internal component. Still, I think we each have an idea of there being a "self" that's held in reserve, a self that's free of descriptors: the self as force, or will. The thought that even this self can be hemmed in and pinned down by a set of "attributes", I think, is somehow difficult to fathom.


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I believe that using the sets of scores for conscientiousness, etc. is a good way for us to see how we rank among other people. It could help us change the way we act because I don't think maybe people want to be neurotic all the time. I agree with your last paragraph about there being a "self". I like to think that I am an individual that is different from everyone else.

I’m not sure that the trait theorists were aiming to make people feel like their self was contained within a set of scores. The scores only represent a general strength or weakness in that specific area (not an insult- people scoring as “strong” in extroversion would be extroverted while people scoring as “weak” would be more introverted). I don’t think that people should feel “hemmed down” by their scores either, just like any other strength or weakness people can work at being more outgoing or friendly. People typically just take the scores as they come and say “this is my personality” which works for them at that time and is in no way a bad thing but in my opinion people fail to see that they can alter their scores if they so wish to so there is no need to feel suppressed by your scores if you are unhappy with them. So in answer to your question I guess I would say that these attributes show a pattern of behaviors at the time they take the questionnaire that could be changed if you so desire them to.

Good post. I'd have to say nothing is purely objective, all the way down to heart of these scientific tests. I'll probably get criticism for saying this, but science has limitations. It takes objective measures of things that can be objectively measured, which tells us almost nothing individually(but gives insight to the world around us). If a scientist told me objectively I have the personality similar to Mother Theresa, I'd tell him to eat my shorts to prove a point. I think your last sentence is spot on.

I think the problem is when people do individual trait tests and their scores show they are not extroverted and then they think it's a bad thing that they are not super outgoing or something. It isn't a bad thing, it's just how you are and they need to accept it and live and act the way they want to.

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This page contains a single entry by bleib003 published on April 16, 2012 1:07 AM.

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