WEIRD Personality Traits as Stable Egoic Structure

Nearly every scientific field of study is facing a replication crisis and, although known about for decades now, it still has not been resolved. Most researchers are so limited in their knowledge and expertise that they lack any larger context of understanding. They simply don’t know what they don’t know and there is no incentive in siloed professions to spend time to understand anything outside of one’s field. In science, the replication crisis has numerous causes, sometimes because of bad study design or the difficulty of some areas of study. Nutrition studies, for example, has been dependent on epidemiological studies that are based on correlations without being able to prove causation; and, on top of that, are often dependent on notoriously unreliable self-reporting food surveys where people have to guesstimate what they ate in the past, sometimes over a period of years. More recent research has shown that much of what we thought we knew simply is not true or has yet to be verified.

Another problem is what or who is studied. There are problems with the lab animals used because certain species adapt better to labs, even though other species are more similar in certain ways to humans. Researchers’, for example, preference for lab mice is not unlike the guy looking for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there. This problem applies to human subjects as well, in that they’ve mostly been white middle class undergraduate college students in the United States because most research has been done in U.S. colleges; and, in medical studies of the past, this mostly involved men which meant women in healthcare were treated as men without penises. The first part is known as the WEIRD bias (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), and it has particularly rocked the world of the social sciences. Take personality studies where the leading theory has been the Big Five (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), with an additional factor being added to form the HEXACO model (honesty-humility). Like so much else, it turns out that most of these personality traits don’t replicate outside of WEIRD and WEIRD-like populations. This challenge of non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities has been around a long time, as seen in the anthropological literature, but most experts in other fields have remained largely ignorant of what anthropologists have known for more than a century, that environment shapes mind, perception, and behavior.

The funny thing is that, even when studies have shown this problem with the Big Five, the WEIRD bias continues to hold sway over those trying to explain away the potential implications and to put the non-WEIRD results back into WEIRD boxes. This is done by asserting the bad results are simply caused by social desirability bias and acquiescence bias, since the answers given by non-WEIRD individuals seem to be contradictory. The researchers and interpreters of the research refuse to take the results at face value, refuse to give the benefit of the doubt that these non-WEIRD people might be accurately reporting their experience. There is almost a grasp of what is going on in pointing to these biases, since these biases are about context, but this comes so close only to miss the point. Non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities tend to be more context-dependent and so unsurprisingly give varying responses in being sensitive to how questions are being asked, whereas the WEIRD egoic abstraction of rules and principles operates more often the same across contexts. Only a highly WEIRD person would think that it is even possible to discover something entirely unrelated to context.

WEIRD personality traits are a kind of psychological rule-orientation where the individual adheres to a psychological heuristic of cognitive behavior, a strict and rigid maintenance of thought pattern that calcifies into an identity formation. The failure of cross-cultural understanding is that the very concept of a stable, unchanging personality might itself be part of the WEIRD bias and an exaggerated extension of the larger Axial Age shift when the ego theory of mind took hold, what some call Jaynesian consciousness in reference to Julian Jaynes theory about the disappearance of the bicameral mind that is a variation of the bundle theory of mind. This was then magnified by mass literacy, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, that alters brain structure, as argued by Joseph Henrich. It might not merely be that those very far distant from WEIRD culture not only lack WEIRD-style personality traits but might also lack egoic personality structures. Most WEIRD people can’t acknowledge non-WEIRD mentalities, much less grok what they mean and how to imaginatively empathize with them. The sad part is this also demonstrates a lack of self-awareness, as the bundled mind essentially exists in all of us, something that can be observed by anyone looking into their own psyche — this is why contemplative traditions like Buddhism adhere to the bundle theory of mind.

Another explanation of this psychological change of personality traits is that agriculture and later industrialization increased labor specialization that generally passed down the generations. These work niches were originally and largely still occupied by specific families, kin networks, castes, and communities over centuries or longer (e.g., feudal serfs and factory workers). It formed a stable environment and a stable culture that shaped the human psyche according to what was required. This is the opposite of hunter-gatherers who are forced to be generalists in doing a wide variety of work. Agriculture had led to some gender specialization, but even that specialization was often limited. It is definitely true, though, that hunter-gatherers are far less specialized where some like the egalitarian Piraha have little specialization at all, along with no permanent authority of any kind. It’s possible that represents how humanity lived for most of evolution when food was more abundant and life easier, as is the case where the Piraha live along a river surrounded by lush jungle. The study of the Piraha have helped challenge one area of WEIRD bias, that of seeing the world through a highly recursive literary culture. The Piraha apparently lack linguistic recursion; i.e., embedded phrases. By the way, they are an animistic culture with the typical bundled mind as overt 4E cognition (embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended). Such animistic cultures allow for personality fluidity, sometimes temporary possessions and at other times permanent identity changes.

