The Ugly Truth About Obesity

May 30, 2013
A victim of prejudice?

A victim of prejudice?

Obesity, defined as having a BMI over 30, is increasingly common these days. In America 30 percent of the population is obese while many other Western countries have similar figures (no pun intended). When obesity is debated it’s usually about health issues, but there is also another aspect to consider, namely that of obesity bias and discrimination.  According to Obesity Society, obese people are often viewed as “lazy, sloppy, less competent, lacking in self-discipline, disagreeable, less conscientious, and poor role models” as well as “unintelligent, unsuccessful, weak-willed, unpleasant, overindulgent”.

This negative view leads to discrimination in for instance employment and college admissions. In the medical setting, the negative attitude towards the obese may also lead to patients cancelling appointments, with worse health as a consequence. According to a study from Yale University, self-reported weight discrimination is as common as racial discrimination.  This may seem especially problematic since the obese are not protected by any minority laws so in many cases discrimination is perfectly legal.

On the other hand, what if all these negative stereotypes are accurate? After all, many stereotypes have some truth to them – Jews do make more money than others; Black people are more often involved in crime; there is plenty of research to show that East Asians are more introverted than other people. So why can’t stereotypes about the obese be accurate?

Like most things, this has been researched. Intelligence shows a very clear connection to IQ, as illustrated here. And since intelligence is linked to work performance this suggests that the obese may be unsuccessful and less competent as well. This in turn may explain the “wage penalty” that the obese suffer – like all groups with low intelligence do.

As for the personality traits mentioned above, Angelina Sutin and colleagues at the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services, have conducted perhaps the ultimate study on this, using some 2000 participants, spanning over 50 years and applying 14 500 measurements of weight. And they didn’t just content themselves with the Big Five personality factors but looked at all the subscales. They found that weight gain was most clearly related to Impulsiveness (a facet of Neuroticism), Warmth, Assertiveness, Positive Emotions (all facets of Extraversion), and a lack of Order and Self-Discipline (facets of Conscientiousness). It’s also interesting to note that while strongest predictor, Impulsiveness, as mentioned a facet of Neuroticism in the Big Five model, none of the other facets of this factor – Anxiety, Depression etc, related to overweight. So they common idea of the emotional overeater seems to lack empirical support.

So yes, the obese group is not unlike its negative stereotypes. Of the, “lazy”, “sloppy”, “less competent”, “lacking in self-discipline”, “disagreeable”, “less conscientious”, “poor role models”,” unintelligent”, “unsuccessful”, “weak-willed”, “unpleasant”, “overindulgent”, it seems “disagreeable” and “unpleasant” are the only clear misses.

This is not to hate on the obese, but to call a spade a spade. The idea that the problems of the obese are outside themselves is an unhealthy illusion here examplified by Slate Magazine’s Daniel Engber,

Stop hating. If we weren’t such unrepentant body bigots, fat people might earn more money, stay in school, and receive better medical care in hospitals and doctor’s offices. All that would go a long way toward mitigating the health effects of excess weight—and its putative costs

This under the false assumption that fat people have the same intelligence and Self-Discipline and that the reason they cancel appointments is not due to Impulsiveness and lack of Conscientiousness but only because of other peoples prejudice. In doing so, he enables fat people to stay fat and to blame society for their problems, and to, like the Obesity Society, view the condition as unrelated to willpower.

The harsh truth is that the obese are in a lot of trouble. They are less attractive in the workplace because of their combination of intelligence (or lack thereof) and personality. Work performance is best predicted by IQ scores and next best of Conscientiousness. Impulsive behavior on the other hand predicts crime and accidents. Most employers are probably not aware of the research linking obese people to these characteristics and outcomes, but they know from experience that employing an obese person is a financial risk with no apparent reward.

They should of course look at the individual, but not everyone can afford testing every potential employee. Nor can a doctor test his patients. But he can use his experience, which tells him that the obese person is much less likely to follow his professional advice. And even if they could check every individual it wouldn’t solve the problem because the reason the group has these characteristics is because so many individuals belonging to the group have them.

So, is there any way to help this group? My guess is that the best solution would be to introduce vice taxes and similar paternalistic measures. You can’t leave someone who is out of control to their own devices. The worst solution is the one used right now – blaming negative stereotypes and discrimination, when scientific research validates those exact stereotypes as well as provides perfectly rational reasons for discrimination.


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.



The Connection Between Tipping and Corruption (and Tribalism)

May 17, 2013

TippingMagnus Thor Torfason, professor of Harvard Business School, and colleagues have made an interesting study on tipping and corruption, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science (for a larger image click on this link). They found that countries in which tipping is common are more corrupt than others, according to the Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI). The raw correlation is a whopping 0.6, but since other factors affect corruption these must be controlled for in order to see if there is some new unique effect linked to tipping. So they controlled for other relevant factors, namely Individualism Index, Power Distance Index, GDP per capita, income inequality, homicide rates, civil liberty restrictions, highest marginal tax rate, minimum wage and public funding of health care. When all these are taken into account there is still a unique influence linked to tipping, about half the size of GDP per capita (which btw is a rough proxy of intelligence which for some reason wasn’t included).

