An interesting theme that emerged from the Consilience Conference was the idea of humans as makers and enjoyers of stories. Two of the leading scholars in literary Darwinism spoke at the conference (more about their work later), but the first mention of the importance of story in human life came in a talk about personality.
You may remember hearing about some work that looked at different aspects of morality and found that people who are politically liberal emphasize certain of these aspects, and those who are politically conservative tend to consider them all. (Liberals emphasize caring for others/avoiding harm and fairness/reciprocity, whereas conservatives also consider in-group loyalty, purity, and authority/respect.) A new study expands our knowledge of the relationship between personality traits and political views.
The new work looks at several of the Big Five personality traits: Openness/Intellect, two different aspects of Agreeableness (Compassion and Politeness), and the Orderliness aspect of Conscientiousness. Previous work had indicated that a conservative political outlook was negatively correlated with Openness/Intellect and positively correlated with Conscientiousness. The current work adds a little nuance: the negative correlation between conservatism and Openness/Intellect still holds, and a positive correlation between Orderliness (rather than overall Conscientiousness) was found. Furthermore, a liberal/egalitarian outlook was linked to higher levels of Compassion and a conservative/traditional outlook with higher levels of Politeness.
“Level” is a key word here, it seems to me. With personality traits, everyone falls somewhere on a continuum, so even those who are, say, profoundly introverted still enjoy spending time with others—just not nearly as much as those who are highly extroverted. So these differences are not apples and oranges, exactly; we should in theory be able to find some common ground and at least understand the other side’s point of view, even if we disagree with the degree to which they emphasize one thing or another. This article from Science Daily closes with a quote from one of the new study’s authors to the effect that we appear to need both the liberal and the conservative mindset in any society.
So why are these differences in mindset so sharply and painfully divisive in US politics at the moment? I think part of what is going on is that because political views are linked to personality traits, they often feel like self-obvious views of how the world is and how things work. They’re taken for granted like the water a fish swims in. It can be very difficult to examine them rationally and be prepared to compromise to accommodate the fact that the world and how it works look very different from behind another set of genetic and environmental influences. This leaves aside nasty tactics such as dishonesty or pandering to prejudice, ignorance, or selfishness, the need for an educated citizenry to make a democracy work, and things like the confirmation bias, which tends to make us notice the evidence that confirms our views and discount the evidence against them. I think all these other things come into play partly because our beliefs about the relative importance of fairness, order, or compassion are so inherent to us that we have a hard time taking other rankings of them seriously. I don’t know if it’s a failure of the melting pot, a failure of education, or some more fundamental human flaw, but somehow we haven’t really developed the capacity to use both mindsets productively rather than set them at each other’s throats. Maybe they can’t be consciously accommodated in a single society but must battle it out, back and forth, over and over again?
Oh, yeah. The paper itself is:
J. B. Hirsh, C. G. DeYoung, Xiaowen Xu, J. B. Peterson. Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives: Associations of Agreeableness With Political Ideology and Moral Values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2010; 36(5): 655. DOI: 10.1177/0146167210366854
Between keeping up with the workload and preparing for the holidays, this week has been absolutely nuts, so once again I’m afraid I’m going to simply toss a few links your way. Keep that meat thinking!
- First, if you are looking for worthy secular charities for holiday giving, check out the TechSkeptic’s list of atheist charities.
- New Scientist has published an article suggesting that higher level processing plays a role in synesthesia and also offers an accompanying slide show.
- Sizing up our conspecifics is one of the most important things we do, but sometimes it seems complicated. (Ask anyone who has recently ventured into an online dating site or been involved in a hiring decision.) Cognitive Daily discusses a recent paper about whether small snippets of observations of a person can add up to an accurate perception of personality or intelligence.
- And while we’re on the subject of evaluating the personalities of others, here’s a press release from EurekAlert about the degree to which people can judge the personalities of strangers based solely on photographs. The press release is quite short, but it links to the paper itself, which is briefly available for free online.
