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The Skeptically-prone Personality

17 Mar 2011. (Please read the clarification below in note 2.)

The main characteristics of the skeptically-prone personality (SPP) are:

  1. They are nearly impossible to hypnotize;
  2. As children they questioned the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, fairies, and gods;
  3. As adults they continued to doubt the existence of Santa Claus and all forms of supernatural creatures;
  4. As children they played make-believe games, but they recognized the difference between make-believe and reality;
  5. As adults they do not spend more than 50% of their time fantasizing;
  6. They rarely experience hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (waking dreams), including those involving monsters from outer space or figures from religious traditions);
  7. They rarely pretend to be somebody they're not;
  8. They are mistrustful of memory and consider vividness to be irrelevant to the accuracy of a memory
  9. They are mistrustful of interpretations of sense experiences;
  10. They have little faith in eyewitness testimony;
  11. They can rarely have an orgasm just by using their imagination;
  12. They are mistrustful of tradition and tend to think that the older some idea or practice is the less likely it is to be true or worth engaging in;
  13. They think there is a naturalistic explanation for everything, even if we don't know what it is;
  14. They think people who think they've had a paranormal experience are deluding themselves;
  15. They rarely have out-of-body experiences;
  16. They believe that once you're dead you're dead and can't talk anymore;
  17. They don't engage in automatic writing, Ouija board games, or séances;
  18. They don't believe in magical healing powers, but follow the advice of those promoting science-based medicine;
  19. They trust the results of well-designed controlled studies over beliefs based solely on personal experience;
  20. They haven't experienced spirits or ghosts (see 13);
  21. They tend to dislike intensely those who lie, defraud others, or promote self-serving nonsense as if it were infallible truth;
  22. They don't feel handicapped by their skepticism; on the contrary, they feel empowered by their devotion to reason, logic, critical thinking, empirical evidence, and science;
  23. They don't like lists, unless backed by scientific studies and footnotes *, and they're fond of concepts like the fantasy-prone personality and cognitive dissonance.

A skeptically-prone personality (SPP) has at least 12 13 17 of the above characteristics. The SPP classification has tremendous predictive and explanatory power. For example, if, while eating your lamb chops in an exclusive restaurant, you tell an SPP that natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanic eruptions that kill and displace thousands of people, are signs from some deity that he is displeased with some behavior you disapprove of, you are likely to get a steak knife stuck in your neck. If the one next to you claims that she knows a psychic who predicted one of these natural disasters, she may find herself pulling chunks of glass out of her eyes and teeth. And, if the waiter butts in to tell you that the latest calamity was due to a Supermoon or the alignment of the planets, he may find himself searching for his testicles for the remainder of the evening.

On the other hand, if you stay away from inane, absurd, or cruel self-serving comments for which you have no evidence of any worth, the SPP can be a pleasant companion and entertaining conversationalist.


*note 1: This article was written tongue-in-cheek and should not be taken too seriously. Even so, I hope it stimulates some thinking and prevents premature wrinkling.

note 2: I realize that it is insufficient to just note that the essay above was meant to be a parody of definitions such as the one given for the "fantasy-prone personality" and of those like the one recently proposed by the American Psychiatric Association for "autism." More clarification seems necessary, since some readers have taken this essay far too seriously.

Definitions like those given for 'fantasy-prone personality' are called stipulative or restrictive definitions. They list a set of criteria that tell us how a word is going to be used. But they do more than that. They imply that there really is something objective that the definition denotes. They conceal the inherent arbitrariness of such lists. When you read that one in five adults has a mental illness, you should remind yourself that it all depends on how you define mental illness. We think we've had an epidemic increase of cases of autism when we've had an increase in the denotata of 'autism.' Now the experts are sparring over what will happen to the denotata of that word if a new set of criteria are imposed on the professionals who diagnose and treat those so defined.

New York Times science writer Benedict Carey writes:

At least a million children and adults have a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder, like Asperger syndrome or “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified,” also known as P.D.D.-N.O.S. People with Asperger’s or P.D.D.-N.O.S. endure some of the same social struggles as those with autism but do not meet the definition for the full-blown version. The proposed change would consolidate all three diagnoses under one category, autism spectrum disorder, eliminating Asperger syndrome and P.D.D.-N.O.S. from the manual. Under the current criteria, a person can qualify for the diagnosis by exhibiting 6 or more of 12 behaviors; under the proposed definition, the person would have to exhibit 3 deficits in social interaction and communication and at least 2 repetitive behaviors, a much narrower menu.

By noting that such definitions are inherently arbitrary one is not thereby claiming they are drawn out of thin air. They're not. Anyone who proposed that "excessive attraction to bubble gum" be added to the list of qualifying characteristics for 'autism spectrum disorder' would be disqualified from any further contribution. There are real symptoms exhibited by real people that must be accounted for. But which ones? That is what the debate is about and that is what makes any final list arbitrary. Some people will be unhappy because the list is too restrictive and excludes people they think should be included in the denotata. Others will be unhappy because the list is too expansive and includes people they think should be excluded from the denotata. Furthermore, it is inevitable that no matter what list of criteria is finally agreed on, there will be numerous borderline cases.

In the case of autism it matters what criteria are put into the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because the definition will determine who gets services. You can't get insurance payments or government services for 'autism spectrum disorder' if you are not diagnosed and you probably won't be diagnosed unless you fit the definition. In the case of expressions like the 'fantasy-prone personality' there is really nothing important that hinges on whether we accept or reject the definition given by psychologists Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber in 1983. I had hoped that I would not have to explicitly state that nothing important hinges on my definition of the 'skeptically-prone personality,' but apparently that is not the case. Some emails have convinced me that there are some readers who think there is real value in listing traits of skeptics. Well, I don't deny that some items on my invented list of traits I consider admirable and desirable, viz., traits 2, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21, and 22. Of these, I consider 19 to be at the top of the list of desirable traits: They trust the results of well-designed controlled studies over beliefs based solely on personal experience.

Some of the traits I list are facetious and I would not consider them worthwhile. In any case, I am more concerned that a reader might actually think I believe there really is such a thing as a skeptically-prone personality. None of the traits I list above as admirable are traits people are born with. They are the kinds of things people must work hard to develop. If there are any natural-born skeptics, they are rare. Nature is not kind to skeptics. Our natural inclinations are to make snap judgments, leap to conclusions, believe in intentional agents as causes of natural phenomena, and act now think later. If our early ancestors spent time doubting and thinking, they would not have survived long enough to reproduce and you and I wouldn't be here. Skepticism is something that must be developed; it is not a natural talent.



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