Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Personality or Coping Style?

[Warning: Don't read if you were institutionalized unless you're willing to risk being triggered.]
I'm reading The Intelligence of the Feeble-Minded (L'Intelligence des Imb├ęciles) by Alfred Binet and TH Simon, published around 1909. Alfred Binet, in case you don't know, was the one who invented IQ tests. In this book he and his coworker study a variety of subskills to see if they vary by intelligence level, as well as providing very detailed behavioral descriptions. It's quite interesting.
One thing they discuss is personality. They say that among 'feeble-minded' people there seem to be two personality types - rebellious characters and docile characters. These, they say, are unrelated to intelligence level, though the rebellious ones are often underestimated because they're harder to test.
The docile types are basically super-compliant people, who will follow all sorts of commands given, no matter how pointless. For example, they repeatedly took this one guy's cap and hid it and told him to find it, over and over, and the most resistence he showed was to lean away slightly to make it harder for them to reach his hat. Finally, he refused to get it off of a horizontal bar, but that was the first refusal after obeying the same order dozens of times. They say these people are easier to test, although they can be too agreeable. For example, when studying suggestibility, they got one guy to pretend there was an invisible dog and an invisible General, to the point where they thought he actually saw them, until the following conversation:

"Q. Very well, that little dog, and then the General, were they people like us?
A. Ah! the General, yes. (He has not understood the point of the question, he wishes to say that we are not like dogs).
Q. But is it true that you have seen him?
A. Yes. (He smiles, his eyes glisten).
Q. Well, why does that make you laugh?
A. Because you talk to me of the General. (Seems confused - laughs as he lowers his head).
Q. But why do you laugh in speaking of the General?
A. It's a joke you played on me.
Q. But have you seen him?
A. (With hesitation) No, I didn't see him.
Q. But you talked with him.
A. (Hesitating) Yes."

At this point, they recognized that the guy was not suggestible enough to have hallucinations when the doctor suggested make-believe things, he was just docile enough to play along with the doctor's game. As they said in summary:

"We believe that Albert was never duped. And now he is a little ashamed of his compliance and is in a very troubled and complicated mental state when we question him. He still wishes to agree with us, for he is too timid to resist; hence his contradictions. All the time he tries to divine our thoughts; we could still make him say anything we wished."

The rebellious type is quite different. One girl they described threw any object they gave her onto the ground (without acting angry). Some act surly and defiant, while others start crying when asked to do anything. Another woman sat smiling and giggling while answering 'I don't know' to every question, even ones she could answer when she tried. He notes that the rebellious ones typically are much more likely to cooperate with easy tests than hard ones, making them seem less capable than they are. Their performance varies depending on who does the tests, because some people are better at getting them to cooperate than others.
Although it's clear that they probably prefer running tests on the docile people, they describe the rebellious ones as showing a positive form of assertiveness on those tests where agreeing makes a person seem dumber. For example, they don't go along with the invisible dog and the invisible General.
One caveat they give, in my opinion, explains everything about these personality types:

"We shall not here treat this subject fully; certain material conditions have hindered us; it is not the imbecile in a hospital, it is the imbecile in his family or in a family colony that one must know. We have seen our subjects only in the unnatural surroundings of a hospital, or worse in the narrow limits of our office, where we had called them; seated near a table, replying to questions, talking, or submitting to different tests, they were somewhat like students at an examination. A professor would form a very narrow view of the youth of his time, if he saw them only during an examination. We resemble somewhat such a professor."

