How Simple is Too Simple?



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Simple                      -                    Complex
Zoom-out                  -                    Zoom-in
Abstract                    -                    Concrete
General                      -                   Specific
Heaven                      -                    Earth


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I recently took an online personality test at 16 Personalities. The site states that there are sixteen core personality types (first identified by Myers and Briggs) and that all of us can be allocated to one of them. Using a questionnaire to gauge a respondent’s personality traits, it suggests a personality type based upon the intensity of these traits.

I found its results interesting, informative and useful. However, having spoken with others about such tests, and having perused some opinion online, I know that many people dislike them.

A common criticism, and one that I’d like to address, is that they over-simplify a complex subject.

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A human being is certainly a complex subject, and to group all of the myriad individuals in the world into sixteen categories is certainly reductive. No two human beings are identical, and each of us, when viewed from a certain distance, is entirely unique.

As with all ‘things,’ a human being is comprised of details. Every detail is a point of distinction, thus the more details we see the more difference we see. In this sense, a detail is synonymous with a difference. Let me offer a couple of illustrations:

1. I am short sighted. If I remove my glasses I no longer see as much detail, and things - including people - become a lot more homogenous.

2. I draw two circles on a piece of paper using a compass and pencil. I try my best to draw these circles in an identical manner, locking the compass so that its legs remain at the same angle, and applying the same pressure when drawing the circle. When I look at my circles they appear identical.

However, when I examine them under a microscope my smooth pencil lines become something else altogether; they turn ragged and incoherent, as unique and unrepeatable as a Jackson Pollock painting. The microscope has allowed me to see details that I had formerly overlooked; and it is these details that form the difference between my circles. 

Things, then, can be seen as either simple or complex, depending on our viewpoint. When we zoom-in and look for details, they appear complex; when we zoom-out and look for generalities, they appear simple. Inasmuch as it is true that beneath every simple view there lies complexity, it is equally true that above every complex view there is a unifying simplicity. Neither is more truthful than the other.

The '16 Personalities' test is founded on the notion that people, in spite of their complexity, can be simplified and sorted into sixteen broad categories. Indeed, for me one of the appeals of this theory is its simplicity. When it comes to understanding ourselves, and each other, I think there is much to be gained from taking a simple view.

Simplification

In our daily lives we encounter a multitude of ‘things’ - from desks, to chairs, to cups, to roads. If we were to take every thing we encountered as an individual - in other words, as something unique in itself, rather than a single instance of a more general type - then we would barely be able to function. It would be like arriving in an alien world, in which nothing is familiar.

For instance, instead of a ‘cup’, we would encounter a hard object, with a cylindrical shape and a strange curved protrusion. Its label ‘cup’, is a shortcut; it gives the object a meaning, or direction - ‘this is for drinking from’ - but in doing so, it also distracts from all other possible directions; all of the other things that this object could be. Our shortcuts may limit possibilities, but they also allow us a crucial measure of expediency.

The process of getting to know things is, then, a process of simplification. We group similar things together and give them a label - conceptualise them - and relate our concepts to one another. Inasmuch as we are predisposed to conceptualise, we are also predisposed to simplify.

And yet the infinite complexity of reality can never truly be pinned down by concepts. It is liquid, constantly slipping out from under our definitions. We can pour it into a glass, and observe how it takes on the shape of its container. But nothing lasts forever, and eventually our glass will crack, and shatter; and its contents will spill out, go here and there, and become other things; new things.

If our intent is to accurately represent things as they are, then we must accept that all of our containers, our concepts - indeed, our whole way of looking at the world - is an over-simplification; because no matter how hard we try, we can never capture everything. There will always be something left out, or overlooked. Every picture is incomplete. This is probably what Eckhart Tolle was referring to when he said that “To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.” 1

Thus, we find ourselves caught between the chaotic infinity of creation, and the harmonious unity of the Creator. We are not omniscient: we cannot see every thing, only some things. Our experience is, then, always a concession of sorts; founded, as it is, on the acknowledgement that in order to experience things we must simplify them.

The question is: how simple do we want to make things?

Context

It seems to me that the answer to this is determined by the context in which it is asked. In other words, what are the intentions of the person doing the asking?