Even gender specialization might be a somewhat recent invention, corresponding to the invention of the bow and arrow. For most of human existence, humans hunted with spears and the evidence now points to spear hunting having required the whole tribe, including women. Some of the earliest rock art also portrays men holding the hands of children, which indicates that men were either involved with childcare or not kept separate from it, maybe because the children had to be brought along on the hunt with the whole tribe. So, even the theory that there are two genetically-determined personality types based on men hunting and women gathering was a result of relatively recent changes. By the way, those changes were caused by the megafauna die-off. Smaller game replaced the megafauna and hunting smaller game motivated development of new hunting tools and techniques. The bow and arrow, once invented, allowed individuals to hunt alone and this more often was an activity of men. This forced women to take up a separate labor niche. The lower nutrition level of lean small game also made necessary a greater reliance on plant foods, which meant horticulture and later agriculture. The plow, like the bow and arrow, made another area of men’s work and further reinforced gender division.

The point is not all hunting is the same and so these different practices would create different personality structures. The same was probably true of gathering, particularly in terms of how early humans were also meat scavengers. To get into the effect of the agricultural revolution, this is reminiscent of research done on wheat and rice farming in China. What was found is that the two populations fell into the stereotypical patterns of Western and Eastern thinking, with wheat-based populations having less context-dependent thinking and rice-based populations emphasizing context, even though both populations were Chinese. The explanation is that wheat farming is typically done by one person alone working a plow or now a tractor, whereas rice farming requires highly organized collective labor. Interestingly, China stands out in that psychopathy is found equally among both genders, unlike in the West and some other places where it is disproportionately found among males. It would be interesting to study if this is primarily an effect of the larger populations involved in rice-growing and the culture that has developed around it. On a related note, research does show higher rates of psychopathy in urban areas than in rural areas. Is this simply because psychopaths prefer to remain anonymous in cities or is there something about city life that promotes psychopathic neurocognition?

Anyway, wheat farming is as different from rice farming, as bow-and-arrow hunting is from spear hunting. What stands out is that both rice farming and spear hunting are collective activities involving both genders, but wheat farming and bow-and-arrow hunting can be solitary activities that have tended to be done by men. In Western Europe, there never was rice farming. And, unlike certain populations, spear hunting in the West probably hasn’t been common in recent history. Yet there are still spear hunting tribes in various places. Some of those also do persistence hunting, probably the original form of hunting. Anyway, hunter-gatherers in general need more adaptable minds because they are dealing with diverse tasks and often over large diverse territories. This requires a more fluid and shifting mentality, one where the very concept of stable personality traits maybe simply does not apply to the same extent. Even in the West, research shows that personality traits can change over a lifetime and under different conditions, such as how a liberal can basically turn into a conservative simply by giving them a few beers. But it is true that modern WEIRD conditions are much more stable with narrow niches of work and living, often with racial and class segregation, not to mention the repetitive nature of modern life with little changes in activities from day to day, season to season.

This brings us to the worries some had in early modernity. Adam Smith thought public education was necessary because repetitive factory work made people stupid, which might be simply another way of saying that those individuals lose or else never develop cognitive flexibility, cognitive complexity, and cognitive diversity. Karl Marx explained this in terms of the transition from traditional labor where an individual constructed a product from beginning to end, often having involved multiple complex steps with various tools and techniques, each requiring different physical and cognitive skills. This gave the individual great sense of accomplishment and pride, not to mention autonomy as to be a tradesmen was to have immense skill. The dumbing down of the work force with industrial labor may have contributed to the WEIRD mentality. Even the average office worker experienced this narrowing down of activity. This allowed moderns to specialize, but in doing so sacrificed all other aspects of development. This relates to the creation of stupid smart people, those who are only capable of doing one thing well but otherwise are clueless. It’s not hard to see how this has forced people into niche personalities and hence making possible theories about how to categorize such personalities.

