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Firefly Personality : The Adaptive, the Maladaptive, and the Mal-Adaptive

Sunday 1 August 2010, by Webmaster

Although Firefly lasted only one season, it was filled with so much information that viewers could get quite an education. Those interested in learning interplanetary diplomacy, the art of seduction, or how to curse in Mandarin were not disappointed, and the breadth and detail of the Firefly universe allowed audience members with widely varying tastes to find something to their liking. The character development of the series was outstanding (especially given its brief run on television), and each of the dramatis personae became increasingly fleshed out as the episodes progressed. While several loose ends remained after its cancellation (e.g., what was Shepherd Book’s past? Would Mal and Inara ever express their mutual affection? What possessed Wash to grow that horrible moustache?), most characters’ personalities were explored to such an extent that we can describe their traits with relative clarity.

This is particularly true of Mal and Jayne. And although Mal and Jayne often showed similar traits-mostly when it came to criminal behaviors-close inspection of their personalities can allow us to differentiate them in psychologically meaningful ways and to make hypotheses about disorders they may have. Personality Traits: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Everyone has a personality-even people who seem not to because they are so bland (e.g., those who are not outgoing and friendly may be high in the “introversion” trait, while those who do not enjoy many activities may be considered low in “sensation seeking” or high in “schizoid” or “depressive” traits). Many of our personality traits are considered adaptive (that is, beneficial) to our survival. Individuals who are high on traits of conscientiousness are generally responsible, competent, disciplined, and concerned with duty-in short, the type of person you want as your engineer on long trips to the outer planets. Individuals who are high on agreeableness typically are pleasant to be around, giving, modest, and not manipulative-the way you probably want your shepherd to be.

This focus on positive personality traits may make it seem that personality traits are always adaptive, but this is not actually the case. Just as there are traits that may make someone’s personality attractive and pleasant, so too are there traits that many people find repellant and abrasive. For example, individuals who show high levels of the trait hostility are probably less likely to be desirable as friends (unless you find yourself frequently in need of back-up in bar brawls). These maladaptive traits are often referred to as being “pathological.”

Defining what makes a particular trait pathological is no small task due to a variety of factors that come into play. The most common conceptualization of pathological personality is that proposed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV) , a sort of symptom bible to which psychologists and psychiatrists refer when making diagnoses. The DSM-IV lists ten official sets of pathological personality features; these sets of features are referred to as “personality disorders.” Although the personality disorders are differentiated by exactly which traits and behaviors are included in each (e.g., “persistently bears grudges”), they all share a set of common requirements necessary for them to be diagnosable, and these requirements provide a good start at defining exactly what is pathological personality.

Chiefly, the DSM-IV requires “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the indi vidual’s culture.” This pattern must permeate many aspects of the person’s life as well as numerous social situations. In addition, it must have begun when the individual was an adolescent or young adult and not changed over time. Finally, a pattern of personality traits is considered pathological when it leads to “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (689). For our purposes, we will consider this to be a reasonable definition of what makes a personality trait, or a pattern of personality traits, pathological. Personality Traits: Constant as the Northern Star?

Although the definition above requires that pathological personality traits be rigid, inflexible, and stable over time, we have to ask ourselves if this has a basis in reality. Many of us like to view ourselves as a particular type of person across all situations (e.g., Wash might think “I’m always a funny guy”), but the fact of the matter is that we probably are not. Does your level of outgoingness change between when you are full of energy and when you are exhausted at the end of a day? Do you show the same degree of interpersonal friendliness and warmth traits when talking with your best friend as you do when arguing with someone you did not like in the first place? Of course not. Even Wash is serious now and then. To varying degrees, the expression of personality traits is situationally variable-that is, traits differ from one situation to the next. Although someone may tend to be a certain way in general, it is likely that he or she changes when extreme situational factors are present.

