People as Particles

I often enjoy comparing small scale elements of nature to their large scale counterparts—the melting of an ice cube to the melting of a glacier, an ant colony to a major metropolis, a piano score to a symphonic score. Studying similar natural phenomena at different levels leads to new insights.

Such is the case with quantum mechanics and human personality.

German Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg defined his eponymous uncertainty principle (also known as the Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy) as follows: You can know the indeterminacylocation of a particle, and you can also know the speed of a particle. However, you cannot know a particle’s location and speed and the same time. This humbling discovery—humbling in the sense that it puts a limit on how much you can know—had a huge influence on modern philosophy. That influence is even reflected in the movie/book Jurassic Park when the mathematician urges “humility before nature,” meaning that it is arrogant to think that one can know everything and have total control over nature.

Last week, The New Yorker, my favorite source of cartoons, ran one by Benjamin Schwartz showing Dr. Heisenberg embracing a woman in his classroom as she muses, “I know where we stand right now, Dr. Heisenberg, but where are we going?” [chuckle, chuckle] I so much enjoyed this cartoon that I clipped it and showed it to several friends and associates. To my surprise, no one was familiar with the uncertainty principle. However, after explaining it, they did enjoy the humor.

Particle physics is certainly not everyday conversation among my associates, but personality and human behavior certainly are! It occurs to me that just as an ice cube is a small scale version of a glacier, so is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle a small scale version of what we call trait/state theory. Just as you cannot know both the position and the velocity of a particle at the same time, you also cannot know whether a person’s current behavior is ordinary or extraordinary—everyday or temporary. If you meet 12194789013_bfd1459d74_bsomeone new and they appear talkative at certain events, you do not know if this person is normally talkative across all situations, or whether this is a rare exhibition of garrulousness. If a person is normally quiet and reticent to speak their opinion, we say that they have the trait of being reserved. If a person is normally talkative and free to give their opinions and not remain silent, we say that they have the trait of assertiveness. But if a person is normally quiet, and we see them being outspoken, we say that they are in a state of assertiveness. In this sense, state means temporary, as in “he is in a state and will soon get beyond it,” while a trait is permanent.

As we get to know someone, we cannot know with confidence which behaviors are merely states and which are traits. Over time, we can get a sense of which behaviors are everyday, typical, and predictable for this person, as opposed to those behaviors that are rarer, more uncommon.

All the more reason to favor long courtships over short ones!

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