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Every single individual varies along a range of five personality traits. We don't know why, or how, only that we do. Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness: these five traits, and the variations within them, capture the range of human personality, and they do it quite well. They capture differences between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between emotionally unstable artists and hard-working manager types, and everyone in between.

Not only do the traits help us know ourselves a bit better - like what careers or environments are best suited to our personality and what aspects of our personality are most likely to bring us into conflict with others - they help us gain a better understand of just how different other people can be from us, and why. And they point out the aspects of our personality that might need some work: like when to be more assertive, harder-working, kinder, cautious, or adventurous.

Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss all this and more, with reference to Jordan Peterson's Big 5 personality test: Understand Myself.

Running Time: 01:17:45

Download: MP3

Here's the transcript of the show:

Harrison: Welcome to the Truth Perspective. I'm Harrison Koehli. Joining me today is Corey Schink.

Corey: Hello everyone.

Harrison: Today we are discussing personalities, specifically the Big Five. So we want to tie this into our show last week on insight as well as a show we did several weeks ago on personality disorders and the personality dimensions of personality disorders. We also want to get into how our personality traits are perceived by others, how they influence things like our own values and how being self-aware about them can help us navigate our lives. With that said, all of the hosts here on the Truth Perspective, even the ones who aren't joining us today, have done Jordan Peterson's personality test Understand Myself which is a Big Five test with 10 aspects. These are two aspects for each of the main five personality dimensions that split them up and get a little bit more specific.

So we're going to be talking about that and seeing different connections that can be made and what you can actually do with a personality test and how it helps understand human behaviour and the human condition in general I think. So with that said Corey, where do you want to start?

Corey: Well I kind of want to start with the history of the Big Five because the construct itself has so many dimensions to it that I think they're interesting to unpack, how they came to be the way that they are today and the different kinds of arguments that were held throughout the forming of the process. So this started back in the '30s in America with a reaction against the psychoanalytic movement that was lumping a whole bunch of character and personality traits into these fairly what we would now call bogus categories, like the Oedipal complex or thinking that everything that has to do with human nature can be boiled down into something dealing with sex or aggression.

So these researchers decided that probably the best way to tackle the problem would be to use human language so they came up with this hypothesis that everything important about human nature you would be able to find already categorized by humans themselves which I thought was just a fascinating hypothesis, just one way of tackling the complexity of all the human dimensions involved.

Harrison: Yeah, like maybe we'd already figured it out and hadn't realized that we'd figured it out.

Corey: Yeah. So then they took that and they boiled it down. They started with 18,000 different words and over the years they kept boiling it down and boiling it down until you got to what we have today, the Big Five. A lot of people still debate whether we need more than five or whether five is enough. They've added dimensions over the years but I think that just from the tests that we've taken and the research that we've read - even in preparation for this show - that it looks like these five categories are fairly adequate in delineating who you are as the person, how you come across to other people. It's still being continuously updated as they learn the limitations. For example, over the years all the items used on the questionnaires, they didn't have enough questions concerning the maladaptive natures of certain traits so that if you scored really high on something, maybe you were actually OCD. You weren't a highly conscientious person. You had some sort of pathology.

So then they had to start to code for the maladaptive and pathological characters that are involved in personality and personality disorders. So that in and of itself opened it up to a whole new realm of understanding personality disorders and in order to bring all of that into the fold of research, this huge burgeoning research network. They have this one system, this one model. It's not really theoretical in the sense that they don't necessarily have a theory behind it. It's just a tool derived from human language and descriptions of how people come across, who they are, how they function, and then using this tool they're able to find all of these different correlations between brain functioning and how long you live, your longevity, all these different things, with the model itself.

So then with this tool they're able to bring personality disorders and all these other things into the fold so it continues to evolve. Even today it's still evolving and it's really, really interesting.

Harrison: Yeah, because it covers so much of human nature. It seems to capture it all. You can read this and get a very detailed description of a person and when you match that up to someone you say "Yeah, that kind of pretty much describes that person." It's pretty remarkable how in-depth it can go. One of the things that really impresses me about it is first of all, like you said, it's not theoretical. It's empirical so it's actually derived from a study of language. But then when you look at the results, you find these five personality traits that when you measure any number of people in the general population and you gather all this data, you find a normal distribution, a bell curve for all of them.

So it's like there's this level of variation for each trait and each trait varies independently of the others so it's like you've got this combined probability distribution. You've got five traits and then you randomly assign people to different areas of each probability distribution and you get all this variety. So if they all vary independently that just creates a whole bunch of personality variety among the general population. So it's not like there are only three or four personality types or something like that. There is an almost infinite variety. You can break it down into greater or lesser degrees of similarity.

The way that the understand myself test works is that it breaks it down into nine different areas that you might fall into in any given trait. You might be extremely high, very high, moderately high in terms of your percentage not your state of mind, and then typical like average and then low, moderately low, very low, extremely low. Again, when you factor in that there are five separate personality dimensions, that creates a whole bunch of variability.

In case anyone isn't familiar with them - we've talked about them before - but the five traits are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and openness. We're going to get into each one hopefully if we have time, and then the 10 aspects of each. So agreeableness breaks down. You have compassion and politeness, with consciousness you have industriousness and orderliness, with extroversion you have enthusiasm and assertiveness, with neuroticism you have withdrawal and volatility and with openness you have openness and intellect, not IQ but just how much your brain works, how interested you are in intellectual things.

