LinkFest 2016-05-20

The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much

Colleges and universities provide an incredible array of services today. They aren't free.

Why Doesn't Personality Psychology Have A Replication Crisis?

In part, because it is boring. In practice, that is a synonym for successful.

John McAfee and what really happened in Belize

John McAfee is a weird duck. However, I believe pretty much everything he says about Belize, since I knew someone who moved there to retire, and then moved back to the US in exasperation.

Mixed gender teams come up short in Marines' infantry experiment

The results here don't really surprise me. There is this big board of local records at my gym, all the fastest times and heaviest weights for various workouts. Every single one of them has a male list and a female list, because in almost every workout men outcompete women. Almost. Women do very well in bodyweight exercises, and are almost at parity in pure cardio, which is similar to what the Marines found.

Texas Fracking and the Death of Big Oil

I found the comments on this post, interesting. And by interesting I mean crazy. However, the gist of the article and the more credible comments matches up with what little I know of the oil industry in the US. I have been to a joint medical device/oil industry conference in Houston twice, and I've spoken with oil folks there. Several friends or friends of friends work in oil, in both Texas and California. To whit: ExxonMobil has something on the ball. I was really impressed by their technical folks, and Exxon seems to be ready for whatever may come businesswise. The technological leap of new fracking methods is incredible. Recently, I read that modern technology is either stagnant, or doubling every 18 months. Fracking seems to be doing the latter.

New Wrinkle in UVA / Rolling Stone Lawsuit

Now it seems there is proof that Haven Monahan didn't exist. Clusterfake indeed.

Courage vs. Boldness: How to live with Spartan bravery

I really like the work Brett McKay does at the Art of Manliness. This is a good piece that highlights exactly why Sparta has been held up as an exemplar for 2500 years, without being overly sentimental.

Deirdre McCloskey on the bathroom battle

This is an interesting piece. I've suspected that World War T is less about the tiny tiny number of trans people, and more about sticking it to the losers of the Culture War after winning the gay marriage battle. I also suspect that actual incidents of harassment have gone up because of the extra attention focused on this right now. Sometimes, shutting the hell up is a far better policy, but that assumes what you want is for people to pee in peace, rather than lord your superiority over your political opponents.

On a related note: I've used women's bathrooms for several years, because not everywhere has changing tables in men's restrooms. Logically, one might think of this as a feminist issue, but it isn't. I have dark theories about this. And, I will also note not one damn person has once said anything to me. Probably because I have an infant in tow when I do this.

New poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by Redskins name

Again, I'm not surprised. I tend to interpret most culture war fights like this as one group of whites trying to assert superiority over other whites using minorities as a proxy. Whatever the actual people involved want just complicates the narrative. An exception seems to be Black Lives Matter, which is run by black people and is actually about black people. 

Nice Guys Earn Less

So says CNN. The Magistra sent me this today. Apparently she's trying to tell me something. I'm not really surprised at the results. The article focuses on social interactions, but I think the real effect likely comes not from being a jerk per se, but the willingness and ability to take risks, to provide critical feedback, and the ability to ignore naysayers. Being a jerk is just a side effect of the personality traits that enable these other things.

Steve Hsu had a post that touched on this. Look at Figure 7. The one we are interested in is A, agreeableness.

DiSC Assessment

I continue to be a big fan of the OCEAN model of personality, but I find that it tends to be too abstract for most people. I was recently introduced to the DiSC assessment, created by William Moulton Marston in the early twentieth century. Marston himself is possibly even more interesting than his model of personality. He is known as a bigamist and the creator of Wonder Woman. More on that later.

Moulton's key work here is his 1928 book, Emotions of Normal People. Jung and Freud worked mostly with abnormal people, but Moulton was more interested in the rest of us. Moulton postulated four different mental energies that shape our behavior, dominance, influence, submission, and conscientiousness. I was confused at first because conscientiousness here is not identical to that in the OCEAN model, but once you see what Moulton was getting at it the model makes sense.

The quick and dirty way of categorizing people into these four categories is to ask just two questions. Are you loud and high-energy or moderately paced? Then after that question has been answered, you need to decide whether you are questioning or accepting. This is really quick and dirty, but it works well enough. D is high energy and questioning, I high energy and accepting, C moderate energy and questioning, and S moderate energy and accepting.

The model is simple enough to be easy to remember, but accurate enough that most people identify with their primary mental energy. The assessment tool I used also characterized each energy on a scale, which is better than the absolute contradictories of the MBTI. In a sense, you could set up the DiSC like the MBTI, with 16 types by characterizing each energy as either high or low. In practice, you just characterize people by their dominant energy, which is close enough.