- Last spring I attended a fascinating talk at IU about the complex mix of factors that determine human skin color. This nifty web page explains succinctly why northern Europeans are white.
Personality: What makes you the way you are, by Daniel Nettle.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
I have to confess that I’ve felt an irrational attachment to the Myers-Briggs personality typology at the expense of other perfectly good systems, in particular the Big Five system that currently dominates research. This book remedied that, however, providing a fascinating grounding in the Big Five traits in terms of related brain areas or functions and genes.
Nettle begins with an overview of how the Big Five were determined (as clusters of correlated traits that emerged from studies of various aspects of personality) and how different behavioral patterns and personality traits might have evolved. Of particular interest is the question of why people have varying characteristics—in other words, why have different types persisted in the human population? why aren’t we all roughly the same? In a nutshell, the answer is that there is no single optimum personality that it is always advantageous to have.
One reason for this is that the environment changes and demands different things from different generations (interestingly, the environment includes other humans and their traits). Thus, the pressure of selection is usually not going to zero in on a particular level of any given trait or behavioral tendency and eliminate other levels from the mix. Nettle describes some studies of guppies, which showed that cautious behavior is linked to the presence or absence of predators in the environment, and there appears to be a heritable component to this behavior. Also, if naturally cautious guppies are placed in a predator-free environment, the level of cautiousness in the population drops after several generations, suggesting that there is survival value in both being wary and being relaxed, depending on environment. And there’s a continuum of wariness levels in a single species, rather than two species with different characteristics, because the populations mix and also because the level of predation in a particular environment can fluctuate. Nettle’s summary seemed to me to hint at some deep thoughts about diversity and individuality:
“No specific level of wariness is globally favored by selection, though for every individual guppy there is a level of wariness that it would be best to have.”
The heart of the book is five chapters that investigate each trait in turn: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness to experience. Each is explained in terms of the brain mechanism or function that it expresses. Those high in Extraversion, for example, are particularly attracted to the evolutionary carrots that offer rewards, whereas Neurotics are more attuned toward the sticks that warn of danger; Extraversion is associated with happy moods and Neuroticism with negative feelings. Conscientiousness has to do with self-control, and Agreeableness with the desire for harmony with others. Openness to experience is associated with the propensity to make broader associations of meaning (i.e., being more likely to see or create connections between relatively disparate objects or concepts).
Each chapter explains what we know so far about the trait in terms of both behavior and its neural and/or genetic underpinnings, with a good number of references to papers describing current research. For some traits, we know more about the related brain structures than for others, and of course it’s impossible to list all the possible connections. I was hoping to see something about the temporal lobes and Openness, but maybe there’s not enough research on that yet to make it worth mentioning, or maybe there just wasn’t room.
In the case of every one of the Big Five traits, a single optimum level of the trait has not become dominant in humankind; i.e., there’s a considerable range of levels of Extraversion, etc. This suggests that the optimum level varies with the environment, which of course varies in time, sometimes favoring the bold and sometimes the cautious, for example, so that neither end of the spectrum is bred out of the population. Nettle’s descriptions of the pros and cons of each trait were for me some of the most interesting material in the book.
Conscientiousness might sound like a universally desirable capacity, for example, and the more the better. However, high levels of Conscientiousness can lead to rigidity and missed opportunities, and low levels can be advantageous in changeable situations where behavior needs to be fluid and responsive. The dangers of being disagreeable are fairly obvious, but being too agreeable and always putting others before yourself is not good either. Neuroticism certainly seems like the least desirable of the Big Five traits (alas, I scored high on that one), but even there, the capacity for caution and reflection can be useful, and a dissatisfaction with what is can spur you to achieve more.
Throughout, Nettle recommends that you not bemoan your level of any particular trait, but instead focus on its advantages and try to arrange your life so that you can use your strengths and protect yourself in areas where you’re weak. (To go back to that guppy quote, basically we have to find the place where the mix of traits we’ve inherited is most useful.) This may sound obvious, but it can take a long time to get a clear picture of your true strengths and weaknesses, separate from what you wish were so and what those around you are like or wish you were like. It’s only been in my late 30s and into my 40s that I feel like I’ve started to truly understand why some things are hard for me and why I’m drawn to other things, and to stop beating myself up for not being like more extraverted or ambitious people and try to structure my life so that I can function at my best.
