Factory Settings

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

Today’s post is about cognitive science. But it’s also about love, in ways that will become clear.

In this post, I will regurgitate what Jordan Peterson has said about the Big Five personality traits, and then I will have a comment about them. If you doubt my word, or want to hear the same things said in a much more detailed, professional, and actually egg-headed manner, please feel free to watch the JP video below.

I have posted before about the MBTI, a personality typology which some people find insightful, but which was developed by amateurs. The MBTI makes a lot of intuitive sense to many people, but it was still made up. And it is not the only one with this problem. Peterson points out in this video that most personality typologies started as a theory which the developers then tried to apply to actual people. Not so with the Big Five. These are personality traits that emerge naturally from data. (JP says that much more convincingly than I do, of course.) They vary among individuals within every culture, and they are fairly stable throughout a person’s life. These traits are on a continuum, not binary. Each of us comes into this world falling at a certain point on each of these continua. As we mature, we expand our range along the continuum, but we are never going to move our set point from one end of a continuum to the other.

The Big Five Personality Traits

This will be easier to understand if we look at the Big Five.

Extraversion

Neuroticism

Agreeableness

Conscientiousness

Openness (to new experiences)

Very extraverted people draw energy from being around others. Very introverted people are drained by this. (This is the only trait from the Big Five that shows up, with the same terminology, in the MBTI.)

People with high neuroticism are more susceptible to negative emotion.

People with high agreeableness want to please others. Less agreeable people are less motivated to please others and more motivated to reach their own goals.

People with high conscientiousness are more industrious and more orderly than people without.

People with high openness tend to be creative types. They are also more likely to be politically liberal. (I am high openness, but due to a long personal journey, not politically leftist. My politics are spite of my temperament. This does mean that typical conservative arguments often don’t appeal to me.)

The Big Five and the Sexes

This is an aside, but Peterson often refers to the Big Five traits when talking about average differences between men and women. Women are, on average, more agreeable than men, higher in neuroticism, and slightly higher in conscientiousness. It is easy to see why these traits would flow from being designed to be moms. Even a greater tendency to negative emotion is an advantage when you’re taking care of preverbal children and you have to be sensitive to their distress.

These Are Factory Settings

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It’s easy to see how a person could feel inferior by virtue of having any given one of these traits. It’s also easy to imagine how people who are proud of their trait could think there is something seriously wrong with people on the other end of the continuum.

  • Why don’t you want to be around other people?/ Why can’t you ever entertain yourself? (Extraversion)
  • Why are you so sensitive?/so insensitive? (Neuroticism)
  • Why are you so domineering?/so wishy-washy? (Agreeableness)
  • Why are you so lazy and irresponsible/so uptight and controlling? (Conscientiousness)
  • Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud/a hippie? (Openness)

Relax, people.

All of us have character flaws. And sure, they fall along the fault lines of our Big Five traits, no doubt. But having any given one of these traits is not the same thing as having a sin nature. Conversely, not a single one of these traits will make the bearer a perfect person, either. These are just the factory settings.

And now we get to the love.

I was thinking about these traits as I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the love of God. To be specific, I was bemoaning that my natural tendency is to be low in conscientiousness. This has often caused me trouble with loved ones who are higher in conscientiousness. How can that be a good thing? Why didn’t God set my natural conscientiousness level a little higher? What was He thinking?

In a move typical of people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness, I was lost in my thoughts rather than paying close attention. But then, the topic of the Sunday School lesson abruptly broke in upon my consciousness.

He loves me.

He loves me, and He made me, and, for some reason, He chose to make a person who is a bit low in conscientiousness. In fact, He chose to make people with all different Big Five factory settings. Ergo, all of these factory settings are by design. He must think we need all kinds.

Ergo, He likes your settings. Even if someone else doesn’t. Even if no one else does.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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The I Dare You Tag, a.k.a. “I Am Easily Guilted”

I was tagged to answer these questions by author of the wonderful blog The Orangutan Librarian. You should definitely go over there and check out her posts. Number one, she’s an orangutan, and number two, she has some great satirical pieces.

What book has been on your shelf the longest?

I was going to show a Bible picture book that I’ve had since I was 3, but it turns out it is not on my shelf any more as I have passed it on to a niece. So, here …

What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?

What book did everyone like, but you hated?

OK, this is the question that calls for courage. 

There are several that everyone agrees are great, and they probably are, but I’m avoiding them.

The Hate U Give, The Help, and The Secret Life of Bees.

I even have two of these on my shelf, but I haven’t cracked them open. 

Reason? I’m super easily guilted.  I don’t want to read a book that is going to call me racist, because even though I know I’m not, I’m going to feel responsible for all the bad stuff that happens in the book.  I will go around hanging my head just that little bit lower.  Then I’ll be angry that I am being blamed for segregation or for a police shooting in a city I’ve never been to, and … well, you get the idea.

What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t?

The Brothers Karamazov.  I’ve started it, and it was super good, and I know it has amazing writing and a ton of spiritual insight, but I’ve heard so much about it that I feel like I already know the ending.

What book are you saving for retirement?

At this rate, what I’m saving for retirement is probably my entire career as a novelist.

Last page: Read it first, or wait ‘til the end?

