“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” -Walt Whitman
In Pt1 of this series I meant to defend the notion of a mortal soul, as opposed to reducing the human being to mere personality or temperament. I attempted to remind the reader that a personality test is less than half of the human equation; that we are personality plus character, or, if you like, persona plus person. But for truly great men, the grand souls, the people we describe as having great “personality,” a personality test would amount to much less than half the equation, for as Borges remarked about Shakespeare, he was everyone and no one. It is for this reason that Harold Bloom writes that “if challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or of Jesus.” These great men are everyone and no one; they contain multitudes. Though they are the venue of a contest that is conducted with themselves, this contest involves not simply their persona versus their character, per se, but, as Bloom has it, “that agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato’s Socrates, Confucius’ the Duke of Chou, the Buddha’s earlier incarnations.” Isaac D’Israeli remarked that “many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear.” This is one reason why the terms “spirit” or “soul,” with their non-materialist overtones, seem appropriate to me: the great men of history have absorbed and battled with the spirits of the great men before them, without which their internal battle would likely have featured rather lackluster contestants and their own works of genius likely never realized. Once this battle did, however, produce works of genius, these great men did battle with the material products (usually literary) of their own prior selves, out of which conflict emerged fresh works issuing from an altered soul.
This is what is most beautiful about writing: it allows us to preserve versions of our changing spirit to share with others and to commune with later, our selves. The same cannot be said for your personality profile, unless contentment and unconditional self-acceptance amount to victory and you are satisfied with a shallow self-hood shorn of any pretenses to greatness. True, these reports can be instructive, but if you feel that they accurately capture your very being, you might be “reading yourself” into them so successfully that you don’t notice how much the test actually fails to provide. Though many of us perhaps need these tea leaves, why settle for divination when you could instead simply write and read what you have written?
Personality tests look simple enough: if I score high on the extroversion scale this means I am highly action oriented and motivated by interaction with others, while having virtually no introverted tendencies. However, far from being simple polarities, “traits” or “factors” in most personality tests are not a simple continuum, but involve a complex interaction between each of the many factors, creating a web of continua, if you will. As stated already, personality is not person. Therefore, scoring high on a personality trait on the 16PF test or MBTI is rather ambiguous because: 1) your persona might be accurately modeling your inner person without conflict, or 2) your persona might be compensating for an inconvenient part of your innate person, therefore playing its shadow or opposite. In case 2, which one is the real you? The answer is both. So how do we characterize people that seem to display both sides of these traits? Are they bipolar? The traits are supposed to give us some predictive power regarding the person’s future behavior, so how could we forecast the actions of such a paradoxical and conflicted person? We can’t, of course; a fact that firmly grounds the idea of Free Will.
One last ambiguity remains as well: a median score (5 out of 10 for the 16PF test) is supposed to mean that neither end of the polarity is influential in your personality, but could it instead mean that both ends of the trait are highly influential? I contend that this is the case for some of us and some research is beginning to embrace terms like “ambivert” and so forth. What really needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge not just ambiverts, but people who are ambisurgent, ambigreeable, ambidominant, and so forth. Furthermore, it should be noted that “psychological integration,” in the Jungian or Nietzschean sense, involves the cultivation of one’s opposites, so as to maximize the freedom of both person and persona, yet such an accomplishment would be invisible on a personality test.
Many of our “personality traits” are attitudes, temperaments, or styles developed precisely to compensate for an innate lack in our person. For instance, on the 16PF test I score very high on “suspiciousness,” but this doesn’t mean that I am a suspicious person. Quite to the contrary, in my case this means that I am a naturally trusting and amiable person who has experienced enough betrayal and nastiness on account of this natural temperament to prompt my personality to develop a compensatory distrust. This means that I can use will-power to be suspecting if needed, or simply indulge my natural will to be trusting and accepting. But this ability to span both ends of a polarity is not visible on these profiles.