This is copied from the Wikipedia article:

These four dimensions can be grouped in a grid with "D" and "I" sharing the top row and representing extroverted aspects of the personality, and "C" and "S" below representing introverted aspects. "D" and "C" then share the left column and represent task-focused aspects, and "I" and "S" share the right column and represent social aspects. In this matrix, the vertical dimension represents a factor of "Assertive" or "Passive", while the horizontal dimension represents "Open" vs. "Guarded".[2]

  • Dominance: People who score high in the intensity of the "D" styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low "D" scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High "D" people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.
  • Influence: People with high "I" scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with low "I" scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.
  • Steadiness: People with high "S" styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. High "S" individuals are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. Low "S" intensity scores are those who like change and variety. People with low "S" scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.
  • Conscientious: People with high "C" styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High "C" people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, and tactful. Those with low "C" scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and unconcerned with details.

That S energy is interesting. Moulton's original name was submission, and he really meant it [Wonder Woman has long been noted for having a bondage undercurrent]. Later proponents of the DiSC model softened it into steadiness, which is the name it is given today. I like the DiSC because every mental energy has a positive interpretation. The OCEAN model doesn't have that. Almost all societies value extraversion over introversion, but there really is a place in the sun for each of the dimensions of the DiSC. Submission probably didn't really fit the bill here, it was just an obsession of Marston's.


Terry Teachout rags on the 10,000 hour rule in the Wall Street Journal.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart's older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn't. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn't.

I didn't even know Mozart had a sister! This is especially fascinating because Mozart and Nannerl shared both environment and genetics. What was different about them is the thing that is not reducible to a measurement: their individuality. If we were doing statistics we would call that "error", which of course it isn't in this context.

A thing I worry about with the current fashion of the 10,000 hour rule is ambitious helicopter parents trying to force their children to be this or thus. It can be done. Many famous child prodigies, such as Mozart, are the result of just such a program of accelerated instruction. What is less clear is the terrible price to be paid by the victims of such forced marches. 

Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the greatest minds who ever lived in the United States, but the damage done to him by his illustrious father, Benjamin Peirce, meant that he died a pauper, unremarked and unlamented. Benjamin Peirce was chair of the Harvard mathematics department, and he placed his second son through a grueling regimen in which he read all the famous philosophers and then had to deconstruct their arguments for his father, and he composed a history of chemistry by the time he was 11. C. S. Peirce was incredibly gifted, but he seemingly lacked common sense, leading him to vandalize the chemistry lecture hall at Harvard. His precocity and foolishness earned him the enmity of the future President of Harvard, who ensured that Peirce would never work in a university.

Peirce was forced to earn a living doing work for the USGS and by writing book reviews. Just one of the things he created was the Peirce quincuncial projection. A mouthful to be sure, but a beautiful projection of the globe to look like a square:

This is just one many things he created in exile. Peirce's work is still being evaluated, but his reputation keeps increasing as time goes on, But he had a horrible life! He learned everything except how to be a good man, which is really the primary purpose of education. Peirce had to learn this for himself at an advanced age, but how much easier would it have been to have learned it when he should have.

Now, Back to our regularly scheduled program

Sivers' post on learning musical composition at an accelerate rate is fascinating to me. Sivers is clearly an extraordinary human being. Looking around his site, I found a bit on shortening the time between thinking and doing, challenging himself, and doing what scares you.

Sivers has created a great deal of success for himself, and is probably a very inspiring speaker. Hell, I feel inspired right now. Yet I cannot help but wonder where there is a place in Sivers world for human frailty, and human brokenness. What made me wonder is this:

Ever since our five lessons, high expectations became my norm, and still are to this day. Whether music, business, or personal - whether I actually achieve my expectations or not - the point is that I owe every great thing that's happened in my life to Kimo's raised expectations. That's all it took. A random meeting and five music lessons to convince me I can do anything more effectively than anyone expects.

(And so can anyone else.)

I wish the same experience for everyone. I have no innate abilities. This article wasn't meant to be about me as much as the life-changing power of a great teacher and raised expectations.

I have bad news for you Derek. You do have innate abilities, they are just much, much better than everyone else's. I don't really dispute the value of hard work, especially focused hard work guided by a mentor like he is talking about here. I also don't dispute that people can usually do more than they think they can. 

I just think this stuff is dangerous for the less gifted people of the world. How well is this all really going to work out for the slow and the unmotivated? The problem is that we do have innate capacities, that are partially constrained by heredity. The capacity for hard work is something that is not equally distributed. Some people just cannot do it, and if they try they will burn out or break down when their capacity is exceeded. Where is the philosophy of personal success and satisfaction for the below average?

It is probably too much to expect Sivers to be all things to all men, but our age is leaving the less-able further and further behind by pretending that everyone can be anything if only they tried harder.

