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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part One

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the fifth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The fact that we differ from one another is such an obvious one that it hardly needs to be stated, yet much of academic psychology until recent decades has somewhat ignored that reality. The terms often used in scholarly discourse are “nomothetic” versus “idiographic” psychology. Nomothetic theorists focus on the similarities between persons (what we have in common, what makes us all alike) and, in the extreme, can mistakenly view human beings as entirely equivalent, so that understanding one of us generates a full understanding of any of us. Idiographic theorists, in contrast, focus on the differences between persons (what differentiates us, what makes us each unique) and, in the extreme, can mistakenly view each of us as so irreducibly unique as to render any general understanding of human psychology impossible.

As in most life situations, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. However, my personal bias is in favor of idiographic psychology. My favorite book on the subject is one whose title says it all (which conveniently absolves you of the responsibility of reading it): I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You. The failure to identify and work within one’s own personal uniqueness is, from a counseling standpoint, a major challenge; as Lily Tomlin once self-mockingly put it, “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I see that I should have been more specific.”

In this article, and one to follow later this week, I will be examining the role of personality differences, as well as the related issue of diversity in how we think and process information (so-called “cognitive modes”), in influencing how we perceive questions relating to creation and evolution. I am currently in the early stages of conducting research directly addressing this question. While the canons of research ethics prohibit me from directly divulging the results of these early pilot studies, I will at a few points hide my light under a bushel in the hope that astute readers will be able to find the bushel and kick it to one side, thus revealing the illumination underneath.

Models of Personality Diversity: The Pioneering Work of William James
About a century ago, the early psychologist William James wrote and published his now-classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, still considered among the “must-read” classic works on that topic. As part of that work, James introduced and elucidated the distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” individuals. The former, as the name implies, were no-nonsense types with their feet firmly planted on the ground, people who were most interested in hard-headed practical realities and not given to introspection, internal analysis, or self-doubt. By temperament, they were realists and empiricists who believed in the world presented to them through their five senses and in the role of impersonal, objective logic. By contrast, the latter inhabited a world in which compassion, connection to others (including, perhaps, an unseen and nonhuman world), hidden meanings, transcendent purposes, and the like took center stage. These individuals were prone to believe that “the unexamined life is not worth living” but, in their tendency to question themselves and to be harsh self-critics, may have been more prone to self-doubt, guilt, and personal recriminations. In his book, James explored possible connections between this personality characteristic and two contrasting forms of religion that he styled “once-born” versus “twice-born” religious experiences.

Models of Personality Diversity: Other Important Additions
Possibly influenced (at least indirectly) by James’ work, many subsequent personality theorists have developed this same theme. The great-grandfather of them all, Carl Jung, developed his famous theory of psychological types on the basis of the idea that people differ in three important ways: in their focus on the outer world of action and interaction versus the inner world of reflection and introspection (extraversion vs. introversion), in their emphasis on practical concrete realities or on imaginative abstract possibilities (sensing vs. intuition), and in their use of either impersonal logic or personal values to make important decisions (feeling vs. thinking). (Devotees of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will know that later theorists added a fourth dimension to yield the famous sixteen psychological type designators.) Heather Cattell wrote extensively about these same notions using a different vocabulary and methodology, but also agreed that these fundamental differences largely reflected James’ original notion. Still more recently, McCrae and Costa developed and promoted their now influential Big Five model of personality diversity, again signifying that most if not all of these dimensions have at least implicit links to James’ formulation.

Can Personality Profiles Predict Views on the Origins Debate?
My research is focusing in part on the question of whether students’ personality profiles can statistically predict either their existing views on the origins debate (dividing students, by means of an original questionnaire, into creationist, theistic evolutionist, and secular evolutionist groups) and/or the likelihood that their views will change as the result of exposure to a secular education, either in general or specifically in terms of course content relating to evolutionary science. My original hypothesis was that secular evolutionists would be more “tough-minded” (prone to adopt a more reductionistic view of reality, in that only what can be scientifically established is real), while other groups would be more “tender-minded” (prone to view reality in less reductionistic terms that allowed for the possibility of nonempirical realities and nonscientific ways of knowing). Over time, students with different personality profiles might tend to diverge from one another in predictable ways even if they started their college experience with similar attitudes and beliefs about the origins debate.

In the next article, we’ll explore further implications of these differences with a more detailed emphasis on different modes of thinking.

Questions for Discussion
1. In your experience, do you agree with me that creationists and evolutionists (particularly reductionistic or secular evolutionists) differ in how they think as much as in what they think? In other words, to what extent is the dispute one about methodology or epistemology (what truth is and how it might best be determined or evaluated)?

2. If this is true, how might the gap best be bridged?


Unknown said...

Of course it isn't scientific evidence, but the documentary "Flock of Dodos" actually argues something along the lines of your hypothesis. The biologists that he interviews are not only "tough-minded," but they are also brash, rude, inconsiderate, etc. The creationists he interviews (primarily in Kansas, surrounding the state school board controversy) are all quite personable and nice, fitting to a large extent into the "tender-minded" category, at least in personal interactions. The film ends with a compelling question: which group of people would you most like to be around?