The characters of Zoe and River presented excellent illustrations of the principles of situationally variable and stable personality traits, respectively. During flashbacks of the war with the Alliance, Zoe was often portrayed as a cold warrior woman (e.g., in “The Message,” she stealthily positioned herself behind an enemy soldier and remorselessly slit his throat); in her scenes with Wash, she typically showed a warm and caring side. Clearly, a warm and caring personality would not have served her well during the war, nor would the personality of a cold-hearted fighter be conducive to a good marriage (unless possibly she were married to Jayne). River, on the other hand, frequently showed the trait of behavioral disinhibition (i.e., she did not adequately control certain negative behaviors, such as randomly slicing Jayne with a butcher knife in “Ariel”), and her disinhibited behavior was not relegated to only one situation. In fact, what made it most troubling was that she could lash out at any time. While this led to considerable consternation among the crew (especially when she was brandishing a gun, as in “Objects in Space”), it provided an excellent example of a trait likely to be expressed regardless of the situation. Mal’s Personality as Captain: Maladaptive or Mal-Adaptive?

Another concept that proves problematic for defining pathological personality traits is that of maladaptiveness. As discussed above, personality traits do not occur in a vacuum (with space being the obvious exception), and a trait that might be pathological for one person or in a given setting might be beneficial for another person or in a different setting. Mal’s behavior in his role as captain illustrates this point well. Captain Reynolds is a self-assured and arrogant leader who expects everyone to follow his instructions without questioning them; the DSM-IV calls this pattern of traits narcissistic personality disorder.

However, are these traits maladaptive? Clearly, as the commander of Serenity, it is necessary for Mal to be confident in his decision-making. Similarly, when he barks orders at his crew, it is of the utmost importance that they follow them without argument. For example, in “Out of Gas,” Zoe was severely wounded by an explosion, and Wash, her loving husband, was steadfastly planted by her side. Mal ordered Wash to the bridge to help safeguard the other members of the crew, and when Wash refused to leave his injured wife, Mal made it clear this his order was not a request. Although Mal did not come off looking like the nice guy in this scene, the reasons for his behavior were clear: he was expressing an authoritarian trait, which, although interpersonally unpleasant, was ultimately adaptive in maintaining the safety of Serenity. For those reasons, Mal’s personality seemed to be adaptive in this circumstance. Had an arrogant Mal told Wash to leave Zoe’s bedside in a situation in which there were no serious threat to the crew, however, his order likely would have been seen as harsh, unnecessary, and heartless. This would have negatively affected the way his crew viewed him and would probably have represented the display of a pathological personality trait. Mal and Jayne: The Brains and the Brawn

Almost every episode of Firefly depicted Mal and Jayne breaking the law in some way, whether through theft, physical violence, or deceit; in fact, both characters excelled at being outlaws in one way or another. That said, it seems likely that most dedicated viewers would say that Mal and Jayne, while similar, are very different-even with regard to their lawlessness. Two of the primary ways to account for these differences, which overlap well with issues hotly debated by personality theorists and researchers, are 1) the use of “dimensional classification” and 2) the relationship between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. Exploring an Alternate Dimension

Most physical disorders are thought of as “dichotomous” or “categorical”-that is, they are either present or absent. Medical doctors typically diagnose a patient on a “yes-no” basis. For example, a patient either does or does not have a broken leg. With a few notable exceptions such blood pressure, it does not make much intuitive sense (nor is it very comforting to the patient) to receive a diagnosis such as “your leg is at the thirtieth percentile of leg brokenness.” The classification of mental disorders, which developed out of the categorical tradition used in physical medicine, also tends to be categorical: a patient is determined to either have schizophrenia or not have it. Unlike physical medicine, however, psychologists and psychiatrists often find that a yes-no diagnosis does not provide enough information about a patient’s functioning and disease severity.

In recent years, there has been a push to develop a dimensional model of psychopathology (i.e., mental disorders). The main idea behind dimensional classification is that a patient’s psychological problem is evaluated on a sliding scale of severity. Such an approach can be helpful for thinking about at least some physical diseases (e.g., borderline hypertension), and many mental health professionals are now pressing for future editions of the DSM to conceptualize some mental disorders dimensionally. One area of psychopathology in particular seems to be leading the charge toward understanding the benefits (and limitations) of dimensional classification: personality disorders.

If we look at Mal and Jayne’s criminal behaviors in the context of the current DSM-IV personality disorder criteria, it is clear that they both show significant levels of antisocial personality disorder. (Please note: although it is common to refer to someone who does not want to go to a party as “antisocial,” psychologists and psychiatrists would describe this as “asocial” behavior, reserving the term “antisocial” for behaviors that are “against society” because they violate the rights of other people.) Table 1 [BOOK ONLY] shows how Mal and Jayne perform on the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder; to receive a diagnosis of this disorder, an individual must possess at least three of the main criteria, be at least eighteen years of age, and show evidence of childhood conduct disorder (more about that later).

