Openness to Experience – That Liberal Je Ne Sais Quoi

November 5, 2013
Forgot where he put his weed.

Looking for the anthology on existentialism, or maybe just his stash of weed.

Whatever you think of the Big Five personality model, most of its traits are easy to understand. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness are all pretty much what they sound like. Neuroticism is a little more problematic since it deals with emotional instability but only in regard to negative emotions, but it’s still easy to understand what it means – being anxious, worrisome, sometimes depressed. But then there is openness to experience. You’d think that would be equally straight-forward: being into new experiences, like travelling and experiencing other cultures, having broad interests, making new friends, maybe sexual experimentation and trying drugs as well. Not so much.

The Official Picture

Here is a list of words and phrases that psychologists feel characterizes this trait,

Intellectual, imaginative, artistic, cultured, refined, original, insightful, curious, creative, independent and divergent thinkers, appreciation of art and beauty, willingness to consider new ideas, unconventional.

And here are some test items that measure openness,

Have a rich vocabulary.

Have a vivid imagination.

Have excellent ideas.

Quick to understand things.

Use difficult words.

Spend time reflecting on things.

Am full of ideas.

Carry the conversation to a higher level.

Catch on to things quickly.

Love to think up new ways of doing things.

Love to read challenging material.

Am good at many things.

Or in reverse,

Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

Am not interested in abstract ideas.

Do not have a good imagination.

Try to avoid complex people.

Have difficulty imagining things.

Avoid difficult reading material.

Will not probe deeply into a subject.

Intelligence and Creativity

When looking at these items, it’s pretty easy to notice two separate factors, one of intelligence,

Intellectual, have a rich vocabulary, quick to understand things, spend time reflecting on things, catch on to things quickly. (Whoever makes these tests clearly has a thing for the word “thing”.)

And one of creativity,

Have vivid imagination, have excellent ideas, full of ideas, love to think up new ways of doing things.

This is not something I personally discovered just now. Already back in 1981 psychologists John Digman and Naomi Takemoto-Chock analyzed the openness factor and found two sub-factors, “one of which appeared to be concerned more with intelligence, the other with matters of culture.” Others have referred to these factors as “reflection and curiosity/experimentation/hypotheses testing.” (Couldn’t find a link to the article so if you have one please let me know.)

Not that there is anything wrong with combining two traits into one. The trait of psychopathy is a combination of impulsivity and lack of empathy. That’s a meaningful construct because while both factors are relatively harmful the combination produces a type of person that make up less than one percent of the population but 20 percent of all convicts. And many of the other prisoners are afraid of them. That effect makes it a useful construct.

Openness, however, is supposed to be a broad factor of personality, a basic building block that only breaks down into aspects of itself, so-called facets. Like the shades of a color. Although some facets of other Big Five factors are questionable, the overall picture is clear – they are really aspects of the same thing, not combinations of essentially different traits. The same goes for broad factors of other models, like those of Eysenck, Cloninger or the MBTI, based on Jung’s theory.  So you might say such a factor is a contradiction in terms – it’s not broad or basic, it’s narrow and specific.

The Correlates – In Search of the Je Ne Sais Quois Factor

Unless of course you think of intelligence and creativity as two aspects of some underlying factor that is for some reason called openness to experience. But what would that factor be? We all know what conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion boil down to, but what is the core of openness to experience? It’s clearly not being literally open to experience because sensation seekers and the similar novelty seekers are very open to various experiences and measures of those only correlate modestly with openness. Perhaps the behavioral correlates of openness can give us a hint. Unsurprisingly, it correlates to measures of intelligence and creativity but that’s to be expected since it measures exactly those traits in the tests. Is there some other correlates that suggests an underlying factor behind both of these?

Liberal values. A liberal attitude has consistently been linked to openness (as has conscientiousness to conservatism). There is some research to suggest that liberalism is linked to intelligence, although this study is of moderate quality. And artists, generally thought to be a liberal group, do score about half a standard deviation higher than non-artist according to a big meta-study made by psychologist Gregory Feist. So this correlate clearly supports the idea of a two-factor trait rather than an underlying factor of openness.

Entrepreneurship. Openness appears to be a part of the entrepreneurial personality (along with high extraversion and conscientiousness and low agreeableness and neuroticism). But this is almost by definition a matter of creativity and most likely to some degree intelligence, so again nothing lurking beneath these two factors.