Wait, definitely. Unless you’ve read everything that came before, the last page won’t make much sense and, even if you can sort of figure out what is going on, it certainly won’t have the same impact.

That said, I have been known to skim ahead a page or two in a book, just to break the tension, when I sense that something really awful is about to happen.

Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?

Ok. I have lots of thoughts on acknowledgements.

In general, I like them. They are sweet.  I love it when the author thanks their spouse for all the sacrifices they made.  Also, the acknowledgements can be a way to find out the name of the author’s agent, which is helpful if you write similar kinds of books and want to query the agent.

But I’m not fond of acknowledgements that fill 1 – 2 pages and, seemingly, list every single person who had anything to do with bringing the book to print.  First of all, I can’t pay attention to all those names and my eyes glaze over, and then I feel guilty because clearly all these people deserve to be thanked.

Secondly, these long acknowledgement sections can be discouraging to a fledgling author.  If a dozen people are listed, and every one of them is thanked for their “invaluable edits and corrections,” and is a person “without whose work this book would never have come to be,” we get the impression that it’s impossible to write a book (at least, a decent book) without a team of at least a dozen at your back.  Which means that our current WIP is probably trash, which makes us doubt ourself since we know it’s not.

Also, I once saw a long acknowledgment section by Nicholas Sparks that was nothing but a bunch of puns on the titles of his previous books, none of which I had read. I didn’t end up reading that one either.

Which book character would you switch places with?

Bertie Wooster.  Who wouldn’t want to have Jeeves on hand?

Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (place, time, person)?

Yes, all of them. 

(I once told a Medieval Lit professor that because of a certain past friendship I had “issues” around the entire corpus of Arthurian legends, and added, “I guess that makes me a real literature dork, right?”

And she said, “I don’t know, I think most people have issues like that with different works of literature.” I think she was right.)

Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.

A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling. I read the first book in this series (Dies the Fire) by checking it out of the library. But I couldn’t find the second one in the library, though they had later books in the series. (What are you thinking, librarians?)  So I was forced to go online and order copies of the missing books.

This shows the value of authors getting their books into libraries, by the way.

Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person?

Only all the time.  It’s called “forcing books on people.” It’s my social handicap (one of many). Apparently I communicate by giving, lending, and recommending books.

Which book has been with you the most places?

This is a tricky one. In my youth I was a world traveler, and I am one of those people who always have to have a book with them, so I have dragged many different books to some very remote places. But it’s never always the same one. I remember reading an Indonesian version of The Two Towers while on a canoe, and reading How Green Was My Valley (in English) sitting on an ironwood porch in the jungle.  Little House probably wins, though, since I re-read that one on the ironwood porch as well. 

Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?

No. I liked To Kill A Mockingbird when we read it in high school, and loved it even more later.  I hated 1984 so much that I’ve never gone back to it.

Used or brand new?

Library.

Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?

I can’t remember.  I have read one by another person in a similar genre, and reviewed it here.

Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?

The Great Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio version). The film made the characters sympathetic and the story poignant, which the book didn’t do for me.

Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?

I don’t need a book to make me hungry.

I am easily guilted (is a theme developing here?) by books that feature starvation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy stars a 9-year-old boy who is always hungry and includes many detailed, sensuous descriptions of food.  Man, that boy could put away the pies! Of course, he was nine years old and was out ploughing all day.

Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?

Not sure this person exists.  Even people I respect greatly have different thresholds than I do.

Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was out of my comfort zone and I avoided it for several years because I got the impression that it demonized missionaries as evil colonialists who don’t bother to learn anything about the cultures they enter.

Eventually, when I’d made some culture crossing mistakes of my own and been through some difficult personal stuff, and I had accepted myself as a flawed person and life had calmed down a bit, I felt ready to read it.

It is brilliant. 

I still think it demonizes missionaries to some extent, but it is such good literature that even the Baptist pastor villain is portrayed in a complex way. It does a great job of showing the huge learning curve faced by Westerners when entering a West African culture.  It deals with white guilt, parenting guilt, and more. At least three of the characters made me go, “This is me!

Also, the sections narrated by the pastor’s oldest daughter Rachel are hilarious because they’re filled with malapropisms.

Now it’s my turn to tag you.

Tag! You’re it. If you want to do this tag, go home and do it, and let me know. Or answer randomly selected questions from this tag in the comments.

Aha! I Knew It, Part III

The more ideological a psychological or sociological study, the less likely it is to be replicable.

That’s common sense, but it’s nice that someone has written an article documenting the proof of it. Of course, the concept “ideological” is itself a relative one. Ideologues can’t see their own precommitment and would just call it common sense. So keep that in mind.

Now, here’s another article by the same author …

The go-to test for measuring implicit bias (based on reaction times in milliseconds) doesn’t actually predict biased behavior and probably isn’t even measuring what it claims to measure.

This feels like a vindication. One of my major reasons for distrusting psychological and sociological studies is that they claim to be able to scientifically prove to the victim … I mean research subject … that he or she “has” something like unconscious racism. And because it’s unconscious and has been scientifically proven, there’s no way to refute it. Denying it is further evidence that the claims are true. This kind of reasoning goes all the way back to Freud.

Aha! I Knew It Part I here

Aha! I Knew It Part II here

Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?