And now for something completely different

In the comments on my Generic Degrees post, Tom gives an example of how law school increased his conscientiousness. I can be dismissive of the value of hard work [blame Malcolm Gladwell], but hard work is at least as important in modern life as intellectual ability. If not more so. 

Derek Sivers gives us another example of the value of hard work.

When the studio owner heard I was going to Berklee, he said, “I graduated from Berklee, and taught there for a few years, too. I'll bet I can teach you two years' of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there's no speed limit. Come by my studio at 9:00 tomorrow for your first lesson, if you're interested. No charge.”

h/t John D Cook

Related post Beating the System

Generic Degrees

From Confessions of a Community College Dean:

Ask the Administrator: The Generic Degree

An occasional correspondent writes:

Some jobs out there are advertised as requiring a college degree, but
the employers don't care what was actually studied. So these employers
are in effect using college as a four-year hundred-thousand-dollar
screening test, with perhaps a bit of intellectual calisthenics for
good measure.

I had a chance to discuss this with a supervisor at one of the
management consulting companies, and he confirmed this is in fact
their policy. I suggested that since they don't care about any
specific knowledge -- only smarts and the willingness to work hard --
they should be open to hiring people right out of high school. Some
high-school students can point to significant intellectual
accomplishments, after all. But no, this is Just Not Done.

A four-year degree seems like a very expensive way of doing
intellectual quality control. Could we do better?

I hate to admit it, but there’s some truth to this.

I saw this quite a bit at PU, where some older students were already well into their careers and doing well there, but they needed their hands stamped in order to move up to the next level. They didn’t care much about the actual content of it; the point was to become eligible for management ranks. I took it as a personal victory when one of those students actually found value in a class I taught.

At an individual level, this can be kind of silly. Certainly it’s possible to be brilliant (or better, wise) without a degree, and to be bovine with one. And it’s also true that some jobs that stipulate college degrees don’t really draw on the skills that a degree is supposed to confer, whatever the major. Degree factories exist for that very reason.

That said, though, I like to think that a bachelor’s degree from a real college -- as opposed to a degree factory -- carries some meaning.

At one level, it shows the ability and willingness to stick to a program. Given the prevalence of college dropouts, those who actually finish have at least shown the ability to get their stuff together sufficiently to fulfill a multiyear commitment. (Along similar lines, students who transfer from cc’s with associate’s degrees tend to finish bachelor’s degrees at far higher rates than those who transfer with scattered credits. The graduates are those who finish what they start.) It shows the ability to navigate a bureaucracy, which is an essential workplace skill for most of the higher-paying jobs.

If the college is at least halfway serious, a degree should indicate some ability to handle complexity, to communicate at least functionally, and keep one’s balance when dealing with numbers. One of my personal indices for wisdom is the ability to handle ambiguity. Clueless people can be trained to do almost anything routine; the real test comes when the routine has to change. Some of that is temperamental, but some has to do with the ability to discern the bigger picture.

The actual content of the degree is another issue. I don’t often draw on my study of Restoration England, but I do draw on some of the skills developed through it. My social science training enabled me to stay awake and attempt to wring meaning out of long, boring, poorly-written texts; on the job, I use that skill every single day.

This is the kind of thing Charles Murray was talking about in his book Real Education. The higher education system has changed over time to meet the needs of the marketplace, but for reasons of educational romanticism has retained the dress and language of an earlier dispensation. This change isn't necessarily bad, but we should understand it for what it truly is.

The most persistent misunderstanding, here shown by the questioner's comment "a very expensive way of doing intellectual quality control", is that sending masses of people to college has anything whatsoever to do with the life of the intellect. As Dean Dad correctly notes, today college serves as a filter for high conscientiousness. Whether college imparts more C or simply sorts people by it is a fair question, but it is clear that those who successfully complete a four-year degree have better work ethic, ability to finish what they start, get organized, etc. than those who have not completed such a course. Thus it is entirely rational for businesses to sort applicants in this fashion.

Whether it is best for everyone is another matter entirely.

DSM-5 to include the Big 5

The Five Factor Model in the DSM-5

The current Axis II disorders will be replaced by a mixture of continuously-rated personality disorder types (carrying forward psychopathy, avoidant, borderline, obsessive-compulsive, and schizotypal) and 6 personality traits. According to the rationale, four of the traits are pathological versions of 4 of the Big Five (Openness/Intellect apparently doesn’t have a pathological extreme).

h/t John D Cook

Limitations of the Big 5

I talk a lot about the Big 5 personality factors, and how useful they are. So now it is time to discuss the problems with the Big 5. As in so many things, I am indebted to Steve Sailer for bringing these up first.

