Talk About Personality!

This year the psychology department here at HMP Wakefield piloted a new idea. They decided to hold mini lectures on the last Monday of every month with a different “psycho-educational theme” each time.

There have been five so far and whilst I didn’t get to go to the first one due to other commitments, I have found the others absolutely fascinating and a great idea. However, this probably wasn’t for the reasons they had intended.

The third event was, without doubt, the best, and it focused on the theme of ‘personality’ – not to be confused with personality disorder, as they emphasised at every opportunity.

They explained a few different theories in brief, including the debate between nature and nurture, and they highlighted a few of the thinkers who have shaped our ideas of what forms the personality in the first place, from Hipocrates to Freud and Jung. But the most entertaining part of the entire day was counting how many times they contradicted themselves without ever realising at all, and then squirming under questioning when the inconsistencies were pointed out.

For example, they said that the personality begins to become fixed at the age of two, but doesn’t become fully fixed until 25. They followed this up with the throw away comment “That’s why we don’t do personality disorder tests on people in young offenders.” Clearly she didn’t know my case history. I undertook a PCL-R test at the age of 23 whilst at Swinfen Hall Young Offender Institution. This is a test which is used as one half of the referral criteria for Personality Disorder Units. But it didn’t end there. After telling us that the personality doesn’t fully fix until the age of 25 she was asked the apparently unrelated question “is the personality adaptable?” Given that she is a senior forensic psychologist at a public sector prison, working towards the rehabilitation of all prisoners in her care you might think she would believe that we can absolutely adapt our personalities in order to live constructive and crime free lives. So what was her answer? “No.”

So if you are 24 then you can absolutely change your personality because it isn’t fully fixed, but if you make it to your 25th birthday then you’d better make sure you’re happy with who you are because from then on nothing changes. She did say later on that “You can mask your natural traits, but you can’t change them.” She then used herself as an example and said that she is naturally an introvert and can be very shy but she has learnt to mask this and now finds things such as public speaking much easier. It was a good example and one I could really relate to. When I was growing up I was very shy myself. Like her, I too masked my shyness in order to become better at working in groups and performing in front of others. However, I disagree with her conclusion. I masked my shyness so consistently that I actually got into the habit of being an extrovert. I no longer had to think about doing it because habit took over and I became able to do all the things I once found hard without ever feeling shy at all. Yes, I had started out masking, but the mask had slowly become part of me and who I was. Habit made it natural for me and since being extroverted now felt natural I would describe it as one of my natural traits. Acting shy now would feel very unnatural to me. So didn’t I change my natural trait? Didn’t I adapt my personality? She doesn’t think so, but who is she to tell me how my personality works? I would never presume to do the same to her!

And this is the main problem I’ve got with the kind of psychology you will see in Britain’s prisons: they love to pigeon hole. Everyone she held up as one of the big thinkers behind the study of personality were the same. Hipocrates, Freud, Pavlov, Maslow, Jung, Myers Briggs, I could go on, all loved to pigeon hole to a greater or lesser extent. She broke down the difference between Type Theory (that there are only so many personality types and we all fit into one of those types) and Trait Theory (that there is a spectrum of traits and we all fall somewhere along the spectrum). And she seemed to be saying that Trait Theory has won out over Type Theory in the view of most modern psychologists, including herself. What she seemed oblivious to is that whilst Type Theory is very one dimensional (either you do fit a certain type or you don’t), Trait theory is still only two dimensional (you can find yourself at one end of a line or the other, or anywhere in between, but we are all somewhere on the same line). My question is this: if trait theory is seen as better than type theory because it includes a greater range of specific traits, shouldn’t modern psychologists be searching for ways to engage with people that don’t pigeon hole them at all? ‘Individualised treatment’ if you will.

Another thing she said was that there is no such thing as positive traits or negative traits because some traits are positive in one situation but negative in another. For example, someone who doesn’t really express emotion would make a very good fire fighter (where you have to stay cool, calm, and collected whilst inspiring confidence in those who need you), but maybe not such a good social worker (where those you look after need to feel that you can empathise with them and their feelings). Well, given that even so called “negative” traits can be positive at times, what makes such traits capable of signalling a disorder of the personality? Even David Hare himself (the pioneer of the foremost test for signs of psychopathy) said that most people who have “psychopathic traits” will never commit a crime in their lives. It isn’t the traits that are the problem.

I think these events are a really positive thing here at Wakefield. Not because they offer “psycho-education” or because they help people to gain an insight into their own offending behaviour, but because it reveals the true beliefs of those tasked with our rehabilitation. That they don’t believe we are capable of change, that they cannot even see how much harm pigeon holing people can do, and that despite knowing that no trait is necessarily negative, they are more than happy to frame it as such when it suits the conclusion they already intend to draw. I love it when people unwittingly expose their own agendas.

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