Friday, February 20, 2009

Whedon's Dollhouse: Which Personality for Which Mission?

After watching the first episode of Joss Whedon's new television show, The Dollhouse, I was struck by the prominence of the concept of personality. If you haven't seen the episode—or don't know about the show—here's a summary from Wikipedia:

Eliza Dushku plays a young woman called Echo, a member of a group of people known as "Actives" or "Dolls." The Dolls have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas, including memory, muscle memory, skills, and language, for different assignments (referred to as engagements). The new persona is not an original creation, however, but an amalgam of different, existing personalities. The end result incorporates some of the flaws, not just the strengths, of the people used as templates. The Actives are then hired out for particular jobs -- crimes, fantasies, and the occasional good deed.

And here's a video summary of the show:

What really stood out for me was the show's psychological premise: Some personality traits work better than others in a given situation (and so the "dolls" or "actives" are programmed with traits that will best help them accomplish their missions). Of course, on one level, this premise is obvious; we know that certain types of people function better than others in a given situation. But the specifics of what makes a good fit are less clear. In a given situation, which type of personality is a better fit? Which is the best fit? (Or even, is there such a thing as a best fit?)

In The Dollhouse, the puppet masters know the answer to these questions—or at least they think they do. In real life, though, the questions aren't so easy to answer. Psychologists and people in the employment business have learned which skills or personality traits are associated with better job performance in a given type of job (click here for an example of such matching).

The current state of knowledge may be able to inform us about which skills are advantageous for an ongoing job, and might even be able to tell us what characteristics make for the best hostage negotiator—the job in question in the first episode of Dollhouse. But when a job is a one-shot occasion—a consulting gig, if you will—the situational factors can become more important. And those situational factors can be unpredictable, which makes it harder to identify the best fitting personality traits.

As research on personality shows, global personality traits don't predict behavior as well as very specific personality traits. So, for instance, someone who is "shy" and goes to a party with friends may become a wallflower at that party. Then again, maybe not. A prediction about a shy person's party behavior would be more accurate if we could assess shyness "when meeting new people at party where some friends are present." It may turn out that this "shy" person can be the life of the party when feeling secure, standing near a pal or two.

This line of research suggestions that when a "doll" goes out on a mission, the particulars of the situation will influence which specific personality traits would be the best fit. If the predictions about the upcoming situation in a mission are off the mark, the personality traits programmed into a doll—those thought to be most advantageous—can become handicaps or obstacles. This unexpectedly poor fit might make for interesting television viewing. We'll see whether that happens as the season evolves.