February 27, 2013

Raising An Issue in Indian Psychology

A recent literature search threw up an interesting-looking paper; a randomised controlled trial (RCT) on the effect of yoga on gunas (personality) in healthy volunteers (free to read). I was surprised as I rarely come across academic papers on yoga, that too with explicit reference to 'gunas' in the title. . I couldn’t help noticing at the outset that the study appeared to have been carried out at the Department of Yoga Research, Swami Vivekananda Anusandhana Samsthana, a deemed-to-be yoga university. The study was also published in the International Journal of Yoga, which appears to be the university’s own journal publication. So there is plenty of scope for bias to creep in.

Despite that RCTs are the 'gold standard' of psychological research when done properly, the stated aims of this paper didn't exactly fill me with confidence. The study itself wasn't what interested me, but rather one of the tools that the researchers used to assess the participants' personalities. In psychology, personality is assessed using specific scales or questionnaires that have been designed to measure a particular construct, say, anxiety or depression. The Beck Depression Inventory is probably the best known and widely used example of a scale to measure depression, and you can find information about other scales at Wikipedia.

An important concept in the construction of such scales is known as construct validity, the ability of the scale to measure what it is supposed to measure. Using the BDI as an example, can it be that a set of questions is capable of measuring the presence and intensity of depression in a person? All other things being equal, the answer is that it is probably the most reliable tool we have for measuring depression at the moment and that it has been consistently used in a number of different medical fields. Much research has been done in the field of personality psychology in an attempt to construct a real-term workable scale with which to assess personality. Many scales exist, but generally speaking researchers have come to agree that personality can be defined in terms of the "Big 5" factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Psychopathy, and that all of our personalities can be measured in different ratings of these. The Reliability of such scales is another important issue that also means something different to the popular sense of the word, and we'll get to that at some point.

For this study the research team wanted to analyse the effects of a yoga course on personality and self-esteem, and they measured these with Karunanidhi's Self-Esteem Inventory (1996) and, wait for it, the Gita Inventory of Personality (Das, 1991). According to this paper, the GIP (referred to as GIN within the paper) was to measure three dimensions of personality: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

There is reason to suspect that, at least in the case of the GIP, something mischievous is afoot in the name of psychology. The Gita referred to is of course the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture (traditionally believed to be 5000 years old), and the three personality dimensions being assessed are described in the 14th chapter of the text. I'm aware of issues of sensitivity surrounding cross-cultural research in psychology, the importance of accepting cultural boundaries, and so on. If you were to rely on Wikipedia, cross-cultural psychiatry (or transcultural psychiatry) is that which is "concerned with the cultural and ethnic context of mental disorders and psychiatric services".

I have to wonder, though, are cases like this something that ought to be a concern or to be praised? On one hand we have here a different outlook on personality that is independent of Western-oriented psychology, but on the other we have to wonder about the appropriateness of assessing people's individual personality traits on the basis of definitions provided in an antiquated religious text. Psychological research is frequently slighted or condemned (depending on who you listen to) as being overly WEIRD - analysing and assessing people that are dominantly Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic, and that is a fair criticism in context. In general, the field is crying out for fresh perspectives.

However, it remains unclear if ethnically contextual research from the other end of the spectrum will be able to provide new insight into the field of personality psychology if little to no effort is made to work collegially, and using similar standards of measurement with which to assess people and carry out much needed research.

Deshpande S., Nagendra H.R. & Nagarathna R. (2009). A randomized control trial of the effect of yoga on Gunas (personality) and Self esteem in normal healthy volunteers., International Journal of Yoga, 2 (1) 13-21. PMID:


  1. BDI most reliable? Unlikely. Most valid? Never! It has items that are all 100% GAD. But yes it's widely used. You should research it yourself before concluding from wide usage (tradition etc) that its good.

    1. Well yes, I said at the moment. No scale is 100% reliable, but BDI is as "reliable" as we can get for now.