March 27, 2017

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Nature of Traits:


Observe a social gathering.

Write a 200 to 300 word response to the following: What influence does culture have on personality? Do you see a person's reaction to something as separate from social experience or as a result social experience? Which one of the four positions of the nature of traits do you agree with the most and why? Compare and contrast your position against on of the four positions of the nature of traits.

The Four Positions Are:

The first position is that traits literally exist in the central nervous system as what Gordon Allport (1961) called “neuropsychic structures.” These hypothesized patternings of psychophysiology—say, particular brain circuitry or neurotransmitter pathways—exert a causal influence on behavior, accounting for consistencies over time and across situations.

The second position keeps its options open when it comes to psychophysiological substrata but maintains, nonetheless, that traits exist as dispositions that exert a significant impact on behavior. Therefore, both of these positions view traits as causal mechanisms in human functioning. Traits—be they neuropsychic structures or behavioral dispositions—are instrumental in causing behavior to occur and, therefore, in accounting for consistency in behavior across situations and over time.
By contrast, the third and fourth positions argue that traits do not really cause behavior but exist instead as convenient categories for describing the behaviors that people show.

The third position was staked out by Buss and Craik (1983, 1984) in their act-frequency approach to personality. According to this view, traits are merely language categories for the organization of discrete behavioral acts. As such, traits do not influence behavior per se. Rather, traits are the behaviors. The trait of extraversion, for example, consists of the acts that make it up—such acts as “I danced in front of a crowd” and “I entered into a conversation with a group I didn’t know.” Acts may be grouped together into trait families, with some acts more prototypical or representative of a given category than others.

Fourth position asserts that traits do not exist in any objective sense, even in the sense of act categories. Instead, traits are merely convenient fictions that people (and personality psychologists) invent in their efforts to understand social life (Shweder, 1975).

You and I use trait terms such as “friendly” and “conscientious” to simplify and organize reality, but these terms are just words. They have no meaning beyond our shared social construction. Therefore, it makes no sense, from this fourth position, to explain behavior in terms of traits. To say, for example, that Rachel smiles a lot because she is a relatively friendly person is akin to saying that Rachel is friendly because she is friendly. The label explains nothing. Furthermore, the causes of Rachel’s smiling are not likely to be found within the person but rather in the environment in which the person resides. Psychologists who dismiss traits as convenient fictions usually look to the environmental situation for the causes of behavioral consistencies (e.g.,Mischel, 1968).

Strong arguments can be made for all four positions on traits. Each position highlights an important aspect of the idea of trait. The first position suggests that traits have a biological reality; the second points to the dispositional nature of traits; the third suggests that traits connect to functionally similar behaviors; and the fourth points out that trait labels are useful in everyday social cognition. At the same time, the four positions contradict one another in many ways. The contradiction is sharpest between the first and fourth positions: Logic tells us that traits cannot be neuropsychic structures that cause the behavior of actors (first position) if, at the same time, they are merely convenient fictions in the minds of observers (fourth position).

We cannot resolve the inconsistencies among the different views. Different understandings of what traits are or should be have been at the heart of important controversies in the field of personality psychology. Nonetheless, when it comes to the nature of traits, many personality psychologists today seem to have adopted a fuzzy but reasonable compromise view that is probably closest to the second position I have outlined. Most contemporary personality psychologists seem to view traits as dispositions (second position) that have some causal influence on behaviors, though the influences are complex and exist in interaction with situational factors. They tend to see traits as more than mere descriptive summaries of act categories, but they acknowledge that traits line up with certain predictable behavioral acts (third position). Further, personality psychologists are generally open to the possibility that dispositional traits may have neurophysiological concomitants (first position), but they are also cognizant of the fact that dispositions are language categories with socially determined meanings (consistent with the fourth position). The meaning of a trait is partially determined by its cultural context. Friendliness, therefore, may express itself and be understood somewhat differently from one culture to another. Different cultures may have different rules or conventions for being friendly. A certain kind of smile or a certain way of touching another might be considered friendly behavior in one cultural setting and rude or boorish in another.

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