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Are Our Beliefs Influenced by Our Personality?
Some exploratory thoughts on whether our personality – especially introverted versus extroverted – has an impact on what we believe.
A few months back, I was testing an online tool that claimed it could determine from a passage of text the personality type of the person who wrote it. Since similar online tools detect the gender of the writer with 70 percent accuracy, a personality detector tool for written text seemed plausible to me. One such tool mentioned that it was based on the analysis in a 1989 book called Personality and the Teaching of Composition. Curious, I ordered the book.
Although I decided after running numerous tests that the personality detector tool was deeply flawed, I read the book it cited. A dozen pages in, I felt chills going down my spine. Most of the book described ways in which students and teachers respond to writing according to their personality type. Yet with fascinating examples, Personality and the Teaching of Composition also suggested a correlation between personality types and philosophical leanings. I immediately flashed on G.E. Moore, a Cambridge University philosopher who was revered by the pre-World War II British Bloomsbury Group – authors Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lytton Stratchey, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Roger Fry and others.
Philosopher G.E. Moore and Common Sense
Unlike philosophers who argued that we needed to determine right and wrong by reasoning from abstract principles, Moore taught that we could be rightfully guided in our actions by intrinsic moral intuitions, which we sensed rather than arrived at through reason. In the realm of knowledge, he likewise championed the common-sense view that we can know real tables and chairs exist against skeptics who wrote treatises on whether or not there really is a world beyond our thoughts and minds.
Moore famously held up one hand, then another and declared, in effect, “Here is one hand and here is another. I’ve just proved there are at least two real objects in the world.” According to the viewpoint in the book I was reading, both Moore and those who felt his “Proof of an External World” made sense probably shared a personality that predisposed them to accept an appeal to common sense, while those of a different personality type found his argument not just wrong but utterly stupid.
When I studied philosophy, I had found Moore perplexing because on the one hand he was reputed to have a first-rate intellect, and on the other hand he tried to bypass rational argumentation, trying to convince his philosophical peers with a type of demonstration that they heartily rejected. It seems obvious to me now, but back then I didn’t consider that what we find persuasive is a non-rational, perhaps hard-wired factor that might most of all have to do with inborn differences in how our minds approach reality. Certain kinds of minds (associated in turn with certain personalities) would find some kinds of argumentative appeals compelling and others not.
Other Thinkers’ Correlation With Personality Types
Although Personality and the Teaching of Composition does not specifically discuss G.E. Moore, it does mention several other well-known thinkers in relation to introversion and other personality factors.
Scottish skeptic David Hume, for instance, was known to be a sociable fellow who liked to drink, play backgammon and make merry with friends. And in his moral philosophy, “rather than praise the lone individual who takes a moral stand against society, Hume praised what could be called a heroic bureaucrat, the moral person actively interacting with other human beings.” Both the man and his philosophy were extroverted.
Contrast him with René Descartes, a great innovator in mathematics who also originated the concept of a disjunction between body and mind. One biographer called him “a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner” (an introvert, plainly) who most wanted in life the “security and tranquility to complete his intellectual projects.” His personal motto, from the Roman poet Ovid, was “He who lives well hidden, lives well.” In his most famous philosophical work, he wondered how to know whether anything existed outside of his own mind and defined the foundation of certainty as “I think, therefore I am.” In prioritizing the inner aspect of existence, both the person and his philosophy were introverted. (As an aside, I’ll never forget the student in Philosophy 101 who told me with supreme confidence that Descartes was obviously mentally ill. I’m guessing she was an extrovert: Who needs all that thinking stuff?!)
We can see this pattern in the lives and work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud’s philosophy identified a key determining factor for someone’s psyche as their relationship with the opposite-sex parent (external), while Jung explored the symbolism and dynamics of people’s inner world per se (internal). Jung, who invented the introvert/extrovert distinction and who knew Freud extremely well, described Freud as significantly more extroverted than he was.
Bringing this down to earth, try applying these parameters to yourself and people you argue with about your respective approaches to life. How do they decide what they think? And does that correlate with their personality? For instance, do they believe things according to what a respected leader or institution says? And in turn are they an extroverted person who gets energized from social contact? On the other hand, do they work out right and wrong on their own according to abstract principles? And do they correspondingly like an introvert most value their inner world and time alone?
Research on the Impact of Personality
In delving further into this connection, I discovered that William James, the eminent Harvard professor who taught both philosophy and psychology around the time the two fields diverged, speculated about ways in which personality affected the general outlook that one adopted. “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments,” he wrote. “Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet [the philosopher’s] temperament gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would.”
Moreover, James indicated that personality accounted for disjunctions in other fields. “In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons. In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics.”
William James acknowledged that tying philosophy – either in the narrow or the broad sense – to temperament would strike academics as “crude in an unpardonable, nay, in an almost incredible degree.” And perhaps that accounts for why, more than 100 years after James wrote those musings, relatively little research has been done to prove or disprove his point.
So I’m largely left where I started. I have an inkling and something to stay on the lookout for, yet not much more. But as a die-hard introvert, I nevertheless believe the journey through some possibilities has been worthwhile.