Two Kinds of Tipping

So what lies behind this mysterious tipping effect? Torfason’s hypothesis is that it has to do with temporal focus. It’s tipping in order to influence future behavior that he thinks is linked to corruption. Not all tipping has this temporal focus; some people will tip simply as a way of saying thanks. It’s the others, those who tip in an attempt to manipulate the person they tip, that are thinking in the same way as a corrupt person and that supposedly makes up the link between tipping and corruption.

In order to test this hypothesis Torfason & Co made secondary study comparing two countries equal in the prevalence of tipping but very different in levels of corruption – Canada and India. The participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I want to motivate this person to give me good service in the future.” Agreeing with this statement would obviously indicate a temporal focus on future events. They then filled in a bribery attitude measure form, judging actions like for instance whether it’s ok to bribe a policeman to avoid getting a traffic ticket.

The result clearly indicated that Indians were thinking about tipping with a temporal focus on future rewards to larger extent than the Canadians, and at the same time they were more accepting of corruption. The researchers also also crunched the numbers to ensure that the temporal focus did in fact mediate the link between tipping and attitude to corruption.

Further exploring this issue Torfason writes,

If cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward bribery are driven by temporal focus, it seems reasonable to assume that differences in temporal focus, at the individual level, will relate to bribery attitudes in the same way, even for citizens of the same country.”

To test this idea, a third study was conducted, this time using only American participants. Unfortunately, Torfason didn’t just measure temporal focus and attitude to corruption, instead he primed the participants by letting half read an article titled ‘‘Basic Tips on Tipping: Encouraging Good Service’’ and the other half an article titled “Basic Tips on Tipping: Rewarding Good Service.” I’m not sure why they did this. Perhaps they were afraid of getting to little variance from a rather small convenience sample, or maybe it was the political implications – after all, priming conceals the whole issue of whether this temporal focus (read manipulation) is a matter of personality or not. Since all known personality traits are highly inheritable, such a result would leave no doubt that Indians are inherently more manipulative than Canadians.

Corruption Is Caused by Something Much Worse than Low Intelligence

Still, even if Torfason doesn’t want to spell it out, it’s pretty obvious that this is at least in part a matter of personality. Because tipping someone in the hope that they in the future will behave in a certain manner that benefits you is by definition a form of manipulation. And manipulative behavior is an aspect of Machiavellism, a well-documented personality trait characterized by manipulative and exploitive interpersonal behavior.

Although more research is needed, this certainly adds a piece to the puzzle of personality and corruption that I’ve been discussing in a previous post. In that post I found modest correlations between nation-level corruption and Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism. These correlations suggests that the corrupt person is not just someone with low intelligence who fails to understand the long-term gains of avoiding corruption, a theory proposed by German economist Niklas Potrafke. Torfason adds further evidence linking corruption to Psychoticism, or one of its aspects, Machiavellism, a trait that along with Psychopathy and Narcissism make up the so-called Dark Triad of traits often found in criminals. Far from Potrafkes image of the corrupt person as a pretty harmless person who doesn’t quite understand what he’s doing, Torfason’s research suggests a much more sinister and calculating person.

Torfason’s  – unwanted? – discovery is for that reason more in line with hbd* chick’s theory of how high corruption levels are linked to clan-based societies. In these societies evolution has favored those with gene variants for familial altruism, creating an overly friendly attitude to relatives and an equally hostile attitude towards outsiders. This hostility, Torfason’s study suggests, goes beyond being wary of strangers or putting your own children before others. It takes the form of manipulative behavior towards outsiders. And the government is one such outsider which then explains corruption.

What Can Be Done About It?

You rarely encounter research of this kind so I can understand that Torfason is cautious, kudos to him for even going there. I’ve always liked India and I think it has loads of potential. The country actually scores higher than many other countries on Openness and Agreeableness suggesting that they have the capacity to change. But having an accumulation of anti-social traits in your population is not a joke. If India and other countries with this problem want to change, they need to face reality in order to find the solutions. There are ways of reducing genes for familial altruism, anti-social behavior or any other behavioral traits. Sadly, the PC establishment will stigmatize anyone who tries to discuss this issue, since mentioning genetic differences between peoples is Nazism, and all you really have to do is give children books to read, right? It seems the people calling themselves progressive today represent the worst kind of conservatism – the let’s-not-change-anything-that-hurts-my-feelings variety.

Extraversion, Still Relevant

That’s not to say that anti-social traits are the only possible link to tribalism and corruption. I’m still holding on to my Extraversion hypothesis, given how obviously very introverted countries like Finland and Japan have so little corruption, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, Extraversion correlates some -0.30 with corruption in Western Europe. It’s also worth mentioning that people who are overly honest and open towards strangers, tend to have Asperger-like personalities, which are characterized among other things by a very strong introversion. And anyone who has been a student has probably noticed how enthusiastic highly extraverted people are about the tribal rituals of student life, initiations and the like. Hopefully there will be some research on this too sometime in the future.