Though Myers-Briggs and others will admit that each one of us has both extraverted and introverted tendencies and behaviors, they cling to the notion that one or the other is permanently dominant and never both. The prevailing view says that on a 10 sten scale of introversion/extroversion, a score of 1 means totally introverted, a score of 10 means totally extroverted, and a score of 5 means that you are not strongly introverted or extraverted and that this factor is not an important one or driving force in your personality. Scoring 5’s down the line means you essentially have no personality at all; no remarkable or distinguishing characteristics. However, the way I see it, a true ambivert (as opposed to a totally dull person/personality with no preference either way) means a score of 10 and 1. If this shows up as a median score of 5, this score should be interpreted as your being highly driven by both extraverted and introverted pursuits.
Essentially my critique of most personality tests comes down to three things: 1) they often imply that personality is person, that ego is self, that characteristics are character, etc, 2) the Forer Effect, and 3) that in addition to indicating that you have no personality, middle-sten scores can mean instead that you have an overabundance! That is, these tests cannot adequately peg the man who has already found himself, ordered his will, and/or absorbed his opposites. This point is obvious if one just looks at the full description of one of Maslow’s “self-actualizers” and notes how many opposing traits they manage to encompass.
Extraversion is made up of other traits, one of which being “surgency,” or ‘Factor F’ in the 16PF test. “Surgency” is a term invented by Raymond Cattell to essentially indicate enthusiasm or a happy-go-lucky disposition as opposed to seriousness. Heather Cattell has the following to say about this factor:
Because of their self-centeredness, surgent persons may appear narcissistic; but, unlike narcissism, surgency does not arise from a retreat into self after being bitterly disappointed in others. Rather, it is the vestige of the primordial condition when every child experienced itself as the center of the universe. In this regard, Cattell (1973) has judged the poet Walk Whitman as the personification of surgency. These surgent qualities are expressed in his ebullient, sensuous, optimistic, and self-absorbed poetry, as is illustrated in the following line: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”
This is rather specific and so we should be able to compare a figure like Whitman to the whole explication of Factor F without finding any anomalies or inconsistencies. Sadly, this is where things fall to pieces very quickly. Its like she didn’t read the rest of the poem! What about “I am large; I contain multitudes,” one of the most brilliant, perceptive, and least (egoistically) “self-absorbed” statements in poetry? Whitman famously believed that there is a vital symbiotic relationship between the poet and society. He thoroughly absorbed his society into himself and fervently hoped that his society in turn would absorb him just as much, but he wanted them to absorb his critique of society, not just his playful inner child! Cattel states that surgent people are divergent thinkers: “the interests of F+ people are associative and therefore not deeply penetrating; it is no wonder they fade quickly.” Whitman is hardly the dilettante, hardly the self-indulgent and childlike thinker who fails to reach deep insight. Cattell might counter that Whitman could be balanced off with a high C, high G, and high Q3, but then what use was knowing his score on surgency? This is where the Forer effect is clearly wreaking havoc, as a person can behave in direct opposition to one of his scores–scores that are there to predict behavior!–and this can be explained away via other traits. The opposite of a Whitman, a person who is F- or “desurgent” is supposed to be “full of cares,” “introspective,” and “reflective.” So Whitman was not full of cares, introspective, or reflective?!? The simple fact is that Whitman was not “surgent” but ambisurgent.
My score on ‘Factor F’ is rather low (3) but yet I was an extremely surgent child, very happy-go-lucky and enthusiastic, and far from serious or sober (though I was shy and cautious). The test accurately shows that my personality has developed a very serious side. This development not only allows me to use will-power to become serious and reflective, while more naturally willing to be enthused, but this ability fundamentally changes my person over time. After using will-power to become serious and reflective for long enough it becomes a part of your being; you will that state of reflection or introspection just as much as you will that happy-go-lucky playfulness; you can become playfully introspective, or seriously playful. I have absorbed my antipodes and it is not very clear now whether my person or persona (personality) is most active in a given behavior: they are working harmoniously together now instead of compensating for each other.
