Some people are more Flexible than others

I’m still in Germany and I’m having a great time. Writing the dissertation is a slow, but steady process. I think I’m done processing the data for which I worked so hard last month. It lines up nicely.

I read an interesting article in Newsweek on Monday that I wanted to share with you all. The notion was that scientists (Frank et. al. 2007 ) found evidence that there is a genetic link to a person’s ability to learn from mistakes. I honestly don’t know how controversial that is. It seems pretty common-sense to me. Some people will be more able than others to discern when they have made a mistake, and upon realizing this, some people will be more able than others to change their own behavior.

If anything, the controversial issue (and the thing that is the subtle beauty of the proposition) is that this in not trained. It seems intuitive to think that if someone doesn’t learn from their mistakes, they could be trained to do so. This result, if true, suggests that the degree of trainability is, itself, variable.

I imagine this has implications for parents everywhere. Take a child who is less capable of intuiting that a repeated mistake will have repeatable consequences. That child should be reared differently than one who immediately modifies behaviors in after making a mistake. A child who responds immediately might be allowed to make some mistakes so that he will learn limits on his own before mistakes are life-threatening. On the other hand, such mistakes will be less useful experiences for the child with this newly identified genetic condition.

But what about the subtle implications? This also suggests that the degree of “habit plasticity” is variable among the population. It suggests that there are outliers on both sides: people who need external structure and limits to survive, and people who will immediately adapt their behavior to the social structure around them. Furthermore, I would venture to guess that this won’t correlate with intelligence or other personality traits (e.g. introversion/extroversion). In fact, it is more like a meta-trait.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has 4 dimensions along which a person will score somewhere on a continuum. People who score any given way on the test will tend to have certain preferred modes of living. What this new result suggests is that, for some people, this preference is more fixed than others.

If nothing else, it’s a caveat on any predictions based on most psychological tests.