Monday, March 29, 2010

Culture: Do I Have a Personality?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There's been a fair amount of attention paid recently to a study that claims that the octopus has no personality. While not exactly a pressing issue of the day, it came as a surprise to those of us that went to an aquarium just enough as children to think we knew something about marine life--and had learned that octopuses (yes, that's the plural in my dictionary) did have a personality. At the Seattle Aquarium, for example, the octopus was the only cold-blooded creature that tended to be named by its caretakers. It turns out, as is often the case when dealing with specialists, that researchers don't have the same conception of personality as the general population.

Personality certainly isn't an easy thing to define. This web page shows some attempts to put it in meaningful words. To the average person, it basically comes down to how interesting an individual seems to be. Someone that does exactly what society would expect in every situation and doesn't speak very often is usually regarded as having no personality. Someone that dresses, speaks, behaves or just moves in a way that is different than average, that in some way is distinctive, is regarded as having a personality.

Scientists have decided to define personality differently when studying animals. For them, to make the concept quantifiable, they chose to define it simply as "consistency in behavior." Thus, the octopus that behaves differently in different situations is labeled as having no personality, as occurred in the study. That's the opposite of what the aquarium employees meant, when the octopus seemed to be playing games with them and varying its antics when they wanted to clean the tank, they thought that was personality.

In fact, as I am not the first to point out, applying this definition is not only different than the popular use of the word, but actually almost exactly reverses its use. The boring guy who always does the same thing? By this definition, he has personality. Someone who dresses differently depending not just on one outside factor but based on everything that goes into mood, has no personality. By this definition, I clearly have no personality, as my behavior can surprise even my oldest friends.

Technical people often create definitions that do not match popular perceptions. The lesson of the headline about the octopus is that, when dealing with specialized fields, we can't (as generalists) assume we know what a headline or even a summary means. The terms used may have a very different, specific meaning. I suppose if we did claim to understand, even when we really didn't, by definition we could claim to have a personality.

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