Migration. People high on openness tend to move around more, both within and between countries. Could be something beyond intelligence and creativity. I don’t see it, but let me know if you do.

Extramarital Affairs. This has not been properly established. There is a huge global study on this that found no link between openness and infidelity. (Instead it found this to be a matter of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.)

Trying new foods. This sounds like creativity maybe in conjunction with a liberal appreciation of other cultures.  And of course a bit of sensation seeking since as I mentioned before this trait has a modest correlation to openness.

Tattoos and piercing. I haven’t found any evidence that this relates to intelligence or even creativity. On the other hand, what underlying factor of openness would it be an indication of?

The Mystic Component

Dreams. People who score high on openness remember their dreams and often use their dreams to solve problems. This may be something that isn’t just a matter of intelligence or creativity or a combination of both. I have yet to see any research to confirm it but it’s a possibility perhaps suggesting that openness is some form of transcendent quality.

Spirituality. This somewhat vague dimension of religiousness, often defined more as a quest than a belief, has been found to correlate with openness.

Schizotypy. This trait, which is basically schizophrenia light, is also linked to openness.

This certainly looks like a candidate for an underlying factor but it’s most likely not. In a large high quality study of religion and intelligence, psychologist Gary Lewis found a correlation between spirituality and IQ of -0.05, which he generously refers to as support of the stronger inversed relation found by Kanazawa and others, but in reality it indicates that there is no relation between the two whatsoever. Other research has shown schizotypy to be linked to creativity so it would seem this mystic component belongs in that sub-factor.

Susan Sarandon - the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, a bit a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

Susan Sarandon – the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, like a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

In Any Way Useful?

But even if openness fails miserably, in my opinion, as a broad factor of personality it could still be useful. The two-factor trait of psychopathy has relevance in many situations, indeed, no one would find it irrelevant to know if the person in front of them is a psychopath or not.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with openness. The correlates I’ve mentioned above represent a large portion of what we know about this trait. And they don’t suggest any real need for this trait at all. They can all be reduced to either intelligence or creativity or a unsynergistic combination of the two. With the possible exception of something like migration and tattoos and piercing. Compare this with just a few correlates of conscientiousness like divorce rate, overweight and health, school and work performance and leadership. It’s just very hard to understand what use psychology (or anyone) can have of the trait openness to experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

And yet, if we combine all the features and correlates into a portrait we might find a clue to have this trait has become so prominent in personality psychology. The open person is of high intelligence and presumably also creative. He (or she) is a liberal with interests that lean more towards the humanities and soft science than hard science. He is not an atheist but also not part of traditional religion – a searcher rather than a dogmatic person. To me, this sounds a bit like a well-educated hippie, a White Californian, like for instance the always interesting blogger Santi Tafarella. But more than anything else, it sounds like a psychologist.

 

 


Fragile and Dangerous – Men with Borderline Personality Disorder

August 25, 2013
"She'll be sorry."

“She’ll be sorry.”

The Predator

Most people are familiar with the characteristics of violent men, either by first-hand experience or through news and true crime books and TV shows. We all know what they look like: fearless, callous, thrill- and pleasure seeking guys who take what they want and who get easily frustrated if someone gets in their way. It’s the familiar antisocial person ranging from the neighbourhood thug who gets into fights when he is drunk, to the full-fledged psychopath that entirely lacks empathy and uses other people for money, sex or other benefits.

And the Prey?

People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are a completely different breed. Their core features are their desperate need for love and lack of interpersonal skills. They fall head over heels in love with people they don’t know the first thing about and then become disillusioned and deeply resentful when the other person fails to match their fantasies. They are emotionally unstable and vulnerable and they feel very hurt and betrayed when people, as they see it, let them down. They fear being abandoned and often threaten to kill themselves. Another typical behavior is self-harm, cutting or burning themselves.

Borderlines can often come across as poor and misunderstood – perhaps because they genuinely feel that way – and being vulnerable they hardly evoke any fear in others. Their melodramatic gestures are sometimes pathetic or tragic, but again, nothing that will scare anyone. But it should.

Emo

Despite of the soap opera-type behavior found in psychiatric literature, between 25-50 percent of people with borderline are boys and men, and males who are angry, jealous and hateful tend to be dangerous. Women may think these guys, with their frailness and tragic personas are intriguing and good projects for improvement. A typical example of what they may look like comes from the musical genre called Emo. As the name suggests it deals with emotionally intense feeling of romantic nature, often tragic and bitter themes. And like borderlines they are often interested in self-harm and suicide.