If you want to view yourself, or human beings in general, as complex things that cannot be simplified into types, then certainly a personality test will be an ‘over-simplification.’ If you want to view them as things that can be seen as both complex and simple, then a personality test will not be an ‘over-simplification.’ Intention is key.

If it seems like I’m pointing out the obvious, then I’m doing so in order to bring to mind something that is all too often forgotten: that what is true for you may not be true for me.

‘Simplify’ is a judgement, a statement based upon observation that ought to be true for most observers. ‘Over-simplify’ is a value-judgement, a statement based upon personal standards or priorities, that will likely not be true for most observers. Thus most will agree that to group human beings within sixteen personality types is to simplify them. However, a smaller number will agree that to do so is to over-simplify them.

I labour the point because I find that we often seem to forget this distinction. It is all too easy to get trapped into one view and to think that it is the best view, or the only view. When we do this we lose sight of the bigger picture, of the continuum of views in which our own is contained.

Whilst it is true that each of us is entirely unique, I think it is equally true that each of us can be reduced to the black and white simplicity of a binary. From one view we are analogue, from another we are digital. Which of these is the most useful is defined by those doing the looking. It may be that in situation A it is more appropriate to see complexity, whereas Situation B may demand simplicity.

Seeing human beings as unique individuals, as things that are too complex to be grouped, is one way of looking at them; and this view has much to offer us. But if we feel that we, or human beings in general, are too complex to be grouped then this suggests that we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at things - that there is only complexity. This view is unbalanced, because it chooses to see only one half of the binary whilst ignoring the other; it makes its home within complexity and forsakes simplicity.

We needn’t pick sides. Both the simple and the complex view are open to us, and both offer us something that the other cannot. To see things simply needn’t be a denial of complexity, as long as we recognise that we are choosing to use the simple-view; and thus, could also choose not to.

Telling stories

Along with the '16 Personalities' test, I also took an online version of the ‘NEO Personality Inventory test’. Much like '16 Personalities', the ‘NEO’ test is a questionnaire consisting of a series of statements (e.g. ‘Make friends easily’) which must be rated based on how close they are to describing the respondent in question. There are five categories of applicability to choose from, representing a sliding scale from ‘Very inaccurate’ to ‘Very accurate.’

Although the process of these two tests is relatively similar, they differ in the way in which they present their results. On completion '16 Personalities' labels its respondents with one of sixteen core personality types, and presents a description of the various attributes of this type. The NEO test does not go this far; rather it presents the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience) and shows how much of each trait the respondent possesses. This is done with a percentage value.

Whilst the '16 Personalities' test also shows how much of certain traits the respondent possesses, again, through percentage points, it goes one step further in that it attributes a particular meaning - or tells a particular story - about these values.

In telling a story we take separate things - objects, people, places - and weave them together in order to convey sense. A story synthesises, organises, and directs its contents, pointing them in the same direction in order to serve a shared meaning. It is synonymous with a constellation - an imaginary line that links a number of separate points, aligning each with a higher purpose.

For me, part of the appeal of a personality test is that it helps me to explain myself. Aspects of my personality that I may have looked upon negatively - my need to be alone at certain times, my tendency towards abstract thinking, my tendency to get lost in thought - are suddenly attributed meaning and importance; and instead of looking upon these things as deficiencies, I am given permission to see them in a more positive light. In giving such permissions - in spite of how simple they may seem - an explanatory story can have a significant impact upon the way a person views themselves.

For instance, the fact that we can now describe certain people as 'autistic' allows us to better interpret and understand behaviour that may previously have been viewed as deviant. Every label is a generalisation, and ’autistic’ is no different. However, prior to the invention of this label autistic people were more likely to be held to the general norms that are imposed on the wider mass of society, and their behaviour was interpreted accordingly. In some cases this may have led to them being seen as  ‘deficient’ or ‘strange’; because, judged against the yardstick of normality, they are. The concept of ‘autism’ gives sense and meaning to their behaviour - it explains it - and in doing so, allows us to accept it for what it is and to view it as more than an aberration. It erects a fence around these behaviours and creates a space in which they are acceptable; both to those on the outside and those on the inside.

