The Delphic Maxim “know thyself” has never appealed to me. Why, exactly, is the unexamined life not worth living? Thus, I’ve always been more interested in action than introspection, although that certainly hasn’t stopped me from having extremely positive thoughts about myself. Nobody ever accused me of being self-hating. Nonetheless, my purpose today is to examine myself, in certain respects. Mostly this is for my own amusement, though maybe it will be interesting to others (especially given my, um, outrider test results) and cause them to pursue their own self-analysis. It may also illuminate some of my own writing. Of course, if you don’t care about me, and are wondering what happened to the interesting book reviews, you should just ignore this entire post!
The spur for this line of thought was the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise has caused him to appear everywhere, it seems. I like Peterson quite a bit, although I am hardly in perfect agreement with him. For today’s purposes, though, I am focused narrowly on his implementation of the “Big Five Aspects” personality analysis. This analysis is not original to Peterson; it has been developed since the early 1960s by a variety of psychologists, and, from what I can tell, is widely agreed to be useful. Underlying it is the theory that word usage in a society’s language can be used to identify key personality traits, and then statistical analysis of responses to questions relating to those words, including correlation of different responses (“factor analysis”), can be used to rank individuals relative to each other with respect to those traits. This seems similar to the extremely commonly used Myers-Briggs test; it is not, and Peterson has nothing good to say about Myers-Briggs. “Perhaps they did a fine job for the 1930s. . . . Corporations love it because nobody gets offended by it because everybody wins. . . . It should be relegated to the dustbins of the past because it’s no longer properly valid. And that’s that.”
Peterson’s purpose in offering his own version of the Big Five test isn’t just to let people navel-gaze and compare their scores while drinking at a bar. He offers it for two basic reasons. The first is to allow people to understand that there are real differences among people, and so disagreements are often not based on, and not susceptible to, rational argument. This is basically the same point Jonathan Haidt makes about moral views; it’s just broader in analysis and application. The second is to give people a starting place for them to reconfigure at least their behavior, and maybe their personality as well, if they are unhappy with some aspect of their lives, through his “Self-Authoring Suite.” As to the latter, I have no thoughts, since I am not unhappy with any aspect of my life, or for that matter, my scores. I’m just, as I say, amusing myself.
So I took the test Peterson offers; presumably, it’s one he and his team derived from earlier tests. It is not designed to fit any particular hobbyhorse of Peterson’s (of which there are plenty). He’s a clinical psychologist by profession, so this is his field, and his test is strictly objective, although perhaps the conclusions he draws across groups of people from the test are not ones everyone agrees with. The test involves stating your degree of agreement or disagreement with one hundred different phrases—or, in Peterson’s words, “You will be presented with a series of phrases, such as ‘carry out my plans,’ ‘respect authority,’ and ‘like to solve complex problems,’ and asked to indicate your agreement or disagreement with those phrases as they apply to you, typically and personally.” The results are comparative to other test takers, or perhaps to some pre-existing database, on a percentile basis. But the test taker has to pay ten dollars in order to filter out sloppy or lazy usage and attempts to distort the system; and you can only take the test once—no retakes (presumably you could set up a new account with a fresh email, though why you’d want to do that is beyond me).
I paid my ten dollars and carefully answered the questions. Peterson warns the taker to answer “as you are typically and not as you would like to be.” I expected that my results would skew in certain directions, and they did skew in those directions—but more so than I expected. My percentile results were:
Agreeableness: 0 (Exceptionally Low)
Compassion: 4 (The tendency to empathically experience the emotion of others; Very Low)
Politeness: 0 (The proclivity to abide by interpersonal norms; Exceptionally Low)
Conscientiousness: 96 (Exceptionally High)
Industriousness: 99 (Ability for sustained, goal-directed effort; Exceptionally High)
Orderliness: 76 (The tendency to schedule, organize and systematize; Moderately High)
Neuroticism: 6 (Very Low)
Withdrawal: 2 (The tendency to avoid in the face of uncertainty; Exceptionally Low)
Volatility: 21 (The tendency to become irritable and upset when things go wrong; Low)
Extraversion: 89 (Very High)
Enthusiasm: 36 (Spontaneous joy and engagement; Moderately Low)
Assertiveness: 99 (Social dominance, often verbal in nature; Exceptionally High)
Openness to Experience: 53 (Typical)
Intellect: 96 (Interest in abstract concepts and ideas; Exceptionally High)
Openness: 5 (Creativity and aesthetic sensitivity; Very Low)
I think it fair to say that these results are extreme. Now, to be fair, the words that comprise the aspects have somewhat specialized meanings. So, “intellect” does not mean intelligence, it is “interest in abstract ideas.” But even the one trait, Openness to Experience, where my result was not extreme, was only not extreme because it was the average of two oppositely extreme sub-traits. That said, most of these are pretty much what I’d expect. For example, as I have noted before, my art appreciation is low, and I am a big fan of conflict. I have compassion, I am pretty sure, but it is more intellectual than empathetic, at least outside my immediate family circle, though I do sometimes sniffle at sad movies. In any case, I will return to how these relate to my self-image in a moment.
