Everyone is necessarily the hero of their own imagination. — Franz Kafka
Have you ever wondered why humans have such distinct personalities? In this article, I will make an argument that personalities are just preferences on how we learn about the world. Our minds are always tuned to learn from the environment, in one extreme we seek familiarity and in another extreme we seek surprise.
In computer science, search algorithms (or ways to discover knowledge) fall in the spectrum of either being driven by optimization (sometimes referred to as exploitation) or exploration. At one extreme, the method of discovery is to confine oneself only to information that one already owns. In the other extreme, one just randomly explores a diversity of options. These two approaches can be combined to create richer algorithms. In machine learning, gradient descent is an example of an optimization method. Genetic algorithms are an example of an exploration method. However, there’s no iron clad law that says one is better than the other. It will depend always on the context in which the method is applied.
There is a scientifically verified framework on how to classify human personality known as “Big Five” (aka Five Factor Model):
It is interesting that there is empirical evidence showing that these personality traits are inheritable from one’s ancestors. This implies that the particular mix of personalities that humans have today are the kind that favors ‘survival’ in today’s modern society. You can ask yourself, given that there are 7.6 billion people in the world, why is there so little chaos? Why are most humans alive very civil? Well, personalities that are civil are the ones most likely not to be incarcerated or labeled mentally ill. (note: people can be incarcerated due to bias, that’s another problem). There’s a reason why we don’t find many people in the extremes of these traits. Either they are in jail or they are highly successful.
The mnemonic to remember these five is OCEAN or CANOE. Openness to experience draws the distinction between those who prefer to be creative (i.e. artists) and those who prefer to be compliant (i.e. accountants). Conscientiousness distinguishes between flexibility/spontaneity and preference for planning. Extraversion involves a preference for social interaction. Agreeableness involves a preference for cooperation over competition. Neuroticism relates to emotional stability.
Plutchik’s wheel of primary emotion appears to also relate to the big five, in that the extremes of emotions aligns with three of the big five strategies. Emotions are reflections of the state of the self. The justification for this emotional classification is that it relates to different human facial expressions of an emotion. This is with the exception of fear and surprise, which have the same expression. This is why both are colored green. It is interesting that humans are able to distinguish fear and surprise, and they do this based on understanding context and empathy.
Primary emotions are groups of four that have polar opposites. These pair are trust and disgust, fear and anger, surprise and disgust, joy and sadness. More complex emotions can be derived from a combination of the primary emotions and are absent in the graphic above. Emotions are different from personalities in that one refers to a state of the self while the other is a learning strategy. Emotions and personalities are intertwined. Said differently, states of being and learning strategies are both intertwined.
When we examine each of these five personalities, we will realize that there’s a recurring pattern across all of them. All of them have, at their extremes, discovery methods of optimization or exploration. Personalities that are open to experience indicate a preference for exploration of the environment. Conscientiousness implies a preference for optimization of one’s sequence of activities as it relates to others. Extraversion is a preference for exploration within a social context. Agreeableness is a preference for diversity over uniformity. Finally, neuroticism is a preference for optimism over pessimism. To summarize, personality traits reflect our own discovery strategies (search algorithms) for different contexts. These contexts are environment, planning, interpersonal interaction, cooperation and introspection. There are of course many more different contexts, but these are the five contexts that appear to cover most interactions.
Across all these traits which are independent of personality is general intelligence. However, if we explore this from the lens of ‘Cognitive Sloth’, that is, there is a preference for humans to expend the least amount of cognitive effort, then we see which personalities are more inclined to be lazy in different aspects. Laziness will align with the preference for optimization (or exploitation). It takes considerable more cognitive effort to be open to new ideas and experience, to be conscientious of other people’s situations, to interact with many people, to agree to a diversity of ideas and opinions and to prefer optimism over fear. It is important to note that effort is all relative. People with high intelligence require less effort to perform difficult cognitive tasks than people with lower intelligence. Surprisingly, it is not because they have more neurons, rather it is because the are wired more optimally.