The last chapter of the book focuses on how much you can change your life, given that your personality as measured by the Big Five traits remains fairly constant over the lifespan. There are small shifts, on average: “As adulthood progresses, people become slightly higher in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, and slightly lower in Extraversion, Openness, and Neuroticism,” reflecting a shift from agency (the drive toward achieving things and expressing yourself) to communion (relating with others). But by and large, as the song says, what you’re born with is what you get.
However, Nettle did a really good job of presenting the flexibility of self-concept that’s possible within the relatively unchanging framework of predispositions that we’re born with, which I found both inspiring and comforting. For example, a personality trait can be manifested in a fairly wide range of ways: “…if your personality is causing you trouble and worry, you need to find alternative, and less destructive, outlets for the same characteristics. You don’t have to change yourself. You just have to change your self’s outlet.” Another option for changing your life is to change the story you tell about it, reframing events and characteristic behaviors in a different light.
By the end of the book, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea where you stand on each of the Big Five, but each of the five is divided into various subtraits, and if you’d like a more detailed look at how you score on some of those, you can take an online test. If you read the book or take the test, I hope you have fun exploring the range of human personality and where you fit in. As they say, it takes all kinds.
New Scientist is looking for participants in a study on personalities and facial characteristics. All you have to do is answer a few questions and mail a photo of yourself to the magazine. Photos will be merged to form composites that will appear on the cover of the magazine at some point in the future. Learn more here.
I’ve run across several things lately about the psychology and even the physiology of people’s political beliefs. For instance, this press release from EurekAlert describes some work that studied 46 adults with strong political views and examined their political beliefs as well as their physiological responses to disturbing images and unexpected loud sounds. The team of US researchers found a notable difference between those who reacted more strongly to the images and those who did not. (The paper, Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits, was published in the September 19, 2008, issue of Science.) To quote from the abstract: “. . . individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.”
The abstract goes on to describe the policies favored by the former as protective of the existing social order. I find the concept of protectiveness interesting in this context, because gun control and pacifism can also be considered protective, but of individual lives and well-being rather than of the social order. Another press release, this one from the National Science Foundation, goes into a little more detail, and describes the strong reactors as believing that the biggest threat to the well-being of those they care about is other people, while the other group sees more risk in technology or inanimate objects (like guns). This was a small study, and obviously there’s a lot more to political views than just your physiology (remember the old joke about how a conservative is just a liberal who’s been mugged?), but this is a very interesting starting point.
Another study, this one by two psychologists at Northwestern, looked at the political beliefs of 128 church-attending Christians. The researchers asked the church-goers what life would be like if there were no god. The politically conservative among them were more likely to envision a world of chaos, where social institutions break down due to uncontrolled human behavior. The politically liberal, on the other hand, thought the world would be empty, barren, and lacking in deep emotional experiences. The disparity suggests that the two groups are motivated by a different set of fears and hopes. This press release from EurekAlert has more information. The article, What if there were no God? Politically conservative and liberal Christians imagine their lives without faith, is in press in the Journal of Research in Personality.
Finally, over at Edge.org, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written an essay about different conceptions of morality and what they mean in terms of Republicans, Democrats, and the American political landscape. This follows up on some research I wrote about awhile back that looks at five different dimensions of morality that are concerned with preventing harm and caring for others; fairness and reciprocity; loyalty to the group you belong to; authority and respect; and purity and sanctity. In a nutshell, political liberals tend to base their ideas of morality on the first two more than on the other three, while political conservatives are more attuned to all five. (You can see where you fall in this framework at YourMorals.org.)
Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, by Sam Gosling
New York: Basic Books, 2008
Until a couple of years ago, I lived in an apartment complex on the IU campus. There were two basic layouts (some apartments had balconies and some didn’t). It was always interesting to get a glimpse of what someone else had done with the same space that I had—for example, when I’d go to someone else’s apartment to buy yet another set of bookshelves from someone who was moving out, or sneak a glance through the open windows of a lighted apartment in another wing after dark. You can see the same thing in dorm rooms: a single basic spatial design, often very unimaginative, made distinctive by different occupants.
Examining dorm rooms in search of clues to their residents’ personalities is how Sam Gosling got his start in researching the connections between physical environment and temperament. Snoop is an entertaining look at how our stuff—for example, our bedrooms, bookshelves, offices, web sites, and email signatures—reveals who we are and what we value.
We drop various types of clues to the riddle of our selves. Some are there to tell the world who we are (identity claims), like bumper stickers or t-shirts. Others are there to help motivate, relax, or cheer us (feeling regulators), like religious icons, inspirational posters, and calming or energizing music. Placement for these two is important; something posted outside the cube or on the office door is probably meant to convey a particular image to others, while the family photos that are taped to the wall beside your monitor, where only you can see them, are more likely to be there for you. The third type of clue we leave is called behavioral residue: the candy bar wrappers on the floor of the car, the piles of half-read books next to the bed, the well-worn sneakers and like-new dress shoes.
People may try to manipulate their identity claims and even their behavioral residue to look like something they’re not, but usually it’s difficult to fully cover up your real self, and I gathered that often even if people plant clues that are misleading, they may not consciously be trying to deceive—their own vision of who they are may not entirely match reality. (Before you conclude that such people are crazy, consider whether you’ve bought or otherwise acquired for yourself something that you haven’t used/read/worn yet but that you mean to use/read/wear someday.)
To see how these various clues relate to what a person is all about, Gosling looks at research, including his own, that views personality based on the Big Five personality traits. He gives an overview of them (openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) near the beginning of the book. The Big Five system is a fairly broad framework; Gosling discusses the traits as fairly large categories, but if you like, you can get into a lot of fine-grained detail about different facets of each trait and how you score on each one. (E.g., see the International Personality Item Pool page, which links to a short and a long version of a test that will help you place yourself on each of the facets.)
After describing the Big Five traits, Gosling goes into an excellent discussion of something that I haven’t seen anyone else discuss in any detail before, even in books about personality: What does it mean to say you know someone? He uses an approach developed by Dan McAdams that considers three levels: traits (the sorts of descriptors that personality systems and personal ads use to summarize people’s personalities), personal concerns (the context and circumstances that shape the way traits are expressed and experienced), and identity (the deepest level of all, encompassing the elements that a person feels are essential to who he or she really is). The chapter contains some (often amusing) information about traits, including a description of a very thorough study of the words used to describe personalities, and a comparison of the words used to describe dogs and humans.
I need to read more of what McAdams has to say, because I enjoyed this discussion of his ideas, and in particular the important point that personality traits will only carry you so far in understanding a person because “[t]here are many ways to be extraverted or nervous or entertaining or dramatic or moody.” I’ve thought about this a bit in the context of introversion in particular. I have a friend who scores even more highly on tests for introversion than I do; he’s a university professor and a pianist, so an important part of his working life involves speaking or playing the piano in front of a room full of people. If my job required me to do either of those things, I think I’d be so miserable that I wouldn’t last long at it. On the other hand, when I’m with someone I know well and trust, I can be so talkative and emotionally open that people say they can’t believe I’m an introvert, and those kinds of heart-to-heart discussions, which I love, often make my friend uncomfortable. In short, we have two very different styles of introversion, based on experience, talent, and interests (and perhaps gender?).
