Personality begets Perception
People do not have ideas, ideas have people.’ This is a Carl Jung idea, an idea worth reflecting upon: people do not have ideas, ideas have people. I have spoken about this notion before, but I think it bears repeating. Our movement, historically, has favoured this idea that we are all individual rational actors, and by exploring issues, and allowing our individual rational perspective to bear upon the subject matter in question, we are able to uncover a degree of truth. We have rational agency, we are able to choose which perspective, or understanding, or position we deem most appropriate. And it feels like that is a free choice on our part. But is it? When it comes to the books we read or the television we watch, we may choose what we think will be most interesting, or most entertaining. But we have little choice about what we do find interesting or entertaining. An hour watching a documentary on 18th Century New England architecture. An hour watching the Australia/ England cricket match. One of those options fills me with existential dread. I seemingly have no choice about that, and if you think about these little inexplicable intuitive senses, they shape a great deal of our lives. Our friends are often those we feel a natural affinity for. In school, college, and university, if we’re fortunate, we’ll peruse those subjects which interest us most, which will in turn shape the careers we have. Again, we choose. But we don’t really choose. Somehow, there is interior dimension to us, which has already ruled out a lot of the potential options on the table, before we’ve even considered them. Particularly in the realm of religion or politics, our gut often takes a position before we do.
Last week, on our very snowy Sunday, a few of us here marked Bodhi Sunday, in which we considered some of the central ideas at the heart of the Buddhist religion; that in our day to day lives negative stimuli cause us to seize up, a natural response we have to everyday negatives, large and small. How might we navigate the choppy water, and thrive regardless? Another idea at the centre of the Buddhist religion is that we have no essential selves. Think of it like this. Imagine a life as a series of annual photographs, stretching out behind and after your life. For an eternity there is nothing. And then there is something very small, that grows, and grows, getting taller, sharper features. Then wrinkles appear on the brow, hair begins to grey, stature lowers. And then you’re on the ground. Before long all that is left is your skeletal form. Than eventually, all that is left is dust. There is nothing again. And again, there is an eternity of nothing. In this series of photographs, which one is you? All of them? None of them? It almost seems like there is a contradiction here: we have no essential self, and yet we seem to carry largely the same personalities throughout our lives.
I’ve always found personality tests quite interesting. They’re a good tool to appreciate the different ways different personalities operate, particularly within group dynamics like churches. Different personality tests I’ve done include The Myers-Briggs type indicator,
The Enneagram test, and The Big Five Personality test. These are the best three I think. The trouble with these, particularly Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, is that they ‘type’ you. They put you in a box, and say that is who you are. But as the Buddhist tradition points out, there is no essential you. There is no aspect of you, right at your core, that makes you, you, but our egos! The surface level ‘us’ that we project out into the world, does appear to be typical. It seems to follow a consistent logic. So, there is our subjective self, our ego, which does have a distinct personality. And then behind that, there is a flowing river. A core of our being, which defies categorisation.
This may seem like a meaningless distinction to you. But I think it’s worth highlighting, because the very notion that everything you are can be categorised on a piece of paper is, in my opinion, absurd. There are depths to us which cannot be easily identified. If, however, you’re able to identify the patterns your personality or ego routinely manifest, you can glean a great deal of wisdom from that - what it is about you, that makes you do what you do. Or as the Carl Jung quote puts it, ‘People do not have ideas, ideas have people.’ Who are the sorts of people who routinely manifest a pattern of ideas? In this vein then, in the Spirit of Advent, in this season of self-reflection (in which we practice being present to ourselves), to help us do this, I have a short personality test for you all. The Big Five Personality test. At the end of the service I’ll put them on the table in the middle for anyone who is interested. This is a crude paper version; I recommend you go online and find the version on there, but if you can’t wait, or have a paper preference, then here it is. But, disclaimer, the version you’ll find online is more up to date, and better, in my opinion. You won’t have to calculate your results at the end, and it will break down your results for you. Anyway, it up to you. It’s also up to you if you want to share your results. Now, I’m going to go through The Big Five Personality test. If you’ve done Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram in the past, this test it a bit different for a number of reasons.
First of all, it’s much newer. It has been developed just over the last couple of decades, and as such it utilised the latest psychological research. Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram have been criticised in the past for not being very scientific. Although a lot of people find them intuitively helpful, and I certainly have, the Big Five stands up better under scientific scrutiny. Also unlike the other two, the Big Five resists putting you in a box. Instead you’ll just be given a number. A number which will tell you if you’re above average, or below average, in the five particular areas in question. These are: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience. I’ll go through the areas in turn, to help you interpret your results, starting with Openness to Experience.