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Tests For the ‘Big Five’ Personality Traits Don’t Hold Up In Much of the World
by Megan Schmidt

So, why doesn’t the Big Five test hold up around the world? Lead author Rachid Laajaj, an economics researcher at the University of Los Andes in Columbia, said many of the reasons are rooted in literacy and education barriers. Many personality tests used in WEIRD countries are intended to be self-administered, designed for people who can read and write. But because of lower literacy rates in developing countries, tests may need to be given verbally. This introduces the possibility of translation or phrasing differences that could skew results.

Researchers also think that face-to-face questioning allows social desirability bias to creep into the process. This means that respondents may try to interpret social cues for a “right answer” or give answers they think would be viewed more favorably by others.

“Yea-saying,” or the tendency to agree with a statement even if it’s untrue, is also more common in developing countries, where there’s less access to education, the researchers say.

“People may have a harder time understanding abstract questions. Acquiescence bias may be accentuated when people do not fully understand, in which case it feels safer to just agree,” Laajaj said.

Additionally, the idea of personality tests — or personality itself — may not be a natural concept everywhere. Understandably, people who aren’t familiar with the idea of personality testing might be a bit wary of revealing personal details about themselves.

“Imagine that you live in a poor area and someone comes to you to ask you a bunch of questions, such as how hardworking you are, whether you get stressed easily or whether you are a polite person. If it is not common for you to fill out surveys, or if it’s not clear what will be done with it, you may, for example, care more about giving a good impression than being completely truthful,” Laajaj said.

Personality is not only about who but also where you are
by Dorsa Amir

To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it’s important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.

As a result of these broader changes, markets might have also changed our perceptions of affordability. In WEIRD societies with more resources (remember that the R in WEIRD stands for rich) kids might feel that they can better afford strategies such as patience and risk-seeking. If they get unlucky and pull out a green marble and didn’t win any candy, that’s okay; it didn’t cost them that much. But for Shuar kids in the rainforest with less resources, the loss of that candy is a much bigger deal. They’d rather avoid the risk.

Over time, these successful strategies can stabilise and become recurrent strategies for interacting with our world. So, for instance, in an environment where the costs of waiting are high, people might be consistently impatient.

Other studies support the notion that personality is shaped more by the environment than previously thought. In work among Indigenous Tsimané adults in Bolivia, anthropologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara found weak support for the so-called ‘Big Five’ model of personality variation, which consists of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Similar patterns came from rural Senegalese farmers and the Aché in Paraguay. The Big Five model of personality, it turns out, is WEIRD.

In another recent paper, the anthropologist Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced and his collaborators followed up on these findings further, relating them to changes that were catalysed by industrialisation. They argue that, as societies become more complex, they lead to the development of more niches – or social and occupational roles that people can take. Different personality traits are more successful in some roles than others, and the more roles there are, the more diverse personality types can become.

As these new studies all suggest, our environments can have a profound impact on our personality traits. By expanding the circle of societies we work with, and approaching essentialist notions of personality with skepticism, we can better understand what makes us who we are.

A general theory of personality based on social selection and life-history theory
by Andreas Hofer

When it comes to personality psychology the Big 5 (or Five-Factor Model/FFM) are still considered the gold standard and many other personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) are considered pseudoscience. The FFM is even more useful and has more predictive power when a sixth dimension is added: honesty humility (HEXACO model).

However, adding new personality dimensions is of little use when it comes to understanding human nature, as not even five factors are human universals. Two of the factors that are often associated with mental disorders (neuroticism and openness to experience), never even show up in non-Western societies, which are called “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) by Joseph Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World (2020). Henrich points out the Big 5 are indeed WEIRD 5, as they are by no means human universals. Some societies yield only three or four factors. Subsistence-level economies often only have two factors. The Tsimane’  practise subsistence farming and Henrich writes about them:

So, did the Tsimane’ reveal the WEIRD-5? No, not even close. The Tsimane’ data reveal only two dimensions of personality. No matter how you slice and dice the data, there’s just nothing like the WEIRD-5. Moreover, based on the clusters of characteristics associated with each of the Tsimane’’s two personality dimensions, neither matches up nicely with any of the WEIRD-5 dimensions […] these dimensions capture the two primary routes to social success among the Tsimane’, which can be described roughly as “interpersonal prosociality” and “industriousness.” The idea is that if you are Tsimane’, you can either focus on working harder on the aforementioned productive activities and skills like hunting and weaving, or you can devote your time and mental efforts to building a richer network of social relationships.