But bitterness and hate isn’t just expressed by self-destructive gestures. In the emo lyrics you can often find passages that would suggest violence towards partners as well. Here are some excerpts from one of the more popular emo bands Fall Out Boy’s song Chicago Is So Two Years Ago,

My heart is on my sleeve
Wear it like a bruise or black eye
My badge, my witness
Means that I believed
Every single lie you said

You want apologies
Girl, you might hold your breath
Until your breathing stops forever, forever
the only thing you’ll get
Is this curse on your lips:
I hope they taste of me forever

With every breath I wish your body will be broken again, again
With every breath I wish your body will be broken again, again
With every breath I wish your body will be broken again, again
With every breath I wish your body will be broken again

Lashing Out

While the emo isn’t the only borderline male it seems like a pretty good example. And like the lyrics above suggest, borderline violence isn’t just directed at the self. A study on correlates of personality disorders conducted by clinical psychologist Joshua Miller and colleagues confirms this violent aspect of BPD. They had students fill in self-measures of personality disorders as well as other measure of for instance crime and violence. As expected, they found that crime was most strongly associated with psychopathy (which is a dimensional trait that to some extent can be found in the normal population). Also as expected, borderline was linked to self-harm. But perhaps more surprisingly, borderline was also strongly correlated with intimate partner violence, even more so than for psychopathy and narcissism.

Self-measures may of course be exaggerated, especially when we are talking about people with a taste for drama. But other research confirms that this is for real. One study from 2007 by psychiatrist Donald Black found that around 30 percent of new inmates in Iowa met the criteria for borderline and another study from this year by psychiatrist Marc Schroeder and colleagues, again looking at actual offenders, found a similar pattern with borderline being the second most common personality disorder after antisocial personality disorder. Of offenders who had committed both sexual and non-sexual violent crime half were antisocials and a third were borderlines as compared to third most common category of narcissistic disorder at a mere 3 percent. Given that borderline is rare in the general population, around 1-2 percent, it’s clear that these individuals are very violent.

The Hidden Threat

So it seems the borderline personality is a large and rather hidden threat to women (and probably some men too although women are usually less violent). No one seems to talk about these men. They rarely feature in the media or public debate. Maybe it’s just because they are so fragile and look more like victims than perpetrators. Pointing the finger at these guys may feel like kicking on someone who is already lying down. But they are not victims of anything but their own shaky grip on reality, and excusing them or looking the other way will only make for more violence.

 

For a more personal and in-depth look at these guys, check out Shanon’s excellent post,

http://strangedaysinthecity.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/boderline-boys-and-6-ways-to-spot-them/


Book Review: The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt

July 24, 2013

haidt

 

There is a lot to be said about this book; too much for a single review, but let me just start by saying it’s been a long while since I read something this interesting. It may not be up there with Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption but it’s not far off. So yes, it really is a big deal, and as another reviewer pointed out, the ideas presented in it are nothing short of a revolution in moral psychology.

The Old Guard

Back in the 1900s, the dominant idea on morality was that it was a product of logical reasoning, a school of thought, represented by psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Haidt, this theory became dominant because it accorded well with the values of the secular liberals who, now as then, were equally dominant at the Universities. We learn about right and wrong , they claimed, through rational thought. And if we are allowed to do so without the meddling of religion, tradition or other illegitimate authorities, we become modern and rational citizens, eager to build a shiny new tomorrow.

And by predefining morals as based on concepts like justice and harm rather than authority or tradition the Kohlberg and the other rationalists – without realizing it, according to Haidt – created the results that suited the zeitgeist. Caring and demanding justice for the oppressed now seemed to be scientifically proven as the morally right thing to be doing. This way of thinking prevailed up until the 1990s when behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology was beginning to undermine the progressive hijack of science.

Haidt’s Revolution

As a student in the 1980s, Haidt had doubts regarding the contemporary view on morality in psychology. He says he remembers quarrelling with his sister as a kid and how the feeling of being right was instant and emotional.  The logical reasoning came afterwards, when he tried to explain why he was right, but he kept his skepticism to himself. When studying cultural psychology taught by anthropologists, he found that among some people, you could kill a complete stranger for no good reason and the deed would increase your status. And in some cultures it was immoral to eat certain foods.

