Lay psychology and student identity

Elizabeth O'Connell, Contributing Writer

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An understanding of the five love languages provides a better comprehension of human psychology which can lead to improved relationships with both ourselves and others. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Holt.

Sometimes the Golden Rule isn’t enough. How many times have you taken out the trash for your roommate, only for them to ignore your efforts? Or how many times has a friend brought you a souvenir from his trip, only for you think that was completely unnecessary?

Sometimes, doing for others what you would want for yourself doesn’t help us to nderstand the ones we love. Enter the “Five Love Languages.”

Authored by Gary Chapman, this book seeks to help people understand that the way they express love isn’t necessarily the way others want to receive love — which can lead to miscommunication, hurt feelings and even broken relationships. Chapman’s hope is that we can avoid these effects by identifying our own love languages and those of the ones about whom we care.

The five languages he identifies are quality time, words of affirmation, gift giving, acts of service and physical touch. These five are broad categories of ways one can express love, and Chapman recognizes that though we all need and express many forms of love, many of us have strong preferences for some forms over others.

For example, if I know my roommate shows her love by wanting to spend time with me (quality time), but I just wish she’d tell me that I’m her friend explicitly (words of affirmation), knowing our languages can help us recognize the other’s efforts and needs, and we can understand each other without a fight.

Did Chapman find regions of the brain associated with these love languages? No. Should he have to? Absolutely not. There is a place for these types of theories which we call “lay psychology.”

These theories are largely informal, and usually receive their validation through the “Oh, that makes sense!” reactions of their supporters. Lay psychology theories can provide very useful shortcuts for understanding the complex world around us, but shortcuts usually mean we are missing out on something.

For instance, there are more than five ways to give or express love; therefore it would be wrong to assume that the love languages theory defines, explains or limits loving behavior. But even when we acknowledge that this theory is fallible and simplistic, we can add it to our repertoire of cognitive shortcuts and use it to enhance our experience of the world.

Another example of lay psychology is the theory of the four humors. This is how the ancient Greeks understood personality and well-being. It’s a theory of balance. The Greeks understood the body to have four main fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. In their understanding of health and personality, people who were sociable and pleasure-seeking (sanguine) had too much blood; those who were always peaceful (phlegmatic) had a surplus of phlegm. Likewise, those who had too much black bile were serious (melancholic), and those with an excess of yellow bile would be dominant (choleric). Due to lack of empirical evidence and its overly simplistic nature, this theory has just about died out.

However, Art and Laraine Bennet, authors of “The Temperament God Gave You,” present the ancient personality types in a new way, calling them “temperaments,” which they define as parts of the personality — though this distinction is a bit unclear.

In their work, they argue that each person is born with a certain temperament, which is the “raw material” from which you shape your life, the foundation of your personality, though something apparently separate from it. Their hope is that by identifying temperaments for yourself and others, you can anticipate and cope with challenges in ways most suitable to each person’s “raw material.”

While it’s certainly beneficial to seek an understanding of yourself and others, the theory of the four temperaments might not be the best way to try understanding yourself or others for a few reasons:

First, these “type personality” theories put people in boxes. They try to classify whole people with one label, in this case as “choleric,” “sanguine” or otherwise. In academic circles today, type personality theories are rarely acceptable in research — they’ve been abandoned in favor of “trait personality” theories, which describe common behaviors of people rather than attempting to describe the whole person.

Second, the idea that you are born with this “raw material” is quite controversial, and the assertion that you can never change your temperament is certainly worth a debate.  On the one hand, many researchers estimate that genetics account for up to 30 percent of variance in personality traits.

On the other, this means at least 70 percent of personality is independent of genetics — suggesting that we should look at factors such as environment, society and individual experience.  According to personality researchers Caspi, Roberts and Shiner (2005), our major personality characteristics — which are more like the temperaments — aren’t stabilized until age three, by which point the child has experienced innumerable influences outside of genetic predispositions. Furthermore, Caspi et. al found that our lower-order — that is, more specific — personality traits continue to form and harden through age 50. So, while there is reason to believe we are born with some influences, there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that we are born with such specific “temperaments.”

Our world is full of lay psychology — every Buzzfeed quiz that tells you what Disney princess you are or what your favorite Game of Thrones character says about you can fall under the umbrella of lay psychology. Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages” is a perfect example of a very useful type of lay psychology, a way through which we can better understand our relationships with ourselves and with others through a single book or even an online quiz.

The revived theory of the Temperaments can also be helpful, but only if we understand its limitations. Whereas the love languages describe behavioral preferences, the temperaments are making claims about how one is born and that one’s temperament can never truly be changed.

I highly recommend both books, but read both with a critical eye and decide for yourself. Psychology, lay or formal, is meant to better your understanding and experience of the world around you, and if either of these works achieve that end then they have been successful.

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