Rice, Psychology, and Innovation
by Joseph Henrich

Decades of experimental research show that, compared to most populations in the world, people from societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) (4) are psychologically unusual, being both highly individualistic and analytically minded. High levels of individualism mean that people see themselves as independent from others and as characterized by a set of largely positive attributes. They willingly invest in new relationships even outside their kin, tribal, or religious groups. By contrast, in most other societies, people are enmeshed in dense, enduring networks of kith and kin on which they depend for cooperation, security, and personal identity. In such collectivistic societies, property is often corporately owned by kinship units such as clans; inherited relationships are enduring and people invest heavily in them, often at the expense of outsiders, strangers, or abstract principles (4).

Psychologically, growing up in an individualistic social world biases one toward the use of analytical reasoning, whereas exposure to more collectivistic environments favors holistic approaches. Thinking analytically means breaking things down into their constituent parts and assigning properties to those parts. Similarities are judged
according to rule-based categories, and current trends are expected to continue. Holistic thinking, by contrast, focuses on relationships between objects or people anchored in their concrete contexts. Similarity is judged overall, not on the basis of logical rules. Trends are expected to be cyclical.

Various lines of evidence suggest that greater individualism and more analytical thinking are linked to innovation, novelty, and creativity (5). But why would northern Europe have had greater individualism and more analytical thinking in the first place? China, for example, was technologically advanced, institutionally complex, and relatively educated by the end of the first millennium. Why would Europe have been more individualist and analytically oriented than China? […]

Sure enough, participants from provinces more dependent on paddy rice cultivation were less analytically minded. The effects were big: The average number of analytical matches increased by about 56% in going from all-rice to no-rice cultivation. The results hold both nationwide and for the counties in the central provinces along the rice-wheat (north-south) border, where other differences are minimized.

Participants from rice-growing provinces were also less individualistic, drawing themselves roughly the same size as their friends, whereas those from wheat provinces drew themselves 1.5 mm larger. [This moves them only part of the way toward WEIRD people: Americans draw themselves 6 mm bigger than they draw others, and Europeans draw themselves 3.5 mm bigger (6).] People from rice provinces were also more likely to reward their friends and less likely to punish them, showing the in-group favoritism characteristic of collectivistic populations.

So, patterns of crop cultivation appear linked to psychological differences, but can these patterns really explain differences in innovation? Talhelm et al. provide some evidence for this by showing that less dependence on rice is associated with more successful patents for new inventions. This doesn’t nail it, but is consistent with the
broader idea and will no doubt drive much future inquiry. For example, these insights may help explain why the embers of an 11th century industrial revolution in China were smothered as northern invasions and climate change drove people into the southern rice paddy regions, where clans had an ecological edge, and by the emergence of state-level political and legal institutions that reinforced the power of clans (7).

Convoluted Conservative-Mindedness

The conservative-minded are a unique species with their high conscientiousness, thick boundaries, love of orderliness, and narrow focus; weakness for authority, submission to fear, and disgust toward impurity. They have a preference for the known, certain, familiar, and acceptable; although with an odd relationship to the larger world — their literalist beliefs often set against scientific facts and their simplistic nostalgia often set against any genuine historical accounting. That is a quick summary from a biased liberal perspective, but this isn’t far from their own self-descriptions.

From a study in 1980, conservative (and presumably W.E.I.R.D.) high school students “regarded themselves as more conventional, responsible, dependable, orderly, neat, organized, successful, and ambitious.” No doubt this self-assessment is fairly accurate, as many studies have shown in comparing conservatives with liberals. The trait conscientiousness is the hinge upon which the conservative mind swings, combined with the trait openness being locked down. When considered in the fuller context, this disposition can lead to mixed results as demonstrated by the sometimes convoluted thinking of the conservative mind. If there isn’t a rule, norm, guideline, direction, law, protocol, or authority to tell them what to do and not to do, the strongly conservative-minded can become confused and frozen in inaction. Helpless as little children.

The liberal, on the other hand, gets in trouble for not simply doing what told or expected to do with very real consequences such as higher rates of addiction. Because the law says not to use an addictive drug that might be all the more reason to try drugs to find out for oneself — Nancy Reagan’s message “Just Say No” sounds like a challenge. It’s similar to why, shortly after my mother told me as a child to not stick anything in outlets, I stuck a paperclip into an outlet. It was a shocking lesson about electricity that forever emblazoned on my young psyche the wisdom of maternal authority, not that it caused my foolhardy liberal personality to be any more obedient. This might explain why I’m such a liberal loser for surely I’d be more successful in life if I just could do what I was told.