(As a fun fact, the combination of tribalism, inbreeding and anti-social attitudes is nothing new. It has been described in popular culture many times. In American films, such as for instance Deliverance (1972) featuring Burt Reynolds, the isolated inhabitants of the Appalachians are often depicted as inbred and possessing a mind-boggling cruelty towards strangers. For some reason it’s ok to exaggerate and make fun of that, probably because they’re white. But it seems political correctness draws the line somewhere between the Appalachians and Morocco.)

The Personality and Geography of the Entrepreneur

May 10, 2013

The Entrepreneurial Personality Profile

Creating new jobs is one of the top priorities for all politicians these days. This issue always ends up being discussed in terms of taxes and spending, sometimes in terms of education, but never ever in terms of people. This is ultimately the old Enlightenment view that human behavior, good or bad, is all about arranging external factors. People are assumed to respond to whatever plans or reforms the political leaders come up with.

And yet, if we look at indicators relevant to job creation it becomes clear that people do what they don’t respond the way they’re supposed to. Take self-employment for example. It has been very stable around 10-15 percent for many years now, seemingly unaffected by shifting policies. Before that it was a bit higher due to more people working in agriculture. A reason for this can be found in entrepreneur research, which shows that certain personality traits make for a good entrepreneur – just like other traits make for a good police, a good nurse etc. These traits are fairly stable over time explaining the relatively constant percentage of entrepreneurs in the American population (and most likely other populations as well).

The psychological research on people with this profession suggests that, in terms of the Big Five model, the entrepreneur profile is high on Extraversion, Openness and Conscientiousness, and low on Agreeableness and Neuroticism. The reasons for this particular mix may seem obvious, except perhaps the low Agreeableness. This is probably because an entrepreneur must be tough and not back down in negotiations. A lot of people complain about how nerve-wrecking it is to negotiate how much you should be paid with your employer, but an entrepreneur has to make similar negotiations on a regular basis, so it makes sense that they need thicker skin than the rest of us.

A Rare Commodity

By all accounts, the traits that make up the entrepreneurial profile are highly inheritable and stable from early adulthood. This means that the number of entrepreneurs (or job creators) will be limited by the amount of people who have the profile and the strength of its relation to entrepreneurial activity. So when politicians say they will create new jobs they appear to indulge in a fantasy. More realistically, they can help entrepreneurs to create jobs. Like a secretary can help an architect or a doctor to do his job more efficient.

I don’t want to sound all Ayn Rand here; I understand that the world would be pretty unpleasant without polices and nurses (and very inefficient without secretaries). We shouldn’t worship these people like some libertarians do, but at the same time we have to accept that a lot of people can be nurses and polices but few can be entrepreneurs – and entrepreneurs are more important. While other research has shown how intelligence affects the economic development, on both an individual and national level, it may be that entrepreneurship is even more important. The intelligent person can maintain the order of things, but entrepreneur is the driving force in technological development. He or she is the reason you’re reading this on a computer (or similar device), why you have fresh food stored in your fridge and why you can travel to the other side of the planet in less than two days.

So while libertarianism may be little more than a personality disorder, Rand still has a point. These individuals have a profound effect on society and to understand the world around us we need to understand them better.

Drawing the Map

One important question regarding entrepreneurship is whether all countries and regions are equally blessed with this commodity or if it’s unevenly distributed. Obviously some countries are more entrepreneurial than others, but that may be for political reasons, because while you can’t create entrepreneurs, you can suppress them. There are probably people in North Korea who have ideas and want to start businesses too.

But if we look at the personality side of this issue, international comparisons suggest that personality traits are unevenly distributed, so if two culturally similar nations had the exact same policies implemented one would still be more innovative than the other for purely genetic reasons. These international studies have been criticized since they sometimes make little sense – Japan scoring lower than Nigeria on Conscientiousness, Italians being introverted and things like that. But even with these clear mistakes, the overall results from the biggest international study of this kind are validated by culture level measures.

But we might get a more reliable test of the importance of the entrepreneurial personality by looking within nations. As I mentioned in my previous post, the data compiled by psychologist Peter Jason Rentfrow, shows an uneven distribution of Big Five factors within the United States. This means that the average levels of some states will be more similar to the entrepreneurial profile than others. But does this also mean that average levels of traits characterizing an entrepreneur on the individual level will translate to more entrepreneurial activity on the regional level?

A case for this is made in a recent study by German psychologists Martin Obschonka and colleagues, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. They used Rentfrow’s data to create a measure of Entrepreneur-prone personality profile for the different states in America. This is what they came up with,

State-level map of the entrepreneur-prone personality

State-level map of the entrepreneur-prone personality, the darker the more entrepreneurial.

As you can see the East-West divide of Neuroticism I discussed in my previous post is present here too, although less pronounced since the other traits weigh in as well. But it’s clear that the distribution is uneven and clustered.

