On the Openness personality trait & 'rationality'

by gwern8 min read14th Oct 201195 comments


Valley of Bad RationalityPsychologyRationality

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller recently published Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, a book on signaling, psychology, and consumerism. It's very up LW's alley - it reads almost as if Robin Hanson had written a book. (Actually, Hanson has never published a book, has he? Has anyone ever seen them in the same place? Hm...)

Sam Synder has written an overview/summary of the book, which I can attest hits many of the interesting points. (I would also praise the pervasive humor, which kept it readable and furnish many good examples of the 'reversal test', and the exercises at the end of the book.)

Some of the most interesting chapters to me were the ones dealing with Openness, which one will remember was recently shown may be changeable by psychedelics  - possibly the first such tweakable member of the Big Five, leading to the suggestion that it may be worth considering changing it. Hold this thought.

First, Miller discusses the signaling of Openness (starting on page 108 of the PDF, logical page 207):

Wherever you stand on the openness spectrum, those less open than you seem boring, dull, conventional, and conformist, whereas the more open seem eccentric bizarre, disruptive, threatening, or even psychotic. Given this diversity of openness levels, and the resulting diversity of preferences for different degrees of openness in family, friends, and mates, there is less incentive for people to fake their openness than their intelligence, If you pretend to have higher openness than you really do, you may be transiently attractive to those more open than you, but you'll be less attractive to those less open than you, The net result will be no higher social or sexual popularity. In fact, given the bell curve of openness, the more you deviate from an average level of openness, the fewer people you are likely to attract.
This means that where openness is concerned, consumers can sometimes display cheap, reliable openness badges that are fairly credible, also means that consumerist capitalism caters very well to the whole
range of openness. There are highly open cities.... There are some highly open musical genres (indie, alternative, jazz, world, hip·hop) and more conventional genres (pop, country, gospel, classic rock), There are more open genres of fiction (contemporary, science, erotic) and more conservative forms (romance, mystery, military history, fantasy). There are highly open magazines (Seed, Wired, Prospect, Icon, Harper's, Unzipped), and more mainstream magazines (Time, Money, Stuff, Today's Christian Woman)....

Why is Openness negative at its extreme? (Miller has remarked before this in Spent that despite what one might think, one of the other 6 psychological traits he covers, IQ, essentially has no bad amount to have - you have to be in the top percentile before IQ starts being a potential negative, and much marketing is covertly appealing to people's desires to look smart.)  On the potential biological negatives of novelty-seeking:

Each person's lymphocytes learn to fight off the particular varieties of parasites that are common within his own local group, which gives him an immunological memory of the parasites he has already encountered. (Immunization is simply the process of teaching the lymphocytes about a new kind of pathogen by exposing them to safer, deactivated forms of the pathogen.) However, the immune system's learned parasite resistance is highly localized, People from other kin groups, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or races-even if they live just a few miles away-may host other varieties of parasites that evolved slightly different ways of being transmitted to hosts, infecting them, and making them sick.
Thus, any interaction with outsiders brings a high risk of acquiring a new kind of parasite that may be especially hard for one's locally adapted immune system to fight off. The higher the parasite load the greater the number, variety. and severity of parasites surrounding one's local group the higher that risk is and the more cautious people should be about strangers. They should develop a more proactive "psychological immune system" to avoid getting their mouths, noses, genitals, or skin anywhere close to potential sources of infection. They should be much more averse to contact with other groups, including not just their human members, but also their food, clothing, shelters, animals, social customs, hygiene practices, and purification rituals-anything associated with possible parasite transmission. In other words, people in high-parasite regions will benefit from becoming more xenophobic (fearful of out-groups) and ethnocentric (focused on their own in-group).

Recent research shows something very curious: group Openness inversely correlates with parasite load, even after controlling for all the obvious confounds like health and longevity. (I haven't looked up this research yet; he attributes it to "Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill at University of New Mexico, and Mark Schaller and Damian Murray at University of British Columbia".)