Liberals learn from experience and sometimes suffer and die from experience. But at least liberals are more likely figure it out for themselves and maybe discover something new in the process. Not helpless children, although one might see high openness and low conscientiousness as being differently abled. Anyway, it’s more fun and exciting to learn through experience. When my young nephew asked my brother if he could shove a matchbox car up his butt, I like to think my nephew was just being a good liberal trying to think outside the box. It is a valid question he asked. When you start to think about it, there are all kinds of places a matchbox car could be shoved, limited only by the openness of one’s imagination. And who knows what might happen until you try. After all, speaking of butts, as Sarah Silverman asked, how is “the next milk” supposed to be discovered?

Conservatives simply take things on faith and act accordingly. They are less likely to do illegal drugs because they are illegal. They are less likely to stick something into an outlet (or into their butt) when told not to by a parent. Such thoughts would likely never cross their minds in the first place. They will be good citizens, good workers, good Christians, good Nazis, or whatever else is upheld by social norms. High conscientious conservatives will be effective and efficient, industrious and hard-working, ambitious and successful… that is within the constraints of the social order. Outside of those constraints, though, they are lost sheep looking for the herd.

At times, there can be a refreshing directness to conservative thought. But that isn’t always the case. Because of reactionary tendencies, the conservative mind can wind around in strange machinations and rationalizations, such as seen with conservative political correctness. It’s the “Faceless Men” aspect of the reactionary mind that never can be straightforward about what it is about, and I’ve come to suspect this exists within every conservative. Even in the more moderate variety, the conservative mind can go round and round. I must admit I find it fascinating.

One doesn’t have too look at the extreme examples such as evangelicals justifying their support of Donald Trump. Let me describe a situation involving my mother, an old school conservative who is no fan of Trump. But before I get to that, let me explain exactly what is represented by her conservatism.

My mother is conventional in thought and behavior, just wanting to go along to get along. Even if there was an authoritarian takeover of the country, she wouldn’t join the freedom fighters but instead would simply keep her head down, although she might also try to do the morally right thing in small ways as long as it didn’t bring her any negative scrutiny or otherwise threaten her life and lifesyle. She means well and genuinely acts accordingly, but it simply isn’t in her to defy authority or to act foolhardy, not aspiring to be the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The moral acts she does such as volunteering are motivated by their being part of a system of hierarchical authority, in this case a Christian church, telling her that is what she is supposed to do. I suppose that, if she belonged to an evangelical church instead of a mainline church and if everyone she knew including the preacher supported Trump, she likely would have gotten in line to vote for Trump no matter her personal opinion. After all, she strongly defended Sarah Palin and it is a small step from that to where the GOP is now.

My father, less traditionally conservative, almost voted for Trump just to spite Hillary Clinton. What ultimately stopped him from voting Trump and so maybe stopped him from swaying my mother to follow suit was the sense of social judgment that would follow, as most of his immediate family and many of his friends, church members, etc aren’t Trump supporters — even if that imagined social judgment was limited to the confines of his own mind. They now live in this liberal college town where the conservatives here are likewise more liberal-minded. But if they had remained in the conservative Deep South and had still been attending a highly conservative church, my parents might have voted for Trump because that is what so many people around them would have been doing.

Social situation means everything to the conservative sensibility, in their sensitivity to social pressure and persuasion. My parents achingly long to fit in, to belong, to be accepted, to conform. Because of this, they are highly malleable in their views, depending on the community they happen to be living in at any given period of their lives. When younger, they became surrounded by liberals and went through an extreme liberal phase (my father claims my mother used to be pro-life). This left a permanent imprint on their children, my brothers and I who span from liberal to left-wing, not having changed over our lifetimes. Yet my parents’ have swung back and forth from outwardly conservative to outwardly liberal, as their social group shifted. This happened multiple times for my parents as they moved to diverse kinds of communities.

That is perfectly normal behavior for the conservative-minded. If my parents had spent their entire lives in a liberal community, in submitting to local social order and conforming to the local social norms, they simply would have always identified as liberal and would have never known otherwise. I suspect many self-identified liberals (along with many self-identified ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’), specifically partisan Clinton Democrats, would measure higher on conscientiousness and lower on openness (as compared to voters who are independents, third partiers, left-liberals, progressives, etc), which is how the Democrats have become the new conservative party since the GOP went full hog reactionary right-wing. Conservative-mindedness, like many psychological tendencies, is relative and context-dependent, existing as it does along a spectrum within a particular place and time. No one, however low they might measure, is entirely lacking in conscientiousness (or openness) without being severely dysfunctional. That is how most traits operate, in serving some necessary or useful function, typically being problematic only at the extremes of either end.

