Quassim Cassam explores epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind to understand how certain vices can obstruct knowledge and why they matter. Such vices tend to be thinking vices, that is vices that relate to the way we think about and understand the world. They may impact how we view and perceive the world, how we communicate information, or whether we are able to retain and recall information when needed. For example, being closed-minded can inhibit us from taking in an accurate view of the world, being arrogant may prevent us from effectively communicating knowledge about the world, and being careless or easily distracted may limit our ability to remember and recall information.
However, some epistemic vices can also be understood as character vices. Cassam writes, “character vices actually have a dual use: they can be used to characterize a person or they can be used to describe their thinking, either in general or in a particular case.” Character vices are not just behaviors, but ways of being that are typical for a person, that embody some essential aspect of an individual. Instead of just describing an action or behavior to understand its consequence, we can use character vices to understand an entire string of behaviors and actions of an individual, to understand their larger life outcomes.
Wishful thinking is a good example of a character vice that can have dual use. If you watched more college basketball than normal over the course of the pandemic, then by the time the NCAA Tournament started, you may have engaged in wishful thinking, placing a larger bet than you should have on the outcome of some of the games. But being overconfident in a couple of bets and believing that the best possible outcome would truly come to pass is different than being characteristically a wishful thinker. Someone who we describe as a wishful thinker is likely to always see the upsides and believe that things will work out as desired. As a result, they may not be prepared when things go wrong, and may not be able to overcome or avoid obstacles.
Wishful thinking as an epistemic character vice can describe your individual action or it can describe you as a person. Either way, it is helpful to see that epistemic vices can operate on multiple levels. Studying epistemic vices so closely helps us understand our thinking, our behaviors, even our personalities. They help us connect specific behaviors or traits to real-world outcomes, hopefully allowing us to see the harms that can come from actions, behaviors, and traits that obstruct knowledge.
In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam argues that epistemic vices are different than personality traits. He argues that we can change our behaviors and escape epistemic vices in a way that we cannot with certain aspects of our personality and who we are. This means that we can improve the way we think in order to be more rational and knowledgeable individuals.
“Wishful thinking is what a person does rather than what a person is like,” writes Cassam as an example of a difference between a vice and a personality. We can generally be happy and optimistic people or we can generally be negative and pessimistic, and though I have not studied it, my understanding is that to some extent our genes can influence our general outlook and disposition on life. Nevertheless, we can still engage in epistemic vices like wishful thinking even if we are normally more of an optimist or pessimist. Distinguishing between epistemic vices that are more in our control than personality traits is helpful to see how we can make adjustments in our thinking to improve our knowledge.
To me, the distinction is similar to the difference between the Spanish verbs of estar and ser. Estar is used to describe states of things that change. You would use it to say I am happy today, the house is in good condition, or the vase is broken. Ser captures essential elements of something. You would use it to describe yourself as tall, to say that the house is large, or to describe a vase as blue.
We can generally be positive people, generally excited to talk to strangers, or we can prefer familiar routines rather than unknown situations. But regardless of these essential characteristics, there can be patterns of thinking that we engage in, like wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a pattern of thought that assumes the best outcomes, discredits information that contradicts our hopes, and ignores the pursuit of additional information that might change our mind. It is a behavior that obstructs knowledge, and is also a behavior we can escape through practice and recognition.
The other epistemic vices that Cassam highlights are similar to wishful thinking. They are behaviors and patterns of thought that we generally have more control over than whether we have a sunny disposition toward life. Being behaviors that obstruct knowledge, they are behaviors that we can and should strive to avoid in order to facilitate knowledge, improve our behaviors and decision-making, and ultimately strengthen the choices in life that we make.
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.