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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