Peterson points out that these percentile results are compared to all people—all ages, both sexes—and that all else being equal, sub-groups divide in their results. Thus, the older you are, the lower you score in Politeness. Women score significantly higher than men in Agreeableness. And so forth. So, arguably, my results might not be so extreme if compared to “middle-aged men”; they would probably be even less extreme if compared to “middle-aged men who are former lawyers and now are business owners.” That’s just a reversed way of saying the same thing as Peterson does, though, which is that certain scoring tendencies, especially when combined with others, are indicative of other personality traits than those on this test, some of which are also predictive (though not determinative) of success or failure in certain areas.
So, those low in Agreeableness are more competitive. No surprise there, but that is doubtless correlated with both wanting to, and successfully managing to, run a business. Combined with low neuroticism, Peterson informs us that such people “tend very strongly toward dominance.” That probably characterizes me, as much as that sounds like it should mean people don’t like me. And they don’t, or at least some don’t—I have a list of enemies a mile long (though I strive to love each and every one, generally failing because I am not serious about it, and anyway Peterson tells me I am relieved of responsibility because those low in Agreeableness “do not at all easily forgive.”) Similarly, my wife points out that people either love me or hate me, which may just be code for “everyone hates you,” though I hope not.
Peterson here makes the point, which he often puts forth, that small differences in averages are magnified at the extremes. For example, the mean percentile for women in Agreeableness is 61.5; for men it is 38.5. But nearly all the most extreme people in the general population, say the lowest 2% in Agreeableness, are therefore men, due to the way statistics work. This is a partial explanation why nearly all criminals are men, because criminal behavior is strongly associated with extremely low Agreeableness scores. Hey, wait a minute. . . . Peterson also points out that where equality of outcome between the sexes is the most enforced, such as in Scandinavia, the gap between men’s and women’s scores is the highest, suggesting a mostly biological basis for this difference.
It’s not just crime that is explained by Agreeableness; it’s also career choice. Caring for others is typically done by high Agreeableness people; dealing with things by low Agreeableness people. I totally agree with this—I can’t imagine anything worse than, say, being a nurse, as much as I admire nurses, but I do love metalworking. And low Politeness, one of the two components of Agreeableness, means you are disobedient and love conflict. I was actually a fantastically obedient child, but nobody would characterize my professional life, as a lawyer and businessman, as either obedient or conflict-avoiding. As Peterson says, low Politeness “can make it extremely difficult to find a place in the middle or lower hierarchies of power and dominance.” Yeah, pretty much. That’s why being a law firm associate, or junior partner, never sat well with me.
The only thing I am sad about is that my abysmally low level of Agreeableness correctly identifies that I “do not easily see the best in others.” My maternal grandfather, whom I idolized and who died at ninety-seven, when I was thirty-two, always saw the best in others. And despite a lot of challenges in his life, this served him very well. He was a psychiatrist (originally, in Hungary, he was an obstetrician, but left Hungary as a refugee just ahead of the Communists, in 1945, and ended up a psychiatrist in America, since more mainstream medical options were not available to foreign doctors), in a time before modern drugs were available for mental health. Yet he went deer hunting often with a patient of his, a paranoid schizophrenic. Going into the woods with guns with such a patient requires a very positive view of other humans, and I would not do it, but I admire him for having done it. It is true that I was more agreeable a child. Once when I was about twenty, my mother, in response to some comment I had made, said “Whatever happened to you? You were such a kind and generous child.” And I was. Maybe I just got old.