Obschonka then compared this ranking with measures of entrepreneurship, such as the Kauffman Index (measuring business startups) and self-employment rates. They found that even when controlling for state-level measures of prosperity, race, age and gender distribution, they got correlations around 0.35 between the personality profile and the Kauffman Index. Here is the map of entrepreneurial activity for comparison,

State-level map of entrepreneurial activity, the darker, the busier.

State-level map of entrepreneurial activity, the darker, the busier.

As expected from the correlations you can see a resemblance in that there is a cluster in the West. There are some states that break the pattern in a conspicuous way: Mississippi and Maine have the wrong profile but perform well while Nevada and Washington are the other way around. This may be due to the fact that both these measures used are fairly crude. As far as I can tell, The Kauffman Index counts all business startups – hotdog stands and high tech ventures alike. And the personality profile is built on the assumption that all traits are equally important which, if true, seems like a happy accident. (Rentfrow was kind enough to send me his data in an Excel file so when I have the time, I’ll be looking to see if a weighted measure could give a better picture of the entrepreneurial personality as well as comparing it to lots of other interesting variables).

Obschonka and his colleagues then went on the make regional-level studies of American Metropolitan areas, the UK and Germany. They got the same result with similar sized correlations but couldn’t reach statistical significance due to the small number of regions. So while preliminary, these findings suggest that their results hold not just for America but within other countries too, and most likely between countries as well.


This study is the first of its kind and the positive result no doubt means it will be followed by others. The results, should they hold up, can explain things like why people leave California for Utah or why Japan leveled out, and maybe why China isn’t the future either, but perhaps why Chile might be. It’s also interesting to note that entrepreneurial hotspots are not clearly linked to the large metropolitan areas, that are often hyped as being at the forefront of just about everything. Judging by both personality and activity it seems like states like Colorado and New Mexico show more promise than states containing larger cities, like California and New York. Then we have the fact that these clusters were most likely in part created by migrations and can be changed by future migrations.

It’s a whole new field of research opening up here – doesn’t even have a name yet but I’m sure it will soon enough – and it will be highly interesting to see what comes out of it in the future.

The Split Personality of America

April 29, 2013

Some Americans think of their country as “the home of the brave” but on closer inspection that is only half true. And to be more precise, it’s the western half. Look at this map of Neuroticism based on data compiled by psychologist Peter Rentfrow,

personality map neuroticism
Neuroticism by state. The darker, the more neurotic.

Unlike the maps of the other Big Five personality factors, this one shows a very distinct pattern. It splits the nation into two halves – a fearful East and a bold West. The border seems to go along the Mississippi river. The 20 states scoring highest on Neuroticism are all bordering to the river or east of it. Of the 20 states that score the lowest on this trait, 16 are in the western region – including all of the bottom 10. Why Mississippi? I think we can find a clue if we look at an older map,


This is what America looked like in 1790. As you can see the western border of America went along the river that today appears to separate Americans scoring high or low on Neuroticism. But why should this be? Most likely because up until around 1800 almost all immigrants came, at least partly, to avoid religious persecution.

This is what I referred to in my previous post, the review of Susan Cain’s book on introverts, as an explanation for how the early America had a Culture of Character, although I guessed that the early settlers would be introverts rather than neurotics. These traits are of course similar and Cain admits that her view on Introversion incorporates what others view as Neuroticism.

At any rate, the second wave of immigrants were not so much fleeing Europe to avoid persecution. The were lured by the land- and goldrushes and other hopes of fortune and glory. They were the frontiersmen and women who ventured out in the hostile and uncivilized terrorities of what is sometimes called the Wild West. They were, in other words, not high on Neuroticism. Most likely, this latter wave of immigrants were also Sensation Seekers although this trait or anything similar to it is not covered by the Big Five model that Rentfrow uses.

While lot’s of people have moved around within America since the early days, the pattern shown in the first map does suggest that these two breeds of Americans – stick people and carrot people – still exist today and that they to a large extent live where their ancestors first settled. This serves as an interesting example of how it can be that one people differs from another and how even within a nation you can find a cultural and behavioral variety that has a genetic basis.

In the future we will probably see even more patterns like this one emerging as more or less intentional communities arise when people to a larger extent can choose their own environments. And who knows, as people become more aware of the genetic basis of their newfound tribes, this trend may even split our species. Let’s call the first bunch to branch off Homo Mississippiens.

Book Review: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain

April 25, 2013
The author Susan Cain doing her TED talk.

The author Susan Cain doing her TED talk.

A book just about introversion? At first blush, this may seem like a too narrow focus, but according to Cain, this trait is the “single most important aspect of personality.” She makes a good case by listing the various things in life that are linked to the dichotomy of Introversion/Extraversion – choice of friends, career and education, exercise, adultery, risk-taking, delayed gratification, to mention a few.

