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Personality is not only about who but also where you are
What if patience, and maybe other personality features too, are more a product of where we are than who we are?
In the field of psychology, the image is canon: a child sitting in front of a marshmallow, resisting the temptation to eat it.
If she musters up the willpower to resist long enough, she'll be rewarded when the experimenter returns with a second marshmallow. Using this 'marshmallow test', the Austrian-born psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated that children who could resist immediate gratification and wait for a second marshmallow went on to greater achievements in life. They did better in school, had better SAT scores, and even managed their stress more skillfully.
Mischel's pioneering studies at Stanford in California and later at Columbia University in New York had a profound impact on both professional and popular understandings of patience, its origins, and its role in our lives. People reasoned from these studies of the 1970s and '80s that there must be some deep individual characteristic, some personality feature, that set kids up for higher achievements throughout life. But what if that wasn't the right conclusion to draw from these studies?
What if patience, and maybe other personality features too, are more a product of where we are than who we are?
When trying to study the relationship between the environment and our personality characteristics, researchers face two big challenges.
The first challenge is casting doubt on the tendency to see personality traits – patterns of behaviour that are stable across time – as parts of our identities that are inevitable and arising from within. While it's true that people are the products of genes interacting with the environment (the answer to the question 'Is it nature or nurture?' is always 'Yes'), work by the psychologist Nick Haslam at the University of Melbourne and other researchers has shown that people err in the direction of nature, seeing personality traits as much more fixed. In other words, you're more likely to say that your friend Jane just is a patient person and always would be, even in an environment where it's not the best strategy – for example, in a dangerous situation where tomorrow isn't guaranteed. Patience, you might say, is something that comes from within her, not from the world around her.
The other challenge concerns whom psychologists have been studying for the past century. While scholars know a fair amount about how traits develop, that knowledge derives from research on a very specific and peculiar subset of humans: those living in industrialised societies. As quantified in a now-landmark study called 'The Weirdest People in the World?' (2010), the anthropologist Joseph Henrich and his team at the University of British Columbia showed that roughly 96 per cent of subjects in psychology studies came from so-called 'WEIRD' societies – or those that are Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic.
A bias toward WEIRD societies is problematic for a number of reasons. First, people in these societies are a poor proxy for the average human, representing countries that make up only about 12 per cent of the world's population. But this asymmetry toward industrialised societies is problematic for another reason: it represents an environment that's fundamentally different from the ones in which human beings evolved.
If our surroundings do shape our personalities, how do we capture this important process? Here, Mischel's method was right: go straight to childhood, one of the most sensitive and flexible periods of personality development. Recently, my collaborators and I did just that, designing a study to look at two traits of interest: how patient someone is, and how tolerant of uncertainty. We took our investigation to four different societies across the globe: to India, the United States, Argentina and, importantly given our effort to combat the WEIRD bias, indigenous Shuar children living in Amazonian Ecuador.
The Shuar communities we visited were remote: the only way to reach them was to take a long and winding canoe ride up the Morona River. Many of the Shuar we visited in these regions still maintain a more traditional way of life: hunting wild game, cultivating garden crops, fishing. Industrialised goods are not as critical to their way of life. At least, not yet.
To measure how patient a child was, we used an experiment similar to Mischel's marshmallow test, offering children aged four to 18 a choice between one candy today or an increasing number of candies if they were willing to wait a day. If you could muster up the patience, you'd be candy-rich the next day. For uncertainty, they got to choose between a safe bag that always paid out one candy or a risky bag that gave them only a one-in-six chance of more candy.
We found lots of variation, especially between the Shuar and the three other communities. Children in the US, Argentina and India behaved similarly, tending to be more patient and more tolerant of uncertainty, while the Shuar showed a very different pattern of behaviour. They were more impatient, and warier of uncertainty; they almost never picked the risky bag.
In a follow-up study the next year, we looked within Shuar communities and found the same patterns. Shuar kids living near the cities acted more like Americans than the Shuar kids in the rainforest. Something about living near cities – and perhaps something about industrialisation more broadly – seemed to be shaping kids' behaviour.
To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it's important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.
As a result of these broader changes, markets might have also changed our perceptions of affordability. In WEIRD societies with more resources (remember that the R in WEIRD stands for rich) kids might feel that they can better afford strategies such as patience and risk-seeking. If they get unlucky and pull out a green marble and didn't win any candy, that's okay; it didn't cost them that much. But for Shuar kids in the rainforest with less resources, the loss of that candy is a much bigger deal. They'd rather avoid the risk.
Over time, these successful strategies can stabilise and become recurrent strategies for interacting with our world. So, for instance, in an environment where the costs of waiting are high, people might be consistently impatient.
Other studies support the notion that personality is shaped more by the environment than previously thought. In work among Indigenous Tsimané adults in Bolivia, anthropologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara found weak support for the so-called 'Big Five' model of personality variation, which consists of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Similar patterns came from rural Senegalese farmers and the Aché in Paraguay. The Big Five model of personality, it turns out, is WEIRD.
In another recent paper, the anthropologist Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced and his collaborators followed up on these findings further, relating them to changes that were catalysed by industrialisation. They argue that, as societies become more complex, they lead to the development of more niches – or social and occupational roles that people can take. Different personality traits are more successful in some roles than others, and the more roles there are, the more diverse personality types can become.
As these new studies all suggest, our environments can have a profound impact on our personality traits. By expanding the circle of societies we work with, and approaching essentialist notions of personality with skepticism, we can better understand what makes us who we are.
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These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p>When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told <em><a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">Wired</a></em>. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"</p><p>After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.</p>
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told <em>Wired</em>. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."</p><p>The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.</p>
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL<p>But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as <em>Wired</em> <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">notes</a>.</p><p>Other fish—like the <a href="http://onebugaday.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-new-anglerfish-oneirodes-amaokai.html" target="_blank">oneirodes species</a>, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like <em>C. acclinidens</em> only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.</p><p>Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean. </p>
Using machine-learning technology, the genealogy company My Heritage enables users to animate static images of their relatives.
- Deep Nostalgia uses machine learning to animate static images.
- The AI can animate images by "looking" at a single facial image, and the animations include movements such as blinking, smiling and head tilting.
- As deepfake technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are concerned about how bad actors might abuse the technology to manipulate the pubic.
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But that's not to say the animations are perfect. As with most deep-fake technology, there's still an uncanny air to the images, with some of the facial movements appearing slightly unnatural. What's more, Deep Nostalgia is only able to create deepfakes of one person's face from the neck up, so you couldn't use it to animate group photos, or photos of people doing any sort of physical activity.</p>
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But for a free deep-fake service, Deep Nostalgia is pretty impressive, especially considering you can use it to create deepfakes of <em>any </em>face, human or not. </p>
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0<p>When scientists and mathematicians use the term <em>Platonic worldview</em>, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in <em>Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives</em> (1979), 39.)</p> <p>Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K2JTGIA?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">semi-religious dream</a>.</p>