Lately, I've been thinking of personality traits such as those quantified by the OCEAN model. A major conceptual difficulty I run into when talking to people about these traits is their innate imprecision. For example, the Openness to Experience trait is correlated with political liberalism, but you probably don't have to look very far to find a counter-example of someone whose O is pretty low, but isn't in fact conservative at all. Or vice versa. This never bothers me, because I know of the inherent weaknesses of correlation.
However, not all that many people think that way, so you are basically facing an uphill battle if you try to explain this phenomenon in those terms. I have thought of another way to explain it that is probably better for verbally oriented people, plus it has the benefit of 2500 years of historical usage. Traits such as O or g are Aristotelian potentia or δύναμις. I know, that's not simpler.
What are potentia? The notions of act and potency are the foundations of Aristotle's Physics. Aristotle introduced these notions to explain how one thing could change into another. To put it simply, any actually [there's that word] existing thing is in act. It is something. But, it could also be something else. So Aristotle reasoned that it is potentially many other things. To put this in modern terms, we can think of mass-energy. We know that there is a relationship between stuff and energy, and that it is possible to convert one to the other under appropriate conditions. Energy is potentially matter, and matter is potentially energy.
How does this relate to personality traits? I tend to think of personality traits as tendencies of greater or lesser strength. Openness to experience tends to be associated with political liberalism, it potentially can lead to political liberalism, but not always. It can potentially lead to other things as well. Note that I am positing a causal role, but not a determinate one. I see these as formal causes rather than efficient causes.
Potentia, but their nature, are indeterminate. In the broadest sense, one thing can potentially be an infinite number of other things. This can be most clearly seen in the mass-energy example. Mass-energy can be any material thing whatsoever. It has the maximal amount of potency and the least amount of act of any material thing we know. But, it still has a little bit of act in it, because you cannot get something for nothing. There is a conservation law that tells you how much stuff you get from energy, or vice versa. It is not completely indeterminate, but rather indeterminate in a specific way.
There are different kinds of potency. The canonical example is learning grammar. By nature of being human, we are all capable of learning grammar. However, there is a difference between knowing grammar, and using grammar. Even after you learn it, it is still in some sense potential grammar, if you aren't doing anything with it. But this is clearly different than when you don't know grammar at all. The knowledge is now usable at will. Some of the potency has been used up. so to speak. Before you could have learned any number of things, but now you know one thing, and can actually put it to use.
Personality traits are much the same. There is a range of possibilities associated with each one, but they have a unifying theme that lets us group them together. They are partly act, and partly potency. The act determines the trend, the potency allows variety. The amount of the trait can vary. Some people have a lot of conscientiousness, and some have a little. If you have a lot, you can do lots of things with it, if you have a little, the potency is accordingly more limited, and you can do less with it.
The psychometricians are on to this in regards to g. There are two components of g, gf and gc, representing fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is pretty much raw problem solving ability. Crystallized intelligence is closer to what many people think of as education: vocabulary, experience, and factual knowledge. What is really interesting is how these change over time. Fluid intelligence peaks when you are young, and steadily declines. Crystallized intelligence grows more slowly, and only begins to decline late in life when aging truly sets in and memory and mental function begin to decline as well.
gf represents the potentia of our intelligence. It is good for applying to anything. gc is intelligence that has had some of its potential used up, and turned into act. That bit of intelligence is less useful in general, but more useful in specific. It has become more actual. Thus it should not be surprising that gf
declines continuously. It is naturally being used up all the time. is more stable, and in fact most all of us notably increase in experience over time, into gc, which is where the gf is going.
Applying this to personality traits, one thing that mystifies some people about the OCEAN model is how vague it is. "What that supposed to be insightful?" I often hear. This is because we are really looking at potentia. There are lots of different kinds of personality traits that psychologists talk about. These five are the most general, the others tend to fall underneath the big five. Each of us actualizes the big five traits in different ways. We basically form our character over time by means of the things we do, turning potential traits into specific habits and dispositions. This is also why we become set in our ways over time. The potential got used up.
This explanation is not simpler than the statistical one. However, it does unify all of these things in an interesting way, and it allows for a more complete explanation of how each of us experience the OCEAN traits. It is both causal, allowing us to make predictions about people and understand the world, and it is also not determinate, allowing us to understand the natural variation between people with similar levels of the same trait. It also explicitly ties the model into the Aristotelian tradition, which underlays most of Western thinking.
Next up: personality traits as natural.