Like you also mentioned Corey, this has been very interesting looking at it in terms of personality disorders, once that got factored into the equation because when we look at the traditional categories of personality disorders like we've talked about several weeks ago and then when you have this five factor model in mind, you can see you've got this personality type, this disordered type. People with this personality disorder seem to have these features. They seem to be this kind of person. When you look at the personality dimensions, funnily, coincidentally enough they pretty much match up. So even though the old personality disordered categories have fallen in disfavour because they aren't empirically validated because they're not a good model, the thing they had going for them is that at the very least you could fit them into a model after the fact to make it more accurate and more valid.

So like you said with the example of extreme conscientiousness, you have an obsessive/compulsive person. They're extremely orderly and extremely compulsive about the order in their lives and in their environment and that is one of the personality dimensions. And then you have something like agreeableness where if you go to the very bottom of the probability distribution, the top two percent or the lowest two percent in agreeableness - which would be the top two percent in disagreeableness - Peterson mentions in the results of the test, that pretty much explains criminality. Chances are most criminals are going to be disagreeable in nature and most criminals are anti-social. They would have been classified as antisocial personality disordered.

Now like we talked about in the personality disorder show, it seems like several of the personality dimensions have a pathological element to them where it's like either there's too much going on - well we don't really know what it is. If you're just in that super high percentage of that personality trait or if there's something biological going on that's interacting with that, we don't really know at this point for most of these personality disorders but they seem to cluster around one personality trait. For the neuroticism dimension you have personality disorders like depressive and - what's the withdrawal one? It used to be called asthenic.

Corey: The schizotypal? Or the schizoidal?

Harrison: I think that one falls into the extroversion I think. I can't remember exactly. I'd have to find the papers I was reading. I don't think they found a pathological dimension for openness. I think that's the only one that didn't have an associated personality disorder. But one thing I found interesting that I hadn't thought of when we had the previous show on this was that in Ponerology, Lobaczewski discusses this. Again, he uses some of the older categories for describing personality disorders but he makes a distinction. There are these various personality disorders but then there's essential psychopathy. He uses the word "essential" to describe it. This would be the ultimate personality disorder and this is what we just call psychopathy these days but like I mentioned the last time we talked about it, for Lobaczewski and for a lot of the European psychologists and psychiatrists, they just use the word psychopathy in the way that we use it to describe personality disorder.

So if someone had a psychopathy they had a personality disorder and then there were different types of psychopathy which we would call different personality disorders. But we've inherited the word psychopathy for one specific type of personality disorder, the one that he called essential psychopathy and it seems that essential psychopathy or just psychopathy is associated with several personality traits. So this would be extremely low agreeableness, extremely low conscientiousness, pretty high extroversion and really low in neuroticism.

So that's four different dimensions where if you take someone with those four high traits on those three and low on neuroticism, you get a psychopath. It pretty much makes sense. If you think about it - I haven't done this yet but I'm thinking about doing it - taking one of these tests and pretending I was a psychopath, like okay, based on what I know about psychopathy I'm going to write these down. So when you read some of the descriptions of the traits, I'm just going to go to conscientiousness and read some of the things on here just to make this point.

So in the test he calls conscientiousness the primary dimension of dutiful achievement in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. "Conscientiousness is a measure of obligation, attention to detail, hard work, persistence, cleanliness, efficiency and adherence to rules, standards and processes." Well you might be able to make a case that some psychopaths have an attention to detail if they're serial killers and they're good at their "job", but really the traditional definition of psychopathy and if you look at the case studies, psychopaths are notoriously unconscientious. They're not good workers. They'll do anything to get out of doing work. They think work is below them. That's probably just their rationalization. They don't do work because they're unconscientious but they come up with the reason it's because works below them. Works for suckers. They're not going to do anything. They want someone else to do the work for them.

So when you have a psychopath in the workplace, they're going to manipulate other people to do the work for them and then they're going to take credit for it. Psychopaths don't actually do anything and they don't really create anything. They're not very creative. They might be good mimics but that's it.

So one of the ways of thinking about this, for the people who might think that there's got to be more to it - and maybe there is something more to it. But maybe for those who think that this really isn't a good way of thinking about personality disorders or psychopathy in particular, just think if you can imagine a psychopath who is extremely agreeable and extremely conscientious and extremely neurotic. That person would not be a psychopath. No one would think they would be a psychopath. They couldn't be because by definition, agreeable people are compliant, nurturing, kind, naively trusting and conciliatory. You won't find those personality traits in a psychopath. So just one more interesting thing to come out of this research. Do you have this?

Corey: I was just going to touch on what you say if some people don't find it satisfactory to describe psychopathy in this way or personality disorders or what some people would call just evil people in general, I think that touches on the difference between the system that Lobaczewski and even therapists and a lot of clinicians use when they're using the DSM to diagnose versus this method, which is basically a difference between typology versus the trait system.

If you have a psychopath or a schizophrenic or a schizoid or someone with OCD, the older way of theorizing about that was that those are distinct types, distinctly different entities. They are in and of themselves distinct entities. When you look through history you can see that sort of mindset, that schizoid seems like a distinctly different thing. When you look at somebody who's extremely pathological you think they are a distinctly different type of person and I think that there's some merit to that. I do think that there's quite a bit of merit to that but when you look at the trait system, what this manages to do is to isolate what it is that makes them that different type. One of the newer tests or questionnaires for the Big Five model has six different facets for each of the five categories. So there's six different facets for openness and so on. They continue to evolve this so that they can capture all of the different diagnostic criteria that you would need in order to understand the different things that make someone a psychopath or that make someone a schizoid.