Problem 1 is cheating. A person who knows how these traits work can present any personality they wish on a personality test, which is really more of a self-guided assessment. This limits their use for school and work purposes. I have to watch for this myself when I take the tests now, because I know what each question is getting at. In some ways, the best assessment is the first one.

Problem 2 is cross-cultural validity. Unlike IQ tests, where the psychometricians have long since figured out how to take cultural-bias out of tests, Big 5 tests ask about behavioral responses, which vary a lot between different groups. Big 5 tests seem to not even work very well comparing different states to each other in the USA, much less to other countries. This is less of a problem if the group is self-selected, like med students say, then the comparisons are likely to be much more fruitful. I think this is one reason why the Big 5 is so much less directive about career than the MBTI has been. There just aren't meaningful correlations between the usefulness of conscientiousness for both doctors and sales clerks.

More detailed Big 5 test

Courtesy of Steve Hsu, I found a more detailed online Big 5 personality assessment. This one takes much longer, but it has subdomain scores that can help people delve more deeply into their personality, and stave off objections that "I'm not really like that". The Out of Service Big 5 test paints a pretty broad brush, so at least sometimes people get put off by it.

This longer test is pretty good, I took it and here is a summary of my results. Each is scored 0-99, with 0 being low.

EXTRAVERSION...............29 **

..Friendliness.............17 *

..Gregariousness...........10 *

..Assertiveness............92 *********

..Activity Level...........23 **

..Excitement-Seeking.......28 **

..Cheerfulness.............42 ****


AGREEABLENESS..............28 **

..Trust....................74 *******

..Morality.................75 *******




..Sympathy.................69 ******



..Self-Efficacy............85 ********


..Dutifulness..............85 ********

..Achievement-Striving.....19 *


..Cautiousness.............71 *******


NEUROTICISM................27 **

..Anxiety..................30 ***

..Anger....................49 ****

..Depression...............30 ***

..Self-Consciousness.......37 ***

..Immoderation.............14 *

..Vulnerability............32 ***



..Imagination..............65 ******

..Artistic Interests.......19 *

..Emotionality.............53 *****

..Adventurousness..........61 ******

..Intellect................88 ********

..Liberalism...............11 *




If you want to see the whole thing, check out this text file.

If you want more information, read this page by Sanjay Srivastava. Srivastava talks about the origins of the test, including the interesting fact that it has two names, Big 5 and OCEAN, because two different groups of researchers came up with the same five factors in different ways and only later found out they were the same.

Holmes is a Mess Part 2

The Family Social Scientist informs me in the comments to the last Holmes post that Doyle's Holmes really is much like Downey's Holmes. I stand corrected. That is what I get for going off of memory.

I was reflecting on the Magistra's comment that Holmes can make plans and follow through on them, they are just ill-considered. Holmes and Watson make a good team because Watson is reliable and saves Holmes when he needs rescuing. Holmes on the other hand, is highly creative and doesn't actually need a plan.

I know from personal experience that this is one of the benefits of having low conscientiousness is that you do not feel concerned when there is not a plan for moving forward. Actually, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to me whether there is a plan or not, because I am likely to ignore it if there is one.

Don't get me wrong, I think in the grand scheme of things a good plan is very important. I'm likely to complain loudly about businesses that are run poorly or coworkers who have failed to take into account perfectly foreseeable consequences. Success in life and work depends crucially on thinking ahead. This is why conscientiousness is a good predictor of success in life. 

Where my [and Holmes] qualities come into play is when the Stuff Hits the Fan [SHTF], and the carefully prepared plan is now worthless. If you have low conscientiousness, this is no different than normal, so you can proceed apace.

Holmes is a Mess

Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a mess. 221B Baker St. is a complete disaster with him living there. Doyle's Holmes seemed more like a dapper, reserved, proper gentleman, while Downey's Holmes is disagreeable and a bit of a mad scientist.

Pretty much the epitome of low-C high-g highly creative personality. I decided to give this Holmes the Big 5 test to see how he did:

Sherlock Holmes is a O96-C10-E97-A0-N27 Big Five!!

This seems pretty accurate, although you would need to drill down some more to really get at Downey's character. For example, his Holmes has about zero conscientiousness in terms of neatness and personal hygiene, but he can make plans and follow through on them [they are just often ill-considered plans]. The zeroth percentile Agreeableness score is spot on though.

Laws of Human Nature: The Map is not the Territory

The first article I read about the laws of human nature today was about a numerical simulation of the Peter Principle, which states that employees keep getting promoted until the point where they can no longer perform their jobs well. This simulation is pretty clever, but I don't know that is in fact quite as revolutionary as the article hints. Based on the random ability model the authors created, the optimal promotion strategy is to select employees at random for promotions. This is pretty clearly bad for morale.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the best promotion strategy might be to choose people at random.

