When the liberals of the 18th century fought and died for freedom of religion, many of them no doubt did so in the fond belief that, once people had a free choice, everyone would naturally see that the particular faith these 18th-century sages espoused was the "right" one. Things did not work out that way. Left to themselves, people opted for everything from Seventh-Day Adventism to Wiccan, depending on personal variables. The chef Louis Ude described the English as having "a hundred religions and only one sauce" (Anderson 2005) because religious uniformity was imposed—violently—on France. (Who imposed sauce uniformity on England?) In the modern United States, we have far more than a hundred, if we do as Ude did and count each sect separately.
Individuals differ so much that, when a market offers only one or two choices, one can safely infer that there is something very wrong with the market. People seem to want choices even when the differences are insignificant, as between commodities and brands that are tightly regulated.
These subtle differences between people may not make the obvious differences that cultural differences do. However, they provide a substrate for cultural interpretation. Even if two people were exposed to exactly the same cultural influences, they would come out with slight differences in behavior, because they would interpret and respond differently to the same stimuli. In practice, of course, they are never given the same experiences. Brilliant approximators that we are, we can always find common ground, and describe our culture in generally accurate ways. We all know that no two people speak English or Navaho in exactly the same way, or have exactly the same religious beliefs or personal habits. But we can communicate perfectly well and share understanding to a great extent.
These facts are rather devastating to much of social theory. Traditional anthropology, sociology, and related fields were usually based on the assumption of uniformity or near-uniformity among people in the group in question. Even the postmodern age, with its much more sensitive awareness of multivocality and diversity, has not really coped with the full implications of individual variation. We continue to talk about and relentlessly essentialize "blacks" and "whites" and even "Asians/Pacific Islanders" as if these were homogeneous populations.
Personality Shapes Knowledge
Innate personality characteristics, in the good old Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition, were known as “temperament.” Originally, the humors—blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile—were supposed to be in balance. Relative excess of one or another caused disorders of thought. The balance was the “temperament” in question. We still use the Hippocratic-Galenic language today, to describe personality, though we have abandoned (only in the last two centuries!) the explanation. In Galenic thought, having too much bile (choler) resulted in what we still call a “bad temper” or being “choleric.” Phlegm makes one “phlegmatic.” Having a lot of blood makes one “sanguine,” but real excess of blood makes one manic. Having a lot of these humors (especially blood) made one “humorous.” Black bile, melancholia in Greek, is the dead blood that clogs the bile duct and neighboring intestine in serious cases of malaria or liver disease. Having too much of it was thought to produce melancholy. Indeed, having malaria or hepatitis is not great for one’s mood.
Several modern theorists have worked on issues of temperament and of inborn personality dispositions. We have come surprisingly close to the old Galenic ideas. Carl Jung (1969) recognized that their value as emotional classification outlived the inferred mechanism via body fluids. Building on Jung, modern four-factor theories of temperament (Keirsey and Bates 1978; Myers 1980) recapitulated some of the old ideas. Jerome Kagan’s more free-floating theory of temperament has also continued the tradition (Kagan 1998).
Modern five-dimension theories of personality drew yet again on this system, and independently rediscovered more of it (MacRae and Costa 1989; Wiggins 1996). Today, the basic factors of personality in the standard system are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (MacRae and Costa 1989). Liberals, or perhaps more accurately moderates, are higher in openness than conservatives; thugs are lower in agreeableness than most of us; procrastinators are low in conscientiousness.
These five seem all real traits, but their opposites are not always such. In particular, a person may be less than conscientious because of born laziness, or because of defiant hate of authority, or because of inability to get her life together, or because of disease. A person who is lacking openness may be defensive, or just raised in a very traditional community.