For example, in a 2008 paper. Schaller and Murray suggested that openness and extraversion would be lower in territories where people suffer from higher parasite loads. They gathered data on average Big Five Five personality scores from three previous studies that had each analyzed thirty,three, fifty, or fifty-six of the ninety-eight territories for which the parasite loads were known. Across the seventy' one territories for which had both parasite-load data and personality data, they that people from territories with the highest parasite load indeed had substantially lower openness and extraversion scores on average.
For the twenty-three territories where Big Five scores could be averaged across all three previous studies (yielding the most accurate estimates), the correlations were guite strong: -.6 between parasite load and openness, and about the same for extraversion. These correlations remained substantial even after controlling for differences across territories in average annual temperature, distance from the equator (absolute latitude), life expectancy, GDP per capita, or political attitudes (individualism versus collectivism).
Collectivists make stronger distinctions between in-group and out-group, are warier of contact with strangers and foreigners, and highly value tradition and conformity. Relatively "collectivist" cultures include China, India. and countries in the Middle East and Africa; relatively "individualist" cultures include the United States and the nations of western Europe, especially Scandinavia. The researchers gathered data on average individualism/collectivism scores from four previous studies that had each analyzed sixty, eight, fifty, eight, fifty-seven, or seventy territories for which parasite loads were known. Across the ninety-eight territories, the various measures of collectivism correlated strongly with current parasite load (correlations ranging from .44 to 59), and even mare strongly with historical parasite load from about a century ago (correlations ranging from .63 to .73).... Even controlling for the four variables known from previous research to predict collectivism across cultures--life expectancy, population density,  GDP per capita, and the Gini index of economic inequality-parasite load still predicted collectivism quite strongly.

The evolutionary researchers Dan Fessler, David Navarette, and Mark Schaller have found that "perceived vulnerability to disease" - an individual's self-rated susceptibility to getting colds, infections, and communicable diseases--does predict that individual's xenophobia. Also, looking at photographs of parasites and disease symptoms has been shown to make people more xenophobic, at least temporarily. A final piece of evidence relies on the fact that women's immune systems grow adaptively weaker during first-trimester pregnancy, so that their bodies don't reject the fetus as an alien parasite. Women in the first trimester also show higher xenophobia, as if they unconsciously realize that their weaker immune systems will have more trouble fighting off new infections from outsiders; this xenophobia becomes weaker as their immune systems become stronger in the second trimester. More generally, people's openness, extraversion, and individualism tend to peak in young adulthood when their immune systems are strongest, and tend to decline throughout middle age as their health declines.

Incidentally, a good deal of LW's userbase could be described as 'young adults'; and it does seem relatively rare for old people to become transhumanists, as opposed to young or very young people. The next step, some anthropological observations which certainly look as if they are costly signalling something:

 Especially in areas with high parasite loads [eg. Papua New Guinea?], many tribal people open their skin to infection when they arc young adults, through scarification or tattooing or forced genital mutilation, to show that their immune systems are strong enough to survive the wounds. (The 5,300-year·old body of "Otzi the iceman," discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991, had fifty-seven tattoos.) If you are a healthy, energetic young male or woman covered in well-healed self-inflicted scars, despite living in a high·parasite area, you have credibly demonstrated that your health is very strong. Potential mates and friends may not consciously understand the connections between costly signaling theory, microscopic parasites, scarification using unsterilized tools, and individual differences in the number and efficiency of the lymphocytes that constitute the adaptive immune system. However, they can unconsciously assess that you would not be looking healthy or energetic after having endured so many cuts if you were weak and sickly. Biologists such as W. D. Hamilton and Anders Moeller have argued that in many other animal species, sexual ornaments have evolved as indicators of parasite resistance.

The final step - applying this idea to us:

In developed countries, we have less to fear from infectious parasites, but much more to fear from infectious memes. So, instead of opening our bodies to ambient germs, we open our minds to ambient culture, to determine if we can stay sane throughout the onslaught.  When you see teenagers and young adults posting their interests in music, books, and film on their MySpace websites, consider the costly signaling principles at work. If they have exposed themselves to a lot  of death metal, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Lynch, and they are  still sane enough to sustain a reasonable conversation through email  or instant messaging, they have credibly proven their openness and psychosis-resistance....Certain extreme ideas may present minimal danger to those with  strong antipsychosis defenses, who can therefore afford to act highly open. But those same ideas may present genuine dangers to those with weaker defenses, who must minimize their openness. If these outlandish speculations have any merit, then people who are low in openness prefer to associate with One another in part to protect their sanity. They seek out communities, jobs, lifestyles, malls, friends, and products that will not challenge their antipsychosis defenses. They prefer the familiar to the novel, the conventional to the radical the predictable to the challenging. They prefer goods and services that are heavy on matter and habit, and light on cognition and imagination.They move to comfortably anti-intellectual communities: rural towns or ethnically homogeneous suburbs around provincial cities, such as Indianapolis, Indiana. or Augsburg, Germany; large, progressive, multicultural cities are just too threatening. In this way, the less-open can thrive for years in meme .. excluding bubbles. avoiding as much as possible disturbing thoughts and social encounters. For them the unexamined life is ... the easiest way to avoid psychosis.

Why Don't We All Want Maximum Openness?

