Mister Personality

Applied metrology, when directed at human behavior, offers an endless fount of insight. I recently took the Understanding Myself personality test — a well-validated, methodologically rigorous instrument that offers 10 clusters of 10 questions and then generates a report about how one ranks on the Big Five Aspects of personality.

I reviewed my report. Then I said to myself, “Self, this is interesting.” Not surprising but interesting. So I thought a public reflection is in order.

The Big Five Aspects

Well-established literature among psychologists suggests that all people exhibit deeply ingrained personality characteristics along five dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness.

The Understanding Myself assessment presents your high-to-low score for each trait in terms of a percentile rank, which is how I’ll relate it below. Quotes in this section all source from the personalized report I received as part of the scoring tool.

Agreeableness. I’m more agreeable than 43 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered typical. “People with typical levels of agreeableness are seen by others as somewhat cooperative, warm and considerate. They look for the best in others … and are reasonably interpersonally tolerant. [They] are somewhat forgiving, accepting, flexible, gentle and patient.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — compassion (72nd percentile, moderately high), “interested in the problems of other people,” and politeness (16th percentile, low), “not deferential to authority” and “respectful but only to people who clearly deserve and demand it.” The mean score for men is 38.5.

Conscientiousness. I’m more conscientious than 45 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered typical. The mean for men is 49. “People of average conscientious levels generally do their duty, although they are not sloggers … [they] waste some of their time and have some proclivity to procrastinate. They are reasonably decisive, neat, organized, future-oriented and reliable. They can maintain focus, but have some trouble fighting off distraction.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — industriousness (22nd percentile, low), “focus less on work than others” and orderliness (71st percentile, moderately high) “more disgust-sensitive than average, somewhat judgmental, and have a tendency toward more authoritarian political attitudes … [but] can be good at ensuring that complex, sensitive processes are managed properly and carefully.”

Extraversion. I’m more extroverted than 69 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered moderately high. “People with moderately high levels of extraversion are quite enthusiastic, talkative, assertive in social situations, and gregarious.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — enthusiasm (36th percentile, moderately low), “rarely excitable, not particularly easy to get to know,” and assertiveness (88th percentile, high), “put their own opinions forward strongly and tend to … be influential and captivating.”

Neuroticism. I’m more neurotic than 20 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered low. “People with low levels of neuroticism rarely focus on the negative elements, anxieties and uncertainties of the past, present and future. It’s rare for them to face periods of time where they are unhappy, anxious and irritable, unless facing a serious, sustained problem. Even under the latter conditions, they cope well, don’t worry too much, and recover quickly when stressed. They’re good at keeping their head in a storm, and they seldom make mounts out of molehills.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — withdrawal (15th percentile, low), “rarely suffer from or are impeded by anticipatory anxiety,” and volatility (29th percentile, moderately low), “tend to not to vary much in their mood … express their frustration, disappointment and irritability quite reasonably and not very often.”

Openness to Experience. I’m more open to experience than 97 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered exceptionally high. “People with exceptionally high levels of openness to experience are almost always characterized by others as extremely smart, creative, exploratory, intelligent and visionary. They are extremely interested in learning, and are constantly acquiring new abilities and skills. … They are exceptionally interested in abstract thinking, philosophy, and the meaning of belief systems and ideologies. They live for cultural events…. They are very likely to enjoy writing (or even to be driven to write). They enjoy complex, abstract ideas and deeply love to confront and solve complex, abstract and multi-dimensional problems.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — intellect (97th percentile, exceptionally high), “obsessed by engaging with ideas and abstract concepts, require constant exposure to novel information” and openness (90th percentile, very high), “very open, creative people love beauty … they require an outlet for their creative ability or they cannot thrive.”

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator & Keirsey Temperament Sorter

Over the years, I’ve taken the MBTI a half-dozen times or so. The results have been surprisingly consistent insofar as I flip between INTJ and INFJ. The KTS breaks personalities into 16 categories based on a binary branch over four traits — concrete/abstract, cooperative/pragmatic, informative/directive, and expressive/attentive.

Bucketize the 16 basic personality types and you arrive at four cohorts: Analysts, Diplomats, Sentinels and Explorers.

