Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Three: Temperament (pt.i)

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter Three:  Temperament

When I went through the screening process for candidates for the ministry, the vocational counselor explained part of the process to me as follows:  Generally, you are happiest working in a job where most people share your values and have similar personalities, so part of the screening process is to look at temperament, as well as other psychological factors, to see how your personality compares to results for people already in particular fields.  For example, if you are outgoing, bubbly, and action-oriented, you probably would not fit in with the other accountants, and might be happier with a workplace that fits your temperament:  entertainer, perhaps, where you find lots of other outgoing, live-in-the-moment types.

There are definite legal problems today with using gender in workplace decisions.  In some cultures, that is almost the only consideration; but in the U.S. it is illegal to simply refuse to hire a woman for most jobs based on gender, or to pay her less for doing the same work (though how vigorously those laws are enforced fluctuates with political tides).  There are also challenges with using developmental psychology in workplace decisions or vocational counseling.  If an employer decided not to hire anyone at Erikson’s Stage 8, it could trigger a lawsuit for age discrimination (although enforcement of those laws seems even spottier than those against gender discrimination).  Furthermore, people move through different stages during their working lives, at different speeds.  Two 30 year olds could be at different stages on Erikson’s developmental scale, and the same is true of most other developmental theories (such as Lawrence Kohlberg’s).  It is rarely appropriate to say, “You are not at the right developmental stage for that job,” unless the applicant is clearly in a state of arrested development.  And finally, while gender is usually easy to determine and there are several good tests for temperament, testing for developmental stage is rarely as precise.  Developmental psychology can be useful in a more intensive and ongoing setting, such as therapy; and it can help an individual plan his or her working career.  It is of much less use in choosing one’s career path, or making hiring decisions.

Temperament, on the other hand, is used so often in vocational settings because it is so easy.  There are a variety of well-tried tests, particularly the MBTI, which can help counselors, employers and workers match person with career.  These tests can be administered relatively quickly and scored relatively precisely.  And while developmental stage changes by its very nature, temperament seems to be relatively static throughout life, barring major brain trauma or something of that sort.  Behavior may change, but temperament doesn’t.  Behavior is like the software of our personalities; temperament is more like the hardware.  An introvert may be a shy child who grows up to be confident in social situations; but he or she will still be an introvert, who at the end of the day needs to rest alone or with a few close friends to recover from the stress of so much glad-handing with so many strangers.

It is important at this point to say something about what temperament is, and isn’t.  Temperament theory began with Carl Jung, a student of Freud.  Erikson did most of his seminal work with children, and naturally focused on how people change over time.  Jung’s most important work was with middle-aged people, particularly men who were undergoing a “mid-life crisis.”  Thus, what he was studying was people at a point in their lives where their developmental work was largely accomplished, but who now were questioning their lives.  What he noticed was that even among people of the same general age and developmental state, there were fundamental differences in personality.  For example, some people seem to derive energy from being around others, sharing thoughts and feelings; others find this tiring, and need to be alone from time to time.  Jung thought neither pole was superior and neither was exclusively healthy; the healthiest personality was one that balanced different, sometimes contrary elements.  However, every individual has a preference, a need for one or the other primarily; to ignore this is to court eventual psychological breakdown, as he often saw among his patients.

The mother-daughter research team of Katherine Briggs and Isabelle Myers developed Jung’s theories, systematized and codified them, and developed the most famous test for measuring temperament.  They located four major poles for personality preference:  Introversion versus Extroversion, Intuitive versus Sensing, Feeling versus Thinking and Judging versus Perceiving.  The basic questions to be asked are: (1) Does this person find social interaction more natural and relaxing than solitude? (2) Does this person rely in imagination and intuition, or on concrete facts and observation? (3) Does this person rely on reason and logic, or on emotion, feelings and values?  (4) Does this person want to control and organize his or her world, or to just let things be as they are and merely accept them as they come?

For example, I test out as an INTP.  I have taken various versions of the Myers-Briggs test several times over several decades, and I’ve staid within that general framework.  I am a moderate I (for Introvert), fairly strong N (intuitive) and P (Perceiver), and very weak T (Thinker), virtually within the margin of error.  What does this mean?