In terms of this theory, the sanguine personality is, in general, extraverted, agreeable, not very conscientious, open, and not neurotic—though manic when carried to extremes. The choleric is extraverted, not usually agreeable, not very conscientious, not very open, somewhat neurotic in that cholerics are sensitive and easily angered. The phlegmatic is introverted, somewhat agreeable, not very conscientious, not open, and not particularly neurotic. Phlegmatics are the slow, lazy, easy-going but serious ones among us. The melancholic is introverted, not usually very agreeable, quite conscientious, usually open, and generally rather neurotic—more to the point, the melancholic is depressed, even to the point of mental illness (see Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1932 ).
Those particular five are not necessarily cast in stone. There are several other systems, with three to seven basic factors. Cross-culturally, everybody seems to recognize extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, but not MacRae and Costa’s other two; conversely, many recognize honesty as a basic trait (De Raad et al. 2010).
A properly complex social life should provide lots of opportunities for different personality types to flourish. Another trait theory of personality, the Briggs-Myers theory (Myers 1980; McCrae and Costa 1989), is explicitly based on the assumption that personality polymorphy is desirable. Different personality types fit together to produce a successful society (Keirsey and Bates 1978 provide a superb discussion of this, and I hope Wolf et al find it). //n//
//n// Incidentally, the most sexist comment I have ever seen in a learned journal was a dismissal of the Briggs-Myers theory because it was developed by “a housewife.” In fact, Katherine Briggs (the developer of the Briggs-Myers theory) was a trained psychologist. In her day, the misfortune of being born female doomed her to “housewife” status.//
The five-factor evaluative dimensions are all judgmental terms. The older Briggs-Myers test carefully avoided this, and did not assess for highly negative traits, but this fact rather narrows its application. We often want to test for evil. On the other hand, telling a testee that he is at the bottom on agreeableness and conscientiousness will not win his confidence. This is not helped by the vagueness of these factors; one can be disagreeable either by being a general curmudgeon or by loving some and hating others, and one can be conscientious either by being honest and above-board or by being highly loyal. A mafioso might test very high in conscientiousness. A sorry commentary on the human race is that a person at the 50th percentile on the OCEAN test is not a particularly pleasant or likable sort. Humans are sociable, but perhaps more because they are scared of aloneness than because they like people.
Fortunately, today, personality psychologists are escaping the tyranny of the “normal.” Increasing numbers argue that various innate and early-learned predispositions create quite different types of personality, all of which are equally valid and valuable (Keirsey and Bates 1978; McCrae and Costa 1989, 1997; Myers 1980; Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006). These psychologists glory in difference. They argue that a well-run enterprise should have people of several different types, mutually supporting each other.
Differences in Big Five traits correlate with everything from success in business to crime and addiction (Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006; Wiggins 1996). Business successes are extraverted and agreeable, criminals are high in openness (e.g. to lawbreaking) and neuroticism.
In the human career, there has been a singular lack of convergence on a single personality type. I sometimes debate with my old friend, personality psychologist Dan Ozer, whether individual variation was random fluctuation about a middle point (his position) or actively selected for by disruptive selection (my hunch). In fact, natural selection has selected for a range of skills, personality types, and inclinations, among animals as among people. Max Wolf and collaborators (Wolf et al. 2007) have provided an explanation for some of this. They point out that animals differ in behavioral commitment to a long future. Some, like mice, follow a live-fast-die-young strategy; others, like elephants, follow a careful strategy to insure a long life. Now, if these differences may be expected to occur within a species, we would see personality differences, at least in risk-taking and in risky behaviors like aggression and combat. Wolf et al. provide mathematical models of how this could easily happen.
Daniel Nettle has argued that natural selection has operated to maintain a large amount of variation along these dimensions (Nettle 2006). Even animals display personality differences (Ley and Bennett 2007). Nettle argues from the differential successes of human types in mating and social life. Extraverts get more sexual partners but introverts tend to be steadier at staying with a mate. Agreeable people obviously do better than disagreeable ones in ordinary social life, but disagreeable ones may protect themselves better in bad situations or when conformity backfires.