"This is a really interesting alternative approach to looking at the Peter principle," says Rajiv Mehta, a professor of marketing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. "But it would turn on its head almost every established theory of human behaviour and would face a multitude of problems."

The other principle we ought to keep in mind here is the map is not the territory: the model is not reality. I think this model could probably be turned into something really useful if it took into account the distribution of abilities such as g and the OCEAN personality factors, plus the experience people gain on the job. I think the model is just too simple to be actually useful, rather than an interesting exercise. I really like the attempt to apply a quantitative model, it just needs to much more complicated.

I will be curious to see whether the authors of the study follow up on this, or if it was just a one-off neat idea they had. This was done by a group of physicists, and I suspect that they are not really interested in getting into all the details it would take to get this right. Physicists are notorious for their simplifying assumptions [well, assume you have a perfectly spherical cow....] and I think this tendency is at play here. Philosophers are subject to the same tendency these days, so strongly wedded to simplicity that they will prefer a simple theory even when it doesn't work quite right. I am grateful that I have worked as an engineer because it has attuned me to complexity. I have to attempt to optimize 50 attributes at the same time, and I don't understand many of them very well, but I have to get on with it nonetheless. Physics and philosophy alike tend to make simplifying assumptions in order to make problems solvable, whereas I do not have that luxury.

I followed a link in the New Scientist article, and I found another post on 5 Laws of Human Nature that is also interesting. Among the 5 laws listed in the second New Scientist article is Parkinson's Law, named for C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson is on my list of people to read real soon now. I started reading The Evolution of Political Thought, which is an updating of Aristotle for the XXth century, but I found Parkinson's style idiosyncratic, so I decided to put the book down and come back to it later.

The other laws, Pareto's principle especially, are also worth attention.

h/t John D Cook

Learning Styles Debunked

Having recently suffered through a corporate software training class facilitated by someone with an extensive miseducation in how people learn, I appreciated this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education critical of the received wisdom on learning styles.

The gist of the journal article referenced in the Chronicle is that learning styles don't have much to do with how well you learn from a given presentation, but rather how much you like learning it. The critical issue is that kinds of presentation are better suited to certain subjects. You will never learn much real science if you never spend any time in a lab for example.

The main criticism advanced against this article is that the authors failed to adequately reference the field, a scientific faux pas. However, the rebutters failed to answer the charge that most education research is poorly done, and thus cannot adequately answer the question. Unless the uncited papers are vastly superior, we will be just seeing more of the same. I noted that the authors specifically said they were not attempting to survey the entire field, which is quite large at this point.

There was quite a bit of interesting tidbits near the end of the article. I had not known that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and learning styles have a common lineage, and a common either/or type of categorization. I have been a bit critical of the MBTI, so my dislike of learning styles is not surprising given this common root. There was a brief review of a number of interesting attempts to sort students by ability and then check to see whether different teaching styles have an effect on students of high or low levels of ability. There is a bit on personality types and learning as well, but even the authors call this research fragmentary. I'll have to ponder the results of this some more.

h/t Jerry Pournelle

First Impressions

A fun open access paper about personality judgments based on seeing just a picture of someone. One of the authors is Samuel Gosling, whose work lies behind the online Big 5 personality test I recommend to the curious. You can learn a lot just by looking at someone, and in this paper they break down how different things strike observers. Hairstyle, manner of dress, posture, expression, there are many visual cues that tell us something about personality.

There are a number of other studies referenced in the paper that demonstrate the additive value of seeing someone in person or on video. There are many other cues that are dynamic, and thus harder to see in a picture. However, you don't need much time to form pretty accurate judgments in this fashion, although unsurprisingly the accuracy goes up with more exposure.

h/t Dienekes' Anthropology Blog

Personality Traits as Potentia Update

James Chastek at Just Thomism recently wrote a three part series on the division of potency and act.


In part II, Chastek nails something I was trying to get at in my post on personality traits as potentia. When Aquinas used the Latin potentia, or Aristotle the Greek δύναμις [dunamis], they meant something closer to the English word power than potential. I didn't use that word, but I really should have, because it makes the whole thing easier to understand.

Trait Substitution

See part I, Personality Traits as Potentia

See part II, Personality Traits as Natural

This part is really more of a personal reflection than a post about the intersection of psychology and natural philosophy. But it seems to fit topically, so here it is.

The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar got me thinking of what I call trait substitution. When it comes to the task of living your life, it is rare that there is one and only one way to go about doing things. Not only are there many ways to live your life successfully, there are multiple ways to reach one and the same goal. Accordingly, having low-C does not mean that you cannot live a good life, just as low-g does not. If you have low-C and low-g, life will probably be rough. That sucks. [which brings up personality traits and social justice, but that is a topic for another time] 

But in general, you can learn to build on your strengths instead of your weaknesses. Bach talked about having to learn how to do that in the interview I listened to. Basically, in his case he had to figure out how to use his smarts to compensate for a lack of discipline. This very much works the other way round as well. It is entirely possible to substitute hard work for smarts when it comes to school and work. I think there are at least a couple of ways of going about doing this, and one seems better than the other. [for me]

You can try to figure how to get the same result in a different way [the creative solution], or you can try to convert one trait directly into another[the brute force solution]. 