Openness is a dangerous trait in several ways. It can lead to social embarrassment - when one's behavior is too weird or novel. It to one's brain getting infected by maladaptive memes-false information, dumb ideologies, conspiracy theories. It can lead one cult, enroll in art school or move to Santa Fe.

For example, while openness is strongly correlated with creativity, it is also correlated with psychosis (loss of contact with reality). To study correlations, my colleague Ilantt Tal and I asked University of New Mexico students to complete six tests of verbal creativity and eight tests of drawing creativity, along with measures of the Central Six traits.
We found that openness has moderate positive correlations with both general intelligence (30) and positive schizotypy (.29). Openness predicts both verbal creativity (.34) and drawing creativity (.46).
Intelligence also predicts both verbal creativity (35) and drawing creativity (.29). Schizotypy predicts creativity very weakly, but once you control for openness, it does not predict creativity at all, Thus, creativity is best predicted by positive responses to openness questions, rather than schizotypy questions. The implication is that there is a link between madness and creativity, as philosophers have speculated for millennia, but the link is mediated by openness. Openness has creativity benefits and extreme openness shades over into psychosis, but the psychosis is not generating any creative work; It's just a harmful side effect. This is yet more evidence that very high openness is a dangerous game, with potentially high payoffs in creativity, but potentially catastrophic effects on mental health. In a complex, media-rich society, perhaps only people with very good mental health can tolerate a high degree of openness without losing their equilibrium.
The highly open expose themselves to new experiences, cultures, people, relationships, norms, ideas, worldviews, art, music, sexual practices, and drugs, They can get infected by nasty, maladaptive, memes; they might end up believing in astrology, homeopathy, or Scientology, They might find themselves joining the open-marriage scene, which almost always leads to divorce; or the methamphetamine scene, which leads to psychosis; or both, which leads to spousal homicide.
Cultural disgust to bizarre new ideas protects low-openness people not only from psychosis, but from maladaptive memes. They may not adopt useful new ideas very quickly, hut neither do they join suicide cults [like Heaven's Gate, to name an example I was reading about recently]

The weak correlation with IQ has the troubling implication - what happens when you are highly Open but not especially intelligent, and you are confronted with memes & products optimized on the free market?

Highly open consumers can be highly profitable, because they can be highly gullible. For example, the more than averagely open constitute the main market for complementary and alternative medicine.
Without them, there would be no market for:
• auricular point therapy (acupuncture of the outer ear)
• Bach flower essences (ingestible wildflower essences)
• colonic irrigation (having gallons of warm water pumped through your colon via anal tubing)
• dolphin therapy (emotional healing through "energy transfers" from contact with dolphins)
• Gerson therapy (drinking vast amounts of fruit juice, plus coffee enemas

I am a little troubled because as a child I was interested in such alternative things and the Occult as well - I seem to recognize this pattern in myself. My inner Hanson asks me, 'why are you so sure you aren't still mistaken and that you aren't so Open your mind finally fell out?'

A closing link: 'the valley of bad rationality'.


95 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:35 PM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

In developed countries, we have less to fear from infectious parasites, but much more to fear from infectious memes. So, instead of opening our bodies to ambient germs, we open our minds to ambient culture, to determine if we can stay sane throughout the onslaught. When you see teenagers and young adults posting their interests in music, books, and film on their MySpace websites, consider the costly signaling principles at work. If they have exposed themselves to a lot of death metal, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Lynch, and they are still sane enough to sustain a reasonable conversation through email or instant messaging, they have credibly proven their openness and psychosis-resistance

I find it rather hard to believe that an unconscious social mechanism for showcasing resilience to infectious diseases would control our responses to memetic influences. Sure, they propagate in an analogous manner, but the actual mechanisms are completely different, and demonstrating resilience against foreign memes to show reproductive fitness doesn't sound like something humans would have done in the ancestral environment. It strikes me as implausible that our unconscious would associate them.

2gwern9yAn obvious point, and one he already addressed in one of the paragraphs I specifically quoted, with the examples of frequently ill people, pregnant women, disease/parasite priming, and age-dependent Openness/immunity correlations.

He notes a correlation between xenophobia and self rated disease susceptibility, and an increase in xenophobia in the first trimester of pregnancy, but contact with outsiders is actually associated with increased risk of disease. If the body of research he's drawing on has indicated a general decrease in openness under these conditions, including metrics he's referenced earlier such as interest in science fiction or indie music, then he hasn't made that clear.

I find these ideas appealing and interesting, but Miller makes some bizarre claims (like fantasy being a closed genre - maybe I'm reading the wrong stuff?) or Scandinavia being especially individualist (it's the most collectivist place I've ever lived, and the most xenophobic. Denmark has a major political party dedicated to xenophobia.)

