Positively Speaking

One of the real benefits of having a small, adorable creature who thrives on a long walk (in my case, a young whippet named Totoro) is that, incidentally, I get a lot of long walks too. If you’re also into walking, that’s great — but be forewarned that this digression isn’t about walking.

Recently, I read something about walking; an article espousing its benefits neurologically and how it presents positive outcomes for one’s personality. Initially it was typical of a lot of material I read; reinforcement of a particular idea or a superficial examination of something which, to really get to the bottom of it, probably deserved a more in-depth view. And I wasn’t quite interested enough in the benefits of walking to tread down that path… until a single word within the article led me down a completely different one.

The article’s primary source is perhaps unsurprisingly a neuroscientist, whose position is well supported. Yet, there was an aspect of the article — which, in defence of its source, may have been altered slightly between transmission and reproduction — which stood out. It is subtle, and perhaps erroneous for all I know; it hinges on that one particular word: positive.

What is it to be positive? Indulge me a little preamble because it goes to my eventual point. The inverse of positive is negative, and I think most people have a good grasp of what these two words mean. Yet, in much of science ‘positive’ is a position rather than a kind of judgement or outright benefit, just as ‘negative’ is its opposing state or site and not necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ as its social implications infer. Perhaps that is the intended inference here, but I’m not so sure.

The article I referred to states:

He [Shane O’Mara, the neuroscientist] cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. There is substantial data showing that walkers have lower rates of depression, too.

First, let me be clear: I don’t doubt this data nor the benefits of walking. I agree with its conclusions and I stress that I am really only interested in talking about the language being used, which may well be an interpretation made by The Guardian rather than the researcher(s). It’s not a direct quote so it’s impossible to say. This is not so much an issue with the minutiae of a specific article as much as an excuse to talk about what stuck in my head after I’d finished reading. What caught my eye on this occasion was how the benefits of walking were related positively to a specific set of personality traits, which were in turn specifically labelled positive, and the subtle difference that entails.

In this case it’s quite simple to tell that there’s a judgement being made here; because the inverse is referred to in no uncertain terms, as “malign personality changes”. So ‘positive’ here evidently means ‘better’.

That most ancient and evergreen metaphor for human psychology.

That most ancient and evergreen metaphor for human psychology.

These traits (openness, extraversion and agreeableness), as far as I know, come from the Big Five theory of personality. This is one of those neat personality-package deals whereby one undertakes a large group of questions which check against intermittent and alternately-phrased versions of the same questions to gauge the participant’s attitude toward particular scenarios — usually social ones — so as to detect their relative position within a number of predetermined categories. It’s the kind of thing I imagine anyone who enjoys categorisation and distinct boundaries would love, because it brings a level of order to the often frustrating chaos of interacting with other human beings.

Like the Myers-Briggs (INTJ) and Enneagram (type 5, subset 8) systems, the Big Five and its variants are a useful tool generally but what these products are really selling in my opinion is a fairly easily-applicable system for aligning the various attributes of one’s minions — I mean, employees — in a work environment. If you’ve heard the word ‘productivity’ in your workplace, your place of employment has a HR department, and you also do a fair bit of work at a desk, you’ve probably also heard about one of these systems before. They offer a tool to your typical mid-level manager to help them do a job their own perception could do for free if they chose to concentrate on the type of people their direct reports are, and then deploy the results of that process effectively.

The personality test is almost always undertaken in a work environment; the tests are expensive, and I’m not aware of many people willing to fork out to do one of these things (no doubt plenty of people have tried a version of one which is usually an online ‘free’ variant bloated by ads whispering the implied secrets of the “full report” package; paid, of course) for their own personal benefit. In short, they are just the sort of thing that makes for a decent team building session organised by the seneschals in HR for the hive’s worker drones. My point here is to suggest that they are just as much a marketing ploy aimed at sections of business whose role requires illustrating productivity or efficiency gains in the elusive area of staff morale, as they are genuine reflections of human psychology.

An irony is that, in my view, while the outcome tends superficially to facilitate a session where everyone gets to learn a little about their team’s strengths and weaknesses from an individualised perspective and pat one another on the back and talk about potential synergies, the real lure for staff is finding out about the most important concept in the entire universe: ourselves. There’s definitely some legitimate insight to be gained from these tests, without a doubt, but it really requires an internally-driven process and without significant personal reflection it will be about as effective as going ten-pin bowling for all the practicable results it yields in the workplace. It’s often deployed to create awareness of various points of ability or vulnerability within a team, presumably so that management can then slot people into the tasks they are likely to perform the best, or perhaps to highlight which areas need more training or attention. Or, perhaps, to work out why that weird guy in accounts never responds to emails. Or why the whole damn accounts team are like robots from another planet.

