It has been said that without dark, there is no light, and without sadness, no one can know true happiness. Paradoxical thinking holds that all things can be understood through the existence of their opposites, but the truth is, nothing is ever just black or white.
In his new book, Zig Zag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality, Michael J. Apter applies to human personality to show that personality, unlike what we have learned, also exists in a paradox, and quite often moves from one trait to its opposite — even in contradictory ways.
“Human personality is essentially dynamic and changing, and the trait concept, which is at the basis of nearly all personality research tends to be simplistic and limiting,” writes Apter.
People are changing all the time, and often in ways that seem complex and contradictory. Apter points to Elliot Spitzer, once known as a tireless fighter of corruption and crusader against prostitution and sex rings, only to be exposed as a client of one such ring himself.
He writes, “Spitzer’s case is arresting, because we are confronted by someone whose personality is, as it were, split down the middle. It has two opposing halves: the good guy and the bad guy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How can they coexist?”
Spitzer’s behavior is an example of two opposing principles — one of duty and the other of freedom.
It is not that either principle is bad, Apter tells us, but rather trouble comes from trying to satisfy them both simultaneously.
Other contradictory motivational states — such as self-orientation and others orientation, mastery and sympathy, and serious and playful motivation — all point to the idea that our personalities are not fixed, but rather much more fluid.
Moreover, these motivational states are not tied to specific situations but can move throughout different areas of our lives, and we cannot assume that one end is desirable while the other is undesirable.
Apter writes, “In different people and different circumstances, calling on different skills, and subject to different strengths and weaknesses, each state can be played out in a way that is positive or negative, fertile or futile, appropriate or inappropriate.”
The movement from state to state is what defines us and makes us fully human. Further, internal rhythms do not always correspond with situational expectations.
Risk taking is just one example. Here, the desire to confront danger seems to be in complete opposition to the need for safety. For instance, people who jump out of a plane face the possibility of death, but it also induces high levels of arousal. Apter explains, “If the anxiety can be tolerated, then they are able to achieve wonderful feelings of ‘being fully alive’ and intensely ‘in the moment.’”
Stress such as this can be pleasurable when experienced in a protective frame of mind, and a lack of stress can even lead to feelings of restlessness, boredom, and the need for stimulation.
Taking something that produces a bad emotion, such as the fear of death, and reversing it into a playful state explains many facets of everyday life, such as Halloween, horror movies, and our attraction to “Breaking News”.
Rewards, something inherently good, can also be reversed into something that changes the meaning of our experiences. Apter writes, “At one time a woman may want to benefit personally from what she is doing, and at another time be more concerned that an ailing relative should benefit: what would count as a reward in the first case would not count as a reward in the second.”
Similarly, following the rules satisfies us if we are in the conform state but becomes uncomfortable when we are in the rebellious state.
But there are also times when something usually considered to be bad (destruction) is what is needed to result in something good (construction).
“Innovation stems from a rebellious state of mind, the state of mind in which one wants, roughly speaking, to be ‘bad,’” writes Apter.
In an economic sense, the utility of our choices change over time. While it may serve our serious states to save money, it may threaten our playful states and we will find ourselves justifying frivolous purchases.
Apter writes, “Looking at things in terms of psychological rewards and punishments, we see that generally people do try to obtain whatever rewards they can. It’s just that what they find rewarding will differ depending on which motivational states they happen to obtain at the moment. Far from being chaotic, there is an overarching structure of alternative desires, and with them alternative realities and rationalities.”
While in our emotional lives we never know quite what will happen next, and the actions we take to bring happiness can result in anxiety, diminishing returns, and mistaken goals, we are better served by embracing our contradictory motivational states and the idea that each makes a positive contribution to our lives.
A unique approach to understanding personality, ZigZag draws on numerous contemporary and historical examples, along with revealing research, to provide insightful answers to many questions about human behavior. It will likely have you rethinking your own motivations.
ZigZag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality
Troubador Publishing, April 2018
Paperback, 386 pages