The Cybernetic Personality:
A Gauge Conception of Human Behavior
This article discusses a model of the personality that functions in a way that is similar to a feedback system. It is a synthesis of personality elements as described by psychoanalysts. client-centered, behavioral and existential theorists in a way that coincides with physical laws, specifically systems that are regulated by feedback information.
The Coherent System…
While nature is obviously complex. a fairly narrow and specific process can be used to describe its functions, including the behavior of organisms. It is the cybernetic system – the word ‘cybernetic’ meaning capable of error correction (Ashby 1957). Whether in reference to climate, the earth’s atmosphere or the behavior of organisms, the process involves three main components.
1. The presence of a gauge. This is essentially the normal state of the system. It is not a fixed state, rather a range within which the state can vary without losing its internal stability. While it has tolerable levels of variability it can only deviate so far beyond point zero (the point of absolute normalcy before instability (disequilibrium) sets in.
2. A corrective function; meaning a capacity to recognize errors and deviations that exceed the normal range of variability and utilize corrective action to restore stability.
3. A feedback/recognition system that can register a return to stability through some type of signal system..
4. A series of strategies and actions that can be effectively used to make the corrections
5. An ergonomic gauge that can determine whether the energy expended in the corrections process has exceeded the system’s energy reserves in the course of the corrective action.
The Personality as a System…
Many of the classic personality theories contain references to systemic phenomena. Indeed almost all describe the personality as a dynamic consisting of many components, with multiple interactive influences that can either contribute to or threaten the overall stability of the system. Freud viewed his triadic model of the psyche in those terms; specifically regarding the apportioning of libidinal-derived energy to the ego and superego (Siegfried 2010 ). He was heavily influenced by the field of physics in developing this dynamism. Physics, of course, addresses almost all aspects of nature in terms of fields and systems.
Adler’s notion of the compensatory actions modulating the polarities of inferiority and superiority also entails systemic elements: his ultimate point of stability being centralized social interest. By this scenario the individual restores balances to his psychic equilibrium by becoming altruistic – thus ameliorating the tension between feelings of failure and feelings of grandiosity. (Hoffman 1994 )
Harry Stack Sullivan also wrote about the ‘self-system’ in dynamic terms, (Levenson 1992) as did Carl Rogers, who put at the center of his model, the conflict between the ideal self and the real self (Thomas, Sanders 201). All of these (and most other) models of the personality pivot around the idea that imbalance….or some form of instability, produces tension that can only be resolved through systemic adjustments or corrections that bring the system back to within normal ranges.
The word ‘cybernetic’ refers to any system that can remain intact by utilizing a capacity to self-correct. Because that model applies clearly to bodily functions like the immune system, discussing the personality in that context places it in the category of a medical model.
While that comparison gives the personality a familiar ring – and would presumably lead to a more fluid interplay between mind and body, it is not without snags. One of which is that while the lungs, heart and immune system are structurally and functionally delineated, the personality is not. It is a bit more interwoven, and frankly, an ambiguous concept in both its structure and function. Therefore, in order to discuss its parameters; that is, its ranges of tolerable variation – one first has to define exactly what it is. Once that is done – and it’s not an easy undertaking – it becomes possible to describe the personality as a coherent, definable system by which to make diagnostic and therapeutic determinations.
In order to define the personality requires some way to encompass all its features, including temperament,(for example extroversion, introversion), social orientation, language style, attitudes, interests and motivations in one prime entity, so that the aforementioned traits and attributes can be seen as tethered extensions of what amounts to a ‘personality singularity.’
A possible solution to that problem might be found in an element that is distinct from, yet inclusive of all those features, and could give rise to those derivative traits. That solution can perhaps be found by considering all behaviors, feelings and conceptions as fundamental reflections of the self.
Why begin with that premise? For two main reasons. First, in early childhood a sense of self runs parallel to the accumulation and interpretation of experience (Miller, Church et.al), thus serves as a general frame of reference. If a child is scolded, he or she will interpret that as having to do with “my behavior.” He cannot completely externalize the experience as though looking at bacteria under a microscope. Second, since each experience registers on the person’s sensorium it would necessarily be registered in memory. and since memories (and almost all inputs) are internally manipulated to become assimilated into prior conceptions those inputs will, over time, be reshaped to become congruous with the ‘self’ that filed them away in the first place.
In that sense, one can view the self as a kind of a psychic holograph. Turned in one direction it looks like a feeling, or perhaps a fervent belief in helping others. Turned toward another angle, it looks like a political belief, maybe leaning conservative. From still another angle, it looks like a favorite football team or rock band Then again, perhaps a specific goal or motivation. However, despite the various angular variations, the governing view is the self.
Rise of the Self…
The Self might well develop in a way that parallels brain development in an infant. The first year of childhood features a fundamental neurological process in which vertically arranged fibers devoted to basic sensory and motor capacities line up. This is followed by brachiation, i.e. neural branching off in peripheral, interconnected arrangements. (Webb, Monk, et.al 2001) The latter mechanism facilitates experiential comparisons, which in turn potentiate integrative cognition and enable the child to see both figure and ground of sensory and social experience. The interconnectedness arising from that second stage of cross circuitry is largely a function of learning.
A similar process seems to occur during the development of the self. In the first months of life the infant has no sense of self. He cannot distinguish between himself and his mother, in what amounts to a carryover from the womb. Then, as sensori-motor skills develop, the child comes to realize he can respond in a way separate from anyone or anything else. It is a phase of development when control begins. Movement, initiated by the child begins to secure feedback; for example crawling to places in the home where he covets some object or person’s attention.