There's a lot of utility in that approach because you don't necessarily have to think of the psychopath as just a personality disorder, just another end of the spectrum. You can think of them still as a distinctly evil person but at the same time you learn what it is that makes them evil.

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: And then as a tool of research you can look into how that impacts the genetics, how it's inherited and so on and so forth. It makes a much more useful tool I think than seeing the just as distinctly different.

Harrison: And it's just more practical in so many different ways, for diagnosis, for treatment, for the various different types of personality. And when you know the type, you can perhaps come up with interventions or life strategies for different types of people because something that works on a neurotic won't necessarily work on a psychopath. Well we know it doesn't. So we can figure out what does work and what doesn't work for certain people, especially for the mental health community in diagnosis. Like I mentioned the current DSM categories and the ICD one in Europe. I think the ICD might have been updated recently. It might be more accurate.

But for years, for decades it just didn't work. You'd get all these different psychiatrists and mental health professionals diagnosing people and you'd look at all of their diagnoses and none of them matched up. They overlapped. It was totally useless when you actually look at the data. Their system of categorization was useless because it didn't work.

Even if by chance some of those things were correct, it wasn't practical to actually put it into use because they couldn't actually diagnose the people who had these personality disorders correctly. So what's the point of having it if it doesn't work? This is at least the most practical because it's the best that the scientific community has been able to come up with to be able to accurately assess someone's personality and then hopefully do all those other things like treatment when it comes down to institutionalization or prison or whatever.

But maybe just to move on to a slightly different aspect of this, I wanted to mention one thing that I've heard Jordan Peterson say in regard to the Big Five that was totally new to me. This was something that I hadn't thought about, I hadn't encountered. I hadn't seen anyone else say something similar. So after the first time hearing him just mention it, I've been thinking about it and then I've heard him say it several times after that and expand on it and now I'm really starting to think there's something to this thing. He talked about it in terms of compassion. Compassion is one of the aspects of agreeableness and he said "Compassion is not a virtue". I'd always thought it was a virtue, that the compassionate people were just better people.

But his argument was that no, it's just a trait that you were born with essentially. You have no control over it and in fact there is a negative aspect to compassion because like he mentions, take an example of extremely high compassion like a mother's love for her child or a mother bears compassion for her cub. Well that compassion can easily turn into blood-thirsty madness and demonization of anything that is perceived as a threat even if it is not a threat.

So that's one of the interesting things about this. It's not like any personality trait is totally good. There are good and bad aspects to having a trait anywhere on the spectrum for any one of these traits. Maybe I'll just go through and see if I can come up with some examples. So for agreeableness, agreeable people will tend to allow themselves to be pushed over. They won't fight for themselves. They won't negotiate for themselves. Of course disagreeable people are more likely to have people not like them because they're rude, they're blunt, they might be more violent and aggressive and conscientious people might be so conscientious that they are totally disgusted by other people's lack of conscientiousness. They'll be extremely moralistic about people who aren't like them, people who don't live up to their standards and then extremely low conscientious people will be total slobs and not take care themselves and not put the effort into making themselves and their environment better and working for their future, etc.

Extremely extroverted people can just be really annoying. Extremely introverted people can be really annoying. It's not a very good description. J.P. Sears had a good couple of videos last week or the week before on extroverted and introverted people which really kind of nailed it. Either side of the spectrum can be very selfish and introverted people tend to think that extroverted people are jerks and extroverted people tend to think of introverted people as just kind of weird.

Then of course neuroticism, is you're extremely low in neuroticism you might not be risk averse to avoid making really bad decisions, making really impulsive decisions. And extremely neurotic people are at risk for anxiety and depressive episodes or extreme depression. Openness is the creativity dimension. So if you have people who aren't creative at all, creative people might see that as a loss, like "I can't imagine not having creativity or an appreciation for music or art or poetry or novels" or whatever. But then extremely open people, very creative people like novelty and new things and creativity so much that they might be overwhelmed by it to the point where they can't actually do anything about it. There's just so many interesting things that they want to do and that they're so interested in that they can't focus enough to actually do any of them. So they're these flighty, artistic people who never actually get anything done and never actually put their creativity to a use that follows through to completion.

But to come back to this compassion thing, compassion is not a virtue. The way he put it in the latest interview I heard with him is that if you look at compassion, he says compassion is only useful to use on people who are six months or younger. That's the only time that compassion is appropriate because after that point you can't be totally compassionate. You need to be able to be a little hard on people. You need to have a little bit of disagreeableness in order for people to learn to become resilient and to learn to live in the world otherwise you just coddle people and that's one of the worst things you can do for a child or for an adult, to just let them be lazy bums their entire lives essentially.

So compassion has its place and it can be a good thing in certain contexts in combination with other traits and in different situations having to do with more than just your personality traits, like the actual context of the situation. But just compassion itself isn't a virtue. So I was thinking about that in other ways. I think that maybe it's just a certain personality type that sees virtuous people or sees the ideal person in a certain way. I'll just take my perspective as a Canadian. From my perspective of being Canadian and seeing Canadians, they seem to value agreeableness over disagreeableness. I think that's pretty likely; politeness over impoliteness and compassion of course and conscientiousness. People tend to value people and admire people who are hard workers as opposed to people who are just lazy and want everything for free. I think that's pretty universal. If it's not then that would be a surprise to me and maybe I'd be totally wrong to be surprised. That would be fun.