We can see the advantages to hunter-gatherers of having different types of people in the group. Extraverts organize hunts, but introverts are better at lone searches. Agreeable people cooperate in the search, but disagreeable ones fight off raiders and enemies. Neurotics stay home and have visions, and may become curers. Openness leads to more exploration, but its opposite leads to patiently working over the same old root-and-seed patch, day after day. Conscientious people take care of others, but off-the-wall types and ADHD youths take chances on new hunting grounds, wander about spotting game trails, and imagine new possibilities for toolmaking.
Personality traits seem generally distributed in a vaguely “normal” way, in the statistical sense: they produce bell curves. So do the traits to be discussed below, like intelligence. But we usually have little knowledge of why this is so.
An interesting, but tentative, study by Aurelio Figuerdo and colleagues (2007) found evidence that the “good” ends of the Big Five scale (agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc.) correlate with health, good self-care, stable marriage, good care for children, and stable social life; this is not surprising (it fits with Big Five theorists’ findings). The investigators go on to see this as all produced by selection for stable family caretaking. Investing a great deal in a few children, rather than a very little in a very large number of young, used to be called “K selection” in biology, and Figuerdo et al. hypothesize a new genetic style of “Super-K.” Humans are very K-selected relative to, say, codfish or sponges, or even monkeys. Some humans appear to be more K-selected than others—though any genetic differences are blanked, in practice, by the horribly damaging effects on family life of chronic poverty and social instability. Poor people in traditional village settings tend to act K, or Super-K, but the slum-dwelling poor, homeless poor, and others in unstable contexts may become less K (or more “r,” to use the old jargon).
However, obviously, the “bad” ends of the Big Five would have been selected out of the human species long ago if they didn’t have value in raising children. Less conscientious parents may be more fun and rewarding. Less agreeable and open ones will discipline their children more, which may be necessary in many contexts. Neurotic parents will make sure their children take no chances. The group that prospers is the one that has enough variation that it is prepared for anything.
A long literature on Big Five traits as adaptive has now developed, especially since even the biologists have admitted that animals clearly show them. Every dog owner knows that some dogs are more extraverted, some more neurotic, and certainly some more agreeable, and finally some attention has been devoted to evolutionary aspects of this. Moreover, personality traits have various adaptive values in humans (Alvergne et al. 2010—a source which reviews the literature, including the animals studies). Extraverted males leave more children in polygamous societies, as one might expect. In one case, neurotic women had more children but took less good care of them; however, in this study it is possible that the women became “neurotic” because of having many children and inadequate resources, rather than the other way round (Barbara Anderson, personal communication).
Jerome Kagan (Kagan 2006; Kagan and Snidman 2004) adds concern about “high arousal” and “low arousal” types of people. The former are more nervous, excitable, and easily scared under some circumstances; “low arousal” ones are more relaxed, outgoing, and able to cope with stress. Kagan, however, wisely emphasizes the problems of simple categories such as “fear” or “arousal.” He points out that we are betrayed by such vague, general words. A stimulus may produce fear in one situation, not in another. Fear in a fish probably doesn’t feel like fear in a human. Also, there are different types of fear; a sudden encounter with a rattlesnake on a narrow trail is not the same as brooding over rising sea levels caused by global warming. Kagan also unpacks “self-esteem,” noting that an extremely ambiguous, complex set of concepts is measured in standard psychological studies by a ten-minute test (Kagan 2006:232).
All this leads to a conclusion rather astonishing to anyone of my generation: personality cross-cuts culture, rather than being caused or formed by it (see below under Culture).
Moreover, there are still many areas of personality left unsampled by the Briggs-Myers and Big Five measures. Courage is left out, to say nothing of the distinction between courage, bravery, and foolhardiness. Aesthetics is left out. It is a complex diminesion; some peole are highly competent, apparently “naturally” (whatever that may mean), at music or painting or other arts, but show no inclination to follow up and work at it; others are inept, but live by art anyway. I am one of the latter; untalented at music, I love it to the point of being utterly unable to live without it, and thus sing and play guitar a good deal of the time, in spite of the fact that no one but my wife can stand the result. Of those who are gifted, they take different tracks. My son the artist designs sophisticated computer websites, interfaces, and systems instead of painting.
