Merry Christmas!

December 21, 2013

Not really a Christmas song, but since they tend to be so cheesy or worn out I went with this old Bob Dylan song instead,  here sung by the lovely Sarah Jarosz. Enjoy,

The Meth Hypothesis: Why Normal People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

October 9, 2013
You wake up one day and you're Steve Buscemi. Not worth it.

You wake up one day and you’re Steve Buscemi. Not worth it.

Is America losing it? It would seem so judging by polls on weird beliefs and opinions in recent years. Here is a recent handful from Public Policy Polling (PPP),

28% of voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government

37% believe that global warming is a hoax/conspiracy

4% believe shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power. May not sound like much but that’s almost one in 20, so it’s very likely you know a person who is perhaps wondering whether you are one of the lizards.

9% believe the government is adding fluoride to the drinking water for sinister reasons.

21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947.

15 % believe the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.

It may of course be that Americans have always been crazy but that the media is reporting more of it than before to satisfy the public’s pressing need for entertainment – it seems most news sites have a “weird” section these days.  It’s hard to find any longitudinal data on conspiracy theories, but Gallup has data on odd beliefs, often held by the same individuals, from 1990 until 2005 and it suggests an increase. But why?

The Meth Hypothesis

We already know a category of people who hold both bizarre and persecutory beliefs – schizophrenics and schizotypal personalities. We also know that amphetamines will make a normal person start thinking like these people. Psychologists will even use amphetamine addicts to study schizophrenia and schizotypy for this reason.  Could this be what is causing this increase? There may be other factors contributing to the increase in weird beliefs – the rise of the internet, increasing marijuana use, globalization and diversity, fears regarding the environment etc. But only amphetamines are proven to produce odd and persecutory beliefs (the evidence for cannabis is much weaker). So let’s look at the stats. Since there doesn’t seem to be any official statistics on the overall number of meth users, I’ve chosen treatment admissions as a percentage of the population from SAMHSA as a proxy. These are all amphetamines but they all have a similar effect and meth is the most common.


Keep in mind that this chart is of treatment admissions rather than actual use. The peak in 2005 represents people who have been doing the drug for a while before understanding that they need help. The actual use of meth must have peaked earlier, exactly when is hard to tell but given how destructive this particular drug is, it’s probably not later than sometime around 2002-2003.

Witches, Hauntings and Aliens

Now compare this chart with some others showing how many Americans believe in various weird stuff (as a percentage of the population); the data is taken from Gallup. What we’re looking for is an increase during the 1990s and a peak a few years before 2005, in this case we have data for the year 2001 as the closest fit. So, here goes,


This is not a great start, I’ll admit that. There is no gradual increase in the 1990s, but there is a small peak at 2001 and consequently a drop to 2005. This is also the belief that is the least odd with an average of 47 percent believers and 21 percent disbelievers.


This data is even less kind to my meth hypothesis. It has none of the three features and with 42 percent believers and the same percent disbelievers it’s not that odd, although clearly polarizing with few uncertain. It’s possible that since this question was specifically about the devil it could be linked to religion in a way the others aren’t.


Healing shows a gradual increase but that’s about it. Then again this is also one of the more conventional beliefs with 52 percent believers and only 29 percent disbelievers. So I wouldn’t count this one at all. A majority view is in no way odd.


Telepathy is moderately odd with 34 percent believers and 39 percent disbelievers. It has no initial increase but it peaks in 2001.


Hauntings is also moderately odd with an average of 34 percent believers and 40 percent disbelievers. This one has all the features, a gradual increase with a peak at 2001.

alien visitation

Alien visitation has 28 percent believers and 43 percent disbelievers so I’d consider it to be clearly odd. Although we only have data for three years, these do illustrate the features that support the hypothesis.


Clairvoyance, here defined as the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, has an average of 28 percent believers and 48 percent disbelievers, again a clearly odd belief. And it shows an increase during the 1990s, and a peak at 2001.


A little surprising, astrology counts as clearly odd belief with a ratio of 25/55 believers and disbelievers. It has most of the 1990s increase but beginning with a drop, then peaks at 2001.