It seemed that moral psychologists only had one piece of the puzzle. This revelation and following research, including a visit to India, eventually resulted in Haidt presenting his six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation.  According to his theory, all these foundations are to some extent used by most people in forming moral judgments, although they vary by things like culture and ideology and individually as well.

Two Tribes: the WEIRD and the Old-Fashioned

In researching the foundations, he found that two patterns emerged. Westerners, liberals, adults, educated, upper class people had a tendency to rely mainly on Care/harm and to a lesser degree on Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.  Non-westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated, lower class people on the other hand relied more evenly on all foundations. The first category of people is similar to what anthropologists refer to as WEIRD – Western, Educated, Rich, Democratic. He found this pattern by confronting people  with so-called harmless taboo stories like these,

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

WEIRD people, relying heavily on Care/harm, were the least likely to say that these behaviors were wrong. They were often disturbed by the actions described, but argued that as long as no one was harmed it was their choice. Although later Haidt hints at the fact that even WEIRD people probably make moral judgments on other foundations even though they may not be keen to admit it. As an example he mentions the piece of art known as Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in urine, and wonders if a “Piss Martin Luther King” would be equally acceptable to the WEIRD. For some reason they are unwilling to admit that they rely on other foundations. Holding something sacred, relying on the Sanctity foundation, may feel awkward to a modern and rational person.

Visceral, Not Cerebral

And like his quarrels with his sister, he found that moral judgments in general are immediate and emotional, rather than cerebral and deliberate. To prove this he made some clever studies in which he gave participants tasks involving making moral judgments. He then introduced time limits and distractions – factors that lower the quality on cognitive tasks. The quality remained intact – people tend to know what’s right and wrong instantly. Haidt concluded that moral judgments are more like intuitions or gut feelings than rational thought, which only comes after the fact when people justify their judgments.

So Where Do Morals Come From?

But if we can’t reason our way to what’s right and wrong, then how do we do it? Part of it is in our DNA – moral foundations correlate with personality traits (you might actually think of them as personality traits) that are known to have a high heritability. The other part is social; people usually conform to the morals in their culture, and they usually change their mind on moral issues as a result of social influence rather than by private contemplation. This is for instance seen in the fact known to advertisers – repeated exposure makes for a positive judgment. And friendliness tends to be a better way of persuading people than reasoning. It all point to morals as something we acquire to fit in and get along. This is also found in politics where people often vote with their groups and against their self-interest.

Haidt claims that morals originated with shared intentionality. We developed this ability to hold a common idea and act on it. One man holds down the branch and the others pick the fruit. Chimps can’t do things like that. This common understanding was the seed, it meant that there was a right way of doing things and that letting go of the branch before the others had picked any fruit was a crappy thing to do. So as our ability for shared intentionality evolved so did our ability to cooperate. Which made the righteous person a team player.

Our Hivish/Clannish Nature

How far did the moral/cooperation trend take us? Haidt points out that colonial insects have outcompeted nearly all solitaries and that humans by excellence in cooperation have achieved a similar dominance. He speculates that group selection can have created individuals who can set their self-interest aside, at least under certain circumstance, and like colonial insects view the hive as the main priority. War would be one such circumstance, but Haidt also mentions rituals, like dances, marching and such ceremonies as a way to connect to our hivish nature.

Exactly how hivish we are remains to be seen. Colonial insects are clones so their evolutionary self-interest coincides with their group. Clearly Haidt could have benefitted from Human Biodiversity, especially the findings of hbd chick* that show how the most closely related also are the most hivish/clannish. Since humanity has lived in small isolated groups inbreeding must have created a selection for kin altruism. Since this way of living ended fairly recently, we could still have this hivish /clannish/tribal nature, even without any type of group selection.

Religion – It’s Not What You Believe, It’s Who You Believe It With

WEIRD people have a tendency to be skeptical of religion. They look at the various beliefs in supernatural agents and conclude that it’s an unhealthy thing, similar to a disease of the brain. The general idea behind this view is that if you believe in crazy things, you will eventually do crazy things and cause harm to others. But according to Haidt, religion is not about the beliefs per se, but about creating group cohesion with the foundation of Sanctity. And it can do so effectively even between people who are unrelated.

