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Personality Research articles on personality

20Mar/113

the peacocking game

peacock

(you may benefit from reading these other two articles for context 1 2)

peacocks have elaborate tail feathers which have no practical utility. they are in fact physical handicaps. why would a species develop such elaborate handicaps? according to evolutionary biologists, sexual competition. the male peacock with the prettiest, most symmetrical, tail feather plumage wins. the winners, depending on the species, mate the most and/or get the best mates. the more harem oriented a species is, the more violent and hierarchical it is. the more monogamous / pair bonded, the less violent and egalitarian it is. in this light, a culture of warfare and wealth disparity reflects a winner take all biology.  both strategies exist, with many species lying at various places in between. so, clearly nature hasn't determined which approach it favors. (if you heard obama's recent state of the union which was peppered with references about how we need to and can compete and be better than the rest of the world, you begin to understand how pervasive the competitive divisive instinct is.)

even in the most egalitarian species, sexual and resource competition still exists. the famous ladder theory meme on the internet proposes women behave romantically in a single minded goal to advance as high as they can on the social hierarchy scale. it's passed around as some sort of novel bitter truth about how things are. the problem with the theory is that men behave the same or worse in terms of maximizing obtainment of what they value, but the theory omits this. men care a little more about looks, women care a little more about resources, but they both care about the other things too. the fact that there is a greater difference between most men and most women, than men and women, is also lost on most people. the opposite sex is, on average, somewhat different than you. but, the kind of romantic partner you end up with will probably be more like you than most of the members of your gender. unless you are totally conventional and then they will be as similar to their cultural gender stereotype as you are.

who benefits from sexual competition? only genes do, since individual species members (historically thus far) all cease to exist. so why would individuals engage in a competition that doesn't benefit them ultimately? because they are on average, very stupid machines, whose behavior is predicated on (and predictable by) whatever neurochemical reward system their genes have built in them. humans are apes on treadmills, and life to them is a series of banana bunches they are hardwired to pursue.

back to subject of competition, for most people life is a game based around sexual competition, gene propagation, and nurturing of the resulting propagates.

the sexual competition phase

in this phase people maximize (are preoccupied with) their attractiveness to others and the attractiveness of others. be prettier, funnier, smarter, wealthier, than the next person or, if possible, every person and/or find a mate that is. for most of the population whose identity is adopted by whatever culture they are raised in / adopt, it means outdoing others at what everyone else collectively values. this is a rather farcical concept when you look at it from a distance. who is the best at a certain sport, activity, trade, skill, value system that none of the entrants had any role in creating (and have little to no ability to alter) and whose utility is questionable or unknown. at it's most banal, it's taking karaoke at a dive bar a little too seriously. at it's most ridiculous level, it's american idol. at it's most prestigious level, it's being an academic professor in a field where you are not capable of or expected to add anything novel/creative or in a field that has no measurable utility. at it's most materialistic level, it's making a lot of money at something which does nothing to advance the world and you don't even enjoy.

now, one could argue why reinvent the wheel. well unless you are amish, you live in a world where evolution/improvement is the norm. why waste a significant amount of one's time with unchanging/unchangeable variables or on a wheel of questionable value (sports being one example). some skill-sets/trades are pretty involved and beautiful in their own way. but, so is the peacock plumage. the peacock plumage is pretty amazing when you look at it and think about it. but, when you see/realize how many other peacocks have the same feature, it illustrates how mimicry/commonness renders anything, no matter how complex, less impressive. the fact that it has no beneficial utility is also a huge problem. the amount of money spent on weddings or sports, for example, two potentially worthless institutions from the standpoint of rational empirical utility could if spent on something else with provable utility (healthcare, education, alternative energy research, etc.) make the world a better place.

i was once with a friend at a gathering of harvard business school grads and a lot of the conversation involved trips people had taken or were planning to take internationally. no discussion on the 80hr a week jobs in finance that consumed most of their lives, just discussion on the one or two weeks of their year they spent or were going to spend in some exotic location. they talked mostly about the banana bunches, not about the treadmill. in so far as their exotic trips had little to no effect on the world, i.e. no practical value (compared to their questionable careers which they spent most of their time on), what i was witnessing was a display of plumages (even if they were not consciously aware of it).  these are types of the people that, based on the current status quo political model, have the most power.


