Personality maps

Everyone believes in personality types

"What's your personality type?"

Whether you’re someone who can readily answer that question or is annoyed by the very idea of it (can’t put us in a box!), in this essay I’ll do my best to make the case that:

  • Everyone – including you – believes in some form of people-typing.
  • Any personality model is better than our default people-typing instincts.

While the phrase "personality type" triggers a spectrum of reactions, it defies common definition. In this essay, we'll use it in a general sense:

A personality type is a pattern for predicting how someone might act towards us or we towards them.

We can't not type things.

We transform chaos into order by finding and applying patterns. We pattern everything from star constellations to the kinds of animals scurrying around in the forest. You name it and it's been typed;  if you can't name it, it's not been typed yet.

We don't type things because we're eager to objectively, literally describe them; We type them to better predict what we might do with them or what they might do to us.

We can't not type people.

Considering we apply patterns to every thing in the world that matters, is it plausible that we could avoid typing the most exciting, dangerous, and complicated "things" around — people?

Regardless of our opinion of personality models or tests, we can't help typing everyone we come across in some fashion.

How we type people.

The closest most people get to thinking about how they type others is what we'll call the is/does default:

  • Is this person like me? If this person seems to understand, value, and react to things similar-enough to me, they must be pretty okay. If they don't, we're confused, annoyed, or both.
  • Does this person like me? A close cousin to the "Is…" type that affords more variety: our best friend or spouse may be hilariously unlike us, but at least we like each other.

Our is/does default may work well enough at a small scale, but as soon as we collaborate with more than a handful of people, navigating relationships productively requires more sophisticated patterns.

But there's also a deeper issue: if we examine why we answer either is/does question the way that we do, we'll find it's heavily influenced by more sub-conscious and ancient ways of typing people:

1) Tribal types

Tribal instincts are strong in our genes –if they weren't, we wouldn't be here. The world is too full of strange, complex, and potentially threatening people to individually analyze and predict how each will act towards us. Pattern-matching around group affiliation is a shortcut to quickly sizing up any stranger.

We don't need to be conscious of how we tribally type people and we usually aren't – we can feel from someone's dress, words, and vibe whether they're in our tribe or another.

Pay attention to the most popular posts in your social feeds and you may spot a pattern: the likes, shares, and comments are usually attempts to buttress one tribe’s bid to win some scarce object that’s contested by another tribe: the sports title, religious converts (or deconverts), political elections, and so on.

2) Family types

Typing someone's disposition, talents, and even intrinsic worth based on lineage or birth order is an ancient way of patterning people (and perhaps a pre-science premonition of genetics.)

Phrases like "blue blood," "good stock," and "typical firstborn" show that our family-typing tendencies are still alive as does our cultural obsession with affluent, powerful families.

3) Physical types

The most historically troublesome – and still all too common – method of typing people is by their physical characteristics.

In the 1800s, phrenologists believed they could predict characteristics like secretiveness, hopefulness, conscientiousness, and many more from the bumps on our skulls.

As phrenology went out of fashion, physical-typing expanded beyond our heads to skin shade, eye shape, and sex characteristics. These skin-deep patterns became shortcuts to summing up a stranger's personality, ability, and even morality.

(And no matter how evolved we think we are, physical attractiveness remains a significant factor for what people expect from us.)

The Unholy Trinity of  people-typing.

Given that we type things and people in order to better relate to them, which of these methods is working?

  • Tribal-types inevitably lead to some form of mob violence and sometimes even war.
  • Family-types prop up caste systems, nepotism, and classism.
  • Physical-types lead to lookism, racism, sexism, ageism, and more.
Typing people by tribe, family, or physical characteristics leads to harm.

While there's primal utility buried within all of those instincts, they're not helping us better relate to people so well these days, are they? Yet, we remain instinctively and dangerously susceptible to them.

A way out is… astrology?

Since the dawn of time, we've looked to the stars to find meaning. While there's no evidence that our personality correlates with the motion of the stars, astrological signs remain one of the most intricate and popular ways of typing people.

The Zodiac is a strongly persistent method for understanding personality.

Oddly enough, I think we can look to the stars for a way out of the seemingly inescapable darker methods of typing people:

"I fully agree with you concerning the pseudo-science of astrology. The interesting point is that this kind of superstition is so tenacious that it could persist through so many centuries." - Albert Einstein.

Perhaps a part of astrology's tenacious appeal is that it transcends our volatile and dangerous defaults with higher patterns that are more equalizing and dignifying.

The signs and horoscopes may not be accurate, but the metapattern of abstracting how we classify people – not with relational patterns of family, tribe, or physicality – but with transcendent concepts (the stars!) is a kind of essential truth as far as I can tell.

Modern personality models help us transcend our defaults.

Perhaps the most overlooked and socially valuable aspect of Myers Briggs, Enneagram, the Big 5, and other modern personality models is that any kind of person can share the same personality. With these personality models in our minds, sometimes we can:

  • Understand an evangelical Republican gun enthusiast and a Democratic Socialist atheist as both ISTPs instead of reacting only from tribal instinct.
  • See a low caste Indian woman and the King of England as both exhibiting clear patterns of Enneagram Sixes instead of sizing them up only by social status.
  • Recognize the exceptional work of a tall, charming sales team member and a plain, disabled customer support team member as exhibiting high level of conscientiousness with less focus on their appearance.

Sure, modern personality models are over-simplified, misused, and often fail to predict what we actually think or do. It's understandably popular in some corners to mock their shortcomings and how people fall in love with their personality type as if it's their identity. But, this can do more harm than good - is it any better to form an identity around your politics, race, or family tree?

Remember: not typing people (including ourselves) is not an option; But entirely discarding more conceptual typing models risks lowering ourselves to our defaults that easily slide towards nepotism, sexism, and so many other bad social-isms. Any model that helps us transcend those tendencies is heading in a direction worth exploring.

In this series of essays mapping personality, we'll explore the flaws with personality models and map some of the more popular ones on the Chaos Map. I'd welcome your thoughts on personality and any particular model you'd like to see mapped.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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