Should Governments Shape Citizens’ Personality

Dear Wiebke, Patrick, Mitja, Jaap, Marie, Christian, Richard, Maike, Ulrich, Jenny, Cornelia, Johannes, and Brent.

You suggested that personality traits are actionable targets for public policy (Bleidorn et al., 2019).  I was surprised and actually shocked by this proposal.  I have taught personality psychology for over a decade and I always emphasize that individual differences are normal and should be celebrated like we celebrate other aspects of human diversity in culture and in sports.  Therefore I don’t think personality interventions are needed or desirable. Maybe there is some fundamental misunderstanding, but reading your article suggests that you are really proposing that public policy should target personality traits.

This idea is not new.  Socialistic governments and fascist governments had ideals of the model citizen and aimed to fit their citizens into this mold.

In marked contrast, democracies and market economies are built on the idea that citizens’ well-being is maximized by personal choice. The rule of governments is mainly to protect the safety of citizens and to regulate conflict when individual preferences are in conflict.  Well-being surveys consistently show that free and individualistic societies produce higher well-being than societies that impose ideological or religious norms on their citizens. 

The history of psychology also casts a shadow on attempts to shape individuals’ personality.  When homosexuality was a taboo, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Discorders included homosexuality as a mental illness.  Today most psychologists consider it a success that homosexuality is considered an expression of personal preferences and conversion therapy to cure homosexuals from some invented illness is considered unethical. More generally, mental illness has been defined in terms of patients’ suffering and concerns about patients’ well-being rather than in terms of cultural norms of acceptable or unacceptable characteristics.

New insights into biological influences on many illnesses (e.g., cancer) have given rise to personalized medicine which is based on the idea that the same treatment can have different effects for different individuals.  Rather than trying to fit patients to treatments, personalized medicine aims to fit treatments to patients.

Given these general trends one could argue that modern societies need personality psychology because a better understanding of individual differences is needed to create policies that respect individual freedom and creates opportunities for individuals to pursue their own well-being and to maximize their own potential. The call to shape personality, however, seems to suggest the opposite.  In fact, the call for governments to regulate personality development seems so absurd that it is seems improbable that a group of modern, presumably liberal leaning, psychologists would argue for it.  Does this mean I misunderstood your article? I hope so, but reading it didn’t help me to understand your position.

We agree that personality traits as enduring factors (a.k.a. causes, dispositions) within an individual that influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  You propose that governments should influence personality traits because personality traits influence life outcomes.  For example, personality traits influence divorce.  If governments want to reduce the divorce rates, they could target the personality traits that lead to divorce.  Another advantage of changing personality traits is that they are broad dispositions that influence a range of diverse behaviors. For example, conscientiousness influences class attendance, health behaviors, and making your bed every morning. Instead of having different interventions for each behavior, making individuals more conscientious would influence all three behaviors.  

Most of the article discusses empirical research whether it is actually possible to change personality traits.  I am not going to quibble with you about the evidence here because it is irrelevant to the main question that your article brings up: if it were possible to change personality, should governments role out interventions that shape personality? As the article focused on the Big Five traits, the question is whether governments should make citizens more or less neurotic, extraverted, agreeableness, conscientious, or open to experience?

“Our most general assertion is that personality traits are both stable and changeable, which makes personality trait change a powerful and hitherto relatively underused resource for policy makers”

You appear to be so convinced that government interventions that target personality are desirable that you ask only when to intervene, what intervention to use, who to target, and how to intervene. You never stop to wonder whether interventions are a good idea in the first place.

For example, you suggest that increasing conscientiousness in adolescence is a desirable policy goal because “it could elicit a cascade of positive outcomes” (p. 19).  And decreasing neuroticism is good because it “could significantly reduce one’s likelihood of experiencing negative life events” (p. 19).

In passing you mention the main problem of your proposal to regulate personality. “This is not to say that there are optimal trait levels that should be universally promoted in all people” However, you do not reconcile this observation with your call for personality policies. If there are no optimal levels, then what should be the target of personality policies?  And are the previous examples not evidence that you consider higher conscientiousness and lower neuroticism as optimal? If they are not considered more optimal, why should governments develop interventions to increase conscientiousness and to reduce neuroticism?

You end with the conclusion that “personality traits are ideal targets for interventions designed to improve life success,” which once more begs the question what the goal of personality interventions should be.  What is life success?  We know the answer is 42 (h/t Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but we don’t really understand the question very well.  

To end on a more positive note, I do think that governments can play a role in helping individuals to have better lives with higher well-being, and national rankings of quality of life and well-being show that some governments are doing a better job than others.  One main indicator of a good life is a healthy and long life, and health care is both a major contributor to GDP and a major policy agenda. Good health includes physical health and mental health.  Prevention and treatment of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or addiction are important. Unlike personality, health can be defined in terms of optimal functioning and we can evaluate policies in terms of their effectiveness to maximize optimal functioning. Addressing those concerns is an important policy agenda and psychologists can play an important role in addressing these issues. But I prefer to leave normal variation in personality alone. As you noted yourself, there are no optimal personality traits. The best personality policy is to create free societies that let individuals pursue their own happiness in the way they want to pursue it.

Your disagreeable colleague,
Uli

4 thoughts on “Should Governments Shape Citizens’ Personality

  1. I agree with you, what a hard work to define “life success” or optimal levels of personality traits; especially when there is a lot of interventions (not focused on personality, or at least not directly) that governments could set in motion in order to promote well-being.
    I think personality traits should be addressed when people’s freedom is threatened by their pathological functioning (when become a mental health issue).

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  2. Thank you so much for writing this!

    I have been puzzled more and more by what i think might be a crucial possible mistake (some? many?) social scientist seem to make.

    I tried to make this possible mistake clear in a recent discussion on another blog https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2019/05/03/olivia-goldhill-reports-implicit-association-test/#comment-1031371.

    I hope it’s okay for me to quote some of what i wrote there, here as well because i think it might fit well with some of what you wrote.

    I sometimes get the idea that (social) scientists see the world as one giant experiment, and the people in it as participants. I have often thought that (social) scientists, to me at least, seem to perhaps not even realize, or entertain the thought, that 1) their research may have negative consequences, and 2) that science, and scientific results, are not the only thing to take into consideration when it comes to policy, advise, etc.

    Having good intentions, or thinking you have good intentions, is not enough. Scientific principles, values, and responsibilites should come first. And i think they should come with the wisdom of how, why, and what to do with the science that results from these principles, values, and responsibilites as well.

    If i am not mistaken, science is (at least primarily) NOT about effecting social changes. It’s about trying to explain, predict, understand, etc. things. Perhaps science, and scientific results, can be used to effect social change in the form of being a source of information or point of view, but i reason it’s very important for scientists to separate these issues. I also think this might be a possible confusion, and conflation, that may explain a lot of (social) science’s problematic issues.

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  3. Quote from the blogpost: “This idea is not new. Socialistic governments and fascist governments had ideals of the model citizen and aimed to fit their citizens into this mold.”

    If i was a member of the “New World Order”, or something more probable like a CEO of some big company, i would totally give all these scientists that want to meddle with people’s personality lots of money to do their research!

    I am sure lots of big companies would be very interested in “nudging” workers to be more “ambitious”, or “compliant”, and not ask too many annoying “critical” questions.

    This also reminds me of one of my favorite movies “Office Space”, that in some way can be seen as a movie about a “personality change”. Here’s the famous “TPS report”-scene:

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