With that wordy introduction out of the way, let me get to the recent situation with my mother (for background, see two earlier examples: here & here). It really amused me because it was one of those moments I could see the gears moving in her conservative mind.

The context at present is this liberal college town where recycling for many liberals might be genuine environmental concern or might be mere virtue signalling but for my parents it is simply an act of conforming to local social standards. All of their neighbors weekly put out their recycling bins along the street and my parents might be embarrassed to be the only people in the neighborhood to not do so. Recycling is what good liberals do in a good liberal town and, to that extent, my parents play the locally expected social role of the good liberal. It’s the conservative-minded thing to do. But at times the socially expected behavior isn’t entirely clear, making the conservative uncomfortable and distressed.

The city government picks up some recyclable material but not all. Since Iowa has a five cent refund on cans, my parents collect those in separate bags to take back to the store. This past week, they took the cans with them when they went shopping. For some reason, the machine that takes returns wouldn’t take a certain brand and my mother couldn’t find on the label where it showed they have a refund value. This really bothered my mother and she didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem so complicated to me. I honestly don’t care about the refund and, after all, they were mostly my cans that I paid for. I gave mother some suggestions, such as putting them by a dumpster and letting a homeless person take care of it, but she said that it was illegal to put things in a dumpster that isn’t yours. That is true and yet, to my liberal mind, irrelevant.

Here was this situation where the normal rules, processes, and laws didn’t allow a straightforward course of action. So, my mom brought the cans home and fretted over the situation. She was about ready to throw them in the trash because, to her conservative mind, that would be a more appropriate response than the less conventional options I suggested. I eventually solved the problem for her in a way that isn’t relevant for my telling this anecdote. The solution wasn’t complicated and the cans got recycled.

How my mother and I perceived this situation had everything to do with conservative-mindedness versus liberal-mindedness. The reason my mother has never stuck anything inappropriate in an outlet or in her butt, as far as I know, is the same reason she couldn’t resolve this seemingly minor conflict. To her conservative mind, this was about appropriate behavior and there were no guidelines to follow. But to my liberal mind, the possible options were multitudinous. I’ll worry about what is illegal when there is good reason to worry such as a cop driving by, no different than my only having been concerned about what happens by sticking something into an outlet after I got shocked.

There can be a simplicity about liberal-mindedness, not that it always lead to happy and beneficial results, as I can attest. In comparison, the obsessive and excessive worrying of conservatives can seem perplexing, at least to the liberal, but it makes perfect sense to the conservative mind.

Gender and Personality on the Autism Spectrum

There is ongoing debate about autism, such as how it is defined and what causes it, which in turn leads to how it is and should be diagnosed. Some have speculated that autism in girls and women is underdiagnosed:

However, it’s unclear whether this gender bias is the result of genetics or reflects differences in diagnosis or the way females manifest symptoms of the disorder. Girls with autism tend to actively compensate for their symptoms in ways that boys don’t, which may account for the discrepancy, says Skuse.

As a result, the females enrolled in studies may tend to be severely affected and carry multiple mutations. “There is some suggestion that higher-functioning females are out there in the general population, but they’re not being referred,” he says.

Here is what one could argue. Maybe it is most likely that the bias is not just in diagnosis for there would be a directly related bias in the research itself. After all, it is diagnosis that determines the subjects in the autism studies. So, if diagnosis is biased, there is no reason to assume that the subjects are representative of the full autistic population. Biased input would inevitably lead to biased results and hence biased conclusions. Basically, these studies at present might not be able to tell us anything about possible gender differences.

A reason given for the alleged failure to detect female autism is that “it may be because girls are better at masking the symptoms – better at copying social norms while not necessarily understanding them.” That might be true of many boys and men as well.

I have some Asperger’s-like traits, although I’ve never been diagnosed. Maybe it’s because I learned to fit in. I was socially clueless when younger and social situations stress me out, a set of factors exacerbated by my inner-focused nature. I don’t connect easily with others. But you wouldn’t notice that from casually interacting with me. I know how to pretend to be normal. It’s maybe why therapy has never worked for me, as I’ve developed a habit of effectively hiding my problems. It’s a survival mechanism that I learned young.