so most people compete with each other in cultures/playing fields they mutually subscribe to.  every culture has it's plumage value system. then we have the artist. the artist is smart enough to realize the aforementioned is a fools game. they realize trying to have a better conventional plumage is madness but they don't drop out of the plumage game. whereas the conventional person tries to have the most perfect conventional plumage, the artist attempts to select/fabricate/invent/create their own alternative plumage.  the artist rejects conventional taste and substitutes their own.  their identity is rooted in their sensibility that they have superior taste.  the bankers think they are better because they have the best conventional plumage. the artists, if successful, think they are better because they have the best unconventional plumage.  to the artist, the banker is a "suit", worthy of contempt and/or as a source of money.  to the banker, artists (or at least the unsuccessful ones), are fools incapable of acquiring the rewards society has deemed valuable.

the artist approach to life can be broken down further into two orientations.  the active/guru orientation and the passive/groupie orientation.  every artistic person is both of these to some degree, but often they prefer one role over the other.  the guru's happiness is contingent on whether other people (groupies) appreciate their novel plumage.  the groupie's happiness is contingent on finding a novel plumage they love, and the continued love-ability of that plumage.  groupies have power as any previously successful musician learns when they release an album their fans/groupies don't like.  rivers cuomo's guru self esteem is undoubtedly injured by the fact that most of the fans of his early music, don't like his current stuff.  even if he still makes money (rewards) his prestige has slipped.  for most artists, prestige matters far more than money.

ted kaczynski was a groupie (nature was his guru, and he killed people in an attempt to protect nature from modern industrial society).  adolf hitler was a guru-groupie hybrid killing anyone he thought was the enemy of teutonic domination and feeding off the adulation of the crowd.

the aforementioned are extreme examples but all artistic types are basically amoral because they are driven by sensibility/emotions, not by sense/reason. it makes no sense to kill people who disagree with you because if everyone behaved like that we would have a blood bath on our hands. yet, at different times in history, that sort of behavior prevailed, and warfare/bloodshed was the norm. while it may no longer be the norm, it still happens.  the world looked on for weeks as the libyan government almost successfully crushed a popular uprising. only recently, sense prevailed and the united nations has stepped in to defend the rebels.

not only does the artist not abandon plumage, they often spend even more energy on their plumage than a conventional person (lady gaga is an extreme example, your average hipster is a more common example). a plumber or electrician makes a living at something that is entirely of practical utility.  an artist however strives to make a living doing something which is almost entirely about being attractive to and/or getting attention from others (in the case of artists whose work is more offensive).  this behavior shows they are still driven by the same instinct to be better than others (or associate with things they perceive as better than others in the case of the groupie) that prevails in the conventional population. this also contributes to why artistic people can be such bitchy people. they realize they are more aware than the masses but they still operate with the same reward system as ordinary people. they want to love and be loved. they want nice things. to the degree they don't get rewards, and they often don't, their neurochemical reward system issues a pain response. if they stay loyal to their artistic vision/style (plumage), they continue to suffer because the rewards they seek are issued by the masses or others who might not like, agree with, understand their vision (plumage). (their vision might also have little to no value even from an objective standpoint.) sometimes, often maybe, some artists will pander/bend their output to court whatever amount of rewards they seek/need, the sell out project, movie, album, commercial, etc.. then they struggle with feelings of in-authenticity, never aware of the fact that their very need for plumage suggests they are not actually authentic individuals.  individuals self sustain and a life preoccupied with plumage maintenance, i.e. external reward / affirmation dependency, is hardly that.

so the artist selects (groupie) or fabricates (guru) plumage which society either appreciates or rejects, rendering the artist temporarily happy or miserable. the thing about external rewards is that they are only temporary. the selfish gene system always adjusts and wants more, something else, if it can manage. the successful artist is rewarded for writing a hit song, but now they have to keep playing it, or something similar, if they want to keep receiving rewards.