Yet, I can’t think of a single example (and I’ve done many of these) when the actual data was ever used for anything more than a few rounds of “I’m an [insert type here], so I’m good at [insert task here]” which proceeded to sputter into precisely zero action after a median time of six working days. It takes a long time, and hard work, to integrate that kind of data into a workplace, much less risk shuffling people out of their well-worn niches and, cue gasps, perhaps challenge them with something more akin to their actual talents.

I also understand that there are legitimately quite a few flaws with the design of these systems, which aren’t taken very seriously by professionals and academics in the field of psychology (which isn’t much of a problem for their designers because people seeking professional psychological insight are not their target audience).

These problems aren’t surprising given that both the questions themselves, which generate the data, and the overarching allocation of that data into larger sets for later interpretation, are both predicated on the biases and opinions of the people who designed them. Like most of psychology, one person’s apple is another’s orange and no one size fits all, no matter what the professors of insight and empathy in the HR team tell you. After all, they’re called human resources for a reason. Employees are numbers and tools: one becomes a cog in a machine, a literal resource whose purpose is deployment to a particular task, unit 24601, not a living, breathing autonomous individual with valuable insights and instincts (that’s for a higher pay grade). Hierarchy just doesn’t work that way.

Perhaps I’m being needlessly pedantic. Perhaps I’m merely stung by the suggestion because I know darn well that I register quite highly in the presumably unpleasant traits of not-openness, introversion, and disagreeableness. Perhaps, in the realm of wage-slavery, my natural inclination runs at pace toward defiance. Perhaps, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator, I’m upset because I possess a range of traits which might well hold their own legitimate value but weren’t on the list.

Admittedly, I’m being facetious. The ratings, for one thing, only rank against the ‘positive’ traits. So I would merely be a low score on those. Also, I’m disingenuously compressing the issue to a matter of the common definition of these words — instead of considering their full range of meaning — for the sake of levity. Yet again, this becomes an example of The Principle Always Applies, and in that spirit, let’s take this seriously.

So one of the categories of the Big Five is extroversion. By no reasonable measure would I ever be considered an extrovert. I don’t gain energy from groups of people; I lose it, fast. It costs me energy to interact with human beings, and anything beyond about three or four individuals (depending on who they are, how well I know them and how comfortable I am around them) is usually a complete disaster. And by ‘disaster’ I mean within my internal mental faculties; my outward demeanour is ably supported by four decades’ worth of well-practiced habits, coping mechanisms, reflected or mirrored reactions, and largely patterned behaviour which allows me to appear sociable. Somewhat ironically, once a group reaches a dozen or more people it becomes easy again. Nobody can be expected to engage personally with such a large number of individuals and so it simply becomes a matter of performance rather than interaction. Which is what my social interaction is anyway. Mimicry, mostly, and a few handy formulae for cracking wise or inserting arcane detail into mundane conversation. So, extroversion: out. Right?

The Big Five divides extroversion up into various sub-categories: activity level, assertiveness, cheerfulness, excitement-seeking, friendliness and gregariousness. Already you may detect a certain slant toward a certain kind of personality among these categories; one person’s excitement-seeker is another person’s likely-to-be-easily-bored, for example. How does the ever-avoided risk (and its interminable frequency of assessment) intersect with one’s need for excitement, I find myself wondering? Not to mention which trait, out of the two, is more positive than the other, particularly in risk-averse environments. It’s assumed here to be excitement-seeking.

Which is why the suggestion that these traits are inherently positive — which they were clearly designed to be, even if in their specific definitions they are less rigidly so — is problematic in the sense that it infers from the outset that there are ‘better’ personalities to have. I’m not doubting that people who are highly active, assertive, cheerful, enjoy excitement and are friendly and gregarious are probably often great people to be around, but I also question whether that’s what we all should be aiming for. I have a few ideas about that as well.

Firstly, these traits are likely to be the sort of thing that most organisations are seeking at a managerial level. Someone generally outgoing, with a pleasant forward-facing demeanour, who is eager to learn new things but at the same time won’t rock the boat. After all, one of the major categories is agreeableness. We don’t want anyone challenging the status quo or cynically questioning the latest low hanging fruit plucked from the round-table, disruptive, best-practice, huddle-generated, 360-degree-reviewed, paradigm-shifting policy realignment coming from the big chair when they deign to touch base with the rest of the corporate ecosystem’s individual silos, now do we?