An INTJ is an analyst. This role type is an architect or a mastermind — people who are “imaginative and strategic thinkers with a plan for everything.” INTJs “are introspective, logical, rational, pragmatic, clear-headed, directive, and attentive. As strategists, they are better than any other type at brainstorming approaches to situations. Masterminds are capable but not eager leaders, stepping forward only when it becomes obvious to them that they are the best for the job. Strong-willed and very self-assured, they may make this decision quickly, as they tend to make all decisions. But though they are decisive, they are open to new evidence and new ideas, flexible in their planning to accommodate changing situations. They tend to excel at judging the usefulness of ideas and will apply whatever seems most efficient to them in accomplishing their clearly envisioned goals. To Masterminds, what matters is getting it done — but also learning the principles of how to get it done efficiently and well; that is, at a professional level of quality. However, they may not give much thought to the social cost of getting there, ‘focusing so tightly on their own pursuits [that] they can ignore the points of view and wishes of others.'” (Wikipedia)

An INFJ is a diplomat. This role type is an advocate or counselor — people who are “quiet and mystical, yet very inspiring and tireless idealists.” An INTJ is “introspective, cooperative, directive, and attentive. They have a strong desire to contribute to the welfare of others. Counselors are gratified by helping others to develop and reach their potential. Counselors often communicate in a personalized manner. They tend to be positive and kind when dealing with others. Counselors are good listeners and can sometimes detect a person’s emotions or intentions even before the individual is aware of them. This ability to take in the emotional experiences of others, however, can lead Counselors to be hurt easily. Counselors usually have intricate personalities and rich inner lives. They tend to understand complex issues and individuals. They are generally private people who keep their innermost thoughts and emotional reactions to themselves. This quality can make them difficult to get to know. Counselors value harmony, which they work to maintain at home and at work. They may lose confidence, become unhappy, and even become physically ill if subjected to a hostile environment. Counselors may be crushed by too much criticism, though they may not express their feelings to others. Counselors desire harmony in their homes and find constant conflict to be extremely destructive to their psyches. Their circle of friends is likely to be small but deep and long lasting.” (Wikipedia)

I tend to flip on the T/F dimension (cooperative vs. pragmatic, idealistic diplomat vs. strategic rationalist) while the three other attributes have proven remarkably immutable over nearly 20 years of periodic assessment.

IQ Test

An IQ test doesn’t measure how “smart” you are. Rather, it measures short-term recall and computational ability. High IQ correlates to processing speed, verbal ability, working memory and a capacity for solving multi-step or abstract problems. It’s not a stand-in for having a large store of facts. Very high-IQ people can suck at trivia games, for example.

Years ago, I completed a proctored IQ test as part of a complex admissions process. Later, I took a university-administered IQ test online. Those two tests came in at 133 and 131, respectively. Split the difference and call it 132. The mean IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is 15, so I’m a bit better than two standard deviations above the mean. If I were in a room with 100 randomly selected people, I’d have a higher IQ than 98 of them and a lower IQ than one of them.

360 Review

In late 2016 I took a 360 Review assessment as administered by the Human Resources team at Spectrum Health. In it, I, my upline leaders, my direct reports, and a small selection of peers rated me on several business categories, then compared me against the 6,285 data points from other 360 Review assessments conducted by the organization over the years.

The results:

  • Roughly in line with the population average for business acumen, decision making, and inclusion & diversity
  • Significantly better than the population average for developmental leadership
  • Significantly worse than the population average for flexibility & results focus

I’m particularly pleased with this result because the peer group included five people selected by my vice president (whose scores also factored into my mean). At the time, she was looking for reasons to get rid of me and my boss. I survived that round; Bob didn’t. So the fact that I didn’t suck in every category was well-nigh amazing. A 360-degree review is a powerful weapon of workplace terror if it’s deployed with ruthless efficiency by a senior leader who knows how to influence the results.

Tying It All Together

I think that these assessments, provided that they’re validated instruments and not Buzzfeed-style quizzes, serve as an effective mirror for thinking about yourself in a holistic way. I don’t think that these assessments should “reveal” any new information. A person who’s surprised by his or her results on any of these tests should reflect carefully about their degree of self-understanding.

Yet each instrument, in its own manner, says certain useful things from a specific frame of reference. Considered at a 50,000-foot level, they can and should color your strategic thinking — how your actions should shape your goals and preferences.

