Personality Psych 1: “The Difference Between Quantum Physics and Psychology”

This is the first instalment of this series (of yet-to-be-determined length) on personality psychology. This post is a little bit of personal background and an introduction. I’m planning to start sharing information about theories and ideas in a couple days time so stay tuned!


What makes us who we are? What makes the way we respond to situations different from the way someone else would respond? What is unique about our relationships and interactions with the world?

Personality psychology tries to address what’s called the “personality triad” – the way people think, feel and behave.

Personality refers to an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour in conjunction with the psychological mechanisms (whether apparent to us or not) controlling these patterns.

Necessarily (and unsurprisingly) there are numerous approaches to the study of personality, none of which are considered “more correct” than another, and all of which contribute to our understanding of unique aspects of this field of psychology.

“A surrealist, an impressionist, a cubist, and a modernist painter all walk into a bar.”

In many ways, the study of personality can be thought of like painting a picture. Except with many different artists contributing to the final product, each having their own unique style that doesn’t always correspond to the others. In order to make sense of the whole, we have to be able to examine things from different perspectives and in many cases we still can’t be sure we understand everything. No style of painting is more “right” than another. 

Studying personality psychology has enabled me to break away from the rigid beliefs I used to have that empirical science can and will lead us steadily towards a widely-accepted, observable “Truth”. I entered my study of psychology (and as a consequence of the environment in which I was raised, most other subjects as well) with what I considered to be a relatively empirical “scientific”-approach. By scientific, I mean what I thought were the more “objective” sciences – the natural/hard sciences. In my first years studying psychology I was consistently drawn towards what made most sense for me – the observable and identifiable neurobiological patterns associated with psychopathology – the empirical data. Not until studying personality psychology was I directly confronted with what I have always steered away from, abstract ideas.

Thinking back to high school, I recognize that I always enjoyed English (maybe not all the content we covered) but I definitely seemed to find it much more interesting than my other science and math-oriented peers did. What I didn’t like was the subjectivity. The fact that I didn’t know if it was possible to obtain a perfect score on a test. The uncertainty about whether or not something would be deemed “correct” or worthy of marks. Historically, I haven’t done well with uncertainties…

For several reasons, the paths I’ve chosen to pursue have been erroneously guided by similar external factors (and by mental illness to some degree as well) that I wasn’t ever really aware of. This past year however, I’ve found myself in a situation where I have really started considering what I genuinely enjoy. What things I find intrinsically pleasurable and valuable. It might seem strange to think that someone doesn’t know what they like, but this has actually been very difficult – fighting with my brain to develop complimentary patterns of behaviour to those that have been hard-wired in my brain. The point of this tangent being, that I tended to shy away from classes with more abstract concepts that demanded different types of thinking. However, thanks to my biology-based transition into psychology, I’ve been reintroduced to a subject that I intrinsically enjoy that also highlights all the grey areas I preferred to deny existed. In some small way, this personality course has helped me embrace the idea of uncertainty and get uncomfortable with the unknowns, because what we don’t know is often much more interesting. 

My first introduction to personality psychology was actually an introduction to quantum physics and hypothetical constructs.

Weird I know, but what was a genuine (and relatively successful – at least for me) attempt on our professor’s behalf to help us accept the complex and sometimes almost philosophical nature of the psychology course still in the faculty of science. And what better way to introduce personality psychology than with bit of philosophy of science.

A hypothetical construct refers to processes or entities that are not directly observable. So a “variable” of sorts that you can’t actually see. We can use these ideas to explain groups of functionally related processes or experiences. Instead of seeing the constructs themselves, we infer about indicators of manifestations of these constructs.

So do they really even exist? Let me give you a couple of examples:

Intelligence

  • While we have pretty popular methods for measuring what we think represents intelligence, we also know that there are multiple ways of classifying intelligence. And what if I asked you to tell me how to draw “intelligence”? The reality is, its an unobservable phenomenon that we can use to explain (and predict) things relatively reliably but we cannot directly know in and of itself.

Love

  • Probably one of the oldest topics discussed to humankind. What is love? We know what it may feel like to us. We know that we may behave differently when acting out of love. We can see how it manifests outwardly in intimate relationships but the “Thing” that is love itself is indeed, a hypothetical construct.

Gravity

  • Why did it take humans so long to “discover” gravity? Well because we didn’t directly observe it. It’s a hypothetical construct.

Some concepts are so familiar and commonly-used we feel like they are tangible entities. This is where quantum physics came in. To elucidate the point that all sciences are built on systems of constructs, some sciences just use them more than others, and the degree to which these concepts are accepted as truisms varies.

This is when my external brain started to become appeased. If quantum physicists rely on hypothetical constructs and they’re considered to be studying the “hardest” of hard sciences, using hypothetical constructs in a similar way to study personality doesn’t make psychologists any less academic nor intelligent. (Of course, something that goes without saying but I thought pertinent to mention because of my desire to be honest about my own insecurities).  

While empiricism is a dominant component of science, concerning yourself with only observable and measurable phenomena isn’t always possible. Hence constructs. Scientists have long recognized the role of non-observables in science whether it’s psychology or physics.

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