the philosopher in a sense trumps the artist. the philosopher begins to ask questions about what this all means. is happiness, unhappiness, bliss, pain... is any of it real? of any consequence? of any value? they begin to ponder and construct theories on how life is or should be. however, it's a subjective creative process divorced from reality. philosophies can easily be constructed to suit one's underlying gene-driven instinct/reward system. philosophy has no metric for ascertaining validity. there is no right or wrong, things are as they are. how can you measure one good over another?

is the work of a philosopher plumage? in so far as they are more interested in affirmation and rewards than actually empirically verifying their ideas (i.e. their real utility), i think so.

finally, we have the empiricist. the empiricist realizes instincts/preferences/theories no matter how elegant and promising (to the ego of the creator) are meaningless / pointless if they are in fact divergent from objective truth/reality. a lot of human effort went into making celestial maps and teaching people the earth was the center of the universe for a very long time. all that effort didn't make that fallacy any truer.  the values/beliefs/ideals of an empiricist are readily replaced based on any information that disproves their previous held views. what is true? that which can be predicted and reproduced experimentally. so the empiricist pursues the path of truth.  for example, watching sports feels good, but is it really good? is it a beneficial activity? are the resources spent on sports of better value to society than the same resources spent on other things? this is the kind of thinking that has driven most of the progress in the modern age but the vast majority of even educated intellectuals don't operate like this. for far too many people, an elite expensive education is more about plumage than knowledge seeking.

sexual market economics

within any of the aforementioned subgroups, people who are interested in a romantic partner (or even a platonic friend) have to make choices.

the conventional person selects the best person they can based on the values of their subscribed culture.  the plumage of the partner/friend they select will reflect the conventions they value. to the degree conventional people are fairly unchanging this results in fairly good prospects for long term romantic or friendship fidelity.

the artist (and the philosopher because he/she is basically an artist of ideas/theories) seeks a sycophant (groupie) and/or someone they can be a sycophant (groupie) to. someone that will love their unique plumage and/or someone whose plumage they love. this presents some inherent romantic problems for artists. love becomes an externality dependent on consistency which rarely exists with individuals who inherently lack a consistent internal sense of meaning/self-affirmation. artists, more often than not, by nature, will betray friends and lovers for no good reason because they don't operate based on reason.  they were never on a particular path because it consciously made the most sense, they were on it because it felt right... until it didn't.

whereas the conventional person has the solidity of tradition (however irrational, or rational but outdated it might be) and the empiricist has the solidity of empirical truth, the artist has only their sensibility, a temporary security of loving something and/or being loved. they are an unstable ship between two ports (tradition and empiricism).  the artist knows that conventionalism doesn't work for them, but they don't realize they've only discarded the appearance of convention, instinctively they are still externally reward dependent like any ordinary person. the artistic type's penchant for alternative styled weddings exemplify this.  artists are different and yet the same.

the empiricist seeks whatever makes sense. the empiricist has an instinctual reward system like anyone else. they have aversions, crushes, etc. but for the empiricist feelings/thoughts are hypotheses, not truths. just because something feels good doesn't mean they will pursue it / buy into it, or avoid it if it feels bad.  feelings warrant testing/experimentation (i.e. hanging out with the person of interest). the results of the testing/experimenting will yield the best approximation of the truth. a romance or friendship between empiricists is grounded in the tangible, something that can be articulated. i.e. i have stronger feelings for you than most, we share more interests than most, we want more similar things than most, etc..  the empiricist ideally, like the artist, has sensibility to guide them, but adds sense/empiricism to ground them which the artist lacks.