Steve Martin said...

A couple of thoughts on #1:

a) re: epistemology – how truth can be determined: in my experience, there is a huge difference between how I) many reductionistic evolutionists and II) many hard-core YEC proponents answer this question. However, I’m guessing this doesn’t correlate with personality type at all. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hard-core on each side had very similar psychological profiles. But that is just a hunch, maybe your research will demonstrate something different.

b) Whether someone was likely to change their mind on the issue of origins: Now, I’m guessing there might be a strong correlation here to personality profiles.

Question: Is this “tough minded” vs. “tender minded” research a first phase? I’m guessing that using the full Myers-Briggs (or something similar) in addressing these questions would be very interesting. But, that might be a whole lot more work.

Jim Harrison said...

I think you should bear in mind that "evolutionist" is largely a category imposed on certain people from outside since most biologists simply ignore creationism and ID as irrelevant to their concerns. There hasn't been genuine controversy about the basic facts of evolution inside the sciences for a good hundred years. Garden-variety biologists are evolutionists in the sense that they accept common descent, the antiquity of the Earth, natural selection, etc. but it isn't an issue that defines them any more than belief in the conservation of angular momentum. These beliefs are not the clauses of a credo. If you draw conclusions about what personality types accept evolution by looking at the (relative) handful of scientists who engage creationists and ID people, you won't discover much about scientists per se so much as about people who like to engage in arguments. You have a sampling problem.

Absent religious scruples of some sort, one hardly needs to be tough minded to accept evolution. I presume that the default assumption, even for the most tender minded, is that one should believe those propositions that are evidently true.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Steve, in fact my research will utilize the Big Five, so the full panoply of nonclinical personality differences will be examined.

James, in fact I am interested in the attitudes of Wisconsin college students, not of practicing scientists of any stripe. So I don't think that for my particular purposes I have a sampling problem. Preliminary work indicates that attitudinal breakdown in my sample matches that of national samples (Gallup, Pew Forum, etc.) quite closely. I am not seeking to generalize my conclusions beyond that population in any event.

Anonymous said...

I'd say the real split is between fundamentalists vs. moderates, not really between creationists and evolutionists.

Moderates take their position largely on the basis of the evidence that they have seen. Introduce them to previously unknown evidence supporting the opposing view and they will update accordingly. Fundamentalists begin with their core ideology and cannot be forced to let go.

In the general populace, I think you probably have a fairly even split between moderates and fundamentalists on the question of origins. And on both sides it's probably 80% moderates and 20% fundamentalists. In the professional sciences, where there is a greater command of the facts, it's virtually impossible to be a moderate and reject evolution. So I would guess the vast majority of creationists in those circles are fundamentalists.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

AMW, what is interesting yet challenging about your idea is that it may confound content (what I think) with process (why I think it or how tightly I hold on to my existing ideas). Thus, from a research standpoint, it is difficult. It's easy to measure content, difficult to assess process. The best "stab" at assessing process issues within psychology is Lawrence Kohlberg's famous research on stages of moral development, but it's highly controversial and (some think) riddled with flaws.

If the two dimensions are independent, then there can be creationist-moderates, creationist-extremists, evolutionist-moderates, and evolutionist-extremists. That assumes a single (univariate) content dimension, but as discussed in previous posts, that's unlikely to be the case (at a minimum, a bivariate model is required). So things get complex in a hurry, with larynx-choking terminology like "theistic-evolutionist-moderate", etc. Sigh.

Steve Martin said...

I've never liked the "fundamentalist" vs "moderate" classification. Too often this is interpreted as a measurement of how confident you are in a position. I would not want to be called an evolutionary-creationist-moderate (as if I'm not confident in my position) even though I'm very interested in listening to other points of view. On the other hand, I'd never want to include "fundamentalist" in any description of myself.

Bearing in mind James’ point that “evolutionist” may be a title foisted on those who do not accept the term, I wonder if we can initially assume that evolution & creation are completely separate variables (I realize that any study, at least now, will show a strong inverse corelation). So if we define:

1. acceptance of Evolution as the belief that evolutionary mechanisms (including, but not limited to, natural selection & random genetic mutations) are able to account physically for common descent


2. acceptance of Creation as the belief that the universe owes its being and sustenance to the Creator.

Then we could measure one’s acceptance of each independently (ranging from outright rejection, through doubt, through probable acceptance, to certainty). This allows you to differentiate “evolutionists” (high certainty for evolution) that a) reject creation from those that b) are certain of creation from those that c) may be agnostic (or have never actual considered the claims) of creation). Same thing for “creationists”.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

You can see the methodological difficulties! I tend to agree with Steve's idea of two separate dimensions, yet note that these are both content dimensions (what you believe), and associated process dimensions are also required (why you believe or how you think). So this does get complex very quickly. For instance, two people could agree on the following content item,

I believe in the existence of a personal God to whom one can pray in the reasonable expectation of receiving an answer.