I  suppose I think of personality traits as fungible, in the economic sense. You can convert one into another at some exchange rate, which may or may not be favorable to you in terms of time, effort, and results. However, like when you exchange money, there is some cost. It is possible to make up for a lack of discipline by using to-do lists, and trying to work diligently in time blocks, or finishing tasks a little at a time, or whatever time-management thing someone has come up with. These are all ways of trying to convert smarts into conscientiousness directly. This is the brute force solution, and it can definitely work. At the very least, it works well enough to keep a small army of self-help gurus employed. But, I think the typical improvement is probably small. You can probably get 5-10 percentage points of change out of things like this. Which, if you are looking for a little boost to help you get things done is probably just the ticket.

However, my personal experience as someone with low-C is trying to convert g into C makes me really unhappy. Trying to do things that way just stresses me out, and doesn't make the work go any faster. It is just too mentally exhausting to work against my nature in that way. When I took the OCEAN test I scored at the 2nd percentile for conscientiousness.  My wife was a little more generous than I was and scored me at the 8th percentile, but we are pretty clearly talking low levels of conscientiousness here. A 5 point percentile point improvement would be only 13th at the best, and percentiles get wider in the tails, so it would probably be less than that. Basically I'm a lost cause.

So, I was really interested to listen to Bach, because his experience mirrors my own. I just can't do things the way most people do them. Trying to be organized and on the ball is really, really hard. It is especially annoying to me because I can perfectly well understand what needs to be done, it is just hard to do. Until I started learning about personality traits, this was mysterious to me. Now, it is clear what the problem is. I had to give up trying to be conscientious, and embrace my erratic work style.

My experience has been that I actually do better if I do things at the last minute, and get around to tasks when I remember them instead of trying to plan everything out. If it seems haphazard, that's because it is. But as long as the end result is acceptable, who cares? I actually find that really really good ideas percolate up into my mind as I procrastinate, and I continue to find success in life. This is the creative solution, finding a different way to get the end result. I just don't have to spend hours working on something to get a good result. I often find that I can bang out a rough draft of a technical report, and then drop it entirely for a day or so, and go back and revise it when I can get a fresh look at it. What matters is the final product, not the process of getting there. Which is probably confusing to some people, because it looks like I'm wasting time, but in the end I get as much, if not more done. It just comes out in these concentrated bursts.

I study much the same way. Taking classes at Holy Apostles, there are these suggested course outlines they give you in the syllabus: read this chapter this week, and watch this lecture, so forth. Trying to follow these basically set me up for failure. It would be easier if I actually had a lot of classes to physically go to, and I needed to break up the work. As it is, trying to read little bits and pieces just bores me, and I get distracted with work and more urgent day to day activities. What I have found to work better for me is to just cram it all together. I read the whole text book right away, and then I probably read all the class notes. I may or may not actually get around to watching all the videos until right before the final. Often, I write the term paper in about a 48-hour period the week before it is due. There is often a big lull period in the middle of the semester, which I often occupy by reading related philosophy texts or journal articles. 

This process evolved, and it works pretty well. The time it completely failed me is when I took Logic. I probably still need to go back over that, because of the difficulty of the subject, it really does need a slow and steady approach to really master the material. I now have to do that again later. On the plus side, I picked up enough that I know how the material is organized, so I can probably move through it quickly the second time.

I cannot recommend this process. It is fraught with peril, and is probably unnecessary to someone with even low-mid levels of conscientiousness, but it works for me. 

The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar

Wednesday while doing other tasks I listened to a podcast interview with James Bach about his book, The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. Bach is a good example of a highly successful high-g, low-C entrepreneur. There is a good quote at about the 4 minute mark when Hanselman asks Bach whether he thinks he has a learning disability:  "I have no self-discipline....Unlike a lot of people, I seem to have no ability to learn things when other people tell me I have to, or do things when other people tell me I have to."

It is very interesting to hear Bach describe how he struggled with school because he didn't like being told what to do. He frankly admits that he cannot force himself to be conscientious even when he knows good and well that it is in his best interest. Being a little bit that way, I'm entirely sympathetic.  You have to figure out how to deal with your nature, because trying to force a low-C individual to be even average-C is probably going to fail. You just have to learn to deal with it.

