The Enlightened Caveman


Personality Paradigms?
March 17, 2005, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
The time I spent recently in Canada got me thinking about some generalities in human personality. I have always found Canadians to be extremely accommodating and somewhat non-confrontational, and this trip was no different. They’re nice, even when I wouldn’t be, and even when most people I know wouldn’t be. I don’t mean they take abuse with a smile; I mean they go out of their way to be nice to people around them, even in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Here in America? Not so much. I wonder what accounts for this?

It’s hard to say how it happened, but maybe there’s some amateur codification to be done here. Why are people nice? One reason – they want something. Sometimes what they want is concurrence, and sometimes they want something more tangible. Sometimes they want both. In Canada, I think they mostly want concurrence. That’s why they’re nice to pretty much everyone, even when there’s nothing to gain. What if we call this a concurrence personality paradigm? I don’t think this is what we have in America, at least not a lot of us, and less and less of us as you go back in history.

In cities in America, people are more business-oriented, more transactional. We talk to the people we know, but we interact with the people we don’t. In a sense, we’re nice to the former and not as nice to the latter. This distinction is less pronounced in Canada. We could call the American mindset the status personality paradigm. Our quest for concurrence is limited to a fairly small circle of people, but we’re not monsters out in the world. We’re nice, and the more we have to gain from it, the nicer we are (to a point, of course). This is because what we gain translates directly into status. When we gain wealth, we can acquire the goods and services that afford us membership in higher and higher social strata. The proceedings in lower-class situations, therefore, are understandably far less “cordial” than they are in upper class situations – no one stands to gain much of anything by being nice. And it is not coincidental that our economic systems are set up to promote this mindset bent on upward mobility.

With the emergence of innovative financial systems (including the fractional reserve system), the status-seeking fire has been perennially stoked. They make it possible to obtain status (through consumption), even when you can’t afford it. You can borrow and, if you’re good, create enough wealth to pay interest on the money and walk away with a profit. The end result is an elevation in status through nothing more than calculated manipulation of available resources – a skill not unfamiliar to the ancestral caveman.
If we accept the existence of these different personality paradigms, then there’s an interesting question to ask. Could it be that the intense presence of the status paradigm accounts for much of the socio-economic difference between America and many other nations? More status people equals more business and more financial prosperity. Look at countries like France and Italy. While they’ve been around far longer than the US and they have natural resources aplenty, they are nowhere near the US, economically speaking. This could be a manifestation of their majority paradigm.

I would say the concurrence paradigm is the default paradigm in these two countries. Sure, people in Paris can be very nasty, but my experience has been that most areas of France and Italy are inhabited by very nice people if you make an effort to communicate with them. You could descend into a conversation with pretty much anyone. And if the feeling overtakes them, they may act in a way that is anything but profitable – like keeping the bar open late night (for free) for some traveling and rambunctious Americans. In America, not so much. And the divergence in personality paradigm doesn’t just account for anecdotal and macro-economic differences. It may very well account for the disparity in national views about war.

The status paradigm, being not so nice to begin with, fares better in conflict. As the desire for concurrence begins on the back burner, judgement is not clouded when disputes arise. The status seeker is a cool negotiator. The bargaining benefactor of his status machinery is in charge, looking for the win-win, and when there isn’t one, there isn’t a nagging desire to get along. There is only a rational examination of the logical consequences of alternative actions. And as obtaining status is often risky, the status-seeker is courageous enough to follow through with the correct (i.e. profitable) course of action, even if it’s going to cost him. He’ll take his licks and cut his losses. In short, the status personality paradigm enables the willingness to go to war. This, I think, also explains much of the difference between America and many other countries. We fight when we have to; they resist till its too late.

So what can we do with this concept? Can we make any determination as to whether it is cultural or genetic? Probably not. That’s always tough, but maybe we can say that a good bit of it is cultural. Could we not say that the proportion of people with the concurrent paradigm to status paradigm is growing? This country gets more touchy, feely every day. That would seem to suggest that the mindset is at least partially cultural – if you grow up in a family of concurrence paradigm people, you’re likely to end up the same way. It would also suggest that the cultural shift toward the concurrence paradigm may have a tipping point, a point at which America would experience something akin to what transpires in Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. So, here we come upon a serious question? Which paradigm is better?

Before we answer, we have to acknowledge that the two paradigms naturally clash with one another. Status folks don’t have much patience for concurrence folks, and concurrence folks are horrified at the shallow callousness of status folks. Indeed, differing personality paradigms could explain a lot of the difference between the “bleeding heart” liberal and the “evil” Republican. Now to the question. Which is better? I’d say you need a good helping of both. Though the exact proportion would be difficult to nail down, I think it’s fair to say that we need enough to status folks to keep our rights intact and to keep pumping out better and better Barcoloungers, and we need enough concurrence folks to remind us to get off our Barcoloungers and talk to each other.

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