Introversion does not mean I don’t like people or seek company, although we introverts are often scolded as children by extroverted adults who think we’re unnaturally standoffish.  Most people are extroverts (exact estimates of the numbers vary wildly), so it is quite possible for an introverted child to grow up with no one in the family who understands.  Introverts value depth of experience over breadth of experience, and need solitude to rest and revitalize.  Most introverts can be spotted as children by the fact that they are shy, perhaps late talkers, more cautious around strangers.  Extroverts need to go out and have new experiences, meet new people and express themselves.  As young children, my extroverted daughter always verbalized every thought or feeling as it occurred to her.  My introverted son would sometimes say or do something that seemed totally inexplicable, and I would have to ask him or guess if I wanted to know why.  He was like a deep pool, and his thoughts would only occasionally bubble to the surface.  Many of us introverts learn eventually to speak up in public, but we always show our public masks to the public and save our true selves for a few confidants.  The introvert is worn out by too much social engagement, and energized by solitary and small-group activities like reading, walking alone or with a friend, or writing 1500 words in a single day for a blog.  An extrovert is worn out by too much solitude, and eventually must go find a crowd.  At a party, the extrovert (like my wife) “works the room,” seeing one person after another to check up on, exchange a few words and then move on.  The introvert usually finds a place somewhere towards the edge of the room, and looks for one person or a small group to talk to.  Since most people are extroverts, and for that matter extroverts are much more visible, introverts tend to be seen as the strange ones, sometimes pitied as “shy,” sometimes resented as “arrogant” or occasionally admired as “deep.”  Extroverts are outgoing, interested in and knowledgeable of the social environment, and generally likely to have a lot going on in their lives.

Intuitives are also a minority, by most estimates.  Most people are sense-oriented.  They notice the concrete and actual and are comfortable with it.  They notice the particular details.  About 25% of us tend to be more aware of the “big picture,” the forest rather than the trees.  Intuitives are more drawn to possibilities, to what could be or could come to be or might have been, or even to what is impossible but illustrative.  I don’t care for dramas with realistic characters and plots; I like science fiction and fantasy, where I can imagine possibilities without being constrained by what someone actually did or actually thought was sensible.  I see how unusual this aspect of my personality is almost every semester, when I teach Introduction to Ethics.  Most of my students struggle with the theoretical, abstract “normative ethics” portion of the course.  To me, this comes naturally, and I can easily see how to apply these abstract principles from Kant or Kierkegaard to my own life and particular moral questions.  Many of my students can barely tell whether an author is for or against egoism, but when the readings turn towards specific questions such as “Is abortion moral” their grades improve dramatically.  I teach theory first and then practical application, because I find it difficult to think without abstract principles to apply, and because my textbook was written by another Intuitive (as are most philosophy books) so it begins with the abstract.

So by at least some estimates, I am a minority of a minority:  first Introverted (I) and then Intuitive (N) on top of that.  For the third letter, I am neither a minority nor a majority.  True, I generally test out as a T, for Thinking preference over Feeling; but I am so close to the borderline that many psychologists would leave me with an INXP instead.  Besides, psychologists have long said that the numbers of Thinkers and Feelers in society are practically the same.  Thinkers trust their heads; Feelers trust their hearts.  Thinkers want reasons and logic; Feelers want warmth and gut instincts.  The classic stereotype is that men are more rational and women more emotional; but psychologists who have tested this question this.  For example, when President George W. Bush said he had looked into Vladimer Putin’s eyes and seen into his soul, that was the sort of thing one should expect an F-type to say.  And generally, F-types are more intuitive than we T-types.  It isn’t a question of whether or not one has emotions; everyone has emotions and feelings.  But the Thinker tends to discount them, finds them unreliable, and instead looks for facts and clues; the Feeler believes numbers can lie and the heart has reasons the head cannot understand.  Generally, I trust my mind more than my heart; but my temperament profile says I can switch between them easily.

I cannot say the same about the last letter in my constellation, Perceiving.  While estimates vary, all the ones I see say it is a minority, and I am pretty strong on the P side.  The Judgers want to organize their world.  They are the people with neat desks, always on time for appointments, and keeping regular schedules.  They are reliable and tend to expect/demand that everyone else be, too.  Perceivers want to take the world as it is, to enjoy or understand it but in any case preferring to adapt to it than to fight it.  About the third time I find I have put a book on the floor next to the computer, I just leave it there; I assume it wants to be on the floor and putting it away again would be pointless.  I told myself to go to bed at 1:00 a.m. tonight, but then I got to writing about 90 minutes ago and I’m still writing so to Hell with my schedule.  I am often late for appointments, or I procrastinate.  I want my schedule written in pencil if not Etch-a-Sketch.  My floor, table, shelves, etc. are all messes, and I like it that way.  Downside:  I lose things, a lot; I forget things a lot, which is basically losing a thought; and I’m often doing things at the last minute.  Upside:  I have a high tolerance for uncertainty, which is helpful in an uncertain world.  I am willing and even eager to hear contrasting points of view before I make a decision, and can respect valid positions which I don’t personally accept.  That’s why, when I wrote my essay on “The Most Dangerous Ideas in Religion,” my nominee was, “I know what I know.”  I find close-minded certainty abhorrent; while I recognize the need for decisiveness, as a P, I always think that I could still be mistaken.

To be continued…..

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