A critique on modern applications of Jungian Archetypes frameworks

I have always struggled with labels.

My personal politics and inner struggle has nonetheless never overtaken my understanding of the fact that labels are useful. Systems ranging from fashion to corporate structuring, global education systems to machine learning systems have demonstrated that labels are not only useful in themselves, but also enable and generate a lot of further value.

Psychology is also something I have progressively fallen in love with in the couple of years. Intersecting with my explorations in various other disciplines — storytelling, anthropology and design to name a few — studying psychology consistently blows my mind every now and then.

My struggle with labels and my reverence for psychology collided. And it wasn’t pretty. I spent days and hours in anguish, sometimes in critical thinking, sometimes in pain, sometimes in rebellion, sometimes in denial and sometimes, just looking at memes.

MBTI results

A landmark in psychological studies was Carl Jung’s study called Collective Unconscious — where Carl Jung hypothesised on how when we are born, our mind does not start as an absolute blank slate but already has baggage of resonating with some symbols which have been a part of the cultural heritage of many years past.

This study has given rise to another popular, and in my opinion useful framework for personality mapping and psychometrics — Archetypes. Think of them as sort of templates or labels or presets for various personality types. They also serve as language — as universally identifiable symbols which can be identified across diverse cultures to represent similar things and instigate the same emotions and meaning no matter where you are and who you are. Remember when we say that a particular role or character in a film has become a cult figure. That’s a character getting close to being an archetype. Superman is definitely close to being an archetype. It also works the other way round. The trick to designing good characters lies in study of archetypes.

Archetypes are not just for characters. Anything can have archetypes — there are archetypal stories (for example the underdog story), archetypal relationships (the friend who is a therapist) which can be used to make sense of many social, cultural or even business systems.

Yes, with a pure science lens, it is rather easy to diss his findings, but given the times he did his work in, it was nothing short of fantastic and mind-blowing. His work was foundational for modern thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, Vogler and Kurt Vonnegut whose adaptations have been further validated by the market validation that has been achieved by films, product research, design and marketing. If you agree that the free market/the people ultimately validate whether an idea has value, then you will see the pioneer that Jung was.

However, every theory needs to be interpreted in different ages. The world and the times in which Jung did his work and the world today have huge differences. The classicality of Jung’s findings will perhaps always be foundational, and it is upto us to constantly interpret and adapt those for modern society and popular culture.

Critique 1 : Mirror of society?
“ All the world’s a stage…and all of us actors”
Archetypes are not wrong or problematic. However, like any cultural framework, they need to be updated every now and then to reflect the times. The base theory of Archetypes, originally proposed by Carl Jung was based on roles. And perhaps it was then limited by the understand of those roles in the context of the world as it existed then.

For instance — The Artist represented a specific set of values, politics and interactions with society then. As society evolved with massively different technology and business models, just these two factors have changed society’s relationship and interactions with the artist. Even the varying nature of different artforms — say Rock Music versus Pottery shows the diversity in intrinsic motivators that can drive an artist. And similarly for a hero, or a sage or a lover.

Critique 2 — Not knowing when to stop

Archetypes are starting framework, sort of like templates. Templates are often used by problem solvers, researchers to get started on something and to speed up solutions. If you have ever solved a problem for a long time, you will know that as you go deep, you do not need the framework — either because you know the details and nuances or because you are also constantly creating the problem solving system contextual to your needs and benefits.

So the application of Archetypes and the extent of the decisions that are made with respect to that, should be done in the context of your understanding of a person. If you need a starting template/framework on a person — such as a new hire or early stage professionals, or new team members, startup founders being evaluated by investors then these are extremely useful to create engagement.

If you have a nuanced relationship with a person, using archetypes too much might create pressure because you run the risk of making the exchange too primitive.

Critique 3 — Visualisation

Humans have this interesting preference towards visuals language. I say interesting because it usually goes both ways — visuals help in understanding things quicker, but then just making something visual in a particular way might also limit your understanding. The application of archetypes for modern business use cases such as personality mapping, brand design etc. has always been shown as a circle with two levels of classification — level 1 being quadrants (90 degree pies) and level 2 where quadrants are divided in 3 parts each (30 degree pies). Since this is two dimensional, this prevents adding layers or aspects to figure out how archetypes can be understood, interpreted and computed. Its important to remember that this entire thing is based on metaphors, where the metaphors are expressed using symbols in popular culture. And hence, before applying this system, it is important to make sure that whether the artistic interpretation being put in front of us mirrors the rationality and logic of real world use cases. Correct metaphors or analogies do not miss out on critical variables when trying to connect one system to another.