As we can see from the table, both Mal and Jayne meet more than the necessary three antisocial personality disorder criteria-Mal’s behavior justifies meeting five of them, while Jayne, somewhat unsurprisingly, meets all seven.

For the sake of argument, we will assume presently that both Mal and Jayne meet the other DSM-IV antisocial personality disorder requirements (i.e., age and childhood conduct disorder) as well. This allows us to conclude that both Mal and Jayne are antisocial. Is this really the best way to understand them, however? Regular viewers of the series would likely note that although objectively Mal and Jayne’s behaviors sound similarly antisocial, there is a distinct and meaningful difference in how antisocial they are. They were both aggressive, for example, but Jayne seemed much more interested in gratuitous violence, while Mal typically resorted to physical fights only when necessary. Similarly, both Mal and Jayne were deceitful. However, Mal tended to con the Feds into letting him slip by with stolen cargo while Jayne lied to Simon and River, his own crewmates, and turned them in to the police for a reward. It seems that while on the surface these behaviors can be accurately grouped together as “deceitfulness,” on a deeper level they differ in severity. They may both be criminals, but which of them would you trust more to borrow your car?

The use of dimensional classification provides more information than simply lumping all individuals into a single category, as we have just done with Mal and Jayne. We can preserve more information about the behaviors of each, as well as how antisocial they are relative to each other, by placing them on a continuum of antisociality. The easiest example of this would be to use the seven DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder but, instead of saying that anyone who meets three or more criteria is antisocial as we did above, we would utilize the actual number of criteria met. In this situation, Mal would be at level five of the antisocial continuum (because he meets five of the seven criteria), and Jayne would be at level seven (because he meets all seven). This scheme provides additional information that is lost in a yes-no categorical system, such as 1) both Mal and Jayne show high levels of anti-sociality, 2) Jayne shows more antisociality than Mal does, and 3) Jayne shows the maximum amount of antisociality possible.

To develop these ideas further, a personality researcher could create a more comprehensive measure of the antisociality dimension. She would likely include a much greater number of potential antisocial behaviors and break up the existing criteria into smaller parts (e.g., aggressiveness could be broken up into aggression toward people and aggression toward animals). This would allow her to cover a broader range of behaviors at a more specific level of analysis. Such an approach would also help prevent a “ceiling effect” (an inability to distinguish between individuals who score high, because the maximum score is too low), which is probably what we saw with Jayne’s score of seven out of seven. It is likely that, with the seven-criteria system used above, both Jayne and the bounty hunter Jubal Early (“Objects in Space”) would meet all seven criteria, where an antisociality continuum with more criteria would probably discriminate between the two of them.

Another issue with the system above is that if a person endorsed an antisociality criterion such as “I have hit someone when I was angry,” it would add one point to his or her total antisociality dimension score. If another person endorsed “I have beaten someone to death when I was angry,” he or she would also receive one point of antisociality. It is clear, however, that these two antisocial behaviors are of different severity. Thus, the researcher might also utilize a set of statistics (known as “item response theory”) to determine the properties of each criterion, such as how severe each criterion is, and ensure that her system for measuring the antisociality dimension had criteria ranging in severity from very low to very high. Mal and Jayne: Petty Crooks or “Psychotic”?

Inara referred to Mal, on at least one occasion, as a petty crook, while in the pilot episode, two other characters separately referred to him as “psychotic.” Like “antisocial,” the word “psychotic” is often used differently by mental health workers and lay individuals. In professional parlance, “psychotic” symptoms refer to those typically seen in disorders like schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions. “Psychopathic” refers to traits and behaviors of certain individuals that are often associated with criminality. Note, however, that psychopaths are not common ly murderers or serial killers, as the word is commonly used, although they can be. While River clearly shows psychotic symptoms at times (in fact, Simon said she had paranoid schizophrenia in “Safe”), the question of psychopathy is herein reserved for Mal and Jayne.

