You are here

Personality

Personally, I think this may be the single most important key to understanding human society. You can find regular distributions of personality types across cultures and across time.

"But I might wake up king someday, and if I do...."

Deep in the middle of a surreal attempt at social analysis that reads more like a bad acid-trip, Mark Levin at the NRO stumbles upon one true thing: "Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it...."

Congratulations, Mr. Levin: You've defined Populism. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin's great fake-president, the problem with an America where anyone can become rich is that everyone thinks they will, and makes their electoral choices accordingly. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean making a workable plan to become rich, or even necessarily working especially hard: It most typically means a lot of day-dreaming, lotto-buying, and planning to make sure that THE GOVERNMENT doesn't get a chance to take away any of your wondrous, hypothetical, chance-gotten gains.

Put another way: We act in the interest of the person we fantasize about becoming, instead of the person we actually are.

Of course there are a lot of people who work hard for what they get. But it's more or less never been true that wealth or status has a direct relationship with how hard you work -- or, for that matter, how smart you are. In fact, even some conservatives take great pains to make it clear just how much of it is down to the opportunities you have.

Cleverness, though -- now that's very important. You have to know how to work the angles, to work people. You have to have social intelligence, at a minimum, but that's not usually enough. No, to really become wealthy or important, you most often have to have a willingness to hurt other people to get what you want.

Frum on the use and mis-use of anger in opposition

David Frum @ National Review on keeping cool in the opposition:

Here’s another thing to keep in mind:

Those who press this Ayers line of attack are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that is going to be very hard to calm after November. Is it really wise to send conservatives into opposition in a mood of disdain and fury for the next president, incidentally the first African-American president? Anger is a very bad political adviser. It can isolate us and push us to the extremes at exactly the moment when we ought to be rebuilding, rethinking, regrouping and recruiting.

I’m not suggesting that we remit our opposition to a hypothetical President Obama. Only that an outgunned party will need to stay cool. A big part of Obama’s appeal is his self-command. It’s a genuinely impressive quality. Let’s emulate it. We’ll be needing it.

Right now, I'm willing to bet this will get Frum pilloried (outside the NRO set, at least -- those guys are usually so far up their own asses into their own heads that (unlike Frum, here, or David Brooks who left) they have lost whatever capacity they once had to recognize the dimensions of their own reality tunnel.

Going forward, slightly cooler, much cleverer heads (like Newt Gingrich's contemptably clever head) will take the pragmatic aspects of this view to heart and into opposition. (I'm sure Newt got all his financial ducks in a row before he started his macchiavellian campaign to derail the bailout package and set himself up as a 2012 presidential contender.)

Project Much?

Josh Marshall quotes one of his readers regarding John McCain's New Mexico speech from yesterday:

What a weird spectacle McCain's speech was this afternoon. It was as though McCain went out of the way to take every criticism that has come his way and attribute it to Barack Obama. In addition to being jarringly at odds with reality, it also seemed to undermine the larger questions that the campaign seems to want to be raising.

My wife said much the same thing. And it seems so obvious. The now-infamous Des Moines Register video shows a man so unable to master himself that he fairly seethes with anger -- so much so that the Register, a reputable if socially liberal newspaper, felt it appropriate to publish an op-ed on the topic as it related to McCain's suitability for Presidential office:

John McCain is angry.

You can feel it in the clenched muscles in his throat, the narrowing of his eyes, the controlled tone with which he handles a question he doesn't like, as if struggling to contain something that might spill out. We've seen that body language on TV. But around a Des Moines Register table Tuesday, the anger and tension were palpable. And unsettling.

The thing that bothers me a little is that in my experience, this kind of projection -- calling your opponent out for what you're doing -- usually works. People assume that no one would get that angry without good reason, especially if you've established a reputation for moralism and integrity.

The one hope is that McCain has indeed damaged his brand so badly that he has no reputation left to ground that impression in. (Discounting the "base", of course. The Republican base is rabid with frustrated fury by this time -- witness the un-corrected shout of "kill him" at a Palin rally over the weekend, or "terrorist!" in response to McCain's rhetorical question 'Who is the real Barack Obama?')

Past Debate Performance as an Indicator of Future Success

The NYT has a piece up now discussing Sarah Palin's gubernatorial debates. They point out that she didn't do too badly -- she could arguably be called a natural:

Her debating style was rarely confrontational, and she appeared confident. In contrast to today, when she seems unversed on several important issues, she demonstrated fluency on certain subjects, particularly oil and gas development.

