Human Nature: Categories & Biases

There is something compelling about seemingly opposing views. There is Mythos vs Logos, Apollonian vs Dionysian, Fox vs Hedgehog, Socratic vs the Sophistic, Platonic vs Aristotelian, Spinoza vs Locke, Paine vs Burke, Jung vs Freud, nature vs nurture, biology vs culture, determinism vs free will, parenting style vs peer influence, etc.

And these perceived divisions overlap in various ways, a long developing history of ideas, worldviews, and thinkers. It’s a dance. One side will take the lead and then the other. The two sides will take different forms, the dividing lines shifting.

In more recent decades, we’ve come to more often think in terms of political ideologies. The greatest of them all is liberal vs conservative. But since World War II, there has been a growing obsession with authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism. And there is the newer area of social dominance orientation (SDO). Some prefer focusing on progressive vs reactionary as more fundamental, as it relates to the history of the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary.

With the advent of social science and neuroscience, we’ve increasingly put all of this in new frames. Always popular, there is left and right brain hemispheres, along with more specific brain anatomy (e.g., conservatives on average have a larger amygdala). Then there is the personality research: Myers-Briggs, trait theory, boundary types, etc — of those three, trait theory being the most widely used.

Part of it is that humans simply like to categorize. It’s how we attempt to make sense of the world. And there is nothing that preoccupies human curiosity more than humanity itself, our shared inheritance of human ideas and human nature. For as long as humans have been writing and probably longer, there have been categorizations to slot humans into.

My focus has most often been toward personality, along with social science more generally. What also interests me is that one’s approach to such issues also comes in different varieties. With that in mind, I wanted to briefly compare two books. Both give voice to two sides of my own thinking. The first I’ll discuss is The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives by J. Scott Wagner. And the second is A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Wagner’s book is the kind of overview I wish I’d had earlier last decade. But a book like this gets easier to write as time goes on. Many points of confusion have been further clarified, if not always resolved, by more recent research. Then again, often this has just made us more clear about what exactly is our confusion.

What is useful about a book like this is that it helps show what we do know at the moment. Or simply what we think we know, until further research is done to confirm or disconfirm present theories. But at least some of it allows a fair amount of certainty that we are looking at significant patterns in the data.

It’s a straightforward analysis with a simple purpose. The author is on the political left and he wants to help those who share his biases to understand those on the political right who have different biases. A noble endeavor, as always. He covers a lot of territory and it is impressive. I won’t even attempt to summarize it all. I’m already broadly familiar with the material, as this area of study involves models and theories that have been researched for a long time.

What most stood out to me was his discussion of authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (SDO). For some reason, that seems like more important than all the rest. Those taken together represent the monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the human mind. I was amused when Wagner opined that,

Unlike all that subtlety around “social conformity-autonomy” and authoritarianism, the SDO test is straightforward: not to put too fine a point on it, but to me, the questions measure how much of a jerk you are. (Kindle Locations 3765-3767)

He holds no love for SDOs. And for good reason. Combine the worst aspects from the liberal elite of the classical liberal variety as found in a class-based pseudo-meritocracy. Remove any trace of liberal-minded tolerance, empathy, kindness, and compassion. And then wrap this all up with in-group domination. Serve with a mild sauce of near sociopathy.

Worse part of it is that SDOs are disproportionately found among those with wealth and power, authority and privilege. These people are found among the ruling elite for the simple reason that they want to be a ruling elite. Unless society stops them from dominating, they will dominate. It’s their nature, like the scorpion that stings the frog carrying him across the river. The scorpion can’t help itself.

All of that is important info. I do wish more people would read books like these. There is no way for the public, conservative and liberal alike, to come together in defense against threats to the public good when they don’t understand or often even clearly see those threats.

Anyway, Wagner’s book offers a systematizing approach, with a more practical emphasis that offers useful insight. He shows what differentiates people and what those demarcations signify. He offers various explanations and categorizations, models and theories. You could even take professional tests that will show your results on the various scales discussed, in order to see where you fit in the scheme of personality traits and ideological predispositions. Reading his book will help you understand why conflicts are common and communication difficult. But he doesn’t leave it at that, as he shares personal examples and helpful advice.

Now for the other approach, more contrarian in nature. This is exemplified by the other book I’ve been reading, the one by Robert Burton (who I quoted in a recent post). As Wagner brings info together, Burton dissects it into its complicated messy details (Daniel Everett has a similar purpose). Yet Burton also is seeking to be of use, in promoting clear thinking and a better scientific understanding. His is a challenge not just to the public but also to scientific researchers.