What occurs to me is that I’m a Jungian Feeling type. Myers-Briggs testing has found that most Feeling types are female, although about 30% are male. The same pattern in the opposite direction is seen with Thinking types. There is a general pattern that follows along gender lines. Still, that approximate third of the population is a significant number. That might mean that a third of male autistics don’t fit into the male pattern, maybe while a third of female autistics do.

So the seeming gender difference found in autism could be more about personality differences. And those personality differences may or may not be genetic in nature. Much of this could instead be culturally learned behavior. It wouldn’t only be cultural biases in diagnosis of autism for, if that is so, it would also be cultural biases in how autism is expressed. In that case, the question is what might be the relationship between culture, personality, gender, and neurocognitive development. There are obviously many complex factors involved, such as considering how a significant number of people don’t fall into simple gender categories: “It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA.” Since gender isn’t binary, the expressions of autism presumably also wouldn’t be binary.

It would be easy to test my speculation if formulated as a hypothesis. My prediction would be that Thinking type females would be more likely to be diagnosed as autstic. And the opposite prediction would be that Feeling type males would be less likely. That is simply to say that autism would express differently depending on personality traits/functions. Similar research could be done with FFM/Big Five, and maybe such research already has been done. A related issue that would need to be disentangled is whether autism is more common among certain personalities or simply more diagnosed among certain personalities, an issue that could be studied either in relation to or separate from gender.

All of this is particularly complicated for certain Myers-Briggs types. My specific type is INFP. This type is one of the most talented types when it comes to masking behavior, “known as being inscrutable.” As Carl Jung described dominant introverted feeling (what Myers-Briggs divides into two types: INFP and ISFP):

They are mostly silent, inaccessible, hard to understand; often they hide behind a childish or banal mask, and their temperament is inclined to melancholy…Their outward demeanor is harmonious, inconspicuous…with no desire to affect others, to impress, influence or change them in any way. If this is more pronounced, it arouses suspicion of indifference and coldness…Although there is a constant readiness for peaceful and harmonious co-existence, strangers are shown no touch of amiability, no gleam of responsive warmth…It might seem on a superficial view that they have no feelings at all.
(Psych. Types, Para. 640-641)

An INFP aspie would make for a rather confusing specimen. It is the dominant introverted feeling that is so hard to discern. And this introverted feeling is hidden behind the chameleon-like and outward-facing extraverted intuition, what is in the position called the auxiliary function. Extraverted intuition is the ultimate mask to hide behind, as it is highly fluid and adaptable. And as the auxiliary function, extraverted intuition plays the role of mediation with and defense against the outside world.

Maybe a significant number of autistics have hidden introverted feeling. This would fit the autistic pattern of feeling strongly in response to others (high functioning affective empathy) while not easily connecting to others (low functioning cognitive empathy). By its nature, there is no straightforward way for introverted feeling to be expressed in social behavior. Yet an INFP can be talented at learning normal social behavior, as extraverted intuition helps them to be mimics. Or failing that, they could stonewall anyone trying to figure them out. Usually being conflict avoidant, most dominant introverted feeling types will go along to get along, as long as no one treads on their core sense of value.

Here is a more general point:

I think it’s a bit silly to make a distinction between “male” and “female” interests in the first place and realize that it can also be healthy for women to take interest in more traditionally “male” subjects such as science and technology and that doesn’t always mean that they have a disorder. In making a diagnosis they should always be aware of the underlying pattern rather than the actual interest and keep in mind that interests may differ for each individual, so (e.g.) whether a female is obsessively talking about computers or fashion should not matter, because the pattern is the same. Indeed, it probably is more obvious in the first case, especially when society is more geared toward male/female stereotyping [so “masculine” interests for women stand out]. And besides, narrow interests is but 1 clue, it doesn’t count for every individual with an ASD; they may have a range of interests, just as typical people do.

Also, as some typologists argue, the US has been an society dominated by ESTJ types that is becoming dominated by ENTJ types (John Giannini, Compass of the Soul). The commonality then is E_TJ, that is to say dominant extraverted thinking. This typological bias is how American culture defines and enforces the social norms of the male gender. Unsurprisingly, that would also be how autism gets diagnosed, according to extraversion and thinking.