People also differ in levels of awe, reverence, devotion, and other spiritual emotions. Psychologists rarely want to touch this, though there are some studies of mysticism. Sociological studies routinely confuse religiosity in the sense of going to church (the ones I have seen were done on American and European Christians) with emotional spirituality. Going to church may measure nothing more than conformity, or boredom on Sunday, or peer pressure. It does not necessarily measure anything deeply religious or spiritual. (I am writing a book on religion, and defer further discussion and citation to it.)
Motivation is also, broadly speaking, left out, though the received personality types do somewhat track it. Particular ambitions are left out. Above all, interest is left out. Why are some people interested in everything (like Leonardo da Vinci) while others are content to watch sports on TV forever? Why are some interested in philosophy, some in Civil War history, some in birdwatching, and some in sleeping in the shade? We can trace interest to influence—people usually pick up their interests from older peers, or parents, or sometimes from books—but we do not really understand more than that.
As a professor, I found the most maddening, disappointing, and draining of my tasks was dealing with student disinterest. It is simply impossible for an ordinary professor, given the short contact times we usually have, to get most students interested in a subject. Many students are interested only in parties. A few gifted and charismatic professors can really whip up student interest, but this really is a rare skill and hard to learn. Yet, in spite of obvious need, there are—to my knowledge—no studies of why people differ in levels of interest in general, and precious few on why they differ in their hobbies and obsessions.
The same is true of differences in intelligence. I have purposely left “intelligence” out of this book, because the literature on it is a nest of nightmares. But the point must be made here that there is still no believable evidence for significant differences in intelligence—however defined—between ethnic groups or any other large segments of the human race. Conversely, there are obvious and huge differences in both the level and the type of intelligence between individuals even within one family. Specific types of intelligence crosscut culture, bringing people close together across cultural lines.
The much-vaunted “g” factor that measures “intelligence” and is hereditary remains awfully hard to pin down. Being quite verbal and utterly inept at math, I am living proof that there is no “g factor” that makes one good at both. I know many mathematicians who are not especially verbal. The hereditary component of “g” remains refractory when socioeconomic status is ignored (in spite of claims to the contrary in the more extreme literature).
Instead, people seem to show different interests, abilities, and energies. My university has math geniuses from China, Russia, America, and India, communicating perfectly with each other (but not with me). On the other hand, I am in blissfully perfect communication with Maya woodsmen and Chinese fishermen over plants, animals, and weather; we share a mentality highly attuned to natural kinds. Indeed, intelligences, personality types, culture, and genetic background totally crosscut each other, with absolute abandon. The horribly vexed questions concerning “intelligence” have prevented social scientists from looking at this astonishing fact. It requires explanation. Why do we have math geniuses occurring at about the same rate everywhere? Why do we have verbal artists in all climes and places? Why do we have poor simple souls, unable to learn even ordinary facts, in all cultures and communities?
Personality Gets Serious: Culture and Mental Problems
Recently, controversy has swirled around such terms as “autism,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and “ADHD.” These show diagnosis creep: they are diagnosed more and more often, for less and less cause. When I was young, autism meant complete shutdown: a child who was unable to speak or interact and who banged his (more rarely, her) head on the wall. Now, via “Asperger’s syndrome” (“mild autism”), it is used to label anyone slightly unsocial, thus creating a “false epidemic” (Frances 2010; see also Grinker 2008). ADHD has similarly crept up on us (Frances 2010); suffice it to say it is diagnosed ten to twenty times as often in the United States as in European countries (Dennis 2006). Some have cynically commented that it is sometimes merely an excuse for drugging “uppity” children, usually minority members, into calm, or for saving taxpayers’ money by eliminating recess and playgrounds (Dennis 2006).