Why America Became Extraverted

But in spite the many qualities inherent in the introverted mind, American society is still biased in favor of Extraversion, Cain argues. Already in school, the outgoing jocks and cheerleaders are popular while introverts go under labels like nerds or weirdoes, outcasts that most kids avoid. The same attitude can be found among adults, although usually expressed less bluntly. Studies show that talkative people rate as smarter, better-looking, and more interesting than the rest. This bias has even been prominent in psychology and psychiatry where introversion often has been viewed as dysfunctional or outright pathological. Adler is perhaps the best example of the academic bias (in his terminology introverts are called the Avoiding type and extraverts the Socially Useful type).

But things weren’t always like this. Cain points to what historian Warren Susman has called the transition from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality that took place in America in the early 1900s. This change was supposedly brought on by the industrialization and urbanization. The mass market and city life meant that you had to be able to get along with strangers in a way you never had to when living in a village or a small town. To illustrate the change, Cain presents Susman’s findings on word frequencies in self-help books and advice manuals of earlier times. In the 1800s the words that were most frequent were, Citizenship, Duty, Work, Honor, Integrity and similar. In the early 1900s these words were gradually replaced with others like Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful and so on.

While this shift is interesting, I remain skeptical to the idea that external forces brought on such a dramatic shift in national personality. Given the how heritable personality traits are, and especially how little shared environment means, it seems more likely that this shift was due to an influx of extraverts. The early settlers were Puritans and others who came to practice their religion in peace, and they came from Northwest Europe. This no doubt was a more introverted group than the European average. When large scale immigration resumed around 1830 it wasn’t so much people fleeing religious persecution; it was people who had heard stories about the land of opportunity, and a lot of them came from Southern Europe. This demographic change seems to provide a better explanation to the emerging Culture of Personality, which perhaps more appropriately should be called the Culture of Perception.

The American Business Culture

When you compare America with Europe or the rest of the world, it’s tempting to view extraversion as an important factor in how America became so successful. Cain, however, rejects this idea. She visits Harvard Business School which is obsessed with social activities and perception – “good luck finding an introvert here” one student told her. But in real life, you’ll find loads of successful introverted CEOs, like Bill Gates, Brenda Barnes and many others. Studies linking leadership to extraversion are based on modest correlations and, more damaging, leadership is rated on impression rather than results. The personality of a good leader, Cain says, depends more on the situation. According to result-based studies, introverted leaders are good at handling active employees, putting their ideas to use, while extraverted leaders are better at inspiring passive employees, rallying the troops.

But in the business culture these insights are not taken to heart, most likely because the business world is full of extraverted salespeople who have been told and want to believe that their social skills will bring them to the top. This culture, according to the author, is irrational and destructive in that it is based on faith rather than facts. A typical example is the open office plan, which research show is linked to low productivity, high blood pressure and conflicts in the workplace – but it’s still popular because it promotes the extraverted ideal.

Cain even claims that the current Great Recession we are in right now is largely due to those pesky extraverts. That people who try to warn about potential dangers are seen as weak and ungrateful. She quotes from Kurt Eichenwald’s book Conspiracy of Fools about how when in 2001, Vincent Kaminski, a managing director of Enron, just before the bankruptcy, tried to warn about the problems his company was in and what kind of feedback he received,

There have been some complaints, Vince, that you’re not helping people to do transactions,” the president of Enron told him, according to Conspiracy of Fools, a book about the Enron scandal. “Instead, you’re spending all your time acting like cops. We don’t need cops, Vince.”

And a more general quote directly from Kaminski,

“Many times I have been sitting across the table from an energy trader and I would say, ‘Your portfolio will implode if this specific situation happens.’ And the trader would start yelling at me and telling me I’m an idiot, that such a situation would never happen. The problem is that, on one side, you have a rainmaker who is making lots of money for the company and is treated like a superstar, and on the other side you have an introverted nerd. So who do you think wins?”

I think this part of the book is very interesting, and alarming since we know that this culture is alive and well, eagerly waiting for new opportunities with little concern for the risks involved. You have to wonder if maybe places like Harvard Business School should have a quota for introverts. Not to say that introverts are better at this game – America is a great example of entrepreneurship – but it’s not the 1950s anymore, today’s world is complicated and more caution, reflection and analysis is needed.

The Introverted Ideal

It’s understandable that an introvert living in America feels unappreciated and may want to compensate for this in some ways. But reading this book it’s hard not to feel that Cain is replacing the extraverted bias with an introverted one instead. She constantly talks about the virtues of Introversion. How it’s linked to intellectual and artistic achievements, empathy, integrity, conscientiousness, persistence and so forth. Extraverts, on the other hand are generally described as simple folk who are full of energy but without any judgment or sophistication. No, she doesn’t say that but that’s what it sounds like. The title of the book alone gives you a hint of this: extraverts are the ones who can’t stop talking.

Yes, there is a bias against introverts, and yes we should do something about that. But using that as a cover for unbridled self-glorification is not an improvement.