Software is a field where high-g, low-C people have an opportunity to do well. You can demonstrate your skills pretty easily without the need for a degree, and enough famous people have done the same thing that it is more acceptable to forgo the degree.

h/t John D. Cook

Personality Traits as Natural

See part I, Personality Traits as Potentia.

A further difficulty I have encountered when talking about personality traits such as conscientiousness is their heritability. When I say that a personality trait like C is about 50% heritable, I am often greeted with unbelief. How can this be so? 

This is so because personality traits are natural, in the fullest sense of the word. By this, I mean that the traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, are part of our shared human nature, and can be expected to have all the properties that implies.

The first thing to do is define natural. This is hard, because it is an analogous name, with many different, but related meanings. What I mean by natural is what Aristotle and Aquinas meant: a nature is an inner source of activity that makes a thing to be what it is. The word comes from the Latin natus, to be born. The contrary of this is artificial, and by this I mean art as something created by means of the directive actions of a mind.

Let us consider an example borrowed from Mike Flynn. The strength of our muscles is something we are all familiar with. It is clear that some people are stronger than others. But what is the source of these differences? You can be either naturally strong, or artificially strong. Consider that without the benefit of exercise, some people are simply larger and more powerful. Now clearly, the level of everyday activity that a person sees will influence how strong they are. Typically, a lumberjack is stronger than an accountant. But let us imagine we are dealing with people who do the same things, so that factor is held constant. The level of strength each person has will be determined by their individual nature, some more, some less. 

Now, if look at the art of exercise, we can increase our strength above our natural strength. Thus, by diligent application, the weaker can become stronger. However, if we again hold the level of activity constant, those with greater natural strength will probably end up stronger too, because there is more potential strength in their nature. This is not necessarily always so, but with human strength it seems to be so.

So then, human strength is a combination of nature and art. For any given person, some amount will be natural, and some amount artificial. One way you can tell the difference between nature and art is that if you take away the art, nature will reassert itself. If you stop going to the gym, your strength will return to its natural level. Now, clearly, it is possible to cause natural strength to wither away too. But Aristotle's concept of nature overlaps with what we would call normal. If you deny a man food and space to move around in, as prisoners in a gulag perhaps, their natural strength will be diminished. But to speak of the natural always means to analyze what is needed for the nature to function, some minimum level of food and activity. To say that a thing is natural does not mean it operates like magic.

So what does this mean for personality traits? If the OCEAN traits are natural, then that means that they are at least partly material, in the Aristotelian sense, which means that they can be heritable in the same way that any biological traits are. Thus we should not be surprised that children are like their parents in these traits. It also means that if you take away what people need to actualize these traits, they will suffer for it. In the case of g, nutrients like iron and iodine are important for brain development. Take them away during childhood, and a person will never be the same. Also, it means that these traits can be affected by art over and above their natural levels, but where you start influences where you end up.

Consider Olympic weightlifting. How many gold medal weightlifters are petite, small-framed people? This is not to say that a 5 foot, 90 lb. woman couldn't take up Olympic weightlifting. It is a powerful exercise for building strength. But, I doubt she'll be lifting 150kg no matter how hard she tries. Her nature lacks the potential for that.

Artificially strong

Naturally and artificially strong

I'n not impugning the strength of Annie in the first picture. She is probably stronger than me. However, there is a clear difference between here and Huang Huan, gold medal winner at the Beijing Olympics.  Huang has a much different build than Annie, and is probably naturally stronger. Then Huang built up her strength to truly amazing levels. Huang is both naturally and artificially strong.

Personality traits are much the same. Different people are born (natus) with differing endowments of traits. It is pretty clear that lacking conscientiousness is generally a bad thing, in the same way that being weak and sickly is a bad thing. But, no trait of this kind is unaffected by what you do. This is what personal development is all about. Having low agreeableness does not have to mean you are rude. You can learn manners. It will be harder, and someone with low A will probably never be truly suave, but you can learn how to behave in such a way that social friction is decreased. Manners are the art by which we strengthen agreeableness.

The objective with any kind of behavioral modification like this [Aristotle would have called it cultivation of the virtues] is to develop a habit to the point where it becomes literally a second nature, but experience will show that just like exercise, you need to keep it up or the first nature will have its revenge. If we turn to g, this is the explanation for the fadeout effects that are seen with any kind of intervention to raise intellectual ability. If you look at kids in Head Start, or anything like it, you will see a big effect at first, but if you look a few years later, you almost cannot tell any difference. Nature is reasserting itself, because after kids get out of Head Start, they are no longer performing the mental exercise that artificially raised their academic ability.