And then extroversion, well it's harder to say about that. I don't know. I haven't thought about that one so much. And then neuroticism. Low neuroticism tends to be I think, an ideal, to be relatively stable. That's why we have a mental health industry, to deal with people like that. We consider extremely neurotic people to be mentally ill or to have a mental health problem, otherwise we'd be elevating depressives and anxious people to the top of our social hierarchies which we don't. And then openness, some yes, some no. We value culture and creativity. Actually not. I think even then, tying this back to last weeks discussion of the generation of the self, the me generation, it seems to be that educators and parents want to develop the creativity in every child, for you to find your creativity so there's art classes for everyone and music for everyone and all this stuff, when chances are 95% of kids won't be talented enough to actually make anything of themselves in those areas because the people who are creatively and artistically successful are tiny minority and you won't be able to change that. You can't take a person who is zero percent open and turn them into the next Michelangelo. It's just unrealistic. It's not going to happen.

So the idea that you can form your child into an artist is ridiculous. You can find the talent, you can nurture the talent, but to actually create it out of nothing is impossible. So we tend to value certain traits but really what's the value in having a trait? I'm talking on a higher level here. What's the value of just being born with a trait?

Corey: Right. The value of it is what you do with it.

Harrison: Exactly. And there's things you can do no matter what trait you have. Like I was mentioning, there are positive and negative aspects to any score you get, things to work on no matter where you are despite the cultural stereotype of the ideal personality. And it may be with that personality type that there's something to it that is worth working towards but taking into account the negative aspects of those traits. So I think about Dabrowski's model where he talks about his overexcitabilities which has some overlap with the Big Five. I'd be interested in seeing a study that really got into that and to see if the Big Five might be a better way of describing Dabrowski's overexcitabilities or if overexcitability is another thing aside from personality traits. There's something about overexcitability that works in concert with personality traits because he talks about things like psychomotor overexcitability. This would be like ADHD, a lot of physical energy to do things.

So that doesn't seem to be captured. Maybe it is. I haven't seen any correlations with the personality traits with the Big Five. Maybe there is. But then he's got imaginative overexcitability which would be openness, like creativity and then intellectual overexcitability which would also be an aspect of openness - the intellect and emotional overexcitability which would be an aspect of neuroticism. What else?

Emotional, intellectual, psychomotor, imaginational. I think there's one more but I'm just blanking on it right now. So there might be an aspect here. I think it is that as personality development progresses you will find that people become more agreeable but not because they were necessarily born that way. I'm trying to think this through kind of on the spot. I think that with personality development comes knowledge of all types and if you understand all types of people then first of all, nothing shocks you and you won't necessarily be extremely moralistically judgmental because you understand who they are and why they are the way they are. It's kind of like the Buddhist perspective of what can you do about it and that's just the way nature is so why judge nature.

But at the same time you still have a moral hierarchy, a hierarchy of values. You can see why people do certain things without condoning it, for instance. Something that someone does will be absolutely against your hierarchy of values but you won't necessarily be enraged that this person is doing this thing because you're not responsible for them. You see what they're doing. You understand it. You know in your conscience that it's wrong and that you wouldn't do such a thing but you stop I think, having the impulse to form other people in your image and wishing other people would be like you.

Corey: Right, which kind of goes right back to what we were talking about last week with awareness, self-awareness and the awareness of how other people see you and not only that but the awareness of the different types of psychology that are out there and how it's ridiculous to hope for this total equality, everyone is like me and if I'm an introvert and someone's extroverted then they're just fundamentally flawed and evil.

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: And they're just out to bully me. Reading about the Big Five and taking the test presents an opportunity to see the personality as a sort of a tool, to be able to see where you fit into the world around you and where you could fit better, especially with regards to neuroticism, extroversion, conscientiousness, all of them really. But then also how they combine. If you have very low conscientiousness and very high openness, you're artistic, you have all of this ability but you don't apply it and you're able to look at it on a piece of paper, you're able to see that it's charted out and it's like "That's why I am a starving artist".

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: Or you could be high conscientiousness and high openness and no extroversion, no agreeableness. So you're not schmoozing with anybody. You're not out there getting your art or your not publishing it and people don't even know that you exist. So it just presents this opportunity to look at your personality as this universal part of being human, this dimension of being human that can be developed and it can. I think that's the reason we have therapy. That's the reason why we have books and programs towards developing insight and different levels of your personality because it's possible and it's desirable. If you want to do anything in the world, anything with your life, this kind of awareness is fundamental and you need to have a system I think in order to really slot all of these perspectives and what better system than one that's been tested on thousands of people across the world.

Harrison: Yeah. And while you were talking about that a thought came into my mind that this is what actual diversity is and inclusion - a deep understanding that people are very different and they're different along dimensions that are testable. You can actually get an idea of why and how people are different. So for people who make diversity and inclusivity their catchphrases, their slogans, are they really? Because it seems like their moral frameworks are designed around certain personality traits. "I only like people with these certain personality traits and everyone else is Hitler."

Now some of those people are Hitler, right, because some of the will have personality traits like Hitler. So that becomes a societal question of where we draw the line essentially. What kind of behaviours do cross the line and how do we deal with that? That's a separate issue. But when you're looking at someone who's an orderly person who's interacting with someone who's disorderly, one of Peterson's bits of advice for relationships is there are certain types that don't mix very well. So if you have someone who's extremely conscientious and someone who's extremely unconscientious, that's not going to be a good match because it's going to be a constant source of conflict in their relationship.

