Advances in Personality Science

I’m currently reading this book. A quote from the beginning of the first chapter which made me question if I should even keep on reading:

“we urge sensitivity to the potential limitations of some traditional scientific methods. The most distinguishing feature of persons is that they construct meaning by reflecting on themselves, the past, and the future. Many writers have questioned the assumptions that meaning construction can be adequately captured by the traditional methods of natural science or that persons can be construed as a collection of quantifiable personality variables that index essential qualities of the individual (Geertz, 1973, 2000; Polkinghorne, 1988; Shweder, 2000; Shweder & Sullivan, 1990; Taylor, 1989). They discourage the positing of abstract global tendencies, urging instead that personal qualities be studied within the specific physical, social, and cultural contexts that comprise the individual’s life (Kagan, 1998)—a theme that has been sounded by a variety of scholars throughout the history of the field (Shweder, 1999). These concerns are as much a part of personality science as are investigations that happily make these assumptions.”

I post this quote here to make clear that if they ‘go too much in that direction’ I’ll just stop reading (related to Miao’s recent comment). I’m not interested in crap, I’m interested in the science. But on another note, if that quote had made me stop reading I’d have missed out on some good stuff – so far it’s mostly been about the science. They haven’t gone too far in the other direction yet – actually chapter 2 was quite technical – and I’ve read about a third of the book at this point. Chapter 2 was interesting, but if I had to quote from that one (In Search of the Genetic Engram of Personality) I’d have to include a lot of quotes like: “studies have generated mixed results” and “studies […] have produced negative results”, “The results of these studies have been mixed” etc. – not a lot of convincing and ‘obviously true’ findings have surfaced yet; as the authors put it: “So what can be said to summarize the discussion in this chapter? In short, the story is complex.” I found chapter 3, on Individual Differences in Childhood Shyness to be quite interesting too, and I’ll quote a bit from that below – it’s interesting also because stuff like this seems far more relevant to me (and perhaps also a few of the readers?) than does stuff on, say, the genetics of bipolar disorder or -schizophrenia (slightly related link).

So, what about that shyness stuff?

“Shyness reflects a preoccupation of the self in response to, or anticipation of, novel social encounters. Although shyness is a ubiquitous phenomenon that a large percentage of adults have reported experiencing at some point in their lives  (Zimbardo, 1977), a smaller percentage of adults and children (around 10–15%) are consistently anxious, quiet, and behaviorally inhibited during social situations, particularly unfamiliar social situations (see Cheek & Buss, 1981; Kagan, 1994). […] many of these shy children exhibit a distinct pattern of behavioral and physiological responses during baseline conditions and in response to social challenge in infancy and through the early school-age years […]

Current thinking suggests that the origins of shy behavior may be linked to the dysregulation of some components of the fear system (LeDoux, 1996; Nader & LeDoux, 1999). Fear is a highly conserved emotion that is seen across mammals. It is the study of fear that has produced the most reliable evidence to date concerning the neuroanatomical circuitry of emotion. There is a rich and growing literature from studies of conditioned fear in animals that suggests that the frontal cortex and forebrain limbic areas are important components of the fear system. The frontal cortex is known to play a key role in the regulation of fear and other emotions. This region is involved in the motor facilitation of emotion expression, the organization and integration of cognitive processes that underlie emotion, and the ability to regulate emotions (see Fox, 1991, 1994). The frontal region also appears to regulate forebrain sites involved in the expression of emotion. The amygdala (and central nucleus) is one such forebrain/limbic site. There are demonstrated functional anatomical connections between the amygdala and the frontal region. […] The amygdala (particularly the central nucleus) is known to play a significant role in the autonomic and behavioral aspects of conditioned fear (LeDoux, Iwata, Cicchetti, & Reis, 1988). […]

“infants who exhibit a high degree of motor activity and distress in response to the presentation of novel auditory and visual stimuli during the first 4 months of life exhibit a high degree of behavioral inhibition and shyness during the preschool and early school-age years. There is, in addition, evidence to suggest that there may be a genetic etiology to inhibited behavior. […]

In a series of studies with adults, Davidson and his colleagues have noted a relationship between the pattern of resting frontal EEG activity and affective style. Adults who exhibit a pattern of greater relative resting right frontal EEG activity are known to rate affective film clips more negatively […] and are likely to be more depressed […] than adults who exhibit greater relative resting left frontal EEG activity. […] The startle response is a brain-stem- and forebrain-mediated behavioral response that occurs to the presentation of a sudden and intense stimulus, and its neural circuitry is well mapped (Davis, Hitchcock, & Rosen, 1987). Although the startle paradigm has been used extensively in studies of conditioned fear in animals, this measure has been adapted for studies concerning the etiology of anxiety in humans. […] individual differences in the startle response are linked to affective style. For example, adults who score high on trait measures of anxiety (Grillon, Ameli, Foot, & Davis, 1993) and children who are behaviorally inhibited (Snidman & Kagan, 1994) are known to exhibit a heightened baseline startle response. […]

These data [too many findings to quote here] suggest that children who are classified as temperamentally shy during the preschool and early school-age years exhibit a distinct pattern of frontal brain activity, heart rate, and salivary cortisol levels during baseline conditions and in response to stress. […]