Every collective has a strong centre of gravity, a dense core which defines and protects its norms. Thus the more rarefied members of a society, those outliers that do not conform as strictly to its norms, always need a certain amount of protection from its gravitational pull. There will always be a temptation for those in the middle to view those further out as aberrant; and in light of this to want to bring them inwards, and make them conform to more common ways of being.

If a person is not sufficiently anchored then they may fall prey to this centripetal force, casting off important elements of themselves as they are pulled inwards. A story provides this anchoring. It ring fences a way of being, making a person less vulnerable to homogenising forces.

I think the simple recognition of difference can be a profound step for many, and especially so when this difference is reinforced as something that is important and necessary. In my own experience I have come across many people who believed, albeit perhaps unconsciously, that everyone ought to be more like them, and who criticised and condemned others for being different. I am frequently guilty of it myself.

For me this is one of the invaluable uses of personality typing: its stories, those sixteen fictional types, give meaning to the many differences that we see in one another. By attributing value to behaviours that may otherwise be dismissed as deficient or aberrant in light of personal or societal norms, they foster an understanding and respect for those differences.

As with the label ‘autistic’, a personality type gives us permission to be ourselves; and, crucially, to accept ourselves. It also provides a positive spin on our behaviours, suggesting that they are not only acceptable, but vital to the wider scene; that our sharp corners and strange angles are designed to fit into something larger.

Of course, the pendulum swings both ways: and where a label can be liberating, it can also be restrictive;  condemning someone to a seemingly rigid definition. In this we see a timeless paradox at play: our structures provide us comfort and shelter, but they also confine us. The more bricks we add, the more confined we become.

Yet, if we see our structures - in this case those sixteen personality types - as stories, then we can understand that they are not definitive; that they are fiction, and thus needn’t be taken too seriously. Psychologist James Hillman described a fiction as “a formula that must necessarily posit itself as beyond criteria of true or false […] fantasies by means of which we fashion or ‘fiction’ a life or a person […]” 2

Psychologist Adolf Guggenb├╝hl-Craig adds, “Such creative fantasies are often quite far removed from so-called reality; they are as unreal, and as true, as fairy tales and myths. They use imaginative images to grasp the nature of the other person […] Even if they are not expressed, fantasies also influence the other person, awakening new living potential in him […]

[They] are related to the nature of the other person; they represent, in symbolic-mythological form, his life potential […] Everyone needs to fantasy about himself, to circle about and awaken his own potential in mythological or fairy tale form.” 3

We can, then, see these sixteen types as fiction, or fantasy; whose proof is in whether they resonate with us - whether we find them useful, or satisfying.


Creating Types

Must we see ourselves as representative of a type? Does each of us not have our own unique case-history, our own individual story?  Is it not enough to say that everyone is different, and that individual differences ought to be respected?

Whilst every individual has their own set of whys and wherefores that make their behaviour understandable, it is, as we’ve seen, impractical (if not impossible) to apprehend every thing we encounter as something new and unique. It is impractical to learn the story of every person we meet; to spend time mapping out their terrain in order to learn their shape; and clearly, not every person would even be capable of doing this.

This is where a collection of general types comes in handy. They act as a set of common stories, as shorthands we can all use in order to further our understanding of each other. For some, even the simple knowledge that there are different types of people could be a revelation.

I think it is vital that we use whatever tools are at our disposal in order to further our understanding of each other and ourselves. Attaining this understanding is a challenge that faces any collective, and its health depends upon how successful it is in this. A society that does not understand and respect the diversity of its members may well end up promoting certain types of people at the expense of others - in thrall to red, it overlooks blue - and end up hopelessly imbalanced.

With this in mind, I think we can gain much from personality typing, in spite - or because - of its simplicity.


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1 Tolle, Eckhart, Stillness Speaks, p. 20
2 Hillman, James, Healing Fiction, p. 13
3 Guggenb├╝hl-Craig, Adolf, Power in the Healing Professions, p. 45-7


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When the type (generic concept) reduces the individual thing to a shadow, the type has acquired the reality of a collective idea.

But when the value of the individual thing abolishes the type (generic concept) anarchic disintegration is at work.

Both positions are extreme and unfair [...]

[C. G. Jung]
Psychological Types, p. 37


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