So if you have someone who just writes off everyone who is a lazy slob as a worthless human being or a lazy slob - I think that's part of my personality coming through - {laughter} then it's not productive and it's not realistic and it's really a judgment of nature where there shouldn't necessarily be one. To finish the point I started making about personality traits not being virtuous in and of themselves, well what would be virtuous? For me personally, now after thinking about this, things have become a bit more clear for me. For example I have more admiration for an extremely disagreeable person who does a very agreeable act, who really struggles to actually be kind to people in certain situations and do something for others than I would for a person who's agreeable being agreeable.

What's the effort in just being agreeable if you're agreeable? There's no effort in it. There's no work in it. They haven't overcome any obstacle to do so. So for the same reason I would admire a very agreeable person who in a certain situation or a certain set of situations is very disagreeable if in that circumstance, in that situation, it is appropriate because that shows the inner struggle that's going on. They are not doing what is easy. I guess that's what it is. I can't have much admiration or respect for someone who just does what's easy.

And also, one of the points that Peterson makes and his colleagues in this test, because it's not just him alone who made this - I'm just going to read from the introduction, the thing that introduces before you actually get to the Big Five. He says, "Remember each personality trait and aspect and your relative position with respect to them has advantages and disadvantages. It is for that reason that variation exists in the human population. There is a niche for each personality configuration. Much of what constitutes success in life is therefore the consequence of finding the place in relationships, work and personal commitment that corresponds to your unique personality structure."

So basically there's an aspect of finding your place, finding your fit - to tie that back to insight - but also of the fact that all of these personality types, all these individuals, have a role to play. Now it may be a destructive role and that would be the example of the case where we have to draw societal lines, but on the more average level of where you find the most people, you can't just draw the line in the middle of 50/50 humans and say "this 50 good, this 50 bad". It doesn't work like that. Each has a role to play. For instance, you've got entrepreneurs and you've got managers. You need both of them. You can't just say one personality type is good and the other one is bad.

So you could look at each of these traits and find that. Of course most cultures have an appreciation for the openness dimension because these are the people who create all the great works of literature and art and science, everything that we consider to be culture, architecture, sculpture, paintings, novels, great scientific books and works. On all of these things you can find that there are positive things about them, even disagreeableness, right? Because there's a time for being disagreeable. I think some of the greatest moments in history, when you look back, the stories you read or if it's recent enough, the videos that you can watch of someone standing up to a bully - and this could be a corporate bully, a government bully - they're putting on a disagreeable act. It's the disagreeable thing to get up and criticize a power that is greater than you because it is the right thing to do and it might mean you'll lose your life because of it. For an agreeable person to do that, that takes an immense amount of courage, a level of courage that most people don't have.

I'd be interested in a study of actual virtues like courage which isn't just the absence of fear. It's doing something despite the fear. I'd be interested in seeing a study on the development of virtues and how that relates to personality traits, the Big Five. That's something I haven't looked into. I don't know if that's been done. I don't even know if there's research literature on actual virtues.

Corey: I had wondered that too. I've personally wondered where virtues fit into this whole idea, if you're trying to fit this theory into your head and making it inform other areas of what you understand. I was reading about the theoretical model for the Big Five and it combined early temperament research that was going on in the 20th century about the different temperaments of children and how parents would interact with them and how they would interact with their peers, how their peers would interact with them, based on their temperament. They were able to coalesce their findings into the Big Five very easily.

So they had assurgency for extroversion, for the kid wanting to be loved and hugged and playing and all that and so on for the rest of the traits. It provided this powerful evidence, along with twin studies, identical twins separated at birth, that a lot, if not most of our personality is inherited and it's temperament. But when you look back on thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and his list of virtues, he didn't consider his temperament to be a part of his desire for virtue. He said that was god-given which today we would say that's genetically endowed. It's part of our inheritance.

So we don't have really much to do with the inheritance that we get. It's just given to us. But the role there is between temperament and the Big Five, the big categorical traits. Because in between those two levels is what they call characteristic adaptations which would be your specific way of adapting, of using those traits, of interacting with the world, of behaving on any given day-to-day basis and where really your individual genius - which I think shines through. What's unique about you? What differentiates you from the rest of people who have high conscientiousness? One of the drawbacks about this specific system is that if I score 96 on conscientiousness and 96 on openness and 96 on whatever, blah, blah, blah, but St. Thomas of Aquinas scored the same. Let's say two people in history scored the same but their individual genius is completely different.

I think that's where this characteristic adaptation to the environment, your own particular genius and IQ and other things would factor in; allowing for a way of seeing personality as a tool but something that we are born with but then throughout our life we're going to be shaping it. It's going to be shaping us and not only is it going to be shaping us, but since it's just really a heuristic, a tool, what we're really looking at is how the environment, how other people shape us, how our own choices shape us and how we can categorize those in order to really understand, at least on a superficial level, how our actions contribute to our life events, our outcomes, what we want and what we don't want and how much of that is, as Benjamin Franklin said, just god-given.

But then, depending on what we do with that, there is room for a study on the different virtues, how you apply those traits I think, on a day-to-day basis, which gets into the realm of things like insight, different tools that people use in order to cope with stress, in order to facilitate dialogue in order to solve their individual problems that are mediated by your conscientiousness or extroversion but that are also highly specific to you and what you can accomplish, what you can do, based on what you know.

