Arnold Kling  

Grasping the Nettle of Personality

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A commenter recommended Daniel Nettle's book on Personality. It was a good recommendation.


Various lines of evidence suggest that our interest in money--and the material goods it buys--is mainly as a marker of comparative social status.

Some more notes and excerpts follow.

For me, the most troubling thing about personality psychology is the far-from-perfect correlation between different descriptions of the same personality factors.

For example, extraversion is usually described as having to do with how you relate to other people. In fact, the questions that Nettle provides in the appendix to self-assess one's extraversion are questions that describe social interaction.

However, Nettle thinks of extraversion as something like lust for life, sensation-seeking, and ambition. The song of the extravert might be "New York, New York" ("I want to be a part of it...I want to wake up to a city that never sleeps...If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere"). If that is what extraversion means, then I am not nearly as low on the scale as I am if you use the more common Jung/Myers-Briggs description. Having said that, the first time I took a Myers-Briggs, I showed up as exactly in between extravert and introvert. Nettle writes,


we should be careful in equating Extraversion with sociability...shyness is most often due to...high Neuroticism and anxiety.

For Nettle, Extraverts go to parties not necessarily because they love people but because it helps them fulfill their desires for sensation and attention.

Extraverts have a lot of positive emotion...They are all activated in response to the pursuit or capture of some resource that is valued. Desire is awakened in us to get us to go and look for the thing we want. Excitement builds towards the anticipated capture of that resource. Joy follows its capture.

...The introvert is, in a way, aloof from the rewards of the world, which gives him tremendous strength and independence from them.

On the other hand, the people with high sensitivity to negative emotions are people with a great deal of Neuroticism. The song of the Neurotic might be "Poor, poor, pitiful me," by Warren Zevon. ("I'd lay my head on the railroad tracks, and wait for the Double E. But the railroad don't run no more--poor, poor, pitiful me").

The Extravert is the optimistic risk-taker and the Neurotic is the pessimistic risk-avoider. The Extravert enjoys a portfolio of volatile stocks. The Neurotic wants to hold treasuries--and plenty of health insurance. I know of a finance professor who advocates against holding stocks and says that it feels awful to lose. He is also subject to severe depression. One cannot help but think, "neuroticism."

For the economist, there is no fundamental distinction between positive stimuli and negative stimuli. My utility function weights the former positively and the latter negatively. To the five-factor theorist, positive and negative stimuli are assessed by different personality factors. A high-Extravert, low-Neurotic will react strongly to positive stimuli and weakly to negative emotions. The low-Extravert, high-Neurotic will react weakly to positive stimuli and strongly to negative emotions. Other personality combinations might react strongly to both or strongly to neither.


There are motivational advantages of Neuroticism. There may be cognitive ones too. It has long been known that, on average, people are over-optimistic about the outcomes of their behaviour, especially once they have a plan...This is well documented in the business world, with its over-optimistic growth plans, and also in military leadership, where it is clear that generals are routinely over-sanguine about their likely progress and under-reflective about the complexities.

...Professional occupations are those that mainly involve thinking, and it is illuminating that Neuroticism tended to be advantageous in these fields and not in, say, sales

Can you say, "suits vs. Geeks divide?" The suits are high-extravert, low-neurotics. The geeks are more neurotic, less extraverted.

Psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has written interestingly about the excessive optimism of stock markets in the late 1990s. Investors ploughed more and more money into investments and companies, expecting double-digit returns to go on forever...Nesse estimates that the proportion of Wall Street brokers taking Prozac or related antidepressants could have been as high as one quarter at this time

Maybe the reason that markets have become more bubble-prone is that we're taking too many drugs that make us more extraverted and less neurotic. Maybe the DeLong-Krugman model of a bubble and crash as reflecting changes in the mix of investors with different outlooks could be supported on the basis of personality psychology.

When I say that I see this country headed toward a one-party state, with various deleterious effects, am I just showing Neuroticism? When Nouriel Roubini kept making dire forecasts, was that because of Neuroticism?

I wish we had a mechanism for choosing bank executives and political leaders that didn't select for so much extraversion and so little neuroticism.

The next factor is Conscientiousness, which is self-discipline and will power. If you listen to a country music station, I can promise you that within an hour you will hear a song that talks about someone who has issues with Conscientiousness. One that comes to mind is "I Really Had a Ball Last Night, I held all the pretty girls tight. I was feelin' single, seein' double, wound up in a whole lot of trouble. Today I'll face the big fight--but I really had a ball last night."

Nettle says that Extraverts have an easy time starting things that might get them into trouble. But it's the low-Conscientious folks who have difficulty stopping thinks that are getting them in trouble. Biill and Hillary might both have a lust for life, but Hillary has a conscience that would stop her from fooling around with an intern.

One issue that interests me is the type of person one wants to be around, which might be different from one's own personality. I think that people with low Conscientiousness annoy me more than just about any other type of people. I think that, at least in some respects, I am pretty conscientious (Bernie Saffran told me I was the first student ever to hand in on time the paper that was assigned in his Econometrics seminar. Jeff Frankel was about one year late, as I recall.) But I certainly care about the issue a lot.

The next trait is Agreeableness. It answers the following question:


We give blood, we donate to charity, we return lost wallets, we give directions to strangers in the street. We leave tips in restaurants in distant cities that we can be sure we will never visit again. Why do we do this?