As an example, he mentions the research on communes in America done by anthropologist Robert Sosis. Communes are intentional communities built either on secular or religious ideas. Sosis looked 200 communes in America and found that after 20 years that only 6 percent of secular communes where still alive while 39 percent of the religious communes were still active. He also found that an important key to survival was sacrifice – the more people gave up for the commune the longer it lived. But this only held for religious communes. It seems, Haidt argues, that Sanctity, is needed for a sacrifice to make sense. Only if you hold something sacred will you truly make a sacrifice, otherwise it’s just a transaction. And if you hold something sacred and share it with a group of like-minded people you are more likely to stick together than if you are a secular who is always wondering if the commune is a good deal for you or not.

In line with these findings, Haidt mentions other research in economics that point to the cohesive power of religion. One example from German researchers is in the form of a game in which a so-called truster is given an amount of money in each round that he may share in part or fully with another participant, called the trustee. Any money transferred is then tripled by the experimenter and the trustee can then choose to return any or all of the money back to the truster. It turns out that when the truster is informed (truthfully) that the trustee is religious, he will transfer more of his money to him than if he is nonreligious. And, equally important, the religious trustee will in fact give back more money than a nonreligious trustee would.

This game is played out in real life too, for instance among Orthodox Jewish diamond merchants, a trade in which trust can lower the transaction costs. And it probably happens all over the world as people of the same faith do business on a hand shake rather than with lots of costly paper work.

As seen in this experiment religious cohesion even reaches out to outgroups. Haidt quotes political scientist Robert Putnam whose findings suggest that religious people make good citizens,

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.

Putnam’s findings indicate that while religious people are more generous to their own, they are as generous as nonreligious towards outgroups. An atheist may argue that the religious vote for lower taxes and that evens the score, but time spent in community life is not something you can get back that way.

The Culture War

 The liberal/WEIRD/atheist dismissal of religion is according to Haidt a part of the ongoing culture war between people using different moral foundations. I think he fails to explain why this war has escalated in recent years, especially in America, but there is no doubt that this trend is real and not just a media dramatization. In 1976, 27 percent of all Americans lived in landslide counties which Democrats or Republicans won by 20 percent or more – today 48 percent live in landslide counties,

Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).

Haidt goes on to discuss how the two tribes, often simply referred to as liberals and conservatives, simply don’t speak the same language, but that they both need to understand the seriousness of the situation. They need to understand the morality of their opponents in order to to have a meaningful discussion. And they can probably learn something from each other.

He also points out that there is a trade-off between these cultures. A small isolated and homogeneous society (like Nebraska) is probably not going to be as exciting as a diverse and urban place like California. This is probably true although it doesn’t explain the growing animosity between states like these. If differences in moral foundations are the cause of the conflict it should have been as fierce 30 years ago as it is today.

At any rate, Haidt’s theory offers an interesting new perspective on human nature. Hopefully, the moral foundation can become a language or a tool with which these two tribes can learn to “disagree more constructively”. Here are some points that I think any liberal or conservative should consider after having read this book,

Conservatives,

You need to understand that the institutions you hold dear need reform in order to maintain their inherent values. A deeply religious gay couple will honor the institution of marriage better than a drunk straight couple who got married in Vegas for fun. And when you say, “I love you, but you’re going to hell” only the last part of the sentence rings true. You need to understand that without regulation, large international corporations will suck your country dry and then casually move on – strong government and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Also, since you watch a TV show like Modern Family, you clearly like some of what liberal “Hollyweird” has to offer.

Liberals,

You need to understand that religion is a force of cohesion in a country that is already very splintered in many ways. You need to understand that while Piss Christ should be protected by free speech, it is not good citizenship to offend people just to get a little attention. You need to understand that diversity is the opposite of cohesion – it comes with a price. Maybe you think it’s worth it, fair enough, but don’t pretend like it’s for free. And don’t try to squeeze tax money from conservatives to “spread the wealth”. They will only get more reluctant to pay taxes. Remember that conservatives are generous; if helping out is your first priority, you will find a way to work with them.

So be nice. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Michell Malkin. Notice the way she says “shush” to her opponent and gets wild-eyed four minutes in. Although she is good looking, it’s not a pretty sight,


The Death of Enlightenment – or How Nebraska Beats California

July 14, 2013
Children of the Corn. Now that's a tightly knit community.

Children of the Corn. Now that’s a tightly knit community.