Things like this make me more skeptical of his research in general.

like fantasy being a closed genre - maybe I'm reading the wrong stuff?

I don't know what objective data you expect him or me to point to, but I agree with him on this one. Fantasy is, by and large, hidden authoritarianism and other 'closed' social structures; from the overt medievalisms and Great Chains of Being to the hereditary succession of power to the straight fascist allegories. Not that SF is perfect either, but it tends to be much better and more challenging, especially towards the harder end of things - I don't know any equivalent classification for fantasy.

7Nornagest9yI have heard of such a thing as "hard fantasy", but it's a very small niche and seems to be running on crossover appeal to hard SF fans as much as anything else. As best I can tell, readers of fantasy valuing high Openness have instead migrated to the New Weird subgenre (exemplified by China Miéville, Mike Mignola, etc.); epic and heroic fantasy aren't as hidebound as they were before the mid-1990s, but they're still a highly stereotyped body of writing. (I think using The Iron Dream as an example is a little disingenuous, though; it's essentially an essay in novel form about the parallels between fascist mythology and heroic fantasy of the pulp tradition. Using it to demonstrate the same seems to assume its conclusion.)
6juliawise9yOkay, I can see that.
5jefftk9yMany fantasy stories are about an ordinary person who suddenly finds themself in a world of myth, magic, and sorcery. This seems to be in part about openness: the protagonist has to realize that their model of the world was way off, and come to understand a new and different world.
2Randolf9yYes, indeed. The ratio open/closed may be higher in scifi books than in fantasy books, but there are still many open fantasy books and closed scifi books. In the end it only depends on the invidual book. This is why I don't think it's really safe to label fantasy as a closed genre.
2jefftk9yIf the ratio is low enough in fantasy, I'm fine calling it "closed" as a genre. I'm just not sure that it's even commonly closed. (I'm also not that clear on what it means to be open vs closed)
2Jayson_Virissimo9yTyler Cowen [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyler_Cowen] defends Sweden as the "land of the true individualist" [http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/10/why_i_dig_swede.html].
1juliawise9yI found Denmark to have an open culture in terms of dress and sexuality. But as far as religion and ethnicity, it closes like a trap. I was treated like I had three heads for attending a non-Lutheran church. If you're Muslim, it's much worse.
0Prismattic9yI think Denmark has undergone a major shift in recent decades. My grandfather, who was the only Jew in his US military unit during the Second World War, reported getting a warmer reception in Denmark than anywhere else.

"When you see teenagers and young adults posting their interests in music, books, and film on their MySpace websites, consider the costly signaling principles at work."

Wait, what? What's costly about posting something to Myspace? The "costly" part of "costly signaling" has a rather precise meaning in evolutionary biology: an extravagant expenditure of scarce resources, useful because potential mates who correctly interpret that as entailing your high fitness thereby improve their own. Stotting is a typical example.

Here it seems to me that the author is just throwing scientific-sounding lingo around to bolster pure speculation. Taboo "costly signaling" and the author is saying: "the genes of girls who picked boys who spouted weird antisocial nonsense fared better, because only boys whose splendid health allowed them to pick up such nonsense in the first place would do that".

I'm unconvinced: stripped of the highfalutin' language this makes much less sense. Even if I try to repair the argument by bringing the parasite connection back in: "oh, this boy is quoting David Lynch, cue some social module which infers that he must have... (read more)

More abstractly, "costly signaling" theory requires that it should be hard for low-fitness individuals to send a fake signal. Clearly this isn't the case here - anyone can pretend to spout weird antisocial nonsense.

I disagree; I think this is an excellent use of the handicap principle (though it remains to be seen whether it's actually true). Any gazelle can go stotting, too, if by "can" you mean "it is physically possible for them to do so". But only a gazelle very confident in its speed actually will, because all the other gazelles are too worried about being eaten by lions to dare to try it.

Likewise, anyone can claim to like weird foreign films on MySpace, but only a person very confident in her popularity actually will, because all the other people are too worried about being shunned.

The number one objection I have to this idea isn't that it's not evolutionarily plausible, but that it doesn't fit observed data: it's not the high school quarterbacks and cheerleaders who are liking weird foreign films, it's kinda weird people who aren't popular anyway: anime is the most obvious example. Any further argument for this idea would have to explain why it goes so terribly wrong.

2Morendil9yWe seem to be in agreement that Miller's argument (such as it can be reconstructed from the quotes) is weak, but disagreeing about the reasons why? The difference between the two cases is that the gazelle is wasting time that she could use to get a