in neil strauss's highly entertaining book, the game, he basically infiltrates the pick up artist subculture like a method actor loses himself in an acting role.  he ultimately finds that while the pick up artist school provides an effective mechanism for getting attractive women to hook up with you, for him, that became an empty reward system. while physical chemistry is an essential aspect to a romantic connection, someone you are attracted to, enjoy talking to and hanging out with trumps a harem of attractive partners who but for physical interest, you have no real interest in.  he realized through his experience that sensibility (in this case physical attraction specifically) has value but it's not an end/answer/solution to what works romantically in itself.  for each person, they're may be many potential partners which would work for them. so if you are an empiricist it just becomes a question of figuring out what works for you (sense/reason) and finding it.  if you are a conventionalist, you will defer to choosing whatever convention recommends.  if you are an artist, you will go with sensibility.

so, based on the above, people are more conventional, artistic, or empirical. yes, we are a bit of all three, but one usually predominates at any given time, for long stretches, or through out life. i've been all of them so i think there is some flexibility in human nature.  i used to believe in god (conventional). i used to think if i went to a prestigious school, i would get meaningfully rewarded (conventional). i used to want to be an artist and still have some artistic interests (artist). i used to only do what my sensibility dictated regardless of whether it made any sense (artist). i used to care what people thought of me (conventional/artist). i still do to some degree, but my life is largely a product of an empirical path now. i do things because i enjoy them (sensibility) and because they make sense (empiricism). if everyone thinks i'm doing something wrong but fails to produce a good reason for their disapproval, i stick with my current path. i appreciate and welcome criticism. i'm not interested in having my views affirmed, my interest is in figuring out what's the most accurate/truthful view and external criticism is inherently useful to that end. i'm inclined to think the world would be a better place if everyone was like that. but, i expect the world to be what it is, not what i want it to be.

i think art can be used for empirical goals, and some artists do produce work like that. but, i think most don't. their work is more about plumage (ego affirmation) not utility (the actual benefit of others even though a lot of popular art might appease others).

in summation, the conventional person operates on faith/tradition, a convention-is-truth approach. they want the world to mirror their faith/tradition, essentially they are conventional narcissists. the artist operates on their sensibility, a feelings-are-truth approach. they want the world to mirror/indulge what they feel strongly about (the guru path) and/or they want to lose themselves in something they feel strongly about (the groupie path), essentially they are unconventional narcissists. the empiricist operates on truth/reality, a whatever-empirically-proves-true-is-truth approach. they want to understand how the world really is and be who they really are.

for both the conventional and the artistic life is a game, they are either winning or losing.  every choice they make is influenced by that dynamic, consciously and/or unconsciously.  to the extent this defines a person, you can't expect genuine empathy/consideration from them which is why i classify conventional and artistic types as narcissists/sociopaths.  this also goes far to explain why the average christian holds so many unchristian values (pro death penalty, anti-free health care, etc.).  the average christian doesn't operate on an intellectual level which disseminates the ideas of christianity with any rationality.  christianity is just a convention that offers them salvation (attractive reward which makes them better than others) if they believe in jesus.  as far as acting like jesus, that's just some abstract idea.

nick drake is a good example of an artist who while actually capable of creating very good music was undone by his servility to his sensibility. nick drake had no shortage of successes in life. he grew up upper middle class, was an accomplished athlete and student (attending cambridge). but he really was only interested in doing what he wanted to do. he didn't like performing live which is an essential part in becoming a successful musician. he also wouldn't do interviews. a producer of his had this to say "[he said that] i had told him he was a genius, and others had concurred. why wasn't he famous and rich? this rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years." near the end of his young life, he lived at home "good days in my parents' home were good days for nick, and bad days were bad days for nick. and that was what their life revolved around, really." at 26 he died of a medication overdose (accidentally or intentionally administered). he was a victim of his own sensibility. unfortunately, the people in his life were as well. that's not fair, but narcissists/sociopaths are not capable of fairness/sense.