Being above average in this area indicates someone who is capable of abstract thinking, not shocked by new or unusual ideas, who makes connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, is creative and has a high appreciation for art. People who score high in the area are much more likely to be politically liberal, and more likely to pursue cultural and artistic interests in their leisure time. If you take this test online, it won’t just tell you if you’re above or below average, you will also know where you fall as a percentile within the population at large. I would guess that this particular sample of the population before me would score well above average in this area. It would be interesting to get some denominational averages; my hunch would be that Unitarians would probably come out higher in this trait on average than any other denomination would. Out of the five areas, this is the trait in which I come out by far the highest in, falling somewhere in the top 10 percentile.
The next two I’ll talk about are Extraversion and Conscientiousness. If you’re familiar with the way extraversion/introversion are defined with the Myers-Briggs model, it’s quite different here. In Myers-Briggs, extraversion/introversion relates not to shyness, but to whether you’re energised personally in the company of others, or in your own company. That means that within the Myers-Briggs model you can easily be defined as a shy extrovert, for example. Which means, they are timid in the company of others, particularly new people, but nevertheless feel energised in the company of others, and they often feel lonely if they lack sufficient company. In the Big Five, extraversion is defined in the more common-sense way as someone who is friendly, and motivated in speaking to others. They engage actively with their surroundings to pursue satisfying rewards, especially social rewards like friendship, admiration, power, status, excitement, and romance. People high in the extravert trait tend to have more friends, and be more ambitious and interested in increasing their social standing.
Conscientiousness: the third trait. Individuals who are high in the Conscientiousness trait tend to be more orderly, and self-disciplined in the pursuit of their goals. They possess the ability to delay gratification for long-term achievements. They’re dependable, and deadline oriented. They tend to be more successful in their careers. I remember when I was younger, probably about six or seven, actually being testing by my dad on this trait. He sat me down on the couch, and put a chocolate in front of me on the coffee table. He told me, if I was able to resist eating the chocolate while he left the room for five minutes, I would get a few more chocolates. The problem with your dad conducting such a test is that even aged six, I knew I would be able to eat the chocolate in front of me immediately, and then negotiate the release of the rest of the chocolates, which I did successfully. Anyway, in these two traits Extraversion and Conscientiousness I again am above average, this time in the top 25 percentile. Also as a side note: there in an interesting relationship between Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience. If you’re low or average in the Openness to Experience trait, but well above average in the Conscientiousness trait, that is a strong indicator that you are politically more conservative.
The fourth trait is Agreeableness. Individuals high in Agreeableness tend to put the needs of others before their own. They are more likely to cooperate with others, rather than compete with others. They’re more empathetic, taking pleasure out of serving others. Agreeableness is essentially the maternal instinct. On average woman tend to be much higher in this trait than men – though that is an average, there are of course exceptions both ways. On all of these traits, it’s also very interesting to note how it shapes the way you perceive others. Our default position, unless you think about this stuff, and do these types of exercises, is to assume everyone else is perceiving the world in broadly the same ways you do. So, for example, if you score very high in agreeableness, say you’re in the top 10 percentile, you naturally perceive those below you as disagreeable, even if in on grand scale in the population as a whole the person you find disagreeable is still above average. I have a hunch, when it comes to Unitarians - as I think we would score collectively on average higher on Openness to Experience - I think we would score collectively lower on average in agreeableness. If you know me, it will probably not surprise you to learn that on the agreeableness trait I am entirely average.
The final trait is Neuroticism – this is the only one of the five traits which is overtly negative. It relates to negative emotions: fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, or shame. While of course everyone experiences these emotions, people with an average to high score are gripped by these emotions. Again, statistically, females are more likely to score higher in Neuroticism. So, mentally healthy people tend to score towards the lower end for the Neuroticism trait. Low Neuroticism scorers are less likely to get divorced or to suffer mental illness, they tend to handle stress well and take unfortunate events in their stride. Major stressors like losing a job or getting a divorce are less likely to cause depression or anxiety in people who have low levels of Neuroticism. And my score for Neuroticism is very low, in the bottom 20 percentile. So, well below average.
Hopefully, all this has given you an even greater sense of just how true that quote I started with is, ‘People do not have ideas, ideas have people’. We only think as we do by virtue of being who we are. Our viewpoint is not simply a matter of opinion; it goes much deeper than that. Our very perception is dependent upon variabilities in our personality. Our personalities act as a sort of filter through which we experience the world. This is why left leaning, or right leaning individuals so often talk past each other – they’re literally experiencing the world differently. And yet, both their perceptions are necessary components. Right leaning people tend to be more concerned with the preservation of tradition, and tend to favour past tried-and-true approaches. Whereas those on the left are more radical, and more concerned with the fact that the environment shifts rapidly and unpredictably, and we have to be willing to shift with it. These are both valid viewpoints, because all elements of lived experience have an orderly and chaotic element. Think Yin Yang. And so, you have to be prepared for both, and through dialogue, both left and right perceptions ideally restrain one another. You fluctuate back and forth fighting the best course forward. I’ll close with the quote by Carl Jung on your order of service. ‘Your vision will become clear only when you look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, Awakens’.
If your interested the Big Five Personality Test can be found at Truity.com