People have always recognized mental illness—a strange, often incurable inability to manage life emotionally and intellectually. Traditional cultures generally regard it as some sort of supernatural condition; the mentally ill are “fools of God” or faery-children or victims of demons. Modern psychology has not always done better. Heredity has long been known to be a factor, but environment is also certainly involved, since identical twin studies show only about 50% or less congruence. Now it appears that extreme malnutrition can be involved in causing schizophrenia. Famines double the incidence (Reedy 2006).
Social theory has undertheorized the role of personal differences. The fall of the Great Man theory, so popular in the 19th century, led to an overreaction. So did the failures of early psychology to produce good personality theories. This led to a social-science assumption that all people are the same, or have to be treated by theorists as if they were. Moreover, Max Weber and others showed that situations—especially, the nature and number of followers—greatly influence leaders. This led to an idea that any reasonably competent person could be a leader; all that was needed was available followers (see Vroom and Jago 2007). Good leaders—not only successful, but morally good—appear in all societies, and really differ, to varying degrees, from us ordinary folk (Zaccaro 2007, and related articles in that issue of American Psychologist). Unfortunately, poor leaders are also universal (Kellerman 2004), and truly evil leaders are not only universal but common and successful (Lipman-Blumen 2006). Particularly interesting are the leaders who start out reasonably tolerable, or even good, and progressively decline into horrific evil. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a recent example. Did he go mad, or senile, or did he simply get caught up in his own power? Other leaders seem in hindsight to have had fatal flaws that led in the end to apparently insane behavior. Zhu Yuanzhang, the brilliant founder of the Ming Dynasty and one of the most fascinating characters in history, was clearly paranoid-schizophrenic. He declined from erratic but spectacularly successful youth into mad old age. The same could be said of Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) of Ethiopia in the 19th century. Mao Zidong became more extreme and murderous throughout life.
In every culture, evil leaders can appeal to group hate. This always attracts vast numbers of people, especially young men willing to die for the cause. By contrast, leaders who want to do good have to depend on skilled and reflective secondary leaders who have the knowledge to carry out the mission. Whether the campaign is public health, economic development, organized military effort, or education, a leader-for-good has to rely on a pyramid of other leaders. Public health requires highly trained, highly motivated, independent, self-reliant medical personnel. Education requires similar ranks of teachers. This is notoriously rare, providing yet another reason why evil triumphs in the world. Institutions theoretically help the situation, providing platforms and training possibilities. Unfortunately, institutions become corrupted easily, by bad leaders or simply by ordinary foot-dragging and corner-cutting. Hierarchy, too, has its costs.
Age Shapes Personhood
Finally, age, life status, and other developmental factors shape the way culture plays out in individuals. The Big Five personality traits change over the life track; people get better (thank goodness), becoming more agreeable, open, conscientious, and and less extraverted and neurotic. However, all the first four of those decline dramatically from 10 to 13, picking up slowly after 14 or 15. Neuroticism rises during the same period, but only in young women; in men it just steadily and slowly declines, as it does in women after 15. Parents of teenagers will not be surprised by these findings (of Soto et al. 2011).
The developmental cycle in individuals and in families changes all the ways culture is experienced. Children have their own subcultures. Youths have theirs, and are maximally open to learning about wider cultural matters—theirs and others’—but are also at the most headstrong stage of life. Aging brings wider life experience, and theoretically brings “wisdom.” However, it notoriously makes most people more rigid and defensive—“crotchety,” we used to say. Few indeed are those who can keep open minds and keep learning after 60. This should make worrisome the increasing dominance of world politics by the very old. (The average US Senator is now around 70). Older people often identify more and more tightly with a reference group that often is shrinking, or folding back on itself; they may return to the group of their childhood, or become more caught up in the micropolitics of their work or neighborhood. Rare, but not unknown and certainly valuable beyond all wealth, is the elder who can keep broadening his or her perspective and humanity throughout life.