In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam acknowledges that our personal epistemic vices cannot be used to explain and account for all of our mental failures. They can explain a lot of our behavior and decision-making, but they don’t explain all of our decisions and don’t universally lead to negative outcomes in all of our interactions and choices.
Cassam acknowledges, “sometimes our conduct has much more to do with the situations in which we find ourselves than with our supposed virtues or vices.” Expanding out and viewing a situation holistically can help us better understand our behaviors and choices and can help us see the degree to which our virtues or vices shaped our responses. Epistemic vices may set a baseline for our behavior or give us a general default for how we see and understand the world, but certain situations can overrule our vices. The same can also be true for our virtues.
A person who is typically closed-minded might become far more considerate when they have to make a difficult personal health decision. Their fear and the gravity of the decision may create a context where they recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that they need to seek out more information. Alternatively, someone who is usually more open-minded may not display open-mindedness when they are insulted by someone who is more powerful than they are. The individual may become defensive and in any interaction with the more powerful individual they may automatically dismiss anything the person says out of closed-minded dislike and distrust, even if the other person may be correct.
“Explanations of our intellectual conduct are almost certainly going to have to be multidimensional,” Cassam writes. “The role of epistemic vices shouldn’t be exaggerated but nor should it be underestimated.” We can expect characteristics about us, our general habits, and general ways of thinking to explain a lot about our behaviors in any given context. However, many specific factors can lead us to abandon our virtues or overcome our vices in unique and complex situations. Major, unusual, and unexpected events can shift us dramatically, but small and seemingly trivial details that we might not consciously recognize can also alter our behaviors in ways that vices and virtues cannot predict.
I find personality trait tests misleading. I know they are used by companies in hiring decisions and I know that Big 5 Personality Traits
have been shown to predict political party support
, but I still feel that they are misapplied and misunderstood. Specifically, I think that the way we interpret them fails to take context into consideration, which may make them next to useless. Gerd Gigerenzer considers this lapse in our judgement when thinking about the way we discuss and evaluate leadership personalities.
In Risk Savvy he writes, “leadership lies in the match between person and environment, which is why there is no single personality that would be a successful leader at all historical times and for all problems to solve.” A military general might make a great leader on the battlefield, but they may not be a great leader in a public education setting. A surgeon leading a hospital during the times of the American Civil War might not make a good leader at Columbia University Medical Center today, and the leader who thrives at a prestigious New York City medical center might not make a great leader at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. Leadership is in many ways context dependent. The problems that a leader has to address may call for different approaches and solutions, which may be supported or sabotaged by particular personality types. Someone who is an outgoing socialite may be the right type of leader in New York City, but might be bored in Rural Nevada and may come across as overbearing to those who prefer a rural lifestyle. What Gigerenzer suggests may be the most important quality for a leader is not some form of leadership personality, but the right experiences and the right ability to apply particular rules of thumb and intuition to a given problem.
If the appropriate leadership personality is so context dependent, it may also be worth asking if our personality in general is context dependent. I have not studied personality and personality tests deeply enough to have any true evidence to back me up, but I would expect it to be. Dan Pink in When shows that we are the most productive and have the most positive mood about 4 hours after waking, and have the least amount of energy and worst mood around mid day (or 8 to 10 hours after we wake up). It seems to me that my performance on a personality test would be different if I was taking it at the peak of my day versus during the deepest trough. Also, I would expect my personality to manifest differently in an online multiple choice test relative to an unexpected car emergency, or during a game of cards with my old high school best friends. To say that I have one personality that shines through in all situations seems misleading, and to say that I have a particular level of any given personality trait that remains constant through the day and from experience to experience also seems misleading.
Gigerenzer’s quote above is about leadership and the idea that there is no single personality trait that applies to good leaders. I think it is reasonable to extend that assumption to personality generally, assuming that our personality is context dependent and being successful as individuals also involves rules of thumb based on experiences. What is important then is to develop and cultivate experiences and rules of thumb that can guide us toward success. Incorporating goals, feedback, and tools to help us recall successful approaches and strategies within a given context can help us become leaders and can help us succeed regardless of what a personality test tells us and regardless of the context we find ourselves in.
There was an aspect of Marcus Aurelius’ life that would seem incredibly foreign and difficult to most Americans today, the ability to live with uncertainty and accept ambiguity. For many people living in the United States today, unanswered questions are painful and challenging, and there is a clear preference for seeing the world as black or white. Aurelius on the other hand, seemed to be a master of living life in the intersection of ideas, constantly thinking through the good and the bad of any one thing or event, and constantly trying to reconsider everything in his life from multiple perspectives. He never saw a bad event as being truly terrible or awful, and believed it was within person’s ability to choose how to interpret any given event. Aurelius wrote,
“Now, in the case of all things which have a certain constitution, whatever harm may happen to any of them, that which is so affected becomes consequently worse; but in the like case, a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.”
The emperor is taking a negative situation in this quote and expanding it beyond the current moment to imagine it within the context of a human life. By shifting his focus he is able to view a negative as a necessary part of life, as an opportunity to grow and face new experiences. This is not something that is easy to do, especially when in pain immediately after facing a negative event or challenge, but it can help an individual begin to see that their actions, thoughts, and decisions will shape how their life is impacted by the bad things which happen to them.
What he is also able to do in this situation is see the world in a complex manner. He is looking at the universe and removing his impulse to describe events that happen. He does not narrow the possibilities of the universe down to a single point. To accept that it is our opinion which shapes the reality around us is to live with open possibilities and to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.
Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills. One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”
I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.
In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve. By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.