If you are fascinated by personality typing, this is for you.
Many of those who read this blog and my work probably have some of the same oddities in common. You may believe that life is basically good and that we should be able to have way more than 100 years of it. You may be frustrated at the limits imposed by human biology and neurology on our cognition, emotional wisdom, and sensory capabilities. You may have been a lifelong advocate of bold space exploration.
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In my first blog entry a couple of days ago, I mentioned some my own unusual background. Dozens of times in interviews I have been asked what my influences were and how I came to such an unusual worldview at an early age. It’s quite a mystery. I often say that I must have a gene for these extropic views. I’m only mostly joking.
I’d like to hear from readers here if they have the same experience. Some of your core beliefs and attitudes might be partly attributable to reading but not enough to explain your earliest attitudes. Perhaps you cannot explain those attitudes in terms of your parents or other relatives (certainly I cannot). Perhaps you have the “extro gene” as well.
The impetus for this post comes from a survey I took this morning on Primal World Beliefs. Depending on how much time you have, you can choose among three surveys: One with 99 questions, another with 18 questions, and a tiny version with 6 questions. The authors claim you can take the 99-question version within 15 minutes. I didn’t time myself, but that sounds right. But before I look at the Primal World Beliefs, a bit of light historical archeology:
Galen’s humors: One of the most remarkable proto-scientists of the first millennium, Galen of Pergamon (“just call me ‘Galen’”) was a Greek surgeon, physician, and philosopher who made his mark between 129 and around 216 AD. Probably best known for his study of human anatomy, especially the circulatory system, Galen had some advanced ideas and empirical practices. He believed that the mind and body were not separate entities.
Galen’s early personality typing system drew a connection between biology and personality. As Galen saw it, human bodies had four “humors” – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Imbalances in each related to particular temperaments: blood – sanguine, black bile – melancholic, yellow bile – choleric, and phlegm – phlegmatic. Not his most empirical idea but he tried.
Fast forward more than 16 centuries (the Singularity was definitely not then!) to Sir Francis Galton who, in 1884, set forth a comprehensive taxonomy of human personality traits by sampling language. The thesis that you can derive an accurate human personality taxonomy from language is known as the lexical hypothesis. So far as I know, no one has yet set GPT or another LLM loose to create its own taxonomy.
Famed American psychology Gordon Allport followed up on Galton’s work, coming up with a list of several thousand personality traits. LLMs like GPT seem potentially useful here because what Allport did was to get three suckers to go through Webster's New International Dictionary and a list of common slang words to categorize adjectives. This resulted in a list of 4504 adjectives they believed described observable and relatively permanent traits.
Eysenck: Skipping over a bunch of other psychologists we come to Hans Eysenck. I remember this guy because, in May 1987, I read his book Know Your Own Personality. (How do I know it was then? Since my teens, I’ve written the date I read a book inside the cover and later entered all of that information into a Word document. Perhaps if I’m ever revived from biostasis, that information might help interpolate missing personality data.)
In his 1947 book Dimensions of Personality Eysenck argued that human psychology was strongly characterized along two personality dimensions: extraversion (E) and neuroticism (N). He noted that combinations of these two traits mapped onto Galen’s four personality types:
High N and high E = Choleric type.
High N and low E = Melancholic type.
Low N and high E = Sanguine type.
Low N and low E = Phlegmatic type.
In the 1970s, working with his wife Sybil, Eysenck added a third dimension: psychoticism. This three-factor theory became extremely influential, and Eysenck became the most frequently cited living psychologist in the peer-reviewed scientific journal literature.
Five Factors: All this (and much more) led to the development of the still-popular Five Factors model of personality. The Five Factor model actually got underway back in the 1940s but went in and out of fashion until settling in during the 1980s. This model has – can you guess? – five factors, those being:
openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)
Extraversion and neuroticism owe a lot to Eysenck's traits of the same name. What Eysenck called psychoticism corresponds to the traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness in the Five Factor model. Each factor can be broken down into components but keeping it more clustered makes the model more amenable to study. Follow-up studies seem to confirm that the Big 5 traits are universal and remarkably stable. They do shift over time in each adult individual but not much. The stability of these traits leads psychologists to suspect a biological origin. (Maybe Galen wasn’t too far off.)
Transhumanist personality? Someone should do a study of the personality types of transhumanists. I’m curious to know what would be found. It would seem obvious that they should score very high on openness to experience. It’s not clear to me that there are predictable results along the other four dimensions. I’d also like to see Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory tested on transhumanists, even though it is intended as a theory about culture rather than individual personality. A personality version might reveal interesting differences between transhumanists and similar people compared to the general population, especially in terms of Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long Term Orientation.
Let’s get primal. Put your shirt back on and stop eating those vegetables and raw meat. That’s not the kind of primal we’re talking about. Primal World Beliefs emerged from the work of a research team led by Dr. Jeremy D. W. Clifton from 2014 to 2019 at the University of Pennsylvania. The researchers did textual analysis on hundreds of historical texts, conducted expert retreats, held focus group discussions, and did literature and theory review.
This Primal World Beliefs (PWB) system is pretty new and I’m not vouching for it. It’s definitely interesting but whether it is statistically valid, I don’t know. It may not be any more valid than the intuitively appealing Myers-Briggs system (Hi! INTP here) or the Enneagram. If you want to do the work and report back on the research, I’d love to hear about it. According to PWB, people vary in 26 primal world beliefs which can be reduced to three major beliefs about the world: the beliefs the world is Safe vs. Dangerous, Enticing vs. Dull, and Alive vs. Mechanistic.