When I tie everything together, I get a sense of myself as a mix of strengths and weaknesses. And each strength and each weakness, in turn, offers its own mitigation strategy.

For example, put me in a situation where I have to deal with complex de novo problems without regard for institutional hierarchy, and I’ll move the world. Put me in an environment where public measures of success subordinate to private webs of interpersonal networks, and I’ll consistently struggle to thrive. I know this. So were I ever to seek a “normal” 9-to-5 job again, my questions for a prospective employer must relate to culture and leadership styles.

Another example: Ye olde bucket list. What do you want to do, and why? Do your bucket-list items, and the reason they’re on the list in the first place, commensurate with your personality type? If you score low in openness, for example, is writing The Great American Novel really a helpful goal? Or will it just be an opportunity to feel bad later about your perceived inability to achieve your dreams?

A bit of self-knowledge goes a long way. But remember — tendencies in populations aren’t prison sentences for individuals. You are more than your results.

Developing Ethically Coherent Characters

A good story usually demands a strong plot, and a strong plot is advanced through the skillful use of conflict.

Conflict, of course, starts with characters who think and act in specific ways; their patterns of behavior set the contours of how conflicts begin, progress and resolve over the narrative arc of the story.

Five introductory points about ethical consistency:

  1. At heart, ethics relates to the process by which people make value-laden choices. When there’s no choice, or no values at stake, then the question isn’t an ethical one. For example, personal preferences (e.g., “I like cashews more than brazil nuts”) aren’t a source of moral dispute.
  2. People aren’t always consistent, but they do tend to naturally fall into one of the broad ethical paradigms. No one does the right thing all the time, and always for the exact same reason; characters like Galadedrid Damodred in The Wheel of Time simply do not exist in the real world, so their presence in literary worlds proves especially jarring. Likewise, no one does the wrong thing all the time.
  3. When pressed, people can do the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason — with wrong merely suggesting a conformance to a different (i.e., non-dominant) moral paradigm.
  4. When pressed further, people can act against their moral principles. It doesn’t happen often, however. People who frequently make bad moral choices are inadvertently telegraphing that their ethical framework isn’t as straightforward as they claim.
  5. People rarely reset their default ethical worldview. Such a change can happen, but it’s not often enough in the real world to use it as a plot device. Usually these changes follow from significant trauma or long-running psychological stress.

The most common “broad moral paradigms” include:

  • Egoism. In a nutshell: Egoists do what redounds to the greatest good for the self.
  • Deontology. Duty-based ethics (i.e., Kantianism) suggests that the morally correct behavior is that which meets a generalizable duty or universal moral rule. For example, people can agree to the maxim that “It’s never okay to lie” and therefore we have a duty to avoid lying. We must do our duty, no matter the consequence.
  • Consequentialism. Consequentialism subdivides into many different groups. Utilitarians, for example, divide into “act utilitarians” (actions are judged) and “rule utilitarians” (the rules surrounding the actions are judged). Regardless of their tribe, however, consequentialists generally agree that the morally correct behavior is that which generates the greatest good or the least suffering, for the greatest number of people. Duty isn’t usually a major consideration.
  • Natural Law Theory. The natural law suggests that innate patterns in human nature — discoverable through study of universal human behavior — should govern. Popular in the Middle Ages, this approach isn’t as common anymore.
  • Divine Command Theory. The morally correct behavior is that which is willed by the supreme supernatural being(s). In other words: Do what God says.
  • Virtue Theory. The virtues rely on the development of character and follow from the ethical teachings of Aristotle. A virtue theorist balances various virtues (e.g., temperance, fortitude, bravery) to arrive at a recommended course of action. The vices (sloth, envy, etc.) should be eradicated to grow in character and thus in virtue. In a sense, the ethically correct behavior is that which the virtuous person undertakes.
  • Care Ethics. A modern innovation, care ethics seeks to preserve the relationships among those affected by an ethically difficult situation. The outcome is sometimes less relevant than maintaining amity. A special consideration is extended to people disadvantaged by the dispute.