The ability to explore is related to the ability to suspend judgment. We are all intuition machines, we make judgments all the time using our intuition. Intuition-based reasoning is built from experience (like playing a musical instrument or mastering one’s golf swing). It is also the source of our own cognitive biases. Intuition is our fast thinking that is prone to bias thought. Personalities that suspend judgment as long as possible to arrive at a conclusion are less prone to biases. This implies that their learning is also more refined because it is based on more accurate information. Intuitive thought is unavoidable, however it is our slow thinking (rational thought) that serves as a check and balance against erroneous thinking. Suspending judgment is like suspending gratification. Children who do well in the marshmallow test tend to be more successful in life.
It is uncanny how this may reflect also a difference in political opinion. There’s a reason why people have a preference for different political persuasions. It is simply about personality. Political choice may boil down to one’s own preference of the color blue over the color red. We can inject logical reasoning into the our decision making, but we are ultimately driven by our personalities. Actually, more precisely, our personalities influence how our intuitions are formed and thus form the basis of our choices. Fortunately, there are a majority of people at the mean than there are at the extremes. The evolution of civilization has allowed this to happen (see: Selection for friendliness) and reversion to the mean is most likely and that’s why chaos is contained.
Cultures also have a significant impact on personalities. This follows from the realization that personalities are inherited. Also, people with similar personalities flock together. Cultures however have social traditions and behaviors that have propagated over generations. These are baked into the population as we live in these societies. “Good” behavior is learned and it is reinforced as a consequence of living and thriving in a community (unless you live in a bubble). This is why, understanding a person’s cultural background is also highly predictive of a person’s behavior.
There are cultures (not necessarily national cultures) that encourage high-performance. These however relate to the alignment of the culture. Is the culture one of optimization or one of exploration? What cultures are most successful? Success (in the financial sense) aligns with success in optimization. There are cultures like the Germans who are forever optimizing. Then there are Greeks who are well forever exploring. We would all love to be wealthy like the Germans while maintaining the lifestyle of a Greek.
In general though, within the economics of scarcity, optimization (or exploitive) strategies are the ones intrinsically scalable and thus the ones which dominate in size. Scalable businesses are the kind of business that you can repetitively create goods with minimal thought. There are businesses that have a level of automation which results to growth not restricted by human employment. Exploratory-based organization are much smaller and become scalable when its products become digitized. The biggest companies in the world are currently companies requiring few individual human thinkers. They don’t need to hire assembly lines of people repetitively performing the same kind of thinking . Rather, these companies function predominantly using automation and a small group of high-performing individuals.
However most large brick-and-mortar corporations (specifically the ones that require natural resources) are the ones that optimally exploit extrinsic resources and are the ones that tend to be most damaging to both the natural and social environment. This is why short term profit motive should be balanced with conscientiousness for the long term sustainability of an enterprise. It is no surprise that nations who’s main economic activity is in extracting natural resources (i.e. oil) have the most repressive governments. Nations that rely on the productivity of its people are on the other hand predominantly democratic. Left to the ‘principle of least action’, which states that the natural tendency is a preference for the easiest activity with the most immediate rewards, this short-term mentality is prevalent in today’s society because its the least cognitively demanding choice.
We live in a ‘fast food’ culture that seeks instant gratification. The allure of convenience is what drives demand for technology. AI’s main purpose is to reduce cognitive load, in short, provide a convenient way for humans not to think. So the GPS system makes it convenient for you to find your way, instead of you having to figure out how to read a map. Google search makes it convenient for you to recall facts so you don’t need to make the effort to recall it yourself. The seduction of cognitive convenience is slowly chipping away at our own humanity. After all, it is our own cognition that defines us as humans. Outsource that cognition to a automation implies that you use less of your own cognition. It is use it or lose it.
We as humans are naturally lazy and thus naturally stupid. We come with our own personalities, but it is critically important that we encourage these personalities towards a direction of more effort. That is, if you don’t exercise your brain into regions where it is uncomfortable then it will atrophy just like every other muscle that is devoid of resistance.
I attempted to map emotions to the 7 deadly sins. I discovered the obvious, that is you can’t divorce the notion of self from either the sins or the virtues. Haidt’s moral intuitionism relates to a person’s own beliefs of the priorities of society. I’ve color coded them in terms of the closest emotion that matches.
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