There is a significant degree of overlap between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder. In fact, the antisocial personality disorder diagnostic criteria were written in hopes of capturing some facets of psychopathy, if not the entire concept. Individuals with either disorder have a propensity for unlawfulness, as well as deceit, manipulation of others, and so on. However, there are important differences. Psychopaths tend to show a greater degree of emotional coldness and detachment from others. They are often superficial and fake in their relationships, presenting a false face that differs across situations-this trait led psychopathy research pioneer Hervey Cleckley to refer to psychopathy as the “mask of sanity.” Research has shown that psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder differ in the frequency with which they occur in criminals as well. In studies conducted in prisons, a very large percentage of convicts typically meets criteria for antisocial personality disorder; a much smaller percentage tends to meet criteria for psychopathy. Findings such as these have led many researchers to claim that antisocial personality disorder is largely a disorder of criminals. Psychopathy, on the other hand, may be a separate entity with meaningful real-world implications distinct from those of antisocial personality disorder (e.g., psychopaths might commit crimes that are harder to detect because of their exceptional skill in deceit).

It seems that Mal and Jayne illustrate the difference between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy to some degree. Mal, as discussed above, meets many of the criteria for antisocial personality disorder (but not all). However, it seems that his antisocial behaviors are closely tied to his criminal line of work. He actively shows empathy for others and interest in causes greater than himself (such as his participation in the war for independence). Mal tends to be calm and collected, but it is clear that he has close emotional bonds with Zoe, Inara, and Kaylee. Further, one could make a reasonable argument that Mal’s criminality is the result of the Alliance’s victory in the war and ever-tightening grasp over the united worlds. Mal seemed to have wanted to get as far “into the black” as he could to maintain his independence, and as such, had to resort to smuggling (and other antisocial behaviors) to survive. All of these points are underscored by Badger’s description of Mal as “a man of honor in a den of thieves” in the pilot episode.

Jayne, on the other hand, not only meets all of the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, he also displays traits characteristic of a psychopathic personality. He seems to lack empathy and compassion, as when he turned in Simon and River in “Ariel” or when he wished to kill the neutralized government spy in “Serenity.” Also in “Serenity,” he very frankly told Mal that he did not betray him only because the money he was offered to do so was not enough. It would be “an interesting day,” Jayne said, if he were ever offered an adequate amount to betray his captain. Jayne treats women as sexual objects, and only offered his help to the women under siege in “Heart of Gold” after he was told that they were professional “whores.” He also tried to barter Mal’s wife Saffron in exchange for a gun, pleaded to have sex with her, and noted that he never kissed women on the mouth in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” Additionally, Jayne’s behavior is almost always wholly self-serving. He did not fight on either side in the war for independence, and he refuses to risk his safety without the promise of sufficient coin. He did not express forgiveness or understanding for River’s mental condition, and he stole from the other crewmembers, cheated during card games, and tormented Simon regularly throughout the series. While it seems likely that Mal would have been a responsible (if somewhat reckless) citizen were it not for the rise of the Alliance, can we say the same thing about Jayne? It seems probable that Jayne would have always taken advantage of others (especially women) and used force to get what he wanted, while maintaining an emotional coldness and distance from those around him. For these reasons, it seems that Mal may be more antisocial, while Jayne may lend a psychopathic flavor to the crew of Serenity. What Ever Happened to Baby Jayne?

Let us put our psychopathy discussion aside and once again focus exclusively on antisocial personality disorder. While Mal and Jayne both meet a sufficient number of criteria to receive this diagnosis (i.e., three or more) and both are eighteen or older, they cannot be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder unless they also show evidence of childhood conduct disorder. The behaviors that constitute conduct disorder are divided into four categories: theft and deceitfulness, serious rule violations, destruction of property, and aggression toward people and animals. Each of these groups consists of specific behaviors in which the child may have engaged. To officially meet diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder, three of these specific behaviors must be present within a year span; that said, DSM-IV states only that evidence of childhood conduct disorder, not necessarily a diagnosis thereof, needs to be present for true antisocial personality disorder.