counter nick drake with ramesh srivastava, the singer/songwriter of one of my favorite bands voxtrot.  voxtrot ultimately failed to make a sustainable living on their music.  i think it was a failure caused by their inability to keep producing good music.  regardless, the failure to garner external rewards did not lead to his ruin. "I did what I had to do. I swallowed my pride and got two jobs, one of which involved clearing the dishes of the filthy-and-not-so-pleasant-rich, and while this sudden change in lifestyle was not altogether ideal, I was constantly aware that I was building towards something." i think he's still someone dealing with a lot of the same artistic sensibility bias that took down nick drake (and many others) but he hasn't let it best him yet.  his post on dealing with the end of his band is worth reading.

if you are an artist or anyone else who's value isn't appreciated, that will crush you if you need the world to mirror your value. if you are an empiricist and choose to see and accept the world as it is, the world not valuing you is just the way things are. maybe you need to try harder or maybe you just need to accept that what you value other people don't. the people and things you might get the most happiness from might not be the things anyone else values either, just as the highest value (to others) male/female or career or school might not make you happy (and therefore don't pass the sense and sensibility test).

i contend that servility to sensibility is a choice, just as servility to convention is also a choice. anyone can pursue an empirical life. in so far a certain percentage of convention and sensibility do yield truths, following an empirical life doesn't mean ignoring convention and sensibility, it just means not letting either rule you. one could certainly live a life that made sense but lacked enjoyment because you failed to consider your sensibilities, what you love, what makes you feel good, or even a life that was too impractical because you irrationally discarded all conventions.

happiness is not a right, it's not automatic or something you can demand. there is a formula for happiness. it may vary from person to person to some degree but according to empirical research physical fitness is an essential component. i think self awareness is also a key component. even if you are organically physically happy, if you don't know what you care about, what you value, how to discern/measure what you value, it's hard to determine the right direction in life, or right from wrong in general.  or in the case of the unappreciated genius (whether true or not), if you believe you need others to mirror/validate you to be happy, correcting your irrational thinking/belief system clearly is an essential component of happiness.

navigating the conventional, artistic temperament dominated world

if you are unsure whether someone is conventional or artistic in nature, it should quickly become apparent if you disagree with them (intentionally or unintentionally).  disagreement is the opposite of mirroring.  by removing something they are dependent on, you will upset them. if disagreement leads to unconstructive argument, you are dealing with a slave to the conventional or artistic temperament. in a more primitive time or a more primitive part of the world, you would be exposing yourself to potential violent reprisal.  hopefully, you live in a part of the world where you can actually be yourself.

if you value empiricism, and living in a world where anyone can be themselves, maybe, you will start living the kind of life which will increase the sense quotient of the world. countries and governments are corrupt because they are organically made up of more conventional and artistic driven people, and are supported by the same. that's not going to change if you are the kind of person who caters to the sensibility of conventional and artistic people, at the cost of a more reasonable world. everything everyone does makes the world collectively what it is. some people have far more influence, but no one has zero influence.

however, in so far as humans are doomed to a finite lifespan and your genetic offspring bear no unique heredity to you after several generations, it really does not make a whole lot of sense to devote any extra energy to changing the world than you would expect to see returned in actual benefits in this lifetime. but, i suspect some people closer to the empiricist temperament are living less happy lives than they could (and contributing to a more irrational world) because they put the real or potential unhappiness of other less rational people above their own happiness too often or waste time pursuing failed/doomed paths. i don't want to upset my parents. i don't want to upset my friends. i don't want to upset my romantic partner. i don't want to upset my boss. i don't want to upset my own sensibility. i don't want to upset this path i've invested so much of my time/energy in. if the aforementioned makes you do things you don't enjoy and don't think make sense (and/or inhibit your ability to make a living in the world), you are part of the problem. there are probably more suitable potential friends, significant others, and vocations in the world who/which would better pass the convention, sense, and sensibility test (i.e. can i make a living at it/can i live with them, does it/do they make rational sense, do i love it/them). but, if you stay on your current path, you will never know that. people living on paths that don't satisfy that test at all or to a reasonable degree based on what's possible in the current world are, from the standpoint of objective truth, to a certain degree wasting their time/resources, and the time/resources of others, and contributing to a less ideal world for themselves and others.

i think this ted talk relates to some of the material in this article...

"scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge." - wikipedia

   

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