But just as she does now, Ms. Palin often spoke in generalities and showed scant aptitude for developing arguments beyond a talking point or two. Her sentences were distinguished by their repetition of words, by the use of the phrase “here in Alaska” and for gaps. On paper, her sentences would have been difficult to diagram.

That reminded me of something James Fallows wrote in 2004:

This spring I watched dozens of hours' worth of old videos of John Kerry and George W. Bush in action. But it was the hour in which Bush faced Ann Richards that I had to watch several times. The Bush on this tape was almost unrecognizable—and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the White House. He was younger, thinner, with much darker hair and a more eager yet less swaggering carriage than he has now. But the real difference was the way he sounded.

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two ("million" when he clearly meant "billion"; "stole" when he meant "sold"), but fewer than most people would in an hour's debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. "To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.

[Couldn't get a more direct source for this...]

The obvious key difference is that Bush performed legitimately well against Richards, speaking clearly and more or less eloquently and more to the point, on point. The point about Palin seems to be that (as a former opponent observes) she's a gifted bullshit artist:

Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she's met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn't like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn't name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about ... the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

So what does that mean for Biden? With shorter question-and-answer times and limited interaction between the two, he should simply ignore Palin in a respectful manner on the stage and answer the questions as though he were alone. Any attempt to flex his public-policy knowledge and show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role of the bully.

On the other side of the stage, if Palin is to be successful, she needs to do what she does best: fill the room with her presence and stick to the scripted sound bites.

I keep coming back to Fallows, though. 

I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape [of the Bush-Richards debate]—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications. When I invited him to watch the Bush-Richards tape, Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different. His choice of words, the pace of his speech, the length and completeness of his sentences, all made him sound like another person. Even his body language was surprising. When he was younger, Bush leaned toward the camera and did not fidget or shift his weight. He arched his eyebrows and positioned his mouth in a way that, according to Lakoff, signifies in all languages an intense, engaged form of speech.

Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same. Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism, had all worked against Ann Richards. These have been constants in his rhetorical presentation of himself over the years, despite the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills, and they have been consistently and devastatingly effective. The upcoming debates between Bush and Kerry will in an odd way be a contest of unbeaten champions.

To me this speaks to two possibilities: One, that Sarah Palin may have left behind aspects of the sweet-faced barracuda who artfully bullshitted Alaska voters. Two, that her essential nature might remain intact. We'll see how that plays out tonight.  

Technorati Tags:

Freeman Dyson Undercuts Himself

Freeman Dyson recently wrote:

In his "New Biology" article, [Carl Woese] is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.


The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization.

Freeman Dyson, "Our Biotech Future" (The New York Review of Books)

It's difficult to tell what Dyson wants to communicate. He argues against "reductionist biology" and floats a lot of pretty images of synergism and vaguely Taoist ideas about the resilience of life. But his own understanding of the complexity of life is clearly quite limited, or he wouldn't be so quick to idealize "non-Darwinian evolution" (a "golden age"?) and predict a rosy outcome from unrestricted biotech game-playing. History much more readily supports a skeptical view on the affects of biotech than it supports Dyson's positivist version. The reality will almost certainly be more of the same mixed bag we've got now: High-yield crops help feed more people and strain the land to a greater extent, which hurts crop yields, which demands still higher-tech farming technologies, and so on ad infinitum. It's not a sustainable cycle, and one would like to think someone with such a reputation for cleverness would get that. (The fact that he doesn't, is to me another indication that he was over-rated to begin with.)

Dyson's thought seems to me to be fundamentally adolescent, in the sense that he always wants more and always thinks that things are simpler than the experts do.

Darwinian evolution may indeed have slowed evolution down considerably; but it may also have stabilized it. I suspect it was Darwinian evolution that made multi-cellular life truly feasible by making it possible to rely on large support structures generation over generation. In a diverse non-Darwinian framework, that reliance just wouldn't be possible. "Designs" that are stable in one generation could change fundamentally in the next, or even before the generation propagated, leaving no basis for reproduction. What Dyson casts in clearly pejorative language ("one evil day", "refused to share", "anticipating Bill Gates") was most likely the very change that made it ultimately possible for him to make these observations.

The analogy to culture is clear: Cultural evolution is rapid and destructive. It wipes out what came before without regard, and it has no mechanism to prevent the willy-nilly propagation of cultural "genetic" material. What we end up with, then, is a bunch of unstable structures that collapse quickly and harm their constituent people in the process.