Viewing personality traits as natural thus can help explain what we see. Conscientiousness really is heritable, but that does not mean you can't learn to straighten up your house and do things on time if you C is low. It does however mean it will probably be really hard. You literally have to work against your own nature. Someone with a high C will do those things easily, naturally. Just the same with g. It is entirely possible to raise IQ artificially, but if you stop the intervention, you will lose the effect.  Unless of course, you know how to change the underlying nature. Which to the best of my knowledge, we do not.

Personality Traits as Potentia

Lately, I've been thinking of personality traits such as those quantified by the OCEAN model. A major conceptual difficulty I run into when talking to people about these traits is their innate imprecision. For example, the Openness to Experience trait is correlated with political liberalism, but you probably don't have to look very far to find a counter-example of someone whose O is pretty low, but isn't in fact conservative at all. Or vice versa. This never bothers me, because I know of the inherent weaknesses of correlation.

However, not all that many people think that way, so you are basically facing an uphill battle if you try to explain this phenomenon in those terms. I have thought of another way to explain it that is probably better for verbally oriented people, plus it has the benefit of 2500 years of historical usage. Traits such as O or g are Aristotelian potentia or δύναμις. I know, that's not simpler. 

What are potentia? The notions of act and potency are the foundations of Aristotle's Physics. Aristotle introduced these notions to explain how one thing could change into another. To put it simply, any actually [there's that word] existing thing is in act. It is something. But, it could also be something else. So Aristotle reasoned that it is potentially many other things. To put this in modern terms, we can think of mass-energy. We know that there is a relationship between stuff and energy, and that it is possible to convert one to the other under appropriate conditions. Energy is potentially matter, and matter is potentially energy.

How does this relate to personality traits? I tend to think of personality traits as tendencies of greater or lesser strength. Openness to experience tends to be associated with political liberalism, it potentially can lead to political liberalism, but not always. It can potentially lead to other things as well. Note that I am positing a causal role, but not a determinate one. I see these as formal causes rather than efficient causes.

Potentia, but their nature, are indeterminate. In the broadest sense, one thing can potentially be an infinite number of other things. This can be most clearly seen in the mass-energy example. Mass-energy can be any material thing whatsoever. It has the maximal amount of potency and the least amount of act of any material thing we know. But, it still has a little bit of act in it, because you cannot get something for nothing. There is a conservation law that tells you how much stuff you get from energy, or vice versa. It is not completely indeterminate, but rather indeterminate in a specific way.

There are different kinds of potency. The canonical example is learning grammar. By nature of being human, we are all capable of learning grammar. However, there is a difference between knowing grammar, and using grammar. Even after you learn it, it is still in some sense potential grammar, if you aren't doing anything with it. But this is clearly different than when you don't know grammar at all. The knowledge is now usable at will. Some of the potency has been used up. so to speak. Before you could have learned any number of things, but now you know one thing, and can actually put it to use.

Personality traits are much the same. There is a range of possibilities associated with each one, but they have a unifying theme that lets us group them together. They are partly act, and partly potency. The act determines the trend, the potency allows variety. The amount of the trait can vary. Some people have a lot of conscientiousness, and some have a little. If you have a lot, you can do lots of things with it, if you have a little, the potency is accordingly more limited, and you can do less with it.

The psychometricians are on to this in regards to g. There are two components of g, gf and gc, representing fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is pretty much raw problem solving ability. Crystallized intelligence is closer to what many people think of as education: vocabulary, experience, and factual knowledge. What is really interesting is how these change over time.  Fluid intelligence peaks when you are young, and steadily declines. Crystallized intelligence grows more slowly, and only begins to decline late in life when aging truly sets in and memory and mental function begin to decline as well.

gf represents the potentia of our intelligence. It is good for applying to anything. gc is intelligence that has had some of its potential used up, and turned into act. That bit of intelligence is less useful in general, but more useful in specific. It has become more actual. Thus it should not be surprising that gf
declines continuously. It is naturally being used up all the time. is more stable, and in fact most all of us notably increase in experience over time, into gc, which is where the gf is going.

Applying this to personality traits, one thing that mystifies some people about the OCEAN model is how vague it is. "What that supposed to be insightful?" I often hear. This is because we are really looking at potentia. There are lots of different kinds of personality traits that psychologists talk about. These five are the most general, the others tend to fall underneath the big five. Each of us actualizes the big five traits in different ways. We basically form our character over time by means of the things we do, turning potential traits into specific habits and dispositions. This is also why we become set in our ways over time. The potential got used up.

This explanation is not simpler than the statistical one. However, it does unify all of these things in an interesting way, and it allows for a more complete explanation of how each of us experience the OCEAN traits. It is both causal, allowing us to make predictions about people and understand the world, and it is also not determinate, allowing us to understand the natural variation between people with similar levels of the same trait. It also explicitly ties the model into the Aristotelian tradition, which underlays most of Western thinking.

Next up: personality traits as natural.