If you take the survey and are willing to share your results (publicly or privately) I’d be interested. Transhumanists and neophiles with a strongly optimistic view of the future differ in worldview from most people. Those attracted to extropian transhumanism like the idea of “perpetual progress”, self-improvement, dynamic optimism, and the possibilities of technological progress. How would their scores come out compared to the general population? I would predict that they would be relatively high on Enticing and Safe and low on Alive. On the neutral traits: Low on Interconnected and Acceptable. On Good vs. Bad, I would expect them to come out strongly on the Good side.
Results: I took the 99 question version of the survey and was given these results (with 5 being highest and 0 lowest): Safe: 3.97. Enticing: 4.21. Alive: 2.07. Neutral beliefs: Acceptable: 0.5. Interconnected: 1.0. Understandable: 3.0. I have to say that I found many of the questions to be excessively unclear and general. The questions are a nightmare for a philosopher! If I took it over again and interpreted the questions differently, I might get fairly different results. To take a few examples from the 18-question version:
“I tend to see the world as pretty safe.” Umm, I think so but it really depends on where and when and what’s at stake. Here, now, and in most ways, yes, okay.
“In life, there’s way more beauty than ugliness.” How much is “way more”? Am I supposed to give an answer based on what I would decide after looking at everything? Or just the things I see on a regular basis? Am I supposed to give my completely subjective view of what I find beautiful or ugly or allow for other people seeing beauty where I don’t? (Probably not.)
“Most things in the world are good.” Bloody hell, I don’t know. I haven’t counted and rated them. If you mean “Do you think life is worth living for yourself and most people”, then yes. Maybe this is like Ayn Rand’s “benevolent universe” view.
“The universe needs me for something important.” Taken literally, definitely not since “the universe” doesn’t need anything, it just is. If I take it to mean “can you contribute something of value to the world?” then I certainly hope so. But the world isn’t the universe and even the world isn’t just people and their works.
“Most things and situations are harmless and totally safe.” Totally? That’s asking a lot. Taking a short drive is never totally safe. Sitting in my chair is not totally safe; I could have a stroke or a heart attack or be killed in a home invasion. If you mean something like “I can talk to strangers without expecting a hostile response”, then yes, almost all of the time but that’s in part because I avoid talking to those who look dangerous. In general, I don’t feel like the world is hostile and dangerous, unless I’ve spend too much time on Twitter and certain email lists.
“No matter where we are, incredible beauty is always around us.” Not literally. Taken literally, it sounds like insanity (or some heavy drugs)! Sitting on the toilet starting at the door: “Oh, wow! This bathroom is totally beautiful! So is the bathtub. And, OMG, those faucets! I’m leaking tears of joy!” Incredible beauty everywhere is a really high bar. My literal answer makes me seem like a grump but I believe there is plenty of sensory and intellectual beauty easily to be found in my life.
“Do you believe a supernatural spiritual world exists?” Okay, cool, that one’s clear: Sweet Jesus, no! Hell, no!
Let’s look at the three main world beliefs.
Those low on Safe world belief see the world as dangerous. They don’t necessarily feel more scared or threatened in response to dangers, they are just of the honest opinion that there’s a lot more danger out there than the rest of us suspect. In contrast, those who score high on Safe see really dangerous threats as few and far between. Thus, they feel that constant vigilance is neurotic, risk is not that risky, and, in general, people should calm down. These three core primal beliefs determine whether a person sees the world overall as a good or bad place.
I came out high on Safe because I scored high on its aspects of Regenerative, Progressing, Harmless, Cooperative, and Stable, and modestly higher than average on Pleasurable. Regenerative means I believe in the tendency of things to heal, stabilize, and grow (given reasonable conditions). Progressing because I see the world as getting better overall. Harmless because I do not see serious (often physical) threats abounding. Cooperative because I think things work well when we cooperate with people voluntarily in markets.
Those low on Enticing world belief see the world as dull. In their view, truly beautiful and fascinating things are rare. Those high on Enticing are of the opinion that treasure is around every corner, in every person, under every rock, and that beauty permeates everything. Therefore, exploration and appreciation are not naïve. It’s simply the rational way to live.
79% of people see the world as less enticing than I do, it tells me. Exploration and appreciation make sense. I find the world really interesting, opportunities abundant, the world well worth exploring, believe that things matter, and that the world is improvable. Apparently, on the other hand, I don’t find the world quite as funny as average.
Those low on Alive world belief see the world as a machine with no awareness or intentions. Since the universe never sends messages, it makes no sense to try and listen for any. Just as machine parts are interchangeable, so too are people: the world doesn’t need you for anything special. Those high on Alive think life is a relationship with an active universe that animates events, communicates with us, and has a role for each of us to play. Though religious people tend to see the world as Alive, plenty of non-religious people do, too.
I come out well below average on Alive. According to the authors, that’s because I see the world as very mechanistic, having no awareness or intentions. There is no external purpose given to us. The world doesn’t need me. (But I’m here to do what I can because I want to make the world better.)
Take the survey and see what it tells you. Go on, it won’t hurt you. Maybe we can form a “Safe, Enticing, but Not Alive Club.
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Really interesting and thought-provoking test.
Enticing : 2.46
Worth Exploring: 2.5
Needs Me: 0.75