With 31 and 51 percent believers and disbelievers this is also a clearly odd belief. And it has all the right features.


At 23/51 believers and non-believers, reincarnation is also clearly odd. It has the year 1994 that ruins the initial increase but it shows an increase from 1990 to 2001 so overall there is an increase, followed by a local peak at 2001. 4 out 5 years confirm the hypothesis.

communicating with the dead

Also a clearly odd belief (23/54), with same flaw that the previous chart had – all years except 1994 confirms the hypothesis. The peak in 2001 is of the same magnitude as that of 1994.


This is my personal favourite. It’s what I’d call a very odd  belief with only 19 percent believers and 69 percent disbelievers. Witches are also malicious agents that plot against people, making this belief very similar in nature to conspiracy theories. The chart has all the right features.


Finally, channelling, the ability that some have to go into a trance and let spirits talk through them. This is also a very odd belief (9/66) that fits the meth data perfectly.

Summing Up the Evidence

Which of these beliefs should be considered sufficiently odd? We can certainly not say that spiritual healing is an odd belief since it is held by a small majority. As for the rest, it’s admittedly a bit arbitrary but, I would define a belief as odd if it has fewer believers than disbelievers, which seem like a minimum requirement. This means that healing, possession and ESP are out, leaving us with 10 odd beliefs. So how well did these 10 confirm the meth hypothesis?

7 out 10 showed an absolute peak at 2001. Of the rest telepathy and communicating with the dead showed shared a maximum peak at 2001 with another year. The remaining belief in reincarnation showed local peak at 2001. That’s pretty peaky.

As for a continuous increase in the 1990s there are three categories: 5 had unequivocal increase throughout the 1990s, 4 had overall increase from earliest year to 2001 but interrupted with a local decrease (for hauntings this decrease was very small), and one, telepathy, had the same value for 1990 and 2001. No overall decrease at all.

So the data seem to support the hypothesis pretty well. But there are of course other possible factors to consider,

Alternative Explanations

As I said earlier, marijuana is sometimes mentioned as a drug that could contribute to schizotypal and outright schizophrenic thoughts and beliefs. But unlike meth, this drug has increased continuously since the early 1990s and has still to peak. Another candidate is the internet. I’m not going to do a chart for it but the number of internet users is constantly growing so no peak there either. Yet another candidate could be changing demographics. Perhaps the Catholic immigrants to America bring their superstitions with them? But looking at Mexicans, the overwhelmingly largest Hispanic group, there is no peak, not even a local, in their part of the population, only a continuous increase over the years.­

How Can This Be?

But how does this happen? How does such a small group – according to most estimates just a few hundred thousand –  of people have such influence?  One reason is that a person holding an irrational belief is usually more interested in it than say a regular Christian is about transubstantiation. They will obsess about it constantly. Like former meth user Fergy Duhamel of the Black Eyed Peas says in an interview,

I had about 20 different conspiracy theories. I painted the windows in my apartment black so they couldn’t see in.

When a schizophrenic on the sidewalk rants about the government this doesn’t persuade anyone, but a more coherent and presentable schizotypal person can be appear much more convincing. And my guess is that a meth user online can probably do a pretty good job at selling his theories too – especially when other meth users are online on various forums saying similar things. While what they are saying may not make much sense it doesn’t have to. Just saying it repeatedly and with great conviction goes a long way. One thing social psychology (it’s not all bad) teaches us is that repetition is an effective way of persuasion, especially if you vary the way you say it a little – which is exactly what you get from an army of delusional meth addicts sitting up all night preaching their peculiar gospel.

But can they really sit still while on meth? It seems so. Because not all meth addicts are out partying or committing crimes. Some stay indoors cooked up in their houses or apartments. In an article in The Kernel, science writer Greg Stevens shares his experiences of some middle class meth addicts. One of them is “J”,

The window shades are drawn tight because J usually stays awake for 70 to 100 hours at a time. He knows that if the neighbours can see light coming from his house at all hours of the night, they will begin to suspect something. J has also placed a folding room divider covered with tinfoil in the hallway just inside the front door. This is to block any kind of infra-red or other types of electromagnetic spying equipment that the neighbours might be using.