The Biology of Introversion

More interesting is Cain’s foray into the biological and evolutionary roots of Introversion. Like me, she prescribes to the optimal arousal theory which states that variation on this trait is a matter of sensitivity. An introvert is more easily aroused and will for that reason interact with their environment in a way that keeps stimuli at a low level – staying indoors, having just a few friends they know well etc. But what kind of stimuli are we talking about? Psychologist Hans Eysenck was the first to answer this. He claimed that it was a difference in the Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS) that made some into introverts and other extraverts. Others, like Jerome Kagan has found a correlation between the Fight-or-Flight response and this trait, although since this is an emotional response others have pointed out that this is more related to Neuroticism. Personally, I think a sensitive ARAS could trigger the fight-or-flight response more easily making this response and indirect measure of introversion/extraversion. Then there is the theory of Reward Sensitivity, the idea that extraverts are more rewarded by stimuli. This theory would essentially make Extraversion the same thing as Sensation Seeking – a trait of thrill-seeking and hedonism.

The author presents a lot of interesting research on this although it feels like they are all finding things that relate to this trait without being able to pinpoint it. Introversion is not fearfulness or aggressiveness as measured by the Figh-or-Flight response, and extraversion is not hedonism either – there are plenty of fearful extraverts and hedonistic introverts. The nature of this trait must be something else. I think Eysenck was right on the money with his ARAS theory – at heart it is a simple matter of attention and wakefulness, although all these system appear to interact in complicated ways.


As for the evolutionary reason for the Extraversion/Introversion trait, Cain mentions one theory by psychologist Kenneth Olson, who claims that Extraversion is the mark of the migrant, the more fearless person. This, Cain (and presumably Olson) mean, would explain why White people are more extraverted than Blacks or Asians. I can buy that Whites score higher on Extraversion than Asians, but are Africans and their descendants in America and elsewhere really that quiet and reclusive? Are African-American kids bullied in the school yard for being nerdy or socially inept and less cool than the other kids? Perhaps the Big Five, a problematic measure for sure, is to blame, or maybe it’s the incompatibility of cultures, but something is off here.

Still, the difference between America and Europe could well be that those who migrated were more extraverted, more sensation seeking and less fearful than those that stayed behind. But generally speaking I think the theory that evolution favored extraverts in a warmer climate and introverts in a cooler climate makes more sense. Cain practically admits that something like this could be a possibility when she mentions Kagan’s impression that high-reactive children (statistically related to Introversion) tend to have blue eyes more often than low-reactive children. Sadly there is hardly any research on this at all, so there is no way to know for sure. But kudos to Cain (and Kagan) for even talking about such “dangerous” notions.

Cain goes on to present various evolutionary theories. Like the simple but sensible idea that introverts add a bit of caution necessary for the group to survive. A purely extroverted group would crash like Wall Street – but with no one to bail them out.  Or Jung’s idea that Extraversion represents a strategy of high fertility and high mortality and vice versa. This would be in line with the climatic theory but it also fits with the idea that extraverts are pastoralists who are fighting to protect their cattle and most likely stealing other people’s cattle. Introverts would instead be the agriculturalists who will expose themselves to less risk and have fewer children and think more ahead. Cain mentions an interesting study about a gene variant linked to the trait Novelty Seeking, which correlates to both Extraversion and Sensation Seeking. Among Kenyan pastoralists with this variant were found to be better nourished than Kenyan farmers with the same variant. This may lend evidence to the idea that Extraversion is an adaption to a riskier and more improvised way of living. (This is also relevant to my previous post about the trait of Tribalism.)

A Yay or a Nay?

I have mixed feelings about this book. Cain’s idea of introverts as an oppressed minority, although partly true, feels a bit silly. As an introvert I object to her idea that we are “like women in man’s world.” Women are still oppressed and victimized in numerous ways whereas introverts can become both rich and powerful in any culture without anyone objecting to it.

That aside, she does write well, and although theoretically confusing, this book offers a lot of interesting facts, and she even dares to touch on some sensitive issues. So all things considered, it’s a yay.

An Alien Code in Our DNA?

April 18, 2013
"You won't remember any of this."

“You won’t remember any of this.”

According to Discovery News, Kazakh scientists claim that humanity may have been embedded with an alien code in our DNA and that for this reason the search for proof of extra-terrestrial life is more likely to be successful by looking in our genes than at the skies. I have to say I’m a bit astounded – I had no idea there were Kazakh scientists.

Seriously though, it’s an interesting hypothesis. If there is intelligent life out there, it’s fully possible that they are linked to us in some way – that we are related, that they’ve made or somehow manipulated us. Perhaps Charles Fort, the grand old man of all things paranormal, was right in his idea that we are someone’s property. But property or not, you have to wonder what would happen if they were proven right. Chaos and upheaval – or maybe people would calm down after a few weeks realizing that they still need to eat, sleep and work as usual. After all, not even the infamous radio broadcast of HG Well’s The War of the Worlds, declaring that the Earth was about to be invaded by aliens, led to much panic.

Personally I’ve always favoured a different hypothesis – that they could be here with us right now. If that sounds unlikely to you, then look at this experiment on the psychological phenomenon known as change blindness. It clearly illustrates how easily people’s realities can be distorted without them realizing a thing. Imagine what an intelligent life form whose survival depended on not being detected could do.