Harrison: Well tying that back into Dabrowski that we talked about several weeks ago and his theory, he talks about the first two factors. The first one would be the biological and in that would be included personality traits, your inheritance, what you're born with. The second factor would be society and how society shapes you, the idea and values that it implants in you on top of your biology, on top of your inheritance. Then the third factor is the autonomous factor. That's the you that chooses and the you that chooses often against the first two factors, so doing something against your biology, against your inheritance, against society.

Now there's no virtue in and of itself in either of those, just going against your biology or your society for the sake of it because you might be going against society in a negative way. You might be violating some societal norm that just makes you a criminal as opposed to a moral person. Or you might just be doing something against your biology that just has no higher purpose. It's just for the sake of it, maybe fasting. Just fasting doesn't make you a saint or abstaining from sex doesn't make you a saint. Both might be useful skills. Some things like that might be healthy in certain situations but again, it doesn't necessarily make you a better person.

There's something else there. It's in a much wider context. I wrote an article this week on nationalism where I kind of touched on this when I talked about - again something that Peterson said about what you value most is your god. So when you look at what people value the most, how big their sphere of values is, the things that they value and therefore the sphere in which their aims are and their values and decisions and actions, the sphere in which those things operate, the smaller it is, the more selfish you are and the more expansive it is, the people who have a more expansive sphere of value are the people that we tend to admire the most. For example Ghandi and Martin Luther King are revered as great people because their spheres of values weren't strictly limited to themselves for instance, or just their family. Martin Luther King might be a decent person if he was just concerned about his family but no one would know about him and he wouldn't have much of a wide influence or effect on other people.

But for a person with a very wide sphere of values, it becomes more universal and the more people are encompassed in it to the point where what you do or the choices you make might be determined to a great extent by the greatest number of people. So when you do something, you have in mind not only yourself and your family and your community but humanity as a whole now and in the future. So the choice that I have in front of me, I want to make that choice in a way that will be the best for everyone for all time or for the foreseeable future. And if you can do that, it will be recognized and you will gain recognition for it.

On the other hand, if you're a person in a very visible position, like some leader of any country who just by virtue of that position has a global audience, you can look at a person like that and make a very harsh judgment and that can probably be a correct judgment. If you see a leader who is a demon or who is a selfish, incompetent clown, that can be seen too. But then again, as I said that, the first thing that came to mind was Trump. {laughter} I'll just say on the other hand, those perceptions can also be influenced and wrong. So again, that's just complicated.

But as a heuristic there's an average where people do seem to be able to recognize great things about people. But on the other hand, not everyone will recognize it. I guess that's what I'm trying to get at. With Martin Luther King, of course he had tons of people who hated him but at least where we are in our culture now and maybe just by virtue of the fact that he has been sainted to a degree, it's politically incorrect to say anything bad about Martin Luther King but it may also be just incorrect to say certain bad things because of the virtues involved and the actual accomplishments and the actual message.

My thoughts on that are all over the place just because there's so much to it and I haven't really narrowed it down to specific features.

Corey: Like we've discussed on other shows, going back to the original question about whether there are any scientific studies on virtues, we've discussed the fact that science can't really tell you what you should find virtuous, right?

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: The virtuous world is fairly unknowable. I think that's probably one of the biggest problems with enlightenment and science, especially scientific materialism. We think that everything can be known. That's kind of one of the implicit assumptions, that everything can be known. We can discover everything. We can research everything. We can know everything. But there are still elements of the universe, considering any time span not extended out a quadrillion years, we will never know. We'll never understand it given our mental capacities. There is something ineffable about virtues and that particular individual genius, something that draws us to act in such a way that we go against our self-interest. The virtuous life is something that's so pragmatic and so wise that it's just beyond our ken that we still revere certain figures who act in such a way that at the time seemed ridiculous, that went against everything that anybody knew, it seemed so destabilizing and so wild but at the same time it was so wise and intelligent and it completely shaped the future in a way that was beneficial for everyone.

There's some element there acting beyond just normal human personality I guess.

Harrison: You said these are things that we may never be able to know. I'm not sure about that. We may never be able to know it in certain ways of knowing. If you define knowing in terms of scientific categories and the way that science is done as scientists describe it then yeah, I'd agree with that. But perhaps there are other ways of knowing and perhaps there are no actual limits to knowing. It may just be that that's such a far off goal that we haven't taken the steps necessary to that level of knowing. But I think there are definitely things that we know that we don't know we know and things that we know that we know in different ways. For example Collingwood in his book Principles of Art talks about art as being a type of knowing and that is the knowledge of experience.

So you know what a certain experience is like and we use the word knowing. We use knowledge that way. So you know what it's like to feel fear for instance, to be afraid. Now that isn't a scientific type of knowledge. It isn't a measurement. You don't know which brain cells are activated and which hormones are released in your body and which nerve clusters pick up the influence from those hormones and chemicals and translate them to your brain. All that goes on under the surface. We have no scientific knowledge of that but we know what it's like to feel fear.

That's just a very simple example. I think there are all sorts of things that we know in a similar way and at least one aspect of virtue might fall under that category to the extent that when we are virtuous, when we do make the right choice, we might know that that is the virtuous choice to make. In that instant we might know that virtue.