So I’ve had this ongoing discussion with the eloquent liberal blogger Santi about the state of California. We both agree that this state embodies the ideas and the spirit of Enlightenment, being liberal, tolerant, open-minded, diverse, metropolitan and so on. All good qualities that will translate to a happy and prosperous society, he claims.

To me, however, being more of a social conservative (but still open to new ideas) these qualities are more problematic. Naturally I admire the original men of Enlightenment for trying to bring some rationality and justice into the Western societies of the 1700s, but today I think this movement or trend has degenerated into destructive and irrational project. It’s all good to have a little diversity and mutual respect for each other’s differences, but at the end of the day societies are based on what we have in common – not on what sets us apart. So there has to be a limit to our tolerance. Experience tells us that the fabric of society, the things that bind people together, is blood, history, religion, traditions and the values that come out of this mix. Friends of Enlightenment dismiss this idea and claim that all we need is to agree on some house rules, and then everyone can do their own thing while respecting each other. And so the discussion goes.

But instead of discussing, I thought it would be interesting to do a match-up between Team Enlightenment, in the form of California, with Team Tradition, in the form of a state that in as many ways as possible is the opposite of California. Using the description above as criteria, I settled for Nebraska. It’s a solidly red state with more people identifying as conservative than in most states. It has very little diversity being 86 percent White (82 percent non-Hispanic White). It’s one of the most religious states and Christianity is practically the only religion. It is rural and has no metropolitan areas. Nebraska also differ sharply from California in terms of personality, judging by data compiled by psychologist Peter Rentfrow – Californians are more introverted and open to experience while Nebraskans are more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious. (The two states score about equal on Neuroticism.) So are these hicks any match for California? Let’s start by looking at some basic economic factors and then on to general well-being, crime and corruption etc. To get some general perspective I’ve also added the national average on these metrics.

Economy

First off, here is the per capita income in thousands of dollar for the time period 1990-2011 (sorry about the x-axis; my chart skills are limited), data taken from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico,

per capita income

As we can see, California is staying on top for the entire period, but since incomes have roughly doubled during this time the relative differences are actually shrinking. To get a better idea of what is going on, I made a chart showing per capita income of Nebraska and the nation as percentages of Californian income for the same time period,

per capita percentages

Here we can see more clearly how national per capita income has been gaining on the Californian ditto, and even more so for Nebraska which has gone from 84 percent to 97 percent. That’s a very small advantage left for California and one that’s clearly diminishing in the long run. With that in mind, look at the next chart showing economic inequality,

Gini coefficient

The chart is showing the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality (the higher the more unequal), data taken from Wikipedia/US Census Bureau 2010. This is probably counter-intuitive to many people – the Republican Nebraska seems to be spreading the wealth way more than progressive California. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but more stats will confirm this picture. Such as for instance poverty rates,

Poverty

Here is the poverty rate for 2011 as a percentage of the population according to US Census Bureau. Almost one in four Californians are poor. That’s the highest rate of all states and more than twice that of Nebraska. Again we see that Nebraska is spreading the wealth somehow whereas California is not. We find a very similar picture if we look at unemployment, here the percentage rates for May 2013 according the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

unemployment

And if you think that is just a fluctuation and that California with all its creative people are busy generating jobs for the future, here is Gallup’s Job Creation Index for 2012,

job creation index

Evidently, Nebraska is much better at creating new jobs which explains the low unemployment, and probably also why the state has almost caught up with the Californian per capita income and looks to surpass it in the near future.

Health and Well-Being

Still, money isn’t everything. Perhaps the diversity and sunny weather makes for a happier and healthier life? Here is Gallup’s Well-Being Index for 2012,

well-being

Overall Nebraska scores higher although in fairness, looking at some of the sub-factors, Californians eat more fruit and vegetables, exercise more and have less obesity. But Nebraska still wins this round with more people with health insurance, more people who feel their neighbourhood is getting better and fewer people having diabetes – somehow those healthy Californians are still getting more diabetes – a matter of stress or genetic differences?

Crime and Corruption

Moving on to crime. I’ve chosen murder because it’s perhaps the most robust measure in this field (although using total crime will give a similar pattern). Here is the murder rate per 100K inhabitants in 2009 according to US Census Bureau,

murder rate

As you can see, the Californian murder rate is only slightly higher than the national average, but it is more than twice that of Nebraska.