It’s not hard to imagine how an intelligent, educated and hermit-like person like J combined with 20 conspiracy theories like Fergie would make an ideal person for spreading these ideas over the internet. If we guesstimate that there are 300K meth users in America and ten percent of them rant about conspiracies online, then that would be roughly twice as many as there are lobbyists in Washington. And they are no doubt much more persistent.

The Search for Western Tribalism

June 29, 2013

Readers of this blog know of my interest in tribalism, the tendency to team up in groups that distinguish themselves from and compete with other groups. This trait is both good and bad. It fosters a sense of community and identity and like I’ve said before, it’s probably the most important fabric of any society. But tribalism also comes with ideas of the superiority of the ingroup and hostility towards outgroups creating tension and conflicts within and between societies.

Reading the blogger hbd chick*, I’ve also learned about the similar behavioural trait of clannishness found in clan-based societies, mainly in the Muslim world. I’ve been treating the terms clannishness and tribalism rather synonymously although I now believe they are two related but separate things. And now I’m reading psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in which he presents his theory of moral foundations, gut feelings on which we base our moral judgments. According to Haidt, one of these foundations is Loyalty/betrayal aka Ingroup, which appears very similar to tribalism. He notes that self-identified conservatives lean more on this foundation than liberals.

So, exactly how do clannishness, tribalism and conservatism relate to one another? Well, I’m basically arguing that clannishness is a more primitive or extreme form of tribalism and that conservatism is a heterogeneous attitude that may or may not incorporate tribalism.

In the Beginning There Was Clannishness

To get a better understanding of the tribal person, especially in America, and probably most other Western countries, we need to go back to the evolutionary roots of this trait. hbd chick* has described how this behavior may have evolved  when people found themselves in situations where trusting strangers was especially risky – like if you for instance were a cattle herder and all your property could be easily stolen. This problem was solved by marrying relatives. This created clans in which everyone was tied by blood to each other. If you needed a job done you could hire a person in your clan and you didn’t have to worry about your cattle being gone the next day. Most people probably have a little of this tendency since we appear to have lived for most of our existence as a species in small groups competing with each other.  But pastoralists and people in similar situations made this their special niche.

This arrangement in clans can only work through inbreeding, and this in turn means that everyone in the clan can pass on their genes more efficiently through relatives than they could if they weren’t inbred. And since all known behavioural traits have been found to be highly inheritable, the tendency to be loyal to relatives and disloyal or hostile to non-relatives – that is to say clannishness – was selected for. This trait then helped to reinforce the tendency to inbreed and a loop was created which increased clannishness until the detrimental effects of inbreeding, low intelligence and various congenital diseases, slowed down the process.

Tribalism as Clannishness Light

Clannishness was probably a dominant feature of most societies up until just a few centuries ago. Then various changes occur that makes it less competitive.  Agriculture outcompetes pastoralism and in the West the Church bans first-cousin marriages etc. So people start outbreeding get smarter and clannishness disappears, except in the Muslim world and other cultures in which these changes never took place. But before that – for almost our entire existence as a species – genes for tribalism must have been selected for. It didn’t matter if you distinguished between relatives or not because the ingroup was always your relatives.  So when inbreeding and clannish life ended we became smarter and a little more open and tolerant since those traits become more important as we compete in new and shifting constellations. But for most of our existence tribalism has been selected for. And it doesn’t vanish when inbreeding stops, which explains why it’s such a prominent trait in today’s world.

Testing the Theory

To test this theory I have looked at state-level differences in intelligence, corruption and outgroup hostility, the last one as a more direct measure of tribalism. Now if tribalism is just clannishness without the inbreeding it should correlate to corruption but not nearly as much to low intelligence since this is mainly due to inbreeding – although tribalism means you submit and conform to the group rather than think for yourself so it should be linked to normal or slightly below normal intelligence. For the same reason there should not be a strong negative correlation between IQ and corruption as seen internationally because there is no clannishness in America. So here goes…

