What Do Our Personalities Say About Us? A Conversation with Psychologist Walter Mischel

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

Think of the last time you were introduced to a stranger. Then ask yourself the following question: How did I react during our first conversation, or shortly after that brief social encounter?

Within a few minutes, you probably began to form a basic impression about the person you were speaking to. This was most likely done despite the fact that you knew very little about them.

These presumptions come about not because you are snobbish or judgmental. I’m reminded of this fact shortly after I begin a conversation with 84-year-old psychologist, Walter Mischel. “What you know about me so far is based on whatever knowledge you’ve acquired after talking to me for 10 minutes,” he tells me directly. “On this basis, you are ready to intuitively base your own impression of what I am like as a person. But that is going to miss more than 90 percent of what I am really like.”

“The reason for this goes way back to our evolutionary history, when we often had to make very quick judgments about things. Is this person somebody that I can approach, or will he kill me? Or, is there a person out there that I can trust and share food with? Or, who can I fight together with against common enemies?”

The kind of judgments that were required primitively as the brain was developing — over the course of evolution — required very rapid condensation of information. Forming very broad and quick impressions is probably good for dangerous situations like avoiding the wrong dark alley, but much of the time they are dead wrong. Why?

“Because first impressions — for example the sounds of someone’s voice, the look in their eyes, and so on — are not accurate signs of what a human being is really like at all.” In his groundbreaking 1968 book, “Personality and Assessment,” Mischel laid out what he felt were a number of faults in how personality was being studied in the field of psychology up until that point. Before its publication, definitions about personality were built on the assumption that an individual’s behavior is consistent across all situations.

Mischel has spent most of his career arguing that much of human behavior is a result of both the situation and the environment the individual is confronted with. Does this mean then, that someone can be very confident in one social setting, and extremely shy and nervous in another, depending on the people and conditions they are surrounded by?

“Well yes, that is a perfectly good example,” says Mischel. “We tend to fall into this belief [that behavior is stable] because when we make first impressions of people, what we do is take very small samples of behavior and overgeneralize them. There are lots of people who can be brave mountain climbers, but who are very nervous when they are waiting in the dentist’s office for a root canal. People can be impulsive in some situations, and as cool as you like in other settings.”

In personality psychology, the traditional approach to studying a person’s behavior comes usually with five of the so-called big traits. They can be memorized using the word OCEAN: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

By placing our faith in these general terms, Mischel argues that we risk confusing constructions about behavior with the cause of behavior. For example, a simple definition like “they behave anxiously” is soon generalized to “they are anxious.” This eventually gets abstracted to “they have anxiety.”

“If the state that we have attributed to the person from their behavior is invoked as being the cause from which it was inferred, we learn very little,” says Mischel.

“This is a key danger of trait-theoretical explanations. The majority of people who consider themselves to be personality psychologists use standard questionnaires where they deliberately remove the situation. Instead, they ask people things like, on the whole, how conscientious or honest are you? In this method there is a deliberate avoidance of the kind of situation specific emphasis that I have tried to put into the field.

“The traditional trait approach assumes we have got these things like conscientiousness or sociability; and that they are stable qualities that don’t change. Or that they are basic qualities that we might have when we reach a certain height in the course of our life, and then don’t grow taller.”

But that perspective only tells half the story of human nature.

“We are not only characterized by these broad differences. We are also continually changing. What gets activated or deactivated in our DNA depends on how we think, see, and feel.”

It’s a difficult task to speak about personality psychology without invoking the name of Sigmund Freud at some stage of the conversation. In the early 20th century, Freud upset the conventional view of human nature. The Austrian psychotherapist postulated that reason does not drive human behavior. Instead, he claimed that the unconscious — the area of the mind where threatening mental activities and fears are kept in check by a mechanism of repression — is responsible for how we think and act most of the time. Freud’s theories were not tested by any reliable scientific methods.

Many psychologists, through out the Western world, have dismissed his views as interesting mythology, but not exactly science. Despite these rejections, his belief that most of human behavior is illogical, irrational, and driven by instinctual impulses — often sexually motivated — still holds resonance with many leading names in the field of personality psychology.

Mischel sees many of Freud’s ideas as a foundation for psychologists like himself to build on: “My own view is that the unconscious is enormously important. But it goes far beyond the kind of things that Freud was talking about. Sexual and aggressive impulses are of course part of what everybody deals with. But it’s a relatively small piece of what goes on. And the nature of that expression is extremely complicated.”

These enormous complexities were carefully documented in a paper published in 1999 in the Psychological Review, by Walter Mischel and Janet Metcalfe, called “A Hot/Cool System Analysis of Delay of Gratification.” It proposed to understand how a person’s thoughts and feelings interact to enable or prevent self-control. The model they developed to explain this was referred to as “a function of balance between two processing systems in the mind”: otherwise known as the emotional hot system, and the cognitive cool system.

The hot system, the paper argued, helps the mind initiate responses to sudden dangers and mobilize the body like a fire alarm. While the cool system, on the other hand, is specialized for cognitive and emotionally neutral thoughts that are grounded in reason and self-control. Mischel explains this dichotomy of the mind in closer detail.

“The hot system is much closer to what Freud was talking about in the unconscious or the ‘id.’ This is now understood as the limbic system of the brain: the more primitive part where the amygdala [namely the small primitive brain structure crucially important in emotional reactions like fear] is the central unit that is involved in hot emotions. These are things that we [humans] share with other animals. And they have to do with basic drives and basic needs.

“The distinctive thing about human beings is the development of the prefrontal cortex, or the cool
system, as it is often called. This is where reason, empathy, imagination, and problem solving come in. When stress is high, the hot system becomes dominant, and when stress is low, the cool system becomes dominant.

“So the two systems are in a reciprocal relationship with each other. As stress goes up, the cool system goes down, and the hot system goes up. This then creates very important problems. While the hot system may be extremely useful for slamming on the brakes before you end up in a collision, it can also make you extremely irrational and prone to impulsive decisions. It makes it very difficult to delay gratification.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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