As far as corruption goes the states are fairly similar: California is ranked 81 and Nebraska 80 on the State Integrity Investigation’s ranking for 2012, a negligible difference, but this index shows some weird fluctuations that are not present in the international Corruptions Perceptions Index. For this reason I’ve used actual convictions instead, compiled by the Justice Department and visualized in an interactive map at governing.com. Here are the convictions between 2000-2010 per 10K public employees by state,

convictions

California is clearly better than the national average but is again beaten by Nebraska, having almost twice as many convictions.

Education

Like State Integrity Investigation’s ranking, there are some subjective measures of the quality of education, so I’ve focused on actual attainments in the form of NAEP scores and statistics on degrees from the US Census Bureau. Here is the current situation in terms of achieved degrees,

degrees

California has a little edge when it comes to higher education but not much. The most conspicuous difference is how Nebraska has distinctly less people without a high school degree, something that fits well with the low poverty rate.

And for a look at what the future may hold, here are the NAEP scores for 8th graders in 2011,

naep

They look similar but California is below the national average in all categories whereas Nebraska is equal to the national average on math and slightly above on reading and science. And this of course means that Nebraska wins over California in all categories. The reason is most found in the changing demographics; the Californian population is now largely Mexican and Mexico has a national average IQ of 85 or thereabout.

The Verdict

I may be engaging in confirmation bias here, seeing what I want to see, but judging by these metrics, had this been a boxing match then California would have been lying on the floor by now. California has historically attracted smart people and Silicon Valley is still the high-tech hub of the nation. But per capita income is the only metric in which California clearly beats Nebraska. And that is likely to change as Nebraska now has 97 percent of the Californian income and has smarter school children.

So why is Team Tradition winning over Team Enlightenment? I believe it’s because Team Tradition is built on common denominators – ethnic, religious and historical. That creates trust, loyalty and friendship – and that translates to less crime, and probably less poverty too as people know each other and become more inclined to help one another. It also creates more well-being (less stress and insecurity) and more efficient ways of doing business. It probably leads to more corruption sometimes, when people get a bit too friendly, but judging by this example that isn’t always the outcome.

Meanwhile, the only thing members of Team Enlightenment have in common is the idea that they don’t need to have anything in common other than a set of rules. This creates a team of strangers who have no good reason to be loyal, friendly or trusting of each other. It’s a team who will settle all their conflicts in court – or with a gun – and who will welcome any new members regardless of their qualifications or abilities. How can that team ever win?


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.

 


Why Social Psychology Sucks

June 15, 2013
The recently departed serial killer Richard Ramirez. Deep down a good guy who just happened to wear counterfeit sunglasses too often.

The recently departed serial killer Richard Ramirez. Deep down a good guy who just happened to wear counterfeit sunglasses too often.

Is there something rotten in the state of social psychology? In recent years there has been several scandals within this field. Social psychologists from both Europe and America have been found to conduct research that ranges from highly questionable to outright fraud. Those exposed have left their positions, but in the media, and perhaps among the public as well, there is a lingering feeling that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. I think that is a well-grounded suspicion. To understand why that is, we need to review the history of this branch of psychology.

The 1960s – Peace, Love and Left-Wing Lunacy

Back in the 1960s, there was a debate or conflict in psychology regarding the very fundamentals of human nature – why we think, feel and behave the way we do, known as the Person-Situation Debate. The personality psychologists insisted that this was primarily a matter of personality, our innate tendencies. To social psychologists, and most social scientists as well, it was the particular situation in which we find ourselves that was the major determinant. This conflict mirrors the old nature-nurture debate since personality traits are highly inheritable and change little during our lives. In 1968 sociologist Walter Mischel wrote a little something he called Personality and Assessment, in which he in many people’s eyes settled this debate for good. He essentially claimed that there was no consistency in behavior across various situations and for that reason there was no such thing as personality traits. Instead, our behavior is dictated entirely by the situations in which we find ourselves.

Personally, I find it very hard to fathom the idiocy of Mischel’s conclusion. It would mean that a person who others think of as for instance shy is really nothing of the kind. It just looks that way because we have only had chance to observe him or her in situations that elicits shyness. And if you think of yourself as shy you must be either plain wrong or stuck in a series of situations that by coincidence predisposes you to acting shy. This idea may sound like a joke, but the zeitgeist of the 1960s was left of sanity and lots of “intellectuals” believed Mischel the way they believed in Marx, Lenin and Mao.