To measure intelligence I used the White IQ scores that the Audacious Epigone constructed based on NAEP scores for 2009. To measure public corruption I took convictions for the period 2001-2010 – this because the State Integrity Index is based on expert ratings on policies rather than actual outcomes and shows weird fluctuations. As a measure of tribalism I used outgroup hostility in the form racially charged Google searches for the words “nigger” and “niggers”, compiled by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD student in economics at Harvard. As he points out this measure may be superior to surveys where people answer in a socially desirable rather than truthful way on sensitive issues. But he also mentions research about how the size of an outgroup influences outgroup hostility. According to this research when the Black part of the population is close to zero then so is hostility; it’s just a non-issue to most people. But when it reaches 20-30 percent you’ll find the most hostility (above that most White people leave with only the most tolerant staying). So since I’m looking for a measure of innate outgroup hostility rather than explicit racism, I decided to omit states with more than 20 percent and less than one percent Black inhabitants. The lower limit may sound too low but Maine with just over one percent Black people is still at 32th spot in racial searches.

I also excluded Hawai since I couldn’t find all the stats for it. This leaves us with 37 states and still plenty of regional variation.

And here are the results…

  • Google racial searches correlated -0.41 with White IQ

A pretty weak correlation when you consider that these search words are very low-brow. This suggests that the correlation to a more accurate measure of outgroup hostility would be even lower since not all racists are stupid and not all outgroup hostility is racist.

  • Public corruption correlated 0.51 with racial Google searches

By the same logic we might argue that this fair-sized correlation could be due to Google searches link to low IQ and the well-known link between IQ and corruption. However…

  • Public corruption correlated -0.05 with White IQ

Now it’s getting interesting. International studies point to a correlation between corruption and intelligence of around -0.7 – and here we have nothing. How can this be? One possible explanation that supports my theory is that the -0.7 found globally is due to clannishness. Since this trait incorporates low IQ, mainly due to inbreeding, we get an incidental link between IQ and corruption. In reality it’s the ingroup favouritism and outgroup hostility that causes corruption. Since there is no inbreeding in America (that I know of) there is no connection between these behaviors and intelligence. But the gene variants behind them don’t go away when you outbreed so people with a clannish history will retain their groupish behavior, their tribalism. That way we would have a substantial link between tribalism and corruption and little or no connection between corruption and intelligence.

Case In Point: Appalachia

As an example of how clannish people may have transformed into tribals, let’s look at the Appalachian region. This area is where the Ulster Scots people settled, originally noted for their many clan feuds and rumoured to be inbred (although it’s hard to find any research on this). The top 3 states with highest rate of racial searches are Appalachian, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky,  and 6 in the top 10 are Appalachian states – and there are only 7 Appalachian states in this sample. In fourth spot is Michigan which was a major destination for migrants from Appalachia looking for work in Detroit after the coal mines stopped hiring. According to Wikipedia it seems like they maintained their tribalism in this metropolitan environment,

“Once they migrated to Michigan, they were lumped together as southern white laborers, and a group consciousness based on that label emerged. Migrants from all over Appalachia began to feel a social solidarity with each other, preferring to work and live beside other Southerners than with Northerners. It was believed that the Appalachian migrants assimilated less rapidly than Northern rural migrants because of their group consciousness and the persistence of certain southern regional attitudes, and an acute awareness of the difference between themselves and other native-born white Americans.”

(The other states in the top 10 – that seem to be completely unrelated to Appalachia – are New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida.)

And as expected the region has more corruption than the average – 6.7 convictions per 10K public employees compared to the overall average 4.2. That’s roughly 60 percent higher.

Also as expected Appalachians are of normal intelligence. It’s true that West Virginia has the lowest estimate of all states at 96.8 but this is similar to many well developed countries in Europe, and the Appalachian average is 99.8 compared to the overall average 100.7, a difference of less than one point. (I excluded New York, which had 102, but with only 5.7 percent of its population in this region.)

So it seems that this region that was by all accounts the most clannish in the 1700s and 1800s is today, without any reasonable chance of widespread inbreeding, instead the most tribal. And the most melodious…

And Conservatism?