On the other hand, autism that was introverted and/or feeling would express in entirely different ways. In particular, dominant introverted feeling would express as strong affective empathy, rather than the (stereotypically) masculine tendency toward emotional detachment. Also, introversion taken on its own, whether in relation to feeling or thinking, would be more internalized and hence less observable — meaning obsessions that would be unlikely to seen in outward behavior: more subtle and nuanced or else more hidden and masked.

This personality perspective might be immensely more helpful than using a gender lens alone. It’s also a more psychologically complex frame of interpretation, appealing to my personality predilections. Considering that autism and Asperger’s was originally observed and defined by men, one might wonder what kind of personalities they had. Their personalities might have determined which personalities they were drawn to in studying and hence drawn to in using as the standard for their early models of the autism spectrum.

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— http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/sze_muelue/index.html.) 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.

Dull Scientists and the Reliable ‘Dumb’

Why are modern scientists so dull?
Medical Hypotheses. Volume 72, Issue 3, Pages 237-243
Bruce G. Charlton

“Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely. Therefore elite scientific institutions seeking potential revolutionary scientists need to use IQ tests as well as examination results to pick-out high IQ ‘under-achievers’. As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.”

This reminds me of George P. Hansen’s analysis of the Trickster archetype in terms of science.

In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, Hansen discussed Trickster mythology, magicians, paranormal researchers, hoaxers, and debunkers. More interestingly, he went into some detail about Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types (which correlates to such things as IQ and personality traits) and Max Weber‘s concepts of rationalization, disenchantment, and bureaucratization. Relevant to the above quote, Hansen discussed the hierarchical nature of scientific institutions: how they maintain order, what personality types they reward with positions of authority, etc.

 * * * *

Reliable but dumb, or smart but slapdash?
Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 73: 465-467
Bruce G Charlton

“The psychological attributes of intelligence and personality are usually seen as being quite distinct in nature: higher intelligence being regarded a ‘gift’ (bestowed mostly by heredity); while personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice? So a teacher is more likely to praise a child for their highly Conscientious personality (high ‘C’) – an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty – than for possessing high IQ. Even in science, where high intelligence is greatly valued, it is seen as being more virtuous to be a reliable and steady worker. Yet it is probable that both IQ and personality traits (such as high-C) are about-equally inherited ‘gifts’ (heritability of both likely to be in excess of 0.5). Rankings of both IQ and C are generally stable throughout life (although absolute levels of both will typically increase throughout the lifespan, with IQ peaking in late-teens and C probably peaking in middle age). Furthermore, high IQ is not just an ability to be used only as required; higher IQ also carries various behavioural predispositions – as reflected in the positive correlation with the personality trait of Openness to Experience; and characteristically ‘left-wing’ or ‘enlightened’ socio-political values among high IQ individuals. However, IQ is ‘effortless’ while high-C emerges mainly in tough situations where exceptional effort is required. So we probably tend to regard personality in moral terms because this fits with a social system that provides incentives for virtuous behaviour (including Conscientiousness). In conclusion, high IQ should probably more often be regarded in morally evaluative terms because it is associated with behavioural predispositions; while C should probably be interpreted with more emphasis on its being a gift or natural ability. In particular, people with high levels of C are very lucky in modern societies, since they are usually well-rewarded for this aptitude. This includes science, where it seems that C has been selected-for more rigorously than IQ. Indeed, those ‘gifted’ with high Conscientiousness are in some ways even luckier than the very intelligent – because there are more jobs for reliable and hard-working people (even if they are relatively ‘dumb’) than for smart people with undependable personalities.”

This gets at the ideological divide. Conservatives tend to value high-C but not high IQ. Herman Cain, a typical far right conservative, gave voice to this view when he sought to explain away his lack of knowledge on important issues: “We need a leader, not a reader.”

It seems that American society in general has always valued high-C over high IQ. The American ideal has always been the “Self-made Man”, the doer rather than the thinker, the inventer rather than the philosopher. So the theory goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. For people who argue American culture is fundamentally conservative, this would seem to be what they are pointing at. The businessman as the leader, as the moral paragon. This is what the American vision of capitalism is all about, the ideal of meritocracy, proving oneself worthy by action and deed, success as outward accomplishment and upward mobility (in particular, up the corporate ladder).

To connect this back to the first article, I would make clear that the personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within the corporations also is the same personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within scientific institutions. What corporations and scientific institutions have in common is that both are hierarchical and, in Weberian terms, both are bureaucratic.