Archetypes are possibly very ambiguous in this classification because of the limitation of their representation so far on a 2D circle. What if all archetypes are a spectrum? What if being an archetype means fulfilling all the four quadrants. It is definitely an easy thought experiment to think of scenarios where you can take any archetype from one quadrant and think of one behaviour of their which can satisfy another quadrant. And that’s the thing — the quadrants are so fundamental to humanity in general that for a pure, resonant label such as an ‘archetype’ — it cannot be devoid of any of the quadrants as a motivator.

The purest form or the highest form of being any archetype means fulfilling all four quadrants. So a more accurate representation of the archetype framework would be as a 3D structure where archetypes exists in layers where if you become the apex of any archetype you can surpass any limitations. I am proposing a structure somewhat similar to sacred geometry led tetrahedron. It look somewhat like this.

And a much closer representation of the entire archetype framework (the current 2D compass) would possibly look like many intersecting tetrahedrons.

In fact, I think this shift from 2D to 3D does not need to stop even here, and we need to apply thinking which takes additional dimensions too — which is time. This would mean that a 3D representation has to be shown for a given instance in time (like a snapshot). It would then be highly interesting to trend findings across time and see what distribution and shape and form the results take.

I do not want to unnecessary complicate something which has been figured out. However, there is a certain risk in oversimplification especially when the model is being used for understanding people. My experience is that some systems are complex and their complete understanding deserves accounting for multiple variables.

When a lot of this theory was actioned, I am guessing it was not very easy to translate findings to statistical or visual distributions. Another contributing factor could be the spread of largely irrelevant applications such as Myers Briggs, which were distributed widely to make money, and not really to constantly get closer to the truth.

Critique 4 : Goals of the system
This my most fundamental difference to understanding of archetypes in contemporary application —which is the definition of success of evaluating and inferring archetypes.

Currently, all contemporary applications of archetypes considers success of archetypes in selecting/inferring/computing a dominant archetype in a person as the ‘one true nature’. On the contrary, my hypothesis is that the goal of the archetypes analysis is to tell the person that the goal is to unlock as many archetypes as possible in their character. Every person has a hero, a jester, an artist, an everyman and so on. Through a deep dive into your history, your stories and experiences, you can get in touch with multiple archetypes inside you.

I have realised that in this sort of a system, the expectation of homogeneity is not necessary at all. Your effort to unlock the Hero archetype inside you can take years and multiple events, while to unlock the caregiver archetype, it might just take one year and one event. What is important is that we realise that there is definitely more value in unlocking more. One person having multiple layers should not be a weakness at all.

Other related ideas and further action :

Psychological singularity
Going by all these ideas and critiques, I have inferred (so far) that there is no absoluteness in one person being mapped to one archetype. This is only one part of helping someone unlock their potential. Yes, there is benefit in understanding one archetype because your chance of realising that archetype is higher, and another archetype is just another way of reaching the top. But the joy and frustration of human personality is that it is a complex system with various values, emotions and political viewpoints. It naturally seeks layers and multiple representations to make sense of their life and all there’s to it. The true and absolute realisation is the unlocking of all archetypes within yourself. Like the singularity in space-time, this is also an impossible state to describe, firstly even because at very high levels of self-awareness, the number of archetypes could surpass the ones we know now. If you reach this singularity, you have really unlocked yourself.

As you get closer and closer, you will also uncover truths that many mortals such as me are still trying to fumble around for. Jung, Campbell, Bergman, Chimamandza Ngozy, Tarkovsky, Jon Ive, Dawkins, Murakami, Rowling, Scorcese, Anurag Kashyap — these masters, through their work have gotten close to the singularity to some extent and I can only hope I can get close enough to feel their presence and catch even one of their lessons.

Thoughts/suggestions/critique not just welcome, but required and being looked forward to.

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