Finally, I used the difference between the percent identifying as conservative and liberal in a state, the so-called conservative advantage, from Gallup as a measure of conservatism. This measure correlated 0.05 with racially charged Google searches, slightly higher, 0.17 with corruption and negatively with intelligence, -0.32. This clearly doesn’t fit the tribal profile. It may just be an average of different conservative subtypes. As Haidt’s research shows, liberals rely on two moral foundations, Harm and Fairness, whereas conservatives rely more or less equally on all foundations. This leaves room for more variation.

Summing Up

So, what do these correlations tell us? They support the theory that clannishness is the mother of tribalism. Clan-based societies amassed gene variants contributing to ingroup bias and outgroup hostility. Inbreeding caused low intelligence. As inbreeding was banned in the West the intelligence went up but the gene variants behind the general tribalism are still with us and is very clear among peoples or ethnic groups with a clannish history. Furthermore, tribalism is not a defining characteristic of conservatism since people who identify as conservative don’t fit the tribal profile very well; it could perhaps be regarded as a subtype.


Darius, Bitches!

May 24, 2013

Recently, Black Country singer Darius Rucker was told by someone on twitter to “leave country to the white folk.” Is country music White and if so should it be?

Some who have commented on this affair, or whatever it is, seem to think that any connection between music genres and race/ethnicity is just coincidental,

“Music is color blind. It should have no boundaries. It’s supposed to unify us, not divide us as a nation.”

“Music has no color.”

This seems a bit phony to me. It’s obvious that Country music is White music. It’s as White as R&B is Black. Pretending otherwise is like denying that Asians are more conscientious than other groups or denying that White people engage more in airy fairy philosophy than others. As far as evidence goes, I haven’t found any specific studies on race and musical preferences although I’ve mentioned one study that links race/ethnicity to more general cultural preferences, as well as personality.

Does this mean that Rucker should leave Country to White people? No. He is of course free to do whatever he wants. It’s undoubtedly embarrassing when White people try to act Black and vice versa, but besides group differences there are also individual differences. Some individuals simply won’t conform to their group preferences. And there is no reason why their contributions should count as less or that they be branded as phonies because of that.

So yes, music has color. We are different. But no, that doesn’t mean that you always have to stick to your racial, ethnic or religious group in everything you do. There is absolutely no contradiction between the fact that Country music is White and the fact that Darius Rucker is a Black and talented Country singer. If you haven’t heard him just listen to the clip above – he is more Country than Taylor Swift will ever be.



All About Your Pop Culture Personality

April 8, 2013


Loves Morrissey.

Mexican Emos, probably at a Morrissey concert.

Entertainment: An Uncharted Territory

There are plenty of silly tests and quizzes that will tell you what kind of person you are based on your pop culture preferences. But is there any real research on this? Surprisingly little, according to psychologist Peter Rentfrow and collegues who went through some of the major scientific journals on personality from 1932 to 2008 and found that only 0.6 percent of the articles had any words referring to entertainment in their subject headings.

And yet entertainment is everywhere. Americans spend over 9 hours per day watching TV, films, read books or magazines, or listen to music. TV is the major medium accounting for 5.5 of those hours. They spend almost as much money on entertainment as they spend on health care – and no country spends more on health care than America. Most likely, other Westerners are similar in this regard.

The Study

So given how important entertainment is in our culture and the lack of research on the connections to personality, Rentfrow & Co made a study to examine people’s preferences for different entertainment genres and how these preferences relate to personality as well as other demographic factors like age, gender, race, intelligence and education.

They used three samples of participants: 1946 university students (the so-called convenience sample), a community sample of 736 residents of Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, and an internet sample of 545.  They then constructed a 108 item questionnaire called the Entertainment-Preference Measure (EPM) in which they rated the 108 genres or combination of genres and mediums (for instance Romance Books is one item and Romance Film another). They also had participants do an intelligence test and a measure of the Big Five personality factors .

Emerging Factors: The Big Five of Entertainment?