Secondly, the system overlooks its inherent biases which instil a kind of presumption about the nature of the almost infinitely variable people undertaking the tests. This isn’t a criticism of the results so much as the method; it should be perfectly obvious that assessing “personality” (whatever that is) might be impossible unless it’s focused at a particular outcome. Ergo, it’s the suppression of the intended outcome that I find gets under my skin. This kind of material, whatever its inherent value or lack thereof, presents itself as legitimate science, stressing things like how ‘independent researchers’ created the definitions using ‘empirical, data-driven research’, without acknowledging the weaknesses of its practice.

I’ve got little doubt that the process is indeed data-driven (after all, it collates and interprets data by its own definition) and empirical. But the only thing one needs to be empirical is to garner validity by observation or experience rather than via theoretical models removed from actual practice. Again, there’s nothing to suggest that when the system was first iterated in the 1950s the model arrived from the data, rather than the data being employed to support a pre-existing theory. But that still doesn’t, unto itself, protect the model from influence by the assumptions and pre-existing attitudes of the people who created it, nor those who refined it (almost certainly with the principles of that original model in mind), nor those for whom it was intended. The Big Five model originated, incidentally, from something called the U.S. Air Force Personality Laboratory. 1950. Make of that what you will.

Thirdly, an example. The extraversion trait (one of the ‘big five’), is broken down as I mentioned into six further categories, one of which is assertiveness. Now, I know that I’m not an extraverted person by any means, but I also know that I don’t lack for assertiveness either. Here’s where the slippery medium of language and the amorphous nature of personality come into a sludgy cohabitation that is nothing like the clean, neat lines the model offers.

Three of the questions involved in determining assertiveness are: “I take control of situations”, and “I try to be in charge - to lead others”, and “I wait for others to take the lead”. The questions allow a ratio response; that is, one chooses one’s position along a range (in this case, one to five, where one is something like “not at all” and five is “all the time”). My own response would be to mark all three quite low (though note that the final question is seeking a low response; it’s one of the variables the testers would use to check for false positives). So my overall result would be on the low end. And yet any kind of psychological analysis would find me in a multitude of other ways to be quite high on any kind of assertiveness ‘rating’ (if such a thing actually exists or could be measured upon a single axis, which I would argue it cannot).

So why the discrepancy? I would suspect it is in part to do with the questions themselves; I do take control of situations, but only if I feel the situation needs controlling, or if I have a particular problem with the way things are going. So at best it would be conditional agreement and my interpretation of the question leads me to think that, by default, I do not ‘take control’ of ‘situations’. My definition of even these basic concepts (ie. what constitutes a ‘situation’ or what a ‘problem’ that needs controlling is) might well also differ from most other people. I also don’t particularly go out of my way to “lead”, which is only one aspect of assertiveness. I would usually wait for someone else to lead — if only out of politeness, due to my own inherent tendency to dominate social situations out of an underlying need to direct most interactions to suit my personal requirements. My natural state is usually one of dominance, but being aware of that and many other facets of the power relations in flux between myself and other people I interact with, I attempt to suppress it precisely because there are many aspects of my own assertiveness (and that of others) which I find problematic. I don’t need or want to “be in charge”, or to “lead”, either. I am comfortable leading people, but I very rarely seek it out.

Therefore, my particular responses to the way this model is constructed would result in a much lower result than is probably accurate according to most definitions of “assertiveness”. What I think the designers intended was a go-get-’em kind of leadership manner which, in yet another fairly well-known personality assessment, might be called Type A (which, if one were unkind, might simply described as either the ‘insecure workaholic’ or the ‘secretly anxious, entitled dickhead’ personality type).

But the vagaries of language are many, and interpretation of personality involves not just flexibility within definitions but also differences between particular cultural assumptions, shifts in meaning over time and, perhaps most essentially, the likelihood that the same “personality” might actually react differently to different situations depending on their experience, or even their particular and unique combination of traits. Anyone who has done one of these tests multiple times over the space of days, or especially weeks or months or years, will probably find they get different results at different times.

So at last we return to the word positive. When a cluster of arbitrary traits like ‘extraversion’ — which certainly lends itself to more efficient social interaction — and ‘friendliness’ — which as a concept must surely rate as about as subjective as such a ‘definition’ could be — is communicated as an ideal, I think it creates two colossal problems. It assumes that there is such a thing as primacy among personality traits, and it ignores the benefits of the traits it ranks as lower than its idealised selections.