Important non-theories include:

  • Contractarianism. The idea with contractarians is that our only moral duties are those we explicitly negotiate with others. However, this line of thinking is just a variant of selective deontology (as in, I only have a duty to those for whom I agree to incur a duty).
  • Rights Theory. Someone who emphasis rights above all other considerations is just aping a form of deontology (i.e., giving pride-of-place to the maxim that “people ought to respect the rights of others”). Depending on the justification, it’s also a variant of rule utilitarianism.
  • Honor Theory. Approaches that emphasize honor — you see it often in urban hip-hop culture that emphasizes respect — tend to loosely follow a care-ethics framework.
  • Ethical Nihilism. If you believe that there’s no such thing as morality, or that ethics can’t be universally applicable, then you’re a nihilist. But at heart, you’re really an egoist because you’re suggesting that whatever you do is, ipso facto, morally justified.
  • Hedonism. The whole “live and let live in peace and harmony, dude” mindset follows from a variant of consequentialism with a bit of egoist seasoning.
  • The Lex Talionis. The idea of “an eye for an eye” is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be a function of the natural law. In fact, natural law focuses on traits universal among humans; it’s not a surrogate for survival-of-the-fittest fetishism.

A few other points warrant mention.

First, ethical paradigms don’t relate well to the DSM-V. For example, an ethicist might classify as a “super-enlightened egoist” someone diagnosed by a psychologist as a sociopath. Many assertions of mental illness along the lines of sociopathic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder can distill into a form of ethical egoism that the psychologist simply refuses to accept as being a legitimate moral worldview. There’s long been a tension between the ethicist and the psychologist.

Second, many people mix their metaphors. They’ll follow the duty-bound approach of a Kantian for most things, but resort to consequentialist thinking when they want a free pass that Kant won’t offer. Or they’ll follow their scripture in their personal life but follow a care-ethic approach in their professional life. Again, consistency isn’t common, nor is it necessarily a desirable trait. But to the degree that people are inconsistent, they’re often consistently inconsistent.

In practice, adherents of each of these schools might come (correctly! and legitimately!) to different conclusions given the same case study. Consider the following hypothetical:

Bob arrives at work at 8 a.m. He sees his co-worker, Sally, arrive at 9 a.m. — but he discovers that she wrote 8 a.m. on her timesheet. After a bit of peeking, he concludes that she’s been faking her time card for several months, bilking her employer out of hundreds of hours of wages. Bob considers what he should do with his knowledge of Sally’s behavior.

In this situation, people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions.

Egoism What’s in it for me? Bob fundamentally doesn’t care about what Sally’s doing. He briefly considers whether to extort a payment to keep quiet or to fake his own timecards; either way, he’s not terribly invested in Sally’s theft as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Deontology What’s my duty? Bob has a duty of loyalty to his employer, so he doesn’t hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Consequentialism What’s the best outcome? Theft of wages from an employer increases the work for others and reduces the labor budget available to others. As such, Sally’s theft is (on balance) detrimental to the company and to other employees, so Bob reports her conduct to their boss.
Natural Law What would we expect a regular person to do? By reporting Sally, Bob will uphold a universal truth that crosses cultures, that people who have been injured by theft should be made whole, and that people who violate norms of conduct should not have their transgressions ignored.
Divine Command What does God will? As a devout Christian, Bob knows that stealing is wrong, so he encourages Sally to report herself and make restitution to their boss, and to repent to the Lord.
Virtue What would a good person do? Because stealing for any reason is the mark of a weak person, Bob does not hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Care What resolution preserves our relationships? Bob approaches Sally to ask why she’s been mismarking her timecards. He suspects that if she is struggling financially, he can help her out — but fundamentally he wants to help her stop her theft so he doesn’t have to report her to their boss.

Sometimes people get confused and think that because different people can make different ethical decisions for different reasons, that therefore morality as a concept is unworkable. Untrue. The complex moral reasoning of most ordinary people resembles the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: One or two paradigms are dominant, another one or two sometimes crop up, and others almost never make an appearance.

If your characters consistently behave as humans would behave in the real world, then not only are your characters more plausible, but the conflicts generated by their clashes are more powerful. Never underestimate the power of base moral conflict to drive tension and keep a plot advancing. When done well, these psychological studies drive powerful reader engagement and lead to more compelling stories.

