We’d all like to believe that human beings share the same set of values and motivations, but I think we know this just isn’t the case.
We’re all a product of both biological and environmental factors—otherwise known as nature and nurture. As to which force has the most effect on us, well, that’s one of the oldest philosophical arguments of mankind. It’s safe to say that it isn’t simply one and not the other that determines the type of person we are.
To me, psychology represents the meeting of these two factors, because it takes into account both our biological predisposition in relation to our socio-cultural influences.
That is where the “Big Five” Personality Trait studies come in.
The Big Five is an interpretive model for behavior that breaks down the dimensions of human personality into five distinct traits based on both inherited characteristics and socio-cultural influences.
The five traits are:
1. Openness to experience (characterized by curiosity, as opposed to cautiousness)
2. Extraversion (characterized by sociability, as opposed to shyness)
3. Agreeableness (characterized by friendliness, as opposed to antagonism)
4. Neuroticism (characterized by sensitivity and nervousness, as opposed to stability, calmness, and assertiveness)
5. Conscientiousness (characterized by efficiency, as opposed to carelessness)
The degree to which we exhibit each of these traits shapes our individual personality—though, of course, nothing is set in stone. This model is merely a fluid spectrum. However, where we fall on this spectrum can be a pretty good predictor for where our passions lie and what our interests are.
Each of these five traits has its own unique desires, proclivities, hostilities, strengths, and weaknesses. The amalgamation of these comes to form the very structure of our perception—how we see the world, and which actions we decide, consciously or unconsciously, to take.
Let’s list a few examples.
Someone who is high in openness is always seeking out new experiences and playing with new ideas. This is the adventurous type—those who climb mountains and take hallucinogens on the weekend. These are the freewheelers and the sensation seekers. These are the entrepreneurs and the artists. Openness is associated with positivity and happiness, as well as intelligence.
Someone who is high in conscientiousness is more likely to be hardworking and diligent. This is the cerebral, ambitious type—the politicians and the economists and the bureaucrats who are more interested in order and are more obedient of authority. These types are the list makers and the order takers. Conscientiousness is highly associated with academic performance and long-term success, yet often corresponds to lower IQ. People that are high in this trait tend to be happier, but are also more likely to run into life crises when things go wrong.
To find out where we stand on these spectrums, there are a host of big five personality tests online. This is my personal favorite.
The Big Five Traits & Politics.
Interestingly, these traits are highly correlated to an individual’s political proclivities based on a series of studies that were conducted by the American Political Science Review.
The studies were split into two segments: how temperament translates into how we feel about economic policy and how it translates into how we feel about social policy. These were the findings:
1. People who were high in conscientiousness leaned conservative on economic policy (favoring hard work and organization as well as social policy (strict adherence to traditional social norms).
2. People who were high in openness leaned liberal on economic policy (favoring new programs and interventions) as well as social policy (favoring complexity and novelty).
3. People who were high in agreeableness leaned liberal on economic policy (wanting to help the disadvantaged) and leaned conservative on social policy (the desire to maintain harmony and traditional relationships).
4. People who were high in neuroticism leaned liberal on both.
5. There was no consistent or significant effect of the extraversion trait on predicting a person’s policy position.
The findings showed that high conscientiousness is the best predictor of conservative political belief, and high openness is the best predictor of liberal political belief. Conservatively-minded people are more likely to be organized and goal-oriented, whereas liberally-minded people are more likely to be creative and open to new ideas. Here’s an example: a liberal would be more inclined to come up with a good idea for a business, and the conservative would be more inclined to enact that idea through routine and repetition.
The study suggests there are clear distinctions in temperament when it comes to determining political belief, and this accounts for why certain political issues are so polarized. What it might also convey is that these temperamental distinctions are necessary to upholding a healthy society, being that both sides of the political spectrum are constituted by certain values that are necessary in our survival as a species.
Generally speaking, conservatives want to keep things the same (for the good), and liberals want to change things (for the good). The conflict between these values is what keeps our system functioning, but a problem that is occurring more and more (in the United States specifically) is that each side no longer sees the other as being a necessary adversary. Instead of merely disagreeing with the other side, we wish for the other side to disappear altogether. When one side of the political sphere gets destroyed, what typically ensues is something like Nazi Germany, or Mao’s China, or Soviet Russia—and based on my extensive study of each of these systems, nobody should want a world that looks anything like these regimes.
A healthy society entails having multiple political parties, each representative of distinct psychological traits.
I think the Big Five model is important because it illuminates how different we all are in many respects. In acknowledging and understanding these fundamental differences, we can become more tolerant of the viewpoint of others. This applies tenfold in the political sphere.
Oftentimes, we are talking to someone and get the strange feeling that we are looking at the world from two completely different perspectives that hardly overlap. This can be really scary, especially when it comes to discussing complex political and philosophical ideas. What is important to note here is that these differences either A) don’t necessarily need to conflict with each other, or B) the conflict between the them is actually beneficial in a larger context. This is why free speech is such an important concept, as it allows us to deal with these essential differences without being at each other’s throats.
The trait differences between people can actually complement each other. Understanding this has encouraged me to engage in dialogue with people who I may deeply disagree with in an effort to cultivate empathy and understanding. In such polarized times, this is a skill we could all benefit from developing.
The political divide that has occurred in the West is deeply troubling to me. The left and the right seem to keep moving further apart, making it incredibly difficult to have a sensible conversation with “the other side” about the issues at hand. It is like the country is being split at the seams—and if we keep going in this direction, we are going to rip the very fabric of our society apart. That will not be good for anyone: black or white, rich or poor, male or female, or what have you.
We need to learn to talk to each other, and perhaps more importantly, we need to learn to listen to each other—because odds are, the argument being made by our political opponents is valid on some level.
The fundamental psychological differences between us are inherently valuable, and they can actually complement each other. In fact, as a a Daoist who believes that balance is the highest human motif, I think it is the natural order for these differences to do just that. The more balanced our lives are on an individual level, the more capable we will be of having balanced relationships with other people. From there, we are more likely to co-create a balanced society. So let’s honor our differences, engage in unregulated dialogue with each other (without being hateful), and do what we can in our immediate circles to improve the state of the world and move toward a better society.
If we can bear this in mind, then there may be hope for us yet.