Cattell writes that desurgent (F-) people “typically had a restricted range of interest. But what that person lacked in range he or she usually made up for in depth.” I am an F- person, yet a casual stroll through my blog should disabuse anyone of the notion that I have a restricted range of interests! In fact, I have always been such a staunch generalist that it took remarkable will-power to thoroughly investigate a single topic instead of flitting to interesting adjacent ones haphazardly. Well, Cattell might retort that I may have been F+ but hard experience has made me F-. Fine, but how did I manage to change from having no perseverance or ability to “delve deep” in K-12 to having enough perseverance to get nearly straight A’s in an Analytic Philosophy program at UCLA? Cattell might answer that I was gifted with perseverance via other personality traits:
perseverence requires a working against the F+ person’s natural inclinations. It also requires a heavy drawing on at least one of the intrapsychic controls: C+ (ego strength), G+ (superego), or Q3+ (self-sentiment).
But my scores on these factors are 4, 3, and 3, respectively! So where did I get that perseverance from if not these “intrapyschic controls”? Well, Cattell could respond that I got it from being desurgent all along, which is contrary to my entire experience of myself from K-12, leaving us back where we started trying to explain my eclectic interests and difficulty focusing deeply on just one or two; that is, we have to explain my apparent surgency! So my ‘Factor F’ score really tells me nothing definitive about myself, patently fails to explain past behavior or predict future behavior. The factor doesn’t even seem to be consistent with respect to its prototypical model: Whitman. The great benefit of the test is that it supposedly contains the “atoms” of personality and drivers of behavior, but yet each single atom falls apart on closer inspection into all manner of adjectives, begging the question why didn’t I just start with these quarks instead of focusing on the atoms? Well, the answer is that the “quarks” are every unique personal adjective available in the worlds languages. According to Heather Cattell, Raymond simply followed “Allport’s lead of listing all dictionary descriptions of human behavior and deleting synonyms.” If the whole list of “quarks” offer too much complexity and nuance, I hasten to add that the “atoms” that Cattell has distilled offer far too little, as people are just damned quirky!
If personality tests accurately predict behavioral dispositions, then how could I, a “desurgent” person, possibly author so much, given that desurgent people are principally “cautious,” “silent,” and “uncommunicative”? Surgency is supposed to be a measure of “spiritedness,” but what of the person who is spiritedly serious, passionately introspective, enthusiastically reflective, or cheerfully careful? Its not that the 16PF test is too simplistic, but rather, that it is just complex enough to explain any behavior, regardless of your actual scores on the test.
Perhaps this is a silly argument to espouse given that people who truly know themselves would have no reason to consult a personality test, but those who don’t know their own person very well and who consult these tests should be warned that their profile will be a sketch of their persona, a sketch that might be the exact opposite of their actual person, because our personality is largely a system of defense mechanisms built to shore up our innate weaknesses and protect us from the environment. One of the great things about the 16PF paradigm is that it tells you that there is no ideal score on any factor, that each end of the continuum has pluses and minuses, and furthermore that you can use a cluster of traits to combat some of the negatives of another trait. Fantastic! But what should be emphasized as a corollary to this is that you can work to contain your antipodes; you can develop the ability to switch between either end of a trait as needed, therefore reaping the pluses and avoiding the minuses of either. People who have accomplished this have no personality in a certain sense, but in a deeper way they are the most interesting people alive; they are people we might describe as having lots of personality, or being “large” personalities. But what “large” really means is that they span many of the polarities of any given personality test and that the very best that such a test could do would be to predict that such a person is impossible to predict; that such a person will predictably surprise. In “Trance and Treatment,” H. and D. Spiegel explain that “An article of faith with us is that the healthier people are, the more difficult it is to describe them with any degree of accuracy.” Accordingly, after seeing their personality profile people should really be encouraged to transcend their personalities or risk being open to the following criticism from Oscar Wilde: “only the shallow know themselves.”