Character and history




Source: Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan, FSA: The American Vision; photos by Dorothea Lange

We often think that some historical periods have deep effects on the personalities and character of individuals who came of age and lived adult life during those periods. This implies that specific cohorts of people may have distinctive personality features that differ from people of other generations, distinctive features of character. This seems to be the thrust of the idea of the “greatest generation”, the Depression generation, and the Sixties Generation. The experiences of World War II, the Great Depression, and the protests of the 1960s had profound effects on the expectations and habits of action of many of the people who lived through these experiences, as we see from conversations with survivors of those times and the literature it produced. And, we might say, the people who came of age through those periods were very different in their most fundamental psychological makeup from those of other periods.

This is a common way of speaking; but it has major consequences for how we think about “human nature” and human psychology. Universalists like Vico held that there was one fundamental human nature, and all historical circumstances do is alter some of the beliefs and habits of action that people possess (Vico: The First New Science).  Historicists have believed since Herder, by contrast, that the human self was fundamentally historically conditioned and created; different historical circumstances make different kinds of actors (Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings).  And to accept the language of “generation X” or “generation Y” is to tilt towards the historicist position.

There are a couple of questions that arise quickly when we think about the possibility of historically created generational differences of character and personality. One has to do with the mechanism of influence: how would the fact of growing up in the Great Depression or serving in the Pacific in World War II have an effect on the actor at the level of perception, expectation, and habit? A second important question has to do with the pervasiveness and consistency of the effects we are considering. And a third question is internal to the person — what features of experience, consciousness, and agency are thought to be affected by historical experiences?

So what mechanisms might create the generational effect on character? Take the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. Most families experienced serious, prolonged economic hardship — loss of jobs, loss of savings, loss of homes, and sometimes the breakup of families.  This was most intense for people on the margin — the sharecroppers in Oklahoma who took to the road during the Dust Bowl in Dorothea Lange’s wonderful photographs above, for example. But it was true for working families, service providers, and street car drivers as well. This is one level of the experience. A second level is the generalized stress and sense of crisis that was conveyed everywhere one looked — newspapers, radio, the sight of Hoovervilles on the outskirts of cities. So even if a particular family hadn’t yet been touched by unemployment or bank collapse, there was the pervasive sense that nothing was secure. And it seems credible enough that these pervasive existential characteristics of a given decade or two would have important consequences for the consciousness and agency of the individuals who lived through them.

So we might speculate that the trauma of a family’s sudden impoverishment, and the general stress of prolonged fear of impoverishment even if the shoe never dropped, had a powerful effect on the children and young people who lived through those times. Perhaps it made them more risk-averse; maybe it made them less trusting of authority and institutions; perhaps it made them more prone to depression and addiction; perhaps it made them more understanding of outlaws like John Dillinger and the Shelton Boys (link).

But speculating isn’t nearly as useful as empirical research. Are there research threads in personality psychology and social psychology that would shed light on this kind of question? There certainly is research on the personality effects of trauma (linklinklink). Other researchers have studied children who lived through conditions of war in the Middle East (linklink). However, each of these areas of research focuses on an aspect of a traumatic person’s early history that is more extreme than those that were characteristic for most individuals at most times in history. So is there evidence that less dramatic features of social context can nonetheless create widely spread features of personality and character? I’m not aware of anyone who has attempted to probe this psychological question through interviews with Dust Bowl survivors or people who grew up poor in Chicago or New York in the 1930s; but it would be an enormously interesting effort.

The second big question mentioned above is the issue of pervasiveness and consistency. It is apparent that people will be exposed to different experiences within any of these historical periods. And people will be differentially influenced by the experiences they have. So even if there is a generational effect, it will be distributed across the cohort in a range of intensities. And this implies that we should really be framing our question in terms of a distribution of personality and character traits over a diverse population, rather than looking for a single typical profile.  The reality might be that the median level of risk aversiveness might be higher for the generation of the Great Depression than the Sixties Generation — even though there were risk-takers and risk-avoiders in both populations.

The third question is interesting as well — what features of the conscious, feeling, thinking actor do we imagine historical experience to have shaped?  This issue was raised in an earlier post about theories of the actor — what are the components of the actor’s mentality (link)?  We might think of a long list of mental characteristics that are potentially malleable: ways of making decisions, habits of action and reaction, mental models about how the world works, a toolbox of heuristic strategies for coping with challenges, a set of expectations about how various social settings are likely to work out, some ideas about how other people are likely to behave, memories about past scenarios that worked out well or badly.  All of these features are potentially malleable through the process of development, and taken together, they constitute a ver broad and deep set of personal characteristics. So if we concluded that virtually all of these dimensions are potentially shaped by historical experiences, then we seem to have come very close to the Herder position on historicism: the individual is a historically situated and historically constituted being all the way down.

Here are a few earlier posts on cohorts and generations in history; linklinklink. The photos are taken from the beautiful book curated by Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan presenting many of the photos created during the Farm Security Administration project in the 1930s and 1940s.


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