Saturday, January 07, 2006

Toying With Theoretical Models - Part II: Obvious Problems

This is part II of a series of essays:

Part I Motivations

Part II Obvious Problems

Part III What Evidence Must Be Addressed

Part IV Towards A Layered View

Part V Beauty and the Beast

Part VI The Critical Thoughts

Psychology is a relatively young field. With its "father figures" for modern psychology having lived in the early part of the 20th century, we are looking at a discipline whose "contemporary history" spans perhaps 150 years or so.

In that time, it has grown significantly, both in importance and in its clarity. Sadly, it is still deeply hampered by the limitations of our ability to correctly understand what people are saying. The simple reality is that people always wear "masks" of a sort, meaning that any psychologist has to work very hard to unearth the complete picture for any of their patients. Even diagnostic tools such as the MMPI are notoriously difficult to use effectively, being subject to a host of problems ranging from precision to cultural factors in the questions asked. From many perspectives, our understanding of human behaviour is only marginally better than Galen's understanding of the human body was. We can't "look inside" someone's mind and fully comprehend its contents. We are forced, then, to rely upon the honesty of patients, and statistical analysis to attempt to glean some degree of consistency in the knowledge of the domain.

It is important to recognize this ambiguity of results in any discussion of human behaviour. The simple fact is that we cannot (yet) empirically know much about individuals beyond what they tell us. If someone tells you that they are an introvert, they may well be an introvert, even though their "day to day" behaviour that you witness suggests otherwise. (I had just such an experience a while ago - a co-worker who knew very little about my interests outside of work was absolutely flabbergasted that I turned up a "strong introvert score" on a Meyers-Briggs test that we had done as part of a leadership course - apparently my "work mask" had left him with the idea that I was "pretty average" in that department.

Second, I think it is vital to recognize that behaviour is guided by underlying "core" attributes, but the various social "masks" that people adopt in various contexts may well obscure their "core" being. In other words, behaviour does not equate to identity. An excellent example of this is the clinical psychopath. These people can appear and act perfectly normally - most of the time. Neighbors and colleagues may have absolutely no idea that anything is even the slightest bit "off-normal" for these people until they are arrested for some horrifying act such as multiple murder. Knowing that we often put on masks (how regularly to you put a mask of "happiness" on when you are meeting with a relative you ordinarily can't stand to be around?), I think we have to be cautious about assuming that someone's "public" behaviour reflects their core identity. This is very important when you are interpreting the data available.

Third, human experience and behaviour do not fit into "nice neat boxes". There have been numerous attempts to classify human behaviour in aboslute terms. Kinsey, for all of the criticism of his works in recent years got this partially right when he created the Kinsey Scale. I say partially, because the Kinsey Scale is a single axis of interpretation, and human behaviour is far more complex than a single axis scale can possibly describe. There are many factors that play into human behaviour, rendering it much more elastic, and multi dimensional. Consider my interests - I love writing software, science fiction, history, mathematics, cooking, birds, plants, renovating my home, and a plethora of other hobbies I pursue in varying degrees. I can't tell you what interests or inspires me about any one of these thing, but I love them all. Yet, there are those for whom their "real passions" lie in rebuilding old cars, or steam locomotives (topics which I have at most a passing interest in). My point is that my experience of interest is quite different from someone else's - in fact the way in which I may express that interest is also going to vary considerably from other individuals. My point being that humanity is vastly diverse in its nature, and we have to recognize that when we are assessing someone's stated experiences as people.

All of these points drive towards a single point: Given what we understand today, there are no absolute answers. If we get ourselves hung up on questions of causality and origins, the dialogue is guaranteed to stall, for no party can produce a definitive answer.

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