It appears as a perennial truth that the most interesting and engaging among us, not to mention the most charismatic, are those who possess, manifest, demonstrate or otherwise exhibit some sufficient depth and novelty of character or behaviour that we might identify them as having “personality”. Issues of authenticity in (or as) personal identity are much deeper than generally addressed by colloquial postures on how “real” or notionally “fake” a person might be, or might be considered to be. While overtly optimistic and extroverted personality-types are common enough and represent those flames to which the moths of less-secure personas are so often attracted, it is unlikely that any such unrelenting persistence of optimism and perfect smiles is a realistic or plausible, much less sustainable, form of personal cognitive method.
Questions as to what (if anything) underlies the aggregate or bundle of superficial gestures, affectations and utterances that accompany the physical body of a human being always find themselves open to a suite of questions aligned with the problem of “other minds”; namely as that being in possession of a mind yourself, you can never be certain that your experience of self and subjectivity is what is going on for other people, that their experience and contents of consciousness is even partially similar to your own.
This is a corollary of John Searle’s Chinese Room argument concerning Artificial Intelligence and asserting that a simulation of intelligence is not necessarily the same as the possession of intelligence as the ability to mechanically blind-follow rules may be sufficient to minimally or convincingly simulate that intelligence. The flip-side of this is that, not only is it not actually possible to ever be completely certain that other people are not just subjectively void rule-shuffling zombies, but the extent of your own certainty in your own subjective depth and existential or conscious authenticity is just as much subject to question. Why would an autonomous zombie not think of itself a person, a ghost in the machine, if there were some survival or selection advantage conveyed by this internal self-representation and complex mapping ? Proximity and intimacy with that recombinatory shuffling and ordered rules-set within a brain does not assuage all doubt and while we might feel comforted by our intuitions on the matter, the existence and experience of cogito demonstrates more that something is going on here – potentially devoid of that existential pivot of “I” that we are accustomed to.
A significant problem of psychological analysis regarding human behaviour and communication stems from an implicit doubt concerning authenticity and identity or consciousness. When considering that bundle of behavioural identifiers, qualitative modifiers or gestural and linguistic traits that we consider as “personality” we find ourselves on very similar shifting sands of doubt as we do when attempting to isolate or identify subjectivity and intelligence. While optimistic, unproblematically extroverted or friendly personality-types exist on a potential spectrum of behaviour or being, and are in no sense innate or even necessarily continuous psycho-social states of relational behaviour, it does appear that the social advantage conferred by a bright outlook on life lends itself favourably to social and economic status-cultivating opportunities.
The ability to identify personality tokens or ordered sequences of identifiable symbolic and behavioural mnemonics in any other person is closely related to the ability to identify or cultivate these same patterns and continuous bundles of affective (and perhaps culturally agnostic) temperament and outlook on life. Many of us feel drawn at some level to the overt confidence and presence imbued by a positive outlook. There are very likely elementary algebras of reflexive identity construction and social mirroring at work in this, not to mention the social status, economic and mating advantage conveyed by confidence and a pleasant, friendly demeanour. An apposite question might be: if an optimistic outlook conveys social selection and survival advantages, why has human cultural and social existence not converged towards producing and celebrating insanely happy and unremittingly outgoing personality types ?
In many ways, a globally distributed mass or popular culture does attempt to manufacture idealised, confident and outgoing personality types: celebrities, trend-setters and to some extent – politicians. This generative identity-or-personality production process has also iteratively self-replicated (and in a colloquial sense democratically) fractured through contemporary information and communications technology into countless lifestyle channels and profiles on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and other media platforms. The preponderance of technologically-facilitated, obsessively hyper-curated self-representations and aspirational makeovers or lifestyle accessorising does not provide more than superficial insight into subjective personality or persona beyond indicating the extent to which commercial interests foundationally insert themselves into the processes and vocabularies through which these selves are spoken, written and manufactured by those notional bearers of all of this subjectivity.
If extroverted happiness were the only viable or successful solution or cognitive method which conveyed advantage at the level of cultural selection or genetic-continuity, then we may indeed expect to be inundated by irrepressibly ecstatic hordes of optimists; but we are clearly not afflicted in this way. One of the great problems of the current era is the extent to which individuals tend to compare themselves to the social media representations of other individuals – as though those perfect smiles and glamorous lifestyles or happy socialising moments were all that those people’s lives actually consisted of. This is not the only place in which the difference and distance between a projected or idealised reality and the embodied experience of reality diverge widely. It might be interesting to analyse the lives of various social media trend-setters and determine what their overall satisfaction and happiness quotient might actually be: aspiring to maintain a squeaky-clean image of perfection and hard-bodied happiness must carry its own inevitable burdens and psychological costs. Once a celebrity-type burns out, there are of course a million more ready to share that dream and remunerative reward – the systems of cultural self-propagation maintain their sparkling commercial Cheshire Smile, long after the previous generations have faded into old(er) age and irrelevance.
As an embodied experience and projected (self-)image, personality represents a concise form of self-definition or presence. Beyond a purely medical or reflexive psychosocial interdiction and imposition of assumptive structure and useful taxonomies of type or character, the shortest and most plausible narrative string or plausible symbol sequence around which you might construct your own sense of presence or self-worth is invariably that recombinatory pattern of pre-existing concepts, ideas and words which provide useful momentum and continuity to your life. The persona, notional personality-type or other cognitive method that you possess or cultivate is really just a superficial and transient pattern of energy and information within your ears and in cascading effect through your local social, cultural and technological extension of self.
Personality is in some ways little more than the successful recombinatory assembly of idioms, tropes, affectations and various other outward-facing behavioural and communicative engagements with a broader social world. The measured and intentional, strategic manipulation of the tokens or symbols and semantics of personality confer individual survival advantages in complex (and rapidly changing) social, cultural and technological systems. Personality or persona is the most concise form in which a reflexive attitude and interpretation (both from and) towards the world can be captured. For social animals, a smile goes much further than a frown but both clearly still have their contexts, roles and uses. On the topic of why we have not all evolved to be constantly ecstatic optimists and beyond the implicit neurochemical complexities and costs of any such persistent persona: an often (if variously unacknowledged in the prosperous West) harsh reality of life requires a certain level of rationality, scepticism, suspicion and paranoia to successfully navigate and while optimism has a place in social engagement, so does caution.