Corey: You know, that makes me think of the difference between, say for example on any given day, you get out of bed in the morning, you don't have a scientist there to tell you that "okay, if you do this, the results are 50% this, 25% that". You can't have an exact scientific description of everything that you do. But you do have, like you said, a different level of knowing where you make the best decision that you can. I'm thinking specifically of historical figures, major historical figures like Caesar taking huge political risks without any guarantee but doing it based on what they believe was the best thing that they could do for the most amount of people given what they knew and what they could do and doing it. There's no one there to give you the insurance check when it all fails but that ability to act with knowledge seems to me is one of the most fundamental virtues.

I can't remember the name of it right now, I can't remember if it's prudence. I can't remember, but I think that when you look at a virtuous person and how they operate in the world there's that different level of knowing that has its own personal genius. Socrates might say it's a voice that bid him "No, don't do this. Don't do that" but it's just a higher form of knowing, like you said. It's not completely different but higher, more immediate, more direct than the book learning.

Harrison: Yeah. It's not abstracted.

Corey: Right! Yeah!

Harrison: It's a felt knowledge. It's a direct experience. So when you pick something up, you have a direct experience of it. A scientific explanation of you picking something up will be an abstraction. Basically atoms touch other atoms and move in four dimensional space or something. It's an abstraction and it might be useful in certain contexts but not in every context and certainly not when you're in an actual situation of an actual human. When you're reaching for a glass of water it doesn't matter that you know what the chemical composition of each of the materials is. You know it's water. You drink it.

There's a place for abstraction and it is highly valuable. All of our science and technology depends on it but it's a certain type of thing and it is an abstraction but there are more direct ways of experiencing and knowing. You mentioned Socrates and a couple of other examples. Peterson would call it meaning. It's the direct felt experience of knowing that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. There is an experiential aspect to that, a recognizable feeling, a recognizable knowing for when you're there, for when you're in that flow state.

Corey: Right. And then there's a high amount of unknown in that too. I was reading about some of the neurobiological substrates of personality, specifically dopamine and serotonin written by people who heavily cited Jordan Peterson's work and their basic theory was that you could group the Big Five into two fundamental categories towards stability, which would be I think conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism and stability, keeping your personal order and then plasticity which involves openness and extraversion, outward seeking and you're facing the unknown. I'm not 100% sure that that would work in such a way but I think that the fundamental biology that they're talking about, especially in terms of dopamine, as sufficient evidence in the literature to show that dopamine in the brain is geared to staring into space, to seeing the stars, but not just physical stars but being able to imagine and think critically and to visualize. When you're facing the unknown the author said there's a high amount of psychic entropy which he would say is at its highest when you don't know what is happening or what you should do and it's at that point that it places a lot of stress on your brain.

So the harder it is to answer those questions the more likely you are to crack, to lose your stability. So I think that developing your personality in so many ways is what it takes to get to that level of wisdom, of knowledge, of facing the unknown. I don't think we've talked about it in shows before but there's specific ways of doing that and it's never to shirk the irritable factors of existence or to avoid triggers or avoid any sort of trauma, it's to face those kinds of things and to develop the nerve, quite literally, to face it and to not blink which is tremendously difficult for a human being because we're like rabbits in the face of the crocodile of existence.

Harrison: Yeah, so vulnerable. It really amazes me. Everyone once in a while when I'm just walking somewhere, maybe in the grocery store or on along the sidewalk, the thought will come into my head of just how vulnerable my body is and how amazing it is that people aren't just dying all the time, to a greater degree than they already die all the time. The same thing while driving. Look at all these cars just hurdling around and look at just how soft our bodies are. It's so easy to just be torn apart in any given situation and it's so easy to tear each other apart. I think about that also when I'm thinking about the atheism/theism debate and how there really is something very hardwired in us about a rudimentary morality that has millions of years of history to the point where we're not just all the time tearing each other apart for trivial reasons or appear at the time where that seems to happen more often than not. But just walk down the street and be amazed that everyone you see isn't ripping you to shred, literally. How do we manage that? Why aren't we just tearing each other to shreds?

I think the scientific explanations go some way to answering that question but they don't encapsulate it for me. It has never satisfied me as a full explanation for why that is the case.

Corey: Right. And wouldn't Jordan Peterson even say that it necessarily always has to be the case. If you look through history you can see societies where everyone's just tearing each other apart, quite literally sometimes, civil war, world wars. If science says that that is hardwired into us because of group selection or natural evolution, that's not the case at all. There's some deeper assumption about life that is higher and more sacred. If people want to do away with sanctity because it's associated with some religious tradition that they don't like then they're asking for trouble.

Harrison: Yeah. I want to read some things I highlighted from Understand Myself, just some interesting things that I found there. First before I do that, one other thing that struck me was the fact that one of the things that annoys me about psychology books, especially pop psychology, self-help books, how to deal with shame and guilt, childhood trauma and all that stuff, is that when you look at the personality research like this, you should very quickly realize that those books seem to apply to a small percentage of people. But when you read those books, they're written as if everyone is like this. It's like "Oh you can't shame your child. You can't do this. You can't do that. Oh this type of experience will be just devastating for a child. They'll grow up wracked with guilt and shame". What it comes down to is that even if they aren't explicit about it, implicit in all those books is this idea that human nature is totally malleable and that we're all malleable in the same ways.