(Sidebar: This was the famous survey question that was asked of practicing scientists in 1916 and again in 1996. As readers probably know, the study - surprisingly to some - showed no erosion in religious faith among the national sample of scientists surveyed. In both cohorts, about 40% of respondents endorsed the item - lower than the 80% or so of the general public who endorse it, but much higher than some atheistic apologists had predicted. The study is controversial and I don't intend a lengthy sidebar here, but it is worth mentioning. For more, see Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.)

And yet could have two very different reasons for endorsing that item. One might agree that there is empirical evidence to support the belief, while another might say that the belief is a matter of faith apart from evidence, etc.

So the measurement problem is very complex.

In the next essay, my tentative research instrument will be presented to readers for their perusal and constructive commentary.

Another sidebar: re James' comment on terminology, I do think that underlying the social battles we've been discussing are some terminological disputes. Often, whoever controls the language controls the debate (for instance, I mentioned in an earlier post the two meanings of the word "intellectual" - for more on this, see "Finding Oneself Among the Saints", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(3), September 2008). I know that Phillip Johnson complains that the media contrasts the terms "evolution" (a fact or, as he would assert, a presumed fact) and "creationism" (the "ism" implying a social movement, not a factual assertion). He would prefer "evolutionism" and "creationism", or "evolution" and "creation", for symmetry, but has not gotten much traction on this issue.

Jim Harrison said...

If I were looking at the relationship between religious belief and acceptance of evolutionary biology in among college students or in the general population, I'd want information about three characteristics of the individuals under study.

1. I'd like to know how knowledgeable the subjects were both on religion and on biology. Years ago I did an informal survey of my friends, most of whom are highly educated professionals, and discovered that only a handful of them had an accurate understanding of the basic ideas of the modern theory of evolution even though they all accepted it. I'm sure it is also common for people who express enthusiasm for religion to have little understanding of it either. Surely it makes a sociological difference whether one's beliefs in either science or religion are first hand or second hand. (To be a bit pedantic about it, people like me who work with the science in their day jobs, don't really believe in evolution at all. They know that it is the case. It would be an abuse of language to use the word "belief" in this context, just as it would give a listener a misleading impression if somebody said "I believe I've got $20" when they have just looked in their wallets and seen the twenty. The point isn't that somebody can't be wrong in claiming to know, but that a knowledge claim is a different thing than a belief claim. It is different to say "I know that my redeemer lives" as opposed to "I think that my redeemer lives.")

2. I'd like to know something about the quality and intensity of beliefs. Religious convictions can be anxious and existential, but they can also be casual and flip while evolutionary ideas may seem more or less important to those who accept them. (Of course, many people who have internalized the values of the empirical sciences don't think they have beliefs about scientific matters at all, at least in the all caps fashion of religious people.)

3. I'd like to identify where individuals fit on the continuum between thinking of religion as a matter of belief in certain propositions and religion as a comprehensive form of life involving feelings, practices, rituals, etc. It's a commonplace to point out that Fundamentalism is distinctly modern in its emphasis on creed as if the difference between science and religion were simply a matter of adherence to different factual beliefs. Straightforwardly traditional religionists--I'm thinking about some friends of mine who are members of black evangelical churches, don't seem to be so concerned about fighting evolution. They don't believe in it, but they also don't care about it. On the other side, I know many scientific people who value the ritual, aesthetic, and emotional side of the faiths they were brought up in. They just think that the doctrines they were taught are all false.

I expect you are gather information that bears on these issues. I'll be interested to hear what you find out.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


Good comments.

Of course, all these good ideas are going to turn my 85-item questionnaire into an 850-item questionnaire...

Psychologists of religion have long debated whether it's better to operationalize religion in terms of belief or in terms of practice (or in terms of yet something else). Western culture generally has encouraged a split between the cognitive and the experiential that has deleterious effects generally. I don't know how to address this easily in my research, but will certainly be thinking about it.

One can have a sterile belief that has no impacts on one's life; is this person "religious" or not?

The Bible itself focuses (in its only positive use of the word "religion", to my knowledge) on noncognitive elements when it says, "True religion... is to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unspotted by the world." This is behavioral, not doctrinal. (Of course, there are other verses with a more doctrinal emphasis.)

All very hard to handle in a research context.

Epistemologically, one can certainly distinguish between knowing and believing, but I'm not sure it's at all possible to assess that distinction in questionnaire items - people won't see the point. These are deep waters, but I agree that my assent to the proposition that I have $20 is really not a matter of faith in the same sense that my assent to the proposition that God exists is (a sentence ending with "exists is" strains sentence structure to the breaking point, but I enjoy that).

Very useful comments. I'll look forward to your reaction to my pilot questionnaire items.

Due to my mandated relationship with the ethics review board, any suggestions for improving my questionnaire will probably have a three-month lag time, but know that they will be taken seriously!