The Battle of the Giants: Big Five versus MBTI

April 14, 2013

Carl Jung

Kicks Freud’s ass.

If you’re interested in the subject of personality you’ve probably searched for info about it on the internet, and if so you’ve inevitably bumped into the two major models dominating this field – the Big Five and the MBTI. And then you’ve no doubt wondered: which of these is the better? So here is a head-to-head comparison covering the basics. But first a really short presentation of the contenders (or click the Wiki-links above),

The Big Five

The five factor model popularly known as the Big Five is a taxonomy aimed at covering most aspects of personality. It claims to do so with five major factors – Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. These traits are pretty much what their names suggest. The Big Five doesn’t theorize about what goes on inside people’s heads; it focuses on actual behaviour. This is reflected in the various measures of the model which features items like, “I enjoy trying new and foreign foods” (a measure of Openness).


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the name simultaneously used for a theory and a corresponding measure of personality types, based on a typology introduced by psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s. It characterizes people by their attitude toward the inner and outer world, Extraversion and Introversion (correlates pretty strong with the Big Five Extraversion), and by their cognitive preferences. These preferences are either Perceiving or Judging. The perceiving preferences describe how we take in information either through our senses, called Sensation, or intuiting stuff, called Intuition. The judging preferences describe how we process information using either logic, called Thinking, or a more emotional way through Feeling. The last preferences, called Judgment and Perception, refers to whether we use a judging or perceiving function to deal with the outside world.

Underlying Principles: Cognitive Theory versus Lexical Hypothesis

If you are looking for a way to grasp the organization of personality the MBTI has a clear edge. It’s based on a cognitive theory (outlined above) that explains basic personality traits as arising from differences in how we take in and process information.

The Big Five on the other hand is based on a completely different idea, namely the Lexical Hypothesis, which states that all the important personality traits are encoded in natural language. Proponents of this model have gone through dictionaries and collected all the words describing personality traits and then looked at which are used synonymously, and then applied factor analysis to end up with their five major factors. So it’s a non-theoretical model, a way of sorting traits on a linguistic basis.

In my view, the theoretical basis of the MBTI is a huge advantage, because theories are what we use to understand the world. The Big Five research can only find correlates but not put them into any context – conservatives score high on Conscientiousness, liberals score high on Openness etc. What does it tell us about personality? Not much more can be said because there is no theoretical context. The MBTI on the other hand can note that the liberals score high on intuition and conservatives score high on sensation. And in view of the theory, a liberal attitude can be understood as a way of looking at patterns and possibilities when processing information, a preference that makes for a reformist. In the same way we can understand conservatism as a way of relying more on actual data and for that reason being more interested in building on history and tradition because it contains actual data rather than some scenario of how things might be one day.

You can’t make an analysis like that without a theory and that’s a big win for the MBTI.

Measures: Dimensional versus Typological

The MBTI divides people into types where the Big Five measures traits on a dimensional scale. This is big problem for the MBTI since all existing data suggests that traits are dimensional. The MBTI can’t even produce typological data to reflect their theory, so it uses cut-off points to create types. This sometimes has the consequence that two individuals differing one point on a scale can end up being categorized as different types while two individuals differing 20 points end up as belonging to the same type. This is a huge disadvantage for the MBTI and a reason to be skeptical of your result if you take the test. A measure of the Big Five (or any other dimensional test) will simply show the unadulterated result. Big score for the Big Five.

Research and Development: Science versus Intuition

While the MBTI is commonly used in business, education and Jungian psychology the Big Five dominates in academic research. This may give the impression that this isn’t a contest at all, but rather a matter of whether you appreciate scientific method or not. On closer inspection, this view is false. The reason for this is again the lack of theory. People who have theories – like Marvin Zuckerman, Robert Cloninger and others – reject the Big Five and come up with their own models and measures to test their ideas. They need theoretical models to validate or falsify their theories. Since the Big Five is just a way of sorting traits, the only research that can be done with it is that of listing correlates – like discovering that people scoring high on Conscientiousness clean out their fridges more often than others – if you can call that research. It’s a model for paper-pushers rather than scientists.

The MBTI has a completely different problem. While having the theoretical basis enabling meaningful research, the theory is just too intuitive for its own good. Based on Jung, the godfather of New Age, it has attracted a lot of airy fairy people who have little or no respect for scientific principles and methods. Instead of research and development, the MBTI community has a tradition of epigones adding their own arbitrary twists to the theory. This began when the MBTI added a new dimension (that of Judgment/Perception) to the original theory and it has been followed by much more inferior and convoluted elaborations in the field known as Type Dynamics, which is little more than a modern version of astrology.

While this may seem like a win for the Big Five, I’d call this a draw because listing correlates versus mere speculation are two equally pointless endeavors.