Next, they did their statistical mojo in which correlations between all the 108 genres were compared to see if they clustered into any separate factors, which they did. The major divide was found between what the researchers, surprisingly politically incorrect called Highbrow and Lowbrow. Furthermore Highbrow turned out to consist of two separate factors, named Aesthetic and Cerebral where as Lowbrow was made up of three factors called Communal, Dark and Thrilling for a total of five factors – two fancy and three folksy. To get a general idea of what these factors look like here are some of the major items in each of them,

  • Aesthetic – classical music, arts and humanities TV shows, art books, opera music, foreign film, classic films, folk music, world music, philosophy books
  • Cerebral – business books, news and current events TV shows and books, educational TV shows, reference books, computer books, documentary films, science TV shows
  • Communal – romance films, romance books, daytime talk shows, made-for- TV movies, soap operas, reality shows, pop music
  • Dark – horror movies, heavy metal music, rap and hip hop, alternative music, erotic movies, erotic literature, cult movies
  • Thrilling – action movies, thriller and espionage books, spy shows, science fiction TV shows, films and books, suspense movies, war movies

The Correlates

If we sum up all the major correlations between the above factors and the demographic and personality data, we get some interesting, and sometimes surprising, portraits of different types of people.

The correlations for the Aesthetic preference are fairly predictable. This taste correlated slightly with the female gender, a little stronger with intelligence and education. It was unrelated to race. On the Big Five it correlated strongest with Openness, slightly less with Agreeableness and slightly (inversed) with Conscientiousness.  Looks very much like the typical liberal.

The Cerebral preference was slightly correlated to with the male gender, age and education. It was unrelated to race, and surprisingly, it was also unrelated to intelligence. This may partly be explained by the personality profile; this type was slightly correlated with Extraversion, inversely to Neuroticism (that is emotionally stable), and to Openness. The combination of Conscientiousness and lack of Neuroticism most likely make them very organized and efficient, thus compensating for their average intelligence. This type may correspond to the ISTJ of the MBTI personality measure, a type which has been found to achieve academic success with relatively little intelligence. Closest stereotype would be a nerd although this is also a slightly conservative profile.

The Communal preference was correlated most strongly to the female gender (although these factors emerged independent of gender so there is a male bunch with this taste too). It was clearly correlated with low intelligence and low education. It was slightly correlated with African American ethnicity/race. This crowd is extraverted, agreeable, slightly conscientious and low on Openness. This type of person is very common, which explains why there is always a reality show, a talk show or a soap opera on when you turn on the TV.

The Dark preference was most strongly linked to a young age and to the male gender. There was a slight correlation to Hispanic ethnicity as well as intelligence and education. It is linked to Extraversion, but this was almost entirely due to the facets Provocativeness and Self-Disclosure. Further, they were low on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high on Openness.

Finally, the Thrilling preference was most clearly linked to the male gender. It was unrelated to race and there was a slight correlation to low education but there was very little data on intelligence for this type. In terms of personality they were unrelated to all the Big Five factors except for Openness were the younger university sample showed a slight positive correlation and the older community sample showed a slight negative correlation. This is consistent with the trait known as Sensation Seeking which is largely outside the Big Five.

What to Make of It All

There are some obvious limitations to this study. The samples are mainly White middle class. The community sample was 98 percent White – why pick a a town like Eugene-Springfield which has so little diversity? It seems psychologists, who to 95 percent identify as liberals, avoid people who aren’t White middle class like themselves. There is also the question of to what extent minority students are representative of their respective groups. There is a possibility that they are white-washed or perhaps genuinely more similar to Whites than to their own groups.

Still, the racial connections to cultural preferences and personality that were found make sense to me. According to Nielsen, Black people watch more of the light stuff featured in the Communal factor. The Hispanic link to the Dark factor accords with for instance the Mexican Emos, although I don’t know exactly how common they are. I get the general feeling that a lot of latin culture is dark, bizarre and sexual in line with this finding.

More robust was the finding that the highbrow Cerebral factor wasn’t related to intelligence, but the lowbrow Dark factor was. The fact that Cerebral and Aesthetic were correlated (making up the Highbrow factor) suggests that personality may be more important than intelligence in deciding cultural preferences.

Personally, my preferences were a little bit in most of these factors, although I fit the liberal Aesthetic factor best, even though I’m more of a social conservative. They even share my taste for Bluegrass, a genre that originated among White low-IQ people in the Appalachians. Awkward…


To Ann-Marie

March 16, 2013

Personality Psychologists Hate Romantics

January 29, 2013

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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