The satisfaction derived from self-initiated behavior becomes a stimulus (and gradual understanding) leading to a psychological separation of self from the environment. That onset of physical freedom becomes a first step toward a psychological sense of self.
As the child gets older, this separation experience becomes more prominent in his thinking and behavior. From a capacity for movement and independent goal attainment he moves on to linguistic, cognitive and emotional independence. He is now becoming a self-advocate – one who can tax the patience of his parents due to his newly formed oppositional tendencies.
Once that sense of self takes hold, it will serve as a frame of reference (a personalistic holograph) by which to, not only evaluate various experiences but also synthesize them into a whole. At this point, the self is not yet fully developed and won’t be until early adulthood. Along the way, the child will receive input from parents that shapes his feelings, attitudes and beliefs. However, because self- development unfolds as a function of time and maturation, the influence of external input will wane as the child grows older.
By the time the child reaches young adulthood he will be anchored down by a self-system. (Incidentally, this is also the period in his life when the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex reach maximal growth), While he can still be influenced by external events, his general take on experience will pass through an internal filter.
That is the point (roughly speaking) where self-systemic regulation becomes most important as a psychological function. While the adolescent might feel rebellious, and purport to cast aside the “old values” he is actually an unwitting conduit of those values. His rebellious behavior merely represents variations on a theme. That will become clear when he enters the period of adulthood. (Daniel, Benest-Weisman, M 2018 ) At that point, he will tend to operate like a mirror of eccentricity.
While many clinicians view egocentricity as a pathological state, here it is seen as a psychological constant that can be manifest in various ways, but continues as an interpretive mechanism throughout life. As a result, all experience will be evaluated and felt in terms of how it coincides with his self-system.
There will be parameters involved. The most efficient, long-lasting cybernetic systems in nature have flexibility, and a capacity to accommodate deviations while still remaining intact. But there are limits to this process. For example, the question becomes, how much ‘deviance,’ in terms of cultural input, others’ behavior or his own behavior can be accommodated before his self-system is rendered unstable.
The person with a flexible, but intact (elastic) self-system will tend to enjoy better mental health than the person who has an extraordinarily rigid self-system. That obviously has implications for childrearing and indeed for self-development. That process was a cornerstone of Carl Rogers’ notion of the flexible self-concept.
This notion has implications for both normalcy and pathology. With regard to the latter, all pathology that is not due to endogenous factors, i.e. neurochemical, or organically caused disorders, would be viewed in the context of how experiences affect the self-system. In that context, the core of all pathologies could be whittled down to either self-rigidity, or self-disintegration – the pathognomic self being either too rigid or too loose.
However, those two elements can actually be combined into one That is because, rather than simply enduring frequent episodes of self-instability the individual will typically convert the input into a state of extreme certainty (rigidity) through a compensation process. Just as the body’s immune system recognizes and engulfs foreign bodies in the organ systems. so too would information foreign to the self- system be engulfed and redirected into rigidity and impulsiveness.
That also has clinical implications. Specifically, if one view the personality as a cybernetic phenomenon, it would have to be assumed internal regulation is an ongoing process, rather than, as Freud suggested, a process employed only in times of psychological duress.
If that argument has merit one very important factor in psychotherapy would involve helping clients maximize the effective use of defense mechanisms as part of an ongoing, regulatory mechanism, rather than trying to get them to a point where they no longer need them.
Another clinical implication arises from this model which puts the central focus in the cognitive realm. Concepts like the self and the personality are somewhat abstract and would seem to exclude some of the concrete behavioral aspects of diagnosis and treatment. For example, practitioners of cognitive behavior therapy encourage clients to modify their habits as well as their interpretations of experience in the course of therapy.
However, while there are some distinctions to be made between cognition (and its derivative, the personality) and overt behavior, there are also significant commonalities. Indeed the two elements arguably derive from the same source – the self-system. The reason for this assertion is that behavior must coincide with the self-system in order for the individual to avoid the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance (Cooper 2007). For example, coaching a client to become more assertive as a means of alleviating social anxiety and more effectively meeting his needs will only work if the self-system of that individual can accommodate the change in behavior.
One of the drawbacks to behavior therapy is that giving clients homework assignments and behavioral prescriptions without evaluating whether the prescribed actions fit in with the client’s personality structure will not always be successful. In such instances the client might come to feel the therapist’s advice actually creates instability, requiring a “correction” by the client that ends up sabotaging the therapeutic process. If the self is the fulcrum of the personality and if the personality can be viewed as a cybernetic system it would mean the self-system would have to be factored into any treatment modality for counseling to be effective.
Ashby, W.R (1957) Introduction to Cybernetics Chapman and Hall, London
Cooper, J. (2007) Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory, London SAGE Publications
Daniel, E. Benest-Weisman, M. (2018) Value Development during Adolescence; Dimensions of Change and Stability,Journal of Personality 87 (1)
Hoffman, E ( 1994) The Drive for Self; Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology. Reading,Mass. Welsey.
Levenson, E.A. MD. (1992) Harry Stack Sullivan: From Interpersonal Psychiatrist to Interpersonal Psychoanalyst..Contemporary Psychoanalysis Vol. 28 (2)
Miller, S. Church, E.B Poole, C. (2016) Ages and Stages; How Children Develop Self Concept, Scholastic Teacher
Siegfried, Z. MD. (2010) The Libido and Psychic Energy – Freud’s concept revisited. International Forum of Psychoanalysis Vol.19 p. 3-14
Thomas, B. Sanders, P.(2002) Carl Rogers. SAGE Publications 3rd Ed. p 119-120
Webb, S.J. Monk, C.S. Nelson, C.A. (2001) Mechanisms of post-natal neurobiological development and implications for human development. Developmental Neuropsychiatry (2) 147-171.