It Takes Four Kinds

I stumbled upon Tim Ross when he wrote a brilliant comment on Harold and Kumar, and he has very kindly shared his insightful thoughts on a schema that explains all of humanity in its endless diversity. This is, strikingly, considerably less ambitious than Kris Sargent’s project. It seems that TASers are intellectual megalomaniacs, which I like. RS.

Reihan’s attempt to classify the unclassifiable — his own large, multitude-containing self — reminded me of the single best thing I’ve learned this year.

You see, I’m addicted to biography. I love to learn about people: where they came from, what they learned, and how they learned it. But while I’ve always enjoyed gathering the data, it didn’t particularly help me to understand — or predict — any given individual’s behaviour. Like an 18th-century geologist, I had amassed a great jumble of unique, individual types, but couldn’t make sense of the unity underlying all the bizarre diversity.

What I lacked was a way to classify anybody. Sure, I knew lots about what people had done with their lives and what they had learned from their experiences. But I had no idea, really, what motivated them to do those things in the first place. Apart from close friends and loved ones, people remained fundamentally inscrutable. That all changed about four weeks ago. Out of the blue, a field guide of sorts fell into my hands, and revealed a great truth: there are precisely four kinds of people in the world.

Just four.

At this point, your Spidey-sense may be tingling, telling you it’s time to check out before I start telling you that, “no, really, men are from Mars….” Or you may hang around to tell me why I’m wrong. But anyone who’s ever appreciated Isaiah Berlin’s division of thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes should stick around a minute.

What happened last month is that I stumbled upon the work of David Keirsey. Keirsey, a WWII fighter pilot, had always been fascinated by the stark differences in the personalities of the people around him. After the war he became a psychologist, and began a decades-long investigation in which he combined the clinical/observational method with a study of the Western literature on personality types. (Here is an interview with him.)

Keirsey paid close attention to how people spoke. He asked them about their thought processes. He noticed that people’s communication patterns always reflected the way they perceived the world around them. People who thought about Concrete things, like tools, tasks, logistics, and schedules, talked in a Concrete way. Similarly, people who preferred to think about systems, concepts, theories, and principles tended to speak in a recognizably Abstract manner. Keirsey also carefully watched people at work. Did they tend to build relationships while engaged in a task, or just focus on the job? He dubbed those that had a natural sense for establishing norms and relationships Cooperative types, and those that preferred to just get-‘er-done he called Utilitarians.

Keirsey combined these two polarities, Concrete vs. Abstract and Cooperative vs. Utilitarian, into a two-dimensional matrix of four quadrants. Keirsey identified these as the four basic Temperaments: concrete, co-operative Guardians, concrete, utilitarian Artisans, abstract, cooperative Idealists, and abstract, utilitarian Rationalists.

As with any division of humanity, it’s arbitrary at some level or another. But the very arbitrariness of its categories is part of its appeal. It provides a convenient shorthand when comparing and contrasting individuals. While psychometricians may roll their eyes at this kind of stuff, understanding that John McCain is an Artisan, while Hillary Clinton is unquestionably a Guardian, may just have more predictive power than, say, looking at their Senate voting records. It may shed some light, for instance, on McCain’s lack of interest in economics and his anger issues. At the very least, it’s kind of fun to figure out which box to put them in. (For instance, Hill’s husband, an Artisan, has more in common, temperament-wise, than with his wife.) Indeed, Temperament theory has a lot to say about former U.S. Presidents.

As I did more digging, it turns out that Keirsey’s ideas have had little traction in academia. (Similarly, the Myers-Briggs inventory, which influenced Keirsey’s work, is much better received in the U.S. military and in corporations than in universities.) The preferred model of mainstream personality psychologists and psychometricians is known as the five-factor model or “the big five”. Part of the reason why Keirsey’s work is rejected is because it insists on splitting people into discrete categories rather than measuring where people and their individual traits fall on a continuous distribution.

And that may be the source of his appeal within schools, the military, and corporations. Sometimes, the qualitative and taxonomic is more useful to ordinary people than the quantitative and statistical. Sometimes sticking labels on people and putting them into boxes is the best thing we can do: it’s merely a question of finding the right label.

And let’s not forget that categories and classifications don’t have to be universally accepted as “real” to be meaningful. And fuzzy boundaries are often better than no boundaries at all. Is there a clear-cut distinction between young Bobos and older Grups? Do Soccer Moms have a verifiable ontological reality? And just what is a neocon, these days, anyways?