It may well be that extraversion, for example, is in fact a better choice for particular employees to have in particular roles within many organisations. But I guarantee that organisations with only extraverted employees would have some glaring holes in their procedures, some tasks that almost nobody is willing to do, and would eventually unravel because there are aspects to the group dynamic which are simply unsustainable. Who, among those thrill-seeking, assertive chatterboxes, wants to be the one to sit quietly and do the timesheets, or pay the accounts, or create a policy document, or perhaps just check their written communication for embarrassing errors or omissions, while everyone else gets to hobnob and network in person and engage with the other talking heads?

The point is that to label extroversion or gregariousness, or whichever one so chooses, as being inherently positive is to overlook the benefits of its inverse. Introversion in particular is not a ‘negative’ trait per se. Certainly, from the perspective of extroverts who may well tend to find it easier to rise through the ranks in many business contexts and who, therefore, more often become the arbiters of determining factors such as “what is considered ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ when it comes to assessing a personality”, introversion might appear to have its considerable drawbacks — and, naturally, being introverted has quite a few. But just because extroverts might appreciate extroversion more than introversion will make it seem, overall, to be a more ‘positive’ trait. That does not make it so.

Recall, also, that these tests are targeted at an audience whom, in my personal experience, is far more likely to be extroverted. I doubt there’s much harm in massaging the ego of the people most likely to be proffering the purse when the time comes.

If that same bias existed when the model was constructed, it makes sense that by the time it was developed and implemented by ‘independent researchers’ to become a tool to be sold back to the same cadre of personality types whose biases served its creation, there seems little commercial wisdom in altering those assumptions. There is a popular understanding currently that the type of leadership personality we most often see, particularly obscenely-paid ones at the apex of massive corporations, have more than a little in common with psychopathy. Perhaps psychopaths make awesome CEOs? That might well be their niche.

Or, consider an alternative. If the type of person who has traditionally been a CEO ultimately determines the direction and the layout of the management system in their organisation, they will have a disproportionate influence over the types of people hired therein, particularly in the management layer which reports directly to them. Those rising up the chain beneath to that point will be conditioned by that experience (and probably show preference to the same kind of people among their direct reports), and hence the CEO’s replacement will likely be of the same general character.

CEOs and their ilk also routinely sit on the boards of other organisations, made up of people similar to themselves, who in turn likely hire other CEOs… like themselves. It is this exclusive, self-perpetuating and enclosed system of hierarchy which is often colloquially referred to as the ‘boys club’ or the ‘glass ceiling’, depending on your gender and perspective (and despite those terms suggesting that it is only women who are excluded, I would suggest that if many men were not so paranoid about their own privileges they might notice that the same situation applies to the vast majority of them, too; it’s often cunningly depicted as some gender-infused battle, but it’s really just an old-fashioned class struggle).

Similarly, much of the interpretation of personality in this context, both during the development of the model itself, and its eventual expression in the results, relies upon the underlying assumptions behind the definition of the various traits and their apparent value. And, of course, precisely whose values are reflected in those assumptions.

In this context, in my view personality seems to have more in common with an electric charge. In certain circumstances, various traits might be positively or negatively charged — that is, like charges attract, and opposites repel. That doesn’t make one set inherently better than the other; it just means that, among similar types they might express their qualities in a different way. Unlike electricity, personality does not exist in an isolated system — I suspect one of the reasons why extroversion and similar traits are considered ‘positive’ is that they are simply more common.

The same kinds of biases and underlying assumptions pervade other tests, too. Despite performing exceptionally well in them, I hold little stock in the value of IQ tests; they assume a certain type of life experience and education as a baseline for assessing various quite arbitrary qualities which, overall, do not make up the majority of intellect.

The classic ‘intelligence quotient’ has, thankfully, been largely replaced over time by a variety of similar gauges, including personality tests. Emotional intelligence has become a thing, and rightly so, as has a larger acceptance of different perspectives other than that of the dominant ideal. Some of the most brilliant people I have ever known are incredible problem-solvers, people of tremendous insight and patience, those who know how to respond to the needs of others with an almost surgical level of understanding, and yet most of whom would hover right around the median for classical ‘IQ’.

But there is a vast difference between intelligence and wisdom. For me personally, I have to work hard on the wisdom part, even though the intellect is something that, a little like sport, I work hard to keep sharp, but also happen to be proficient at. I don’t value intellect over wisdom, nor wisdom over intellect. As social creatures the strength of our community and indeed our very evolution lies in the existence of both, just like a mixture of extroversion and introversion.

If any single concept should be held up as a positive ideal, I would start with diversity itself. But if you take one thing away from having read this, it should obviously be that walking is good for you.