One of the goals of our research program on shyness has been to examine the developmental course and outcomes of temperamental shyness beyond the early childhood years, given that temperamental shyness appears to remain stable and predictive of developmental outcomes (Caspi et al., 1988). Overall, the behavioral and physiological correlates and outcomes associated with temperamentally shy children are comparable with those seen in adults who score high on trait measures of shyness. For example, adults who report a high degree of trait shyness are likely to report concurrent feelings of negative self-worth and problems with depression in both elderly (Bell et al., 1993) and young (Schmidt & Fox, 1995) adult populations and to display a distinct pattern of central and autonomic activity during resting conditions and in response to social stressors (see Schmidt & Fox, 1999, for a review). […]

Not all temperamentally shy adults or children are alike. Our research suggests that different etiologies, correlates, and developmental outcomes are associated with individual differences in temperamental shyness […] Cheek and Buss (1981) described at least two types of shyness in undergraduates: individuals who are shy and low in sociability and individuals who are shy and high in sociability. […]

Buss(1986) presented a theory in which he argued that there may be at least two types of shyness: an early-developing fearful shyness that is linked to stranger fear and wariness (perhaps analogous to the behaviorally inhibited children described by Kagan, 1994) and a later-developing self-conscious shyness that is linked to concerns with self-presentation. Little empirical research, however, has been done to substantiate Buss’s theoretical model. Two studies that do exist in the literature have found support for Buss’s claim in young adults. […] Schmidt and Robinson (1992) found differences in self-esteem between the two shyness subtypes; the fearfully shy group reported significantly lower self-esteem than the self-consciously shy and nonshy groups. […]

Cheek and Buss argued that people avoid social situations for different reasons. Some people avoid social situations because they experience fear and anxiety in such situations (i.e., they are shy); others avoid social situations because they prefer to be alone rather than with others (i.e., they are introverted). Cheek and Buss (1981) then noted that if shyness is nothing more than low sociability, then the two traits should be highly related such that being high on one trait means being low on the other. The extent to which they might be orthogonal was an empirical question. Cheek and Buss (1981) noted that the two traits were only modestly related, and they were able to distinguish them on a behavioral level. High shy–high social undergraduates exhibited significantly more behavioral anxiety than did undergraduates who reported other combinations of shyness and sociability.
We (Schmidt, 1999; Schmidt & Fox, 1994) examined the extent to which shyness and sociability were distinguishable on electrocortical and autonomic measures. Using a design identical to that reported by Cheek and Buss (1981), we attempted to distinguish shyness and sociability on regional EEG, heart rate, and heart rate variability measures collected during baseline and during a social stressor. We found that high shy–high social (i.e., the conflicted subtype) undergraduates exhibited a significantly faster and more stable heart rate than high shy–low social (i.e., the avoidant subtype) participants in response to an anticipated unfamiliar social situation (Schmidt & Fox, 1994). […] the two subtypes were distinguishable based on the pattern of activity in the left, but not the right, frontal area. High shy–high social (the conflicted subtype) participants exhibited significantly greater activity in the left frontal EEG lead than did high shy–low social (the avoidant subtype) participants. A similar pattern of resting frontal EEG activity has been found in high shy–high social and high shy–low social 6-year-olds (Schmidt & Sniderman, 2001) […] These sets of findings, taken together, suggest that different types of shyness are distinguishable on behavioral, cortical, and autonomic levels during baseline conditions and in response to social challenge. […]

We speculate that genes that code for the transportation of serotonin may play an important role in the regulation of some components of the fear system, which includes the frontal cortex, forebrain limbic area, and HPA system. Serotonin has been implicated as a major neurotransmitter involved in anxiety and withdrawal (Westernberg, Murphy, & Den Boer, 1996). Some temperamentally shy individuals may possess a genetic polymorphism that contributes to a reduced efficiency of the transportation of serotonin. Such a genetic polymorphism has been noted in adults who score high on measures of neuroticism (Lesch et al., 1996). […] The reduction of serotonin contributes to overactivation of the amygdala and the HPA system in some individuals. The overactive amygdala stimulates the HPA system and the release of increased cortisol. This increase in cortisol may contribute to the pattern of frontal EEG activity noted early between shyness subtypes. […]

When the two shy subtypes encounter actual or perceived social stress, there is an increase in heart rate, cortisol, and frontal EEG activity. The two subtypes will differ, however, in the pattern of behavior and left frontal EEG activity. The shy–social subtype will experience an approach-avoidance conflict and a greater increase in left frontal EEG activity; the shy–low-social subtype will not experience the same conflict, as they do not have the same need to affiliate. Thus this subtype will tend to avoid social situations and will not present with the same pattern of left frontal EEG activity, although they may evidence an increase in cortisol and heart rate. […] we believe that the conflicted and avoidant subtypes may be on different pathways of developmental problems. Conflicted children are likely to be highly reticent, desiring to be a part of the peer group but having problems doing so and, we think, might be on a pathway to social anxiety; the avoidant child, on the other hand, may have problems simply engaging in any social situations and may avoid them all together, desiring instead to be alone, and, we think, on a pathway to social withdrawal and depression.”

As already mentioned, so far the book has been quite interesting. We’re complicated creatures and this kind of stuff is stuff you can add to the list of things you do not think about but which still have major consequences for how you live your life, what you feel about the life you live, and where you end up.

March 29, 2013 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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