Wednesday, November 23, 2005


When I was young, I read a book from off my father's bookshelf. At the time, he had some 20,000 books, so it wasn't hard to find one that looked interesting. This book claimed to include a test that would allow me to have my personality broken down into discrete categories, and "profile" the kind of person I was. I discovered that I was an "E.N.T.J" personality (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgmental). I would later rediscover this method, apparently called the "Keirsey Temperment Sorter." The idea is simple enough: on a variety of possible dimensions people are either one thing or another (e.g. thinkers vs. feelers), so you can create thumbnail sketches based on those distinctions you think are most important. This can (it is believed) at once inform yourself as to who you really are, as well as give you similar insight into other people.

This got brought back into mind by a conversation I had today with a professional poker player, who makes several hundred dollars a month playing poker online and in casinos. Poker (specifically, Texas Hold 'Em) is a game that requires quickly and accurately reading people identify the signs that they're bluffing (their "tells"), and to guess at how they'll behave. Apparently, the poker world has its own "personality profiling," an informal list of the kinds of people one can expect to meet at a poker table. A "table boss," for example, wants to run the show, and is inclined to tell others how to play (which, apparently, happens to usually be a guide as to how they themselves play). There's many such "types." More importantly is an apparently widely-held view that most people, when stressed, behave according to a small number of different "scripts" defined by their personality. Some people might bet or fold more, others less, is the scenario becomes high stress. What's interesting about this is that these categories speak to a sense that there aren't a lot of variations among people, such that (with the exception of the occasional oddball), you can memorize a handful of strategies for dealing with various personality types and ignore the subtext (because, in poker, you rarely interact with people long enough for the subtext to matter).

I was actually exposed to the idea of "context-dependent personality types" very young. Matt Groening's "Life In Hell" was a formative influence on me, and he often explored the humor potential of this approach to personality. As a youth (say, 8 to 12 years of age), I often tried to approach people in this way, often in a pejorative manner. It wasn't until high school that I really started to think of my peer in terms of social customs rather than absolute black-and-white pigeon-holing of their personalities.

It's a strange sort of paradox. Our society wants the easy answer to any problem. There's a "guaranteed" 12-step program for every "problem" a person might have, and in that program, the seller profits on the desire of the many buyers to "have it explained to them" or to "get an edge" in the battle to get by. But at the same time that people want to have little boxes drawn in their headspace to simplify their lives, they really dislike being reduced to a stereotype themselves. It's a strange sort of arrogance to assume that you can follow the same 12 steps to success as everyone else and yet somehow still be unique and special.

Not everyone feels that way, of course. Many reject 12-step programs. But many people go the other way. Grant Morrison is the author of the dense and difficult comic series The Invisibles, a Scottish anti-authoritarian type with a taste for consciousness-expansion. He comments, in response that some of his characters are stereotypes:

"It always annoyed me when people said they were stereotypes. People are stereotypes. I'm a stereotype; I fit the exact stereotype of an Aquarian, every inch of it. Stop fighting it. So what? I'd still be a real character if you put me in a comic." -(Anarchy for the Masses: The Disinformation Guide to the Invisibles)

A lot of this arises, I think, from laziness. People don't generally spend a lot of time deciding how they should behave, what they should value. Most people have their ideals handed to them by their friends and family early on, and they run with them. Even people who take time to really think things through have to constantly remain vigilant not to fall into their old habits, their old traps. Stress tends to bring out the "us" we don't control, the people we "really are" when we can't self-monitor.

Overall, I'm inclined to think of these personality types as tools. They're a quick-and-dirty heuristic for getting a bead on someone quickly. But they're so far from perfect that I'd hate to have to rely on them to try to understand people. They're the sort of thing I might use for a customer if I were in sales, but not that I'd use for my friends.


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