Rather than promising answers to age-old questions about the mind, it is my goal to challenge the underlying assumptions that drive these questions. In the end, this is a book questioning the nature of the questions about the mind that we seem compelled to ask yet are scientifically unable to answer. (p. 7)

Others like Wagner show the answers so far found for the questions we ask. Burton’s motive is quite the opposite, to question those answers. This is in the hope of improving both questions and answers.

Here is what I consider the core insight from Burton’s analysis (p. 105-7):

“Heinrich’s team showed the illusion to members of sixteen different social groups including fourteen from small-scale societies such as native African tribes. To see how strong the illusion was in each of these groups, they determined how much longer the “shorter” line needed to be for the observer to conclude that the two lines were equal. (You can test yourself at this website— By measuring the amount of lengthening necessary for the illusion to disappear, they were able to chart differences between various societies. At the far end of the spectrum— those requiring the greatest degree of lengthening in order to perceive the two lines as equal (20 percent lengthening)— were American college undergraduates, followed by the South African European sample from Johannesburg. At the other end of the spectrum were members of a Kalahari Desert tribe, the San foragers. For the San tribe members, the lines looked equal; no line adjustment was necessary, as they experienced no sense of illusion. The authors’ conclusion: “This work suggests that even a process as apparently basic as visual perception can show substantial variation across populations. If visual perception can vary, what kind of psychological processes can we be sure will not vary?” 14

“Challenging the entire field of psychology, Heinrich and colleagues have come to some profoundly disquieting conclusions. Lifelong members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (the authors coined the acronym WEIRD) reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, antisocial punishment, and cooperation, as well as when responding to visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity. “The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.” The researchers found that 96 percent of behavioral science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, even though those countries have just 12 percent of the world’s population, and that 68 percent of all subjects are Americans.

“Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia psychologist and prepublication reviewer of the article, has said that Heinrich’s study “confirms something that many researchers knew all along but didn’t want to admit or acknowledge because its implications are so troublesome.” 15 Heinrich feels that either many behavioral psychology studies have to be redone on a far wider range of cultural groups— a daunting proposition— or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.”

I don’t feel much need to add to that. The implications of it are profound. This possibly throws everything up in the air. We might be forced to change what we think we know. I will point out Jonathan Haidt being quoted in that passage. Like many other social scientists, Haidt’s own research has been limited in scope, something that has been pointed out before (by me and others). But at least those like Haidt are acknowledging the problem and putting some effort into remedying it.

These are exciting times. There is the inevitable result that, as we come to know more, we come to realize how little we know and how limited is what we know (or think we know). We become more circumspect in our knowledge.

Still, that doesn’t lessen the significance of what we’ve so far learned. Even with the WEIRD bias disallowing generalization about a universal human nature, the research done remains relevant to showing the psychological patterns and social dynamics in WEIRD societies. So, for us modern Westerners, the social science is as applicable as it ever was. But what it shows is that there is nothing inevitable about human nature, as what has been shown is that there is immense potential for diverse expressions of our shared humanity.

If you combine these two books, you will have greater understanding than either alone. They can be seen as opposing views, but at a deeper level they share a common purpose, that of gaining better insight into ourselves and others.


8 thoughts on “Human Nature: Categories & Biases

  1. Speaking of bias, racial bias

    “That’s just the reality of humans; we’re never as “civilized” or as high minded as we believe ourselves to be. The innate distrust between East Asia and the European West is case in point.
    Race matters to people, a lot. It plays a far greater role in decision making than we like to believe, both at the geopolitical and everyday life levels.
    Most “civilized” people don’t like to admit that race matters to them, so they will use other more high minded distinctions to justify their enmity for other races.”

    • Like many people, I’m very curious to see how this will play out. The way Trump frames issues seems clearly intentional. But it is far from clear what his ultimate intentions are or to what degree they are conscious.

  2. Also because Putin directly supports a lot of the white nationalist groups in the West, from Trump (probably) to Marine Le Pen in France (definitely) and Hofer in Austria (definitely). They admire Putin’s strong man image while ignoring that it comes at the cost of Russia remaining in poverty. Putin’s an intelligent leader but his priorities are to enrich himself and remain in power by keeping the people and oligarchs pacified.

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