The common response is that evolutionary processes will yield stronger and more stable structures through natural selection. But what if that's not possible without some kind of constraint on what kind of "genetic material" gets incorporated?

There's also an analogy to be drawn to information theory. Dyson is a cross-pollinator. He believes that the only real change comes via cross-pollination of ideas. He doesn't want to believe that it's necessary nor, I think, even very important to create systems of thought. He thinks every wild idea needs to be considered. (With special attention to his, of course.) (What Dyson's thought on the scientific establishment boils down to, when you analyze the language, is essentially that he's smarter than they are so they should listen to him more than they do. But I digress.)

But what if it turns out that it's necessary to constrain information in order to get use out of it? That much has seemed intuitively clear to me for many years. It's the lack of such constraints that characterizes many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and mania.

Of course, there are plenty of people -- Dyson might be among them -- who are more than willing to idealize mental illness in the same way. I'd like to say that those are people without the experience of talking with people suffering from such mental illnesses. I'd like to say that, but I've heard too many of them illustrate their cases with allusions to their interactions with the mentally ill. Rather, I suspect that they are people more in love with their theory than with the people they hope to explain by it.

Imagination Failure of the Moment

Failure of imagination is often indistinguishable from arrogance.

Here's how The Blue Technologies Group conceptualizes the ideal "writers" editing environment:

The concept of single documents in the classical sense is dismissed. Text elements take their part and are organised in a project, the container.
Every text element has two editing levels: the "standard" text and a "note pad".
The ability to format texts in an optical way (bold faced, italics, etc.) is omitted - you can divide paragraphs into levels and set markers instead.

It's passages like this that drive home to me how sorely and sadly in need most people are of a little applied personality theory. Because it's painfully clear to me just from the language that they use that their word processor, Ulysses, is going to be a painfully inappropriate tool for the vast majority of writers.

I know that because Ulysses has clearly been defined to suit the personality of a particular type of writer. The words and concepts its creators deploy tell me that. They talk about "projects", "markers", "levels" (of paragraphs?). These are organizational terms; they're conceptual terms. Using them to appeal to "writers" exposes the assumption that all writers think in similar ways. It implies that "writers" will want to restructure the way they think about producing texts such that they're vulnerable to being organized in "levels", and that they'll find it a benefit to replace italics and boldface with "markers".

My own experience working with writers who need to maintain HTML demonstrates to me abundantly that people aren't typically very interested in replacing italics with an "emphasis" tag. The idea that "italic" is visual and "emphasis" is conceptual (and hence, independent of presentation) is too abstract from the reality of writing, for them -- it's too high-concept; for them, the reality of writing is that emphasized passages are in italics, and strongly emphasized passages are in boldface.

And I also see that while they talk about elimiinating distractions, they produce an application with a cluttered and confusing user interface that looks to me like nothing so much as the UI of an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). While I've grown accustomed to the metaphor, I can remember when I found it cluttered and confusing, and I know from long experience that most people find those UIs as confusing as hell.

Now, this may be a great environment for some creative people. But based on what I know about personality theory, that subset of people is going to be very small -- something less than 7% of the population, most likely, and then reduce that to the much smaller subset that are writers who work on substantial projects.

I might even try Ulysses myself, for whatever that's worth; but if it looks to me like it would be the slightest nuisance to produce reviewable copy (for example, if I have to spend ANY TIME AT ALL formatting for print when I send it to friends and colleagues for review) then it's more or less worse than useless to me: Any time I save by having my "projects" arranged together (and how many writers do I know who organize things into discreet projects like that?), would be wiped out and then some by time wasted formatting the document for peer-reviewers. And I haven't even started to talk about trying to work cooperatively with other people....

The (partly valid) response might be that if writers would only learn to use it correctly, and adopt it widely enough that you wouldn't need special formatting to send a manuscript out for review, then Ulysses would be a fine tool. Of course, that's the same kind of thing that Dean Kamen and his true believer followers said about the Segway: If we'd all just rearrange our cities to suit it, the Segway would be an ideal mode of transport....

It's not the marketing I object to -- that will either work or it won't -- it's the arrogance of presuming that they've found the True Way. Because the implicit lack of interoperability that goes along with defining a new file storage protocol (and I don't care how you dress them up, they're still files) basically inhibits Ulysses users from working with other writers, and therefore implies that it's a truly separate way, if not a purely better way. Ulysses looks to me like a tool that fosters separateness, not cooperation -- isolation, not interaction. It's farther than ever from the hypertext ideal.

But then, I suppose my irritation is indicative of my own personality type.

Subscribe to RSS - Personality