For a song to represent this trait, think of just about any 60's Flower Power anthem, such as "Get Together." "Come on people, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now."

To be agreeable, you have to be able to "mentalize" (read the feelings of others, which autistic people have trouble doing) and empathize (that is, care about others' feelings, given that you can read them. Sociopaths can read you, but they don't mind making you feel bad.)

On average, women are more agreeable than men. That is why Peter Thiel may have been onto something when he said that our country changed when women got the right to vote. If people project their personalities onto politics, and if agreeability goes along with more socialist policies, then giving women the right to vote should make countries more socialist. If I argue against giving agreeable people (of either gender) the right to vote, am I being disagreeable?


the odds are strongly stacked in favour of pro-social behaviour. Only when all three gates are open--very low Agreeableness, very low Conscientiousness, very low Neuroticism--is serious, callous, cruel psychopathic behaviour going to result.

So, despite my relatively low Agreeableness, I do not require preventive detention. Even though I refuse to acknowledge man-made global warming.

Finally, we get to Openness, where Nettle's definition differs from that of Geoffrey Miller. Miller's description of someone with low open-ness makes it sound like a religious conservative. Nettle just makes it sound like someone who is not terribly creative. For Nettle, Openness is the ability to connect disparate concepts, sort of like the title to this blog post.

What song illustrates Openness? Perhaps we can use "The Vatican Rag," by Tom Lehrer. It mocks convention. Plus, it brings together two unlikely concepts--the Roman Catholic Church and ragtime music.

Actually, the very notion of associating songs with psychological types is an example of Openness. This blog post illustrates my Openness. But here's another description, one that fits Tyler but not me:


some people are keen on reading and galleries and theatre and music, whilst others are not particularly interested in any of them. This tendency towards greater exploration of all complex recreational practices is uniquely predicted by Openness.

Reading is the only one I like. Music without lyrics does nothing for me (and no, don't try to take me to the opera).

High Openness scorers are strongly drawn to artistic and investigative professions, and will often schew traditional institutional structure and progression in order to pursue them.

Like presenting one's revolutionary theory of macroeconomics as a series of blog posts instead of a journal article.

For what it's worth, I think of myself as very high on Openness and Conscientiousness, low on Agreeableness, slightly low on Neuroticism, and moderate on Extraversion.



COMMENTS (5 to date)
manuelg writes:

I found _Personality in Adulthood, Second Edition: A Five-Factor Theory Perspective_ by McCrae and Costa to be quite readable.

I feel pretty confident that each and every human society is "tuned" for specific ratios of the five factors, and, moreover, different tuned ratios for the "vital few"/"in-group" and the "out-group". And considering Jonathan Haidt's five fundamental moral values (liberals valuing care and fairness higher than loyalty, respect, and purity, in contrast to conservatives, etc.) - I feel there is a specific ratio, in each human society, for the ranking of the five fundamental moral values, again with different ratios for the "in-group" and "out-group". In all cases, more diversity is tolerated in the "out-group", as the "in-group" have to maintain a rough consensus at all times.

A lot of "energy" is exerted maintaining genotype and social diversity in the machinery of mating pair of humans, and in the machinery of larger various human groups. It would be peculiar if this diversity was not beneficial. I think, even more than diversity, a specific tuned ratio gives the maximum benefit over a set for historical conditions, and a history of conditions changing.

I think to any company's employees: any extreme of one of the five personality factors or any extreme of one of five fundamental moral values could quickly lead to a failure mode that could put the future of the company at risk, if expressed in even a single employee handling a critical task, without any meaningful oversight. It doesn't take much imagination to make a "just-so" story for a colossal failure from an extreme in any of the ten (especially if you are trying to run a profitable business, not a kumbaya therapy group, or a frat house, or a mating pair hothouse). So a diversity would keep the whole enterprise on an even keel, to my thinking.

And the sickest organizations are the ones where politics only allows one exact personality and morality type to exist in the higher ups.

Dr. T writes:

"Various lines of evidence suggest that our interest in money--and the material goods it buys--is mainly as a marker of comparative social status."

Is this statement about everyone or specific personality types? It seems too all-inclusive.

I don't care about my comparative social status. The primary reason I like money is because it buys essentials, the secondary reason is because it buys time, and the tertiary reason is because it buys goods and services I want. I believe many people have similar priorities that don't involve one-upmanship.

Snark writes:

Having said that, the first time I took a Myers-Briggs, I showed up as exactly in between extravert and introvert.

You would then characterize yourself as an "ambivert" (a personality trait that includes the qualities of both introversion and extroversion). The song of the ambivert might be "Hello Goodbye" ("You say high, I say low. You say why, and I say I don't know.")

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks, your song choices are quite helpful in understanding a topic that is hard to keep track of in one's mind.

Snorri Godhi writes:

This is all very interesting: the five-factor model begins to make sense to me; I used to think of it as only slightly better than the Barnum effect.

It occurs to me that the difference between extroversion and neuroticism can be best understood in the Black Swan paradigm: extroverts are optimistic about positive Black Swans (unlikely very large payoffs, such as meeting the love of your life at a party); neurotics are pessimistic about negative Black Swans (unlikely disasters, such as losing your life savings in the stockmarket). Nassim Taleb would claim that we ought to be both extroverted and neurotic.

Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism would also seem to be relevant: translated into 5-factor terminology, it seems to be a combination of high extroversion and low neuroticism.

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