And the Winner Is…

For all its flaws, the winner has to be the MBTI. It all comes back to theory. As a non-theoretical model, the Big Five isn’t inspiring research, only pointless pseudo-research. It doesn’t lead to a better understanding of what personality is about. The MBTI has a comprehensive theory of personality to build on, a theory that has proven validity even in its current form. I believe it can be reformed (or simply replaced by another Jungian model) into something that can inspire more research and a deepened understanding of the workings of personality.

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…


Eating Animals Gives People Cognitive Dissonance

April 1, 2013
One man's friend is another man's dinner.

One man’s friend is another man’s dinner.

Is eating meat an emotional problem? Does it cause cognitive dissonance, that is, does it collide with our care for animals in a way that makes us uncomfortable? A recent three part study by psychologists Brock Bastian and colleagues, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38/2 (2012), offers some interesting insights.

In the first study participants where simply asked to rate different animals in regard to their minds and their edibility. The mind measure was a composite using likert scales for things like fear, pain, memory, emotion etc. The edibility was measured the same way but with two questions, “Would you choose to eat this animal?” and “Would you eat this animal if asked to?”

As you might have guessed, there was a negative correlation between mind attribution and edibility. This could be construed as a wish to eat only mindless animals like fish or shrimps and not those more evolved like monkey, dog, dolphin, elephant found in the cluster of animals deemed least edible. However, in this cluster we also find the horse, a fairly stupid animal, but one that people often interact with and have feelings for.Cows have minds about as evolved as horses but not in the eye of the participants who rated cow low in mind – and high in edibility. This suggests that there is a tendency to attribute mind to animals that are loved, and deny mind to those we choose to eat. One explanation for this could be that participants (and people in general) experience cognitive dissonance when eating animals due to both wanting to eat them and also feeling bad for them.

To explore this possibility further, the researchers conducted a second study in which participants were given to pictures of a cow and a sheep. The first picture to be shown came with the neutral text,

“This lamb/cow will be moved to other paddocks, and will spend most of its time eating grass with other lambs/cows.”

The second picture had a potentially more disturbing description,

“This lamb/cow will be taken to an abattoir, killed, butchered, and sent to supermarkets as meat products for humans.”

Both these animals were attributed roughly the same mind in the first study but in this study a new difference emerged. The animal presented as being slaughtered and used for food was attributed less mind, regardless of whether it was a cow or a sheep. This clearly indicates that mind attribution is dependent on whether we think about the animal as food or not.

But is this due to cognitive dissonance? After all, it could be that the design of the experiment influenced participants to think in categories and that the food text makes us think of food rather than animals. To answer this question, the researchers made a third, more elaborate, study.

This time they told participants that they were making a study on consumer behavior. First they were shown the cow/sheep picture in the previous study with the neutral test and as previously asked to rate how evolved mind the animal has. Then participants were shown a list of different foods that they would require eating if they took part in the study. This was to ensure that no one was squeamish about eating meat. Next, they all wrote a little essay on how a cow or a sheep is processed into food. They were informed that they would not be sampling the type of meat they were writing about. Some participants would not be eating meat at all, but apple instead.

As they wrote their essays the researchers carried in the beef, lamb and apples. When the essays where done they informed the participants that they were just going to get some cutlery and asked the participants if they would be willing to help out with another study that involved rating the animal they were about to eat along with a measure called Daily Mood Scale, measuring positive and negative affect. And they walked right into the trap the researchers had so cleverly designed for them. That is, those who were sampling meat. Some were sampling fruit.) So what happened?

Apple eaters, exposed to no potential cognitive dissonance, gave the same mind attribution on both rating occasions. Meat eaters, however, reduced the mind attribution distinctly on the second occasion when they were about to eat the animal they rated. And in this study they were only given the essay to write about meat production so there was no neutral option, no one was prompted to think into different categories of animals versus food.

But the most interesting of all the results in the third study was the one on the Daily Mood Scale. It showed that those who reduced mind attribution when expecting to eat the animal being rated did not report any negative affect, while those who maintained a consistent mind attribution did so at the cost of reporting more negative affect. This is a very clear indication that imagining the animals we are about to eat as less evolved serves the purpose of reducing cognitive dissonance. It’s also a bit scary how flexible people are in this respect. Humans are rarely truth-over-harmony. If there is a conflict between reality (in this case the mind of an animal) and our emotions, then most people seem ok with adjusting their view of reality to spare their feelings.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, as a vegetarian I feel strongly for the animals, and I’d like for more people to stop eating meat. But the study is in no way showing that vegetarianism is the morally superior choice. We all have our own morals and to my knowledge there isn’t any way to prove that one is objectively better than the other. But what the study does suggest is that if you find meat production to be an unpleasant topic of conversation during dinner, then you’re suppressing your empathy in order to feel good about eating animals. This means you have a moral code, you’re not ok with eating animals, but for some reason you don’t live by your code. This may be due to conformism, lack of self-respect, lack of reflection etc. But is there any good reason to not live by your code? I can’t think of one.

So if you care for animals and feel bad about eating them, but try to tell yourself it’s no big deal, you’re not just letting the animals down, you’re letting yourself down too.

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