For that reason, social psychology became a major branch of psychology. After all, if it was all in the situation then this was the important field of research. Personality barely survived and its proponents, like Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen, were often dismissed as racists and right-wing lobbyists.

Interactionism

Unsurprisingly, it soon became evident that Mischel was wrong – there really was such a thing as a shy person. As traits became real again, personality psychology grew but at the same time social psychologists kept a grip on their dominant position by introducing interactionism, the study of both situations and personality. This way they blurred the line between the fields and managed to claim a lot of the newly available positions in personality research. But at heart they were never interactionists; they started out as situationists because of their political views and they have stayed that way ever since. To this day they rarely perform experiments in which personality measures are used. Their focus is very much on the situation. Look at the collective social psychology blog in the links to the right of this post – it’s even called The Situationist, not The Interactionist. For most of these psychologists, interactionism was just a word with which to neutralize the enemy.

Current Research

And today? Well, it’s like the French say, the more something changes, the more it stays the same. This can be seen in a recent post in the above mentioned The Situationist (which is still interesting to follow because not all social psychology is crap) about Harvard Professor Francesca Gino’s  book Sidetracked, in which she describes how small things or situations derail our plans, intentions and even our morals. As an example she mentions an experiment in which she and psychologist Dan Ariely equipped participants with high-end sunglasses. Half of the participants were told that they were actually counterfeits, while the other half were told they were the real deal. The participants were then instructed to perform a mathematical task which left room for cheating. It turned out that 70 percent of those who thought they wore knock-off sunglasses cheated compared to 30 percent in the other group.

This may sound like compelling evidence for the power of the situation, but is it really? The participants were all young women rather than a representative sample. But more importantly, they were informed that they were participating in a psychological experiment and then told to wear counterfeit sunglasses. That’s pretty far from any kind of real life situation. It’s more like saying, “let’s play a game – you will be the bad guy.” It supports the idea that social psychology is, as someone put it, a list of how people behave in weird situations. Needless to say, Gino and Ariely didn’t use any personality measure since that would only distract attention from the power of the almighty Situation.

A Trip to Reality

So if wearing fake sunglasses can make a person dishonest, how about the situation of being brought up by criminal parents? Now that should be a way more powerful situation. Psychologist Sarnoff Mednick and colleagues investigated this in the mid 1980s  using data from over 14 thousand nonfamilial adoptions (in which the adoptive parents are unrelated to the child). They found that when both biological and adoptive parents had no criminal convictions the adopted child was eventually convicted in 13.5 percent of the cases, so that’s our baseline. When adoptive parents had convictions but biological parents had not, the number of convicted adoptees only rose very slightly to 14.7 percent. So fake sunglasses will have a profound effect on your honesty, but being brought up by criminals will only marginally elevate your risk of being convicted of a crime. That must be some sunglasses.

The Future

So where does social psychology go from here? In response to the scandals, psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggested that studies in this field need more independent replications. It sounds like a reasonable suggestion, but a reply in Times Higher Education by social psychologists Wolfgang Stroebe and Miles Hewstone clearly indicates that scrutiny is not their cup of tea,

In our opinion, the controversy will not be resolved by replicating effect studies, but rather by further theoretical elaboration of the psychological processes underlying these effects and by empirical testing of those processes.

Well that’s comforting to know – they just need to construct some even more artificial situations in order to deliver those results that will prove that Marx was right all along. And no outsiders need to concern themselves with exactly how they go about doing that.

Another quote from Stroebe and Hewstone only fuels the suspicion that social psychology is almost as crazy as it was in the 1960s,

Science is based on trust, and scientists find it difficult even to consider that members of the club might be cheating.

No, science when done properly doesn’t rely on trust one bit. It works regardless of whether you trust this or that guy since it’s based on objective principles. And if you have a problem considering the possibility that your colleague is a fraud then you’re in the wrong business. Science is about evidence; it’s never about accepting something at face value.

While there is still interesting research in social psychology, you really have to read it with a critical attitude. Crappy studies like that by Gino and Ariely are practically the norm, and they always get written up by supposedly legit science sites like for instance Scientific American. That way it may seem impressive but in reality it’s as fake as fake sunglasses.


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.

 


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.

Implications

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,

United_States_1789-08-1790

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.

Evolution

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.


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