So if this certain situation happens, it's going to result in this type of neurosis when you grow up. This comes back to what you were saying about how this research even got started. It was a disenchantment of the Freudian theories and various psychoanalytic theories like that. So when you look at the Big Five there are pretty much two categories of people who come into therapy; people who are highly neurotic and people who are highly agreeable and they come in because they're wracked by guilt and shame or also may be people who are high in some aspects of conscientiousness because they also feel self-contempt and shame and guilt.

But it's not everyone. Not everyone is even susceptible to a deep depression or anxiety disorder and not everyone is so agreeable that they're getting pushed around in the world. That's why I like Dabrowski so much. I'll get into that in a minute. First of all, I think that the reason that a lot of these books are like that is because when you are a therapist or a psychologist, the only people coming into your office are a certain kind of person. So you might get the impression that all people are like that or at least that most people or a lot of people are like that when it's actually not the case because you're only getting the people coming into your office who have those personality traits that make them susceptible to those types of mental problems.

But there are a range of other kinds of personality types that never go to therapy for various different kinds of reasons. That's the reason I like Dabrowski so much. He took a grand view. He wasn't just looking at the people who came into his office. He wanted to explain all of humanity, all variations in human nature from the top to the bottom, from the left to the right. That's just one thing that really irks me about those types of books. There are so many assumptions that are going in there and all of the empirical research shows that what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for other people. It's a basic axiom of science and life in general.

Corey: And that's why so many people read these books and they're so devastatingly disappointed when it didn't work for them.

Harrison: Yeah. So that was just one observation I had there. And again, that comes back to what we were saying at the top of the show about the adaptation of the Big Five model to personality disorder research. It can have an actual positive effect in the diagnosis and treatment of various types of mental illness, not all of them, because I think there are some mental illnesses that don't fall into the Big Five like schizophrenia for instance. As far as people can tell there is a biological component and it's not just an extreme one or two traits or something like that.

But to get to some of the things that I wanted to read, I really recommend if you haven't done the test, do it. It's cheap. I think it's $10 and it's just very useful not only for getting an idea of yourself, becoming a little bit more self-aware, learning where your flaws are and where your strengths are and learning where your efforts might be best put to use, like in your career and your relationships, etc. But like we've been saying, it gives you a wider view of humanity at large.

So for each one they give examples of where different types of people fall, where men and women differ on certain personality traits and where liberals and conservatives differ. For instance, liberals are higher in the aspect compassion in agreeableness and conservatives are higher in aspect politeness which I found interesting. I wouldn't have thought that intuitively. I would have just thought "Oh, compassion and politeness? That's the Canadian. So they all must be liberal Canadians." But no, the conservatives are actually higher in politeness which was interesting.

Then he says that "Politically correct people are particularly high in compassion. What this appears to mean is that agreeable people strongly identify with those they deem oppressed, seeing them essentially as exploited infants and demonize those they see as oppressors, seeing them as cruel, heartless predators." Like we've said, there's problems with every personality trait. The problem here is that that essentially can lead to atrocities because when you perceive someone as a threat and when you demonize that perceived threat and you see that threat as a heartless predator, what do you do with heartless predators? You put them down. The problem with that is how do you know it's a heartless predator. Maybe it is. Maybe that person is a heartless predator. Maybe that group of people are all heartless predators, but do you know? And when you don't know, that's what leads to atrocities, like I said, when you have a group identification and when you presume guilt before innocence. That's why we have a justice system and that's the way the justice system should work.

So "Highly polite people tend to be deferential to authority and are generally obedient". Again, not a psychopath. Did you have anything else Corey? I might find some more quotes but maybe not.

Corey: About the politeness? The politically correct?

Harrison: Anything.

Corey: No I don't.

Harrison: I'll just read a couple more then. We talked about the good things about conscientious people. They're neat, organized, future-oriented, reliable, not easily distracted, they get work done. But on the other hand they can be prone to guilt. They're susceptible to shame, self-disgust and contempt, but they're also judgmental and easily disgusted by their own moral transgressions as well as those of others. That was interesting.

I think that everyone should just do the test and find their own gems for themselves.

Corey: Remembering that there's a niche for every personality out there.

Harrison: Yes.

Corey: Which is one of the nice things about this. If you've been trying to fit the round peg into the square hole for however many years, maybe there's just a completely different niche.

Harrison: That's one of the things that I never really thought about that has gelled for me over the past couple of years; getting an appreciation for the other side of the political spectrum because I've always considered myself on the left. That primarily is where my personality traits lie but I'm also high in conscientiousness which can tilt me to the right in certain areas too. But I didn't really have an appreciation for the conservative mindset.

One thing that really helped was reading Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind and with that in mind and with the Big Five research in mind, it has made me, I wouldn't say more tolerant, but more understanding. I can see where people are coming from now and I can see more clearly the flaws on my own side, on my team. That's one of the real dangers of identity politics, that you're blind to your own team's flaws and all you see are the flaws of the other team. You can't see their positive traits. You can't see the value in anything that they do and you think that everything that you're doing is valuable. You can't see when you're being a total "expletive" or when you are harbouring disagreeable elements within your flock and that just leads to problems.

So I think maybe if we are searching for things to say, that might be a sign that we should call it a night or an afternoon or a morning, wherever you are. What do you think, Corey?

Corey: Call it a wrap.

Harrison: Let's wrap it up. Okay so thanks for tuning in everyone. We will be back next week with another topic about something. We don't know yet but we'll come up with something hopefully. So thanks for tuning in and see you later.

Corey: Have a nice week everybody.