Of course, being a domineering jerk isn’t a great recipe for worldly success, by itself. But I am also very high in Conscientiousness, and such people “implement their plans and establish and maintain order.” Of the two sub-categories here, though, I’m only extreme in Industriousness, less so in Orderliness, which again fits with my own self-image. For example, for the most part I refuse to keep task lists, and I was notorious in my law firm for refusing to ever show up to meetings, client or otherwise, with a notepad and writing implement to take notes (though this was also a lack of obedience and refusal to acknowledge my place in the hierarchy—surprise, surprise).
The analysis falls down a bit in Neuroticism. I am very low in Neuroticism, so, allegedly, I “almost never focus on the negative elements, anxieties and uncertainties of the past”; I “cope very well and don’t worry.” Up to a point, this is true—when I am complaining about something during a vacation, my wife will point out that if it’s so horrible, why don’t we just stay home? My response is always that I view the past through rose-colored glasses, so while I may be complaining now, I will remember the vacation with only the most positive thoughts. On the other hand, I do worry a lot, both about business matters and with a strong streak of hypochondria, so Peterson’s analysis as it relates to me is not wholly accurate, especially since those low in Neuroticism are said to have “markedly decreased concern about mental and physical health.” And while I tolerate risk well, much of my activity is devoted to, as much as possible, finally (to the extent it’s ever possible) eliminating risk from my personal and family life, as well as business life. On the other hand, I do indeed have a “very much higher level of self-esteem” and do not (normally) suffer from depression.
Moving to the third trait, I am high in Extraversion, “a measure of general sensitivity to positive emotions such as hope, joy, anticipation, and approach.” That sounds like I am a happy person that everyone wants to be around. Nope. Actually, most of that high score is derived from exceptionally high Assertiveness, meaning I “constantly dominate and control social situations.” Ouch. On the other hand, that means I “can be extremely influential and captivating.” Yay! And I “don’t wait for others to lead the way, but leap in.” That’s true; once upon a time my motto about doing things, in any walk of life, which I relentlessly flogged as advice to those less decisive, was “Action In Motion,” and it always benefited me. But my Enthusiasm is moderately low, which means I am “not particularly easy to get to know,” and “not particularly positive or optimistic.” This is true, and a little sad—my grandfather was extremely optimistic, always, and I want to be optimistic—but for the most part, I’m not.
Finally, I’m average in Openness to Experience. But as I say, I’m actually very low in simple Openness, which roughly equates to creativity. I am “not imaginative,” and in fact, am usually terribly unobservant (except in threat situations), as my wife is fond of pointing out (but she is very observant, one of the many reasons we make a good team). Incorrectly in my case, “at least moderate levels of Openness tend to be necessary for entrepreneurial success,” but that may still be correct, and my lacks are just being compensated for by the other members of my company’s team. So, given low Openness, Openness to Experience is only high because of my exceptionally high Intellect, which, again, is not IQ, but interest in abstract ideas; I “tend to compulsively read, think about, and discuss idea-centered books (generally non-fiction),” which is pretty much a perfect description of the genesis and implementation of this blog. And it is always good to have it suggested that I am “notably articulate, and can formulate ideas very clearly and exceptionally quickly (particularly if average or higher in extraversion).” I have always said that people think I am more intelligent than I actually am, because I think extremely fast and have a big vocabulary, and that’s pretty much what Peterson is saying here. (I am starting to imagine him in a chair while I’m on the couch—I should probably stop that. In fact, given his scientific interests and my extreme scores, I’m pretty sure Peterson is going to send ninjas to capture me and put me in a giant glass jar.)
Online tests are not the measure of a man, and the Big Five test does not, and does not purport to, measure people on scales of greater importance for their lives than these instrumental axes. It does not capture virtue, or religiosity, or what a man does when he is tested (although I suppose certain forms of virtue come easier or harder depending on traits, and these tests do seem as if they to some extent can predict individual action). That said, for what Peterson cares about, which in essence is self-improvement, lifting the broken out of chaos, this test seems like an excellent starting point. As far as myself, one has to be careful of hindsight bias, but in retrospect, this analysis seems predictive of my career path, and, really, my life path. Does that have any particular value for me? I’m not sure, but, at least, it suggests that my own self-image is not wildly divorced from reality. And for just ten dollars and half an hour of your time, the same knowledge is probably worth having—perhaps very worth having, if you are dissatisfied with some aspect of your life, and this can become the foundation for making necessary changes.