Psychic Energy Caps

I snort in disbelief when people talk about aligning their chakras or feeling their chi or whatnot. I don’t believe in “metaphysics” in the sense of The Secret or in mystic fields that your soul can touch to attain inner harmony.

That said, I do think that people do draw off a fixed pool of mental stamina. Each person’s pool fills to a different level and you can only swim in the water you have.

A good metaphor might come from video games — you know the type, the sort that have a “mana” reserve that you draw from to cast spells or use special abilities. When you run out of mana, you are blocked until your pool refills.

As I was gallivanting about town yesterday evening, it occurred to me that one barrier people erect on their road to fulfillment rests in not managing their pool of mental stamina effectively.

Let’s break it down into mathematical terms to illustrate the point. Assume you have 100 energy points. You sit down and arrive at a list of life goals that include a mix of short- and long-term tasks you need to achieve them. How do you balance each task? If all your short-term tasks end up consuming 120 points, and you only have 100, do you wear yourself out? Do you give up? Do you stagger accomplishments? No two people are going to respond the same way. Often, people will not realize that they’re venturing into negative-energy territory and instead get part-way through an initiative and then give up from exhaustion.

Many people survey the book of work they’d have to accomplish to live their ideal life and, adjudging it too difficult a read, set it aside and content themselves with just getting by.

You have to master your own psychology. If you know that you have 50 free points, then spend 40. Spend them on one major project. Take your various projects and attack them in parallel, not in series. Instead of spreading yourself too thin on a bunch of things, take one big thing at a time and break that thing into easily managed parts. Don’t commit all your resources lest you find yourself out of energy at the wrong time and thereby risk failure or loss of motivation.

Many self-help experts suggest that goal-setting is the key to success. Although I agree with this sentiment, I don’t think it goes far enough. Not only must you set goals, but you must set an execution schedule that lives in harmony with the available energy you have at your disposal.

Remember — lots of stuff sips from that pool. Relationship drama? Workplace angst? Family discord? Self-loathing? Too little sleep? Poor nutrition? Life leaches your supply of mental energy, sometimes faster than you can re-fill it.

Thus: Set goals that are achievable not just in an objective sense, but also in light of  your own life situation and your own psychology. Don’t bring yourself to the point of mental exhaustion, when all the efforts you’ve expended crash and you risk backsliding or retreating into despair.


Inching Toward Cynicism

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”  — Mike Royko

Cynicism gets a rough knock these days — it seems trendy to dismiss as merely sarcastic world-weariness the disposition to express the truth without varnish. Read up on quotes about cynicism; overwhelmingly, the aphorists seem opposed to it. Apparently everyone wants to seem positive, as if mere positivity were some sort of enlightened state of consciousness that allows its adherents to pierce the dark mist of bad attitude and thereby chart a pothole-free course to happiness, love and success.

Yet dismissing cynicism out-of-hand may be more irony than prudence. Royko probably captured it best: Relentless optimism in the face of experience isn’t virtue, it’s ignorance. Of course, a “been there, done that, doesn’t work” demeanor — the core of caricatured cynicism — may be taken to extremes. To bitterness, even. Such should be avoided. Nevertheless, an authentic cynicism that views the world as it is, without the artificial flavor of either saccharine or bitters, proves more helpful than harmful.

Cynicism, I think, is experience with (and acknowledgement of) the negative. When you’re working on a project that consistently fails, for example, merely being positive isn’t going to fix the problem. When the problem’s roots draw nourishment from politics, or other barriers sourced from human behavior, the temptation to overlook those barriers and instead find some external problem that can be wished away with magically happy thoughts isn’t going to affect the real world.

Cheerleaders for positivity frequently overlook human psychology as a contributor to failure or conflict. The optimist sees nothing but good intentions and assumes that problems relate to poor communication. Never is the possibility acknowledged that the public pronouncements and private motivations of others may not be in sync. Never is the possibility acknowledged that pre-rational conflicts in long-term goals or ethical paradigms affect people’s behavior. Never is the possibility acknowledged that things that are hard may well prove not worth doing.

Instead, we must always smile, be cheerful and remain optimistic. Even when experience screams for an alternate course.

I’m not a negative person by disposition, but when I see the same people making the same mistakes and pretending that happy thoughts will conquer all, then … I’m left to doubt whether they really understand what the heck is really going on.