Personality Psychologists Hate Romantics

When you read books and articles about personality it becomes very clear that psychologists generally prefer some traits over others. And it seems the trait they dislike the most is something they usually call neuroticism or emotional stability (or lack thereof in this case). Their dislike is obvious in the choice of these names alone but can be further illustrated by looking at the words describing the facets or sub-traits in the Big Five model of personality that is prevailing in academic research,

Openness: Fantasy, Aesthetics Feelings, Actions, Ideas, Values

Conscientiousness: Order, Dutifulness, Competence, Self-discipline, Deliberation

Extraversion:Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Excitement seeking, Activity, Positive emotions, Warmth

Agreeableness: Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-mindedness, Trust

And then the black sheep,

Neuroticism: Angry hostility, Depression, Self-consciousness, Impulsiveness, Anxiety, Vulnerability

Anyone with a hint of critical judgment can see that this choice of words reflects a bias. Openness is the clear favorite, followed by Conscientiousness, both described with exclusively positive words.  Extraversion and Agreeableness are about equal in third place and described with mainly positive words with the exception of excitement seeking and compliance. And then, at the bottom of the order, we have neuroticism described in overall negative words that hint at various psychiatric problems.

Surely, openness can include gullibility and superstition, conscientiousness rigidity and pedantry, both extraversion and agreeableness could include conformism? But no, there is only one black sheep in the family. So what exactly is neuroticism, and does it really deserve to be described like it’s a contagious disease?

Neuroticism involves strength and variety of feelings. The supposedly neurotic person feels things intensely and takes things very seriously. They often have very strong ideals and values. In fact, values would make a great facet of this trait, but since that word is so positively charged it has been reserved for openness instead. I think a more positive and also more accurate name for this trait would be romanticism. That term would convey the notion that people with this trait has made extraordinary contributions to our civilization. Because no one can deny that many of the greatest artists could ever have created their art without the romanticism. Without it Wagner and Verdi would never have written their operas, Charlotte Brontë wouldn’t have written Jane Eyre, and Adele would never have written Someone Like You, let alone been able to sing it.

So why are psychologists so eager to paint such an ugly picture of this noble trait? Because they don’t possess it, that’s why. People are tribal and academics are no exception to the rule. Tribal animosity isn’t just about ethnicity or religion. Just about any quality can form the basis of a tribe or ingroup. There is plenty of evidence of this in forums like Personality Café (great site nonetheless). You can also find it in personality research: people seek out others whose personalities match their own for friendship or love. And the personality psychology researchers have openness – which is largely just a fancy word for intelligence – and conscientiousness. That’s what’s required for designing questionnaires, gathering data, and making calculations. So those traits become defining for their little tribe/ingroup, and romantics become an outgroup of which they have only bad things to say.

This isn’t to say that the romantic is always a good person. The fascist is often a romantic. And conscientious people make this world a better place in many ways. They are a force in technological development and all kinds of logistics that make life more enjoyable for all of us.

But don’t believe the concept of neuroticism or any of the other derogatory terms. It’s a negative bias created by people who can’t appreciate romanticism. The fact that the bias comes from people who are supposed to be experts only makes it more insidious. If they can’t see the value in this, then that’s their loss,

Update: Thought I’d share this cover by Sierra Hull as well, really great stuff,

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4 Responses to Personality Psychologists Hate Romantics

  1. JayMan says:

    Well, because of the lack of inclusion of the dark triad, I like to lean towards the HEXACO. Even though I know it too is likely limited in its applicability across the world.

  2. Staffan says:

    The HEXACO is better but it still just descriptive. I prefer to look at the biology of personality to understand what’s going on. A lexical approach doesn’t distinguish between the reasons for a behavior. For example, Impulsiveness sorts under Neuroticism so it fails to recognize the impulsive behavior of adventurous and thrill-seeking people who are emotionally stable. This makes for some strange findings like that obesity is related to Neuroticism when this statistical correlation is mainly due to the facet of Impulsiveness.

    Although for all the limitations these descriptive models have, it’s interesting to see that self-rated Honesty actually has a lot of validity.

  3. Sisyphean says:

    Small comment here based more on my personal experience/feelings than any research (No surprise to you I’m sure given my other comments). I wonder if we’re really talking about two items here, how much emotion one feels. I.e. emotional sensitivity vs how well one can process that emotion. I have an entire side of my family that is highly neurotic. They have very intense emotions but they cannot process them very well leading them to explode in emotional situations, join up with causes, berate other people to their face, and display highly erratic behavior (i.e. promiscuity, alcoholism, things you would never suspect of people with so many degrees) despite being some of the most outwardly rational and intelligent people I know. When they are calm, they are brilliant but when something gets them fired up, watch out! They are highly driven but what drives them can change rapidly. I inherited some of this emotional power but I also seem to have the ability to channel it, to handle it cognitively. So unlike the rest of that side of my family, I can consistently hold down a job, can paint and write (actually finishing projects I start). I doubt this is due to some ‘coping skill’ I learned, it’s most likely I got a good admixture from my father’s family. Lucky me I guess.

  4. Staffan says:

    It may well be that neuroticism consists of two factors – intensity and restraint/coping ability. The Big Five has something of this in its model in the facet of Impulsiveness – a facet that doesn’t correlate all that well with the others.

    But it may also be that people who claim to process emotions well have that ability due to a lack of intensity, or due to other “sobering” traits like conscientiousness.

    On a related note, I’m currently reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. He claims that people neurologically impaired to the point of having zero emotionality have trouble making rational decisions even though they score high on IQ tests. It seems like everything we actually do is personally relevant and for that reason involves emotions.

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