To me, those personality types sound like ways in which people can cope with being profoundly disempowered. All the people they studied, remember, lived in an institution, and even before coming to live there many of them - especially the lowest functioning ones - probably had little or no control over what happened to them. In the institution, people could do all sorts of things to them, giving no reason whatsoever, with the expectation that they would obey. For example, in one chapter, they discuss tests they ran on pain perception, in which they pricked their subjects with pins, pinched them, put their hands in hot water and put lighted matches to their noses to see how they'd react. The rebellious ones typically acted scared and tried to leave, one woman, for example, making up an excuse that it was time to go and eat. The docile ones cooperated, to a point that I think suggests dissociation: one guy was pinched unexpectedly and pulled back with a cry, but on seeing the serious expression the doctor had, he willingly let them prick him with a pin and showed no sign that it hurt.
Amanda Baggs and Laura Tisoncik, in their conversation on institutions, described what sounds suspiciously like Binet and Simon's 'docile type':

"Laura: Oh gee. I spotted it in you right away. How do I describe it? You were an obvious case of it. You had a kind of submissiveness that is not so much... it is a kind of submissiveness but it's not submission in any kind of normal way. Especially since you were oftentimes looking for where the rules were, so you could follow the rules. Without necessarily appreciating the fact that there weren't necessarily any rules for any particular event or... I don't know how to describe it. You were waiting or looking for the institution around you, as if, it's like, "Where is it, it's hiding here somewhere!" This is not necessarily a very constructive behavior out in the real world, because it is particularly passive in many ways, and because it is sort of like looking around for it. I really got a sense that you were looking around all the time for the rules. And terribly terrified that you were violating all the rules. And meanwhile not necessarily getting what actually should be done, because you were busy looking for the rules. It's a paradox there ...
Amanda: And then there were the apologies...
Laura: Oh yes. The neverending... to properly read the apologies, read them as "Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me! Please! Don't beat me up, don't tie me down, don't torture me!" Which, I obviously had no plans on doing any of the above, but again you were reacting to the situation as if you were still in the psych hospital. And that obviously wasn't the case, but again that's a typical PTSD sort of thing. And I certainly understand it very well, because that kind of an experience really makes an imprint on a person for life. You can't go through that experience of reaching that absolute bottom level of human experience without being seriously affected by it.
Amanda: As I recall it wasn't just actions I was afraid of, it was thoughts.
Laura: Oh yes, of course. I didn't go through that, but then I didn't go through brainwashing. You did. I fortunately spent most of my time in places where they kind of throw you in there, lock you up, and kind of forget about you. I think the only time I ever saw doctors at state hospitals was when I was being admitted and when I was being released. So there was nobody there playing warp-your-brain with me."

As for the rebellious type, that reminds me a lot of myself. In a setting where I feel safe, I'd have cooperated with many of his experiments (particularly the invisible dog and General, because I love to play pretend), but if he was one of my teachers at school, and particularly if he pinched me unexpectedly or otherwise tried to hurt me, I would not have cooperated. Indeed, I'd have to feel very powerless to even cooperate as much as his rebellious subjects did - for example, the woman who made up an excuse of going to eat to escape his pain tests stood by the door but was too scared to open it herself (rightfully so, as he'd probably have stopped her and if she tried to run away big burly attendants might have come to pin her to the floor).
Amanda Baggs and Laura Tisoncik also describe behavior like one of his rebellious subjects in the conversation on institutions (referenced above):

"Laura: ... I tended to look rather threatening. Not to mention the fact that the ward was very impressed with me when I arrived. The first time I was there, which was the only time I was around a lot of teens and the like, I would have gotten there anyway, but the last thing I did was pour a whole bunch of ink over the psychiatrist's notebook. I was sort of like a mini-hero when I arrived and the story got around, because the guy was a terrorist and a bully. And most people didn't have the courage to do anything to him or stand up to him or whatever. Although certainly there was a lot of discussion in the wards occasionally about killing him. So when you arrive as the hero, the courageous one, that tends to limit the likelihood that you're going to get bullied."

It's much more pleasant to think, as Binet and Simon seems to do, that the docile and rebellious behavior patterns are simply innate personality types. But I don't think that's the most accurate view. And it's upsetting to think of the suffering that their patients went through.



Blogger thinkingdifference said...

looks like both docile/ rebellious are attempts to classify (or to explain all possible scenarios of) what is taken to be a deviation from the norm.

it's not autism, but schizophrenia - you might find the project interesting: In this project, people with schizophrenia talked about being institutionalized and the power dimension of that. They recognize the need for help, but question if the present frame for this help is indeed adequate. The research process itself has been empowering for the researchers/participants.

6:31 AM  

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