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Society of Mind

5.6 traits

Isn't it remarkable that words can portray human individuals? You might suppose this should be impossible, considering how much there is to say. Then what permits a writer to depict such seemingly real personalities? It is because we all agree on so many things that are left unsaid. For example, we assume that all the characters are possessed of what we call commonsense knowledge, and we also agree on many generalities about what we call human nature.

Hostility evokes defensiveness. Frustration arouses aggression.

We also recognize that individuals have particular qualities and traits of character.

Jane is tidy. Mary's timid. Grace is smart. That's not the sort of thing Charles does. It's not his style.

Why should traits like these exist? Humanists are prone to boast about how hard it is to grasp the measure of a mind. But let's ask instead, What makes personalities so easy to portray? Why, for example, should any person tend toward a general quality of being neat, rather than simply being tidy about some things and messy about others? Why should our personalities show such coherencies? How could it be that a system assembled from a million agencies can be described by short and simple strings of words? Here are some possible reasons.

Selectivity: First we should face the fact that our images of other minds are often falsely clear. We tend to think of another person's personality in terms of that which we can describe — and tend to set aside the rest as though it simply weren't there. Style: To escape the effort of making decisions we consider unimportant, we tend to develop policies that become so systematic that they can be discerned from the outside and characterized as personal traits.

Predictability: Because it is hard to maintain friendship without trust, we try to conform to the expectations of our friends. Then, to the extent that we frame our images of our associates in terms of traits, we find ourselves teaching ourselves to behave in accord with those same descriptions. Self-Reliance: Thus, over time, imagined traits can make themselves actual! For even to carry out our own plans, we must be able to predict what we ourselves are likely to do — and that will become easier the more we simplify ourselves.

It's nice to be able to trust our friends, but we need to be able to trust ourselves. How can that be possible when we can't be sure what's in our own heads? One way to accomplish this is by thinking of ourselves in terms of traits — and then proceeding to train ourselves to behave according to those self-images. Still, a personality is merely the surface of a person. What we call traits are only the regularities we manage to perceive. We never really know ourselves because there are so many other processes and policies that never show themselves directly in our behavior but work behind the scenes.