What is problematic in the situation of Mal and Jayne’s childhoods, and is also commonly a problem when dealing with real-life individuals, is that we know little of their youths. In the case of real-life patients, early memories are not perfectly accurate, and individuals suspected of having a disorder that includes deceptive behavior cannot be expected to be honest and open anyway. Psychologists and psychiatrists who seek to make determinations about childhood conduct disorder often rely on information gleaned outside of the interviewing room. A helpful place to start might be to interview the parents, siblings, teachers, and childhood friends of the individual being assessed in hopes that their responses converge on whether problematic behaviors were present during the individual’s youth. Another method is to search school, police, and court records. The benefit of this approach is that these records are not susceptible to memory loss or temptations to gloss over the truth.

Hypotheses made about the presence of childhood conduct disorder based on the content of the Firefly episodes can be tenuous at best, as very little explicit information was divulged about Mal’s formative years. Mal mentioned to Saffron in “Our Mrs. Reynolds” that he was raised on a ranch by his mother and her workmen. In fact, he seemed to remember this as a pleasant experience and praised the benefits of living and working in such an environment. This may be indicative of a fairly typical childhood, which would fit well with the theory that adult Mal is only antisocial due to situational factors and a need for independence.

While we know little about Mal’s childhood, we know nothing about Jayne’s upbringing and family. In “The Message” he expressed pleasure upon receiving a hat from his mother, but this tidbit, although touching, is insufficient to weave a reasonable theory about young Jayne. However, our hypothesizing might benefit from the application of a psychological construct called the “externalizing spectrum.” This spectrum consists of several “acting out” behaviors and traits that commonly co-occur. The externalizing spectrum is most typically conceptualized as a combination of pathological personality traits (e.g., aggressiveness, impulsivity), antisocial behaviors (e.g., stealing, violence, deceitfulness), alcohol and drug abuse, and, most importantly for our purposes, childhood conduct disorder. Research shows that the externalizing spectrum and its component parts arise from both genetic and environmental influences-that is, nature and nurture.

It is clear that Jayne meets the personality and behavioral aspects of the externalizing spectrum based on his antagonistic, uninhibited style and his theft, assaults, and lies. Jayne’s frequent use of inebriating substances, often to the point of profound intoxication (as in “Jaynestown”) indicates that he displays this aspect of externalizing behaviors as well. As Jayne’s behaviors are so consistent with the externalizing spectrum-in fact, it would be difficult to find an example of something Jayne did that was not a form of externalizing-it seems reasonable for us to assume that he likely displayed other aspects of it as well. As childhood conduct disorder is closely related to the actions in which Jayne frequently engages, it is probably justifiable to believe that his childhood was marked by severe conduct problems.

To summarize, both Mal and Jayne’s behaviors are criminal. That said, there are psychological distinctions that may prove helpful in understanding both the origins and rationales of each character’s actions. While Mal may have shown traits associated with criminality, he seemed to be a man of conscience driven to a criminal lifestyle by difficult circumstances. While his behaviors hinted at the presence of antisocial personality disorder, the decisions he made and the ways in which he acted may simply have been a “Mal-adaptive” means of survival. Jayne, on the other hand, seems to be described better as a serial and career criminal. His reckless disregard for others and extremely callous nature indicate that his personality may be more pathological than Mal’s. In fact, Jayne’s behaviors might best be described using the concept of psychopathy an extreme, largely incorrigible disorder with profound negative consequences for the individuals he unremorsefully harms. Further, he demonstrates a wide range of externalizing spectrum psychopathology, which allows for the hypothesis that he likely was an oppositional, disobedient, and overall difficult child. Thus, his behaviors may represent a lifelong pattern of unlawful and unrepentant behaviors that will follow him from cradle to grave. A Final Note

Although Firefly lasted only for a single season, the obvious care with which Joss Whedon crafted the characters contributed significantly to their humanity and psychological realism. Whether investigating the differences between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, or uncovering the possibly adaptive nature of seemingly maladaptive traits, Firefly provides excellent fodder for thought and discussion on this topic. Unfortunately, we have only been able to scratch the surface here. For further reading, we recommend Kenny and Kenny’s highly readable and entertaining discussion of normal personality traits in “The Personalities of The Simpsons” chapter of The Psychology of The Simpsons.

The authors would like to thank Anthony Curtis, David Fask, Dane Kettwich, and Greg Mennemeier for their comments on this chapter.