When examining the links between these five traits and various things we surround ourselves with, Gosling’s approach is to look at two things: the relationship between the Big Five traits and different aspects of personal space or belongings (books, clothes), and how well people’s evaluations of personal spaces and belongings jibe with these relationships. In tables scattered throughout the book, he lists the characteristics people use to evaluate personality based on, for example, the appearance of an office or bedroom, and compares that with the characteristics that actually reflect the five personality traits. There’s often a disjunct between the two. For example, people tend to judge openness on the quantity and variety of books in an office or living space, when studies indicate that it’s really only the variety that correlates positively with the trait of openness. The tables are condensed into a single diagram near the end of the book that shows how much you can learn about a given trait in a given situation (e.g., Facebook page, bedroom, office, short interview, music top-10 list). Extraversion is the only trait that reveals itself to at least some degree in all the situations listed.
Gosling also goes into some of the potential pitfalls that can lead snoopers astray. For example, you must take into account whether an item in a space actually belongs to the occupant (one group of students analyzing a young man’s dorm room were misled by a pair of high-heeled shoes left behind by an overnight guest) and how much control the person had over its presence. (In another example, a company evidently gave all of its employees Filofaxes, reducing the weight an observer would give to the presence of this item in a person’s office. Having one didn’t mean you were particularly organized; it just meant you’d been there when they handed them out.)
I happened to be reading this book while also reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and I was struck by how much overlap there was with Snoop, at least regarding the discussion of character. Fiction writers have to choose what to tell you about their characters so that you understand who they are; this means that the writer has to understand how people are likely to interpret the many details they combine to clothe their creations in something resembling reality. Therefore, they need to consider the same sorts of things that Gosling discusses in terms of snooping. For example, taking into account the timing can provide added clues (people may keep their personal spaces messier during a major project that consumes a lot of time, for example, or neater when they’re expecting company). Context is an even richer playground for an author, and a possible source of confusion to the snooper (when my younger son moved into his first apartment, the play sand in his shopping cart at Lowe’s had nothing to do with small children and sandboxes, and everything to do with the fact that he’s long been an enthusiastic herper who keeps snakes and lizards).
The book also gives some time to the much-misunderstood (in my opinion) concept of stereotypes. My own take on the subject is that yes, treating an individual person as if he or she were bound to be the sum of all the stereotypes about him or her based on race, gender, religion, etc., is demeaning, and probably logically impossible as well, but on the other hand, having quick heuristics by which to make an initial evaluation of new situations and new people can be a useful thing. As with many things in life, balance is crucial. Gosling discusses the possible utility and many pitfalls of stereotyping. He also talks about using the clues people present as only a starting point; if you truly want to know someone, ask about some of the more interesting clues you’ve spotted and see what you learn. He also warns against some common quirks (e.g., placing undue weight on first impressions) that can baffle our attempts at understanding others.
The book closes with a chapter about the Truehome system developed by Chris Travis. Travis designs houses for people based on their personalities and personal histories as much as on practical constraints. Obviously most of us don’t have the luxury of designing our own space at that level (although I gather the system can be used when altering existing spaces as well), but it’s a fascinating process to read about anyway. It made me think about the intertwining of practicality and psychological comfort that must have been part of building design from the days when humans first built permanent shelters. When you think about it, to some degree psychological comfort is practical.
All in all, I recommend this book if you’re at all interested in the topic of understanding personality. It’s witty, educational, and engaging, and it may make you look at your own living spaces, and those of others, with a new eye.
Based on my previous experience with the term psychogeography, I gathered that it had to do with people’s emotional and mental response to various landscapes, urban and otherwise. However, the term psychogeography is also used in quite a different way in this article from the Boston Globe. Here psychogeography has to do with the mapping of personality traits, particularly in the US. Researchers are evidently looking at the Big Five personality traits and discovering geographic patterns to such things as neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. The article describes the psychological landscape of the US and speculates about how it got to be that way: birds of a feather flock together? People who flock together, for whatever reason, come to resemble one another? However it works, it’s fascinating to look at the US in terms of the personality types prevalent in different regions. I hope there’s more of this research to come. I’d like to see an analysis of places like Bloomington (and Madison and Ann Arbor) that constitute islands of social and political openness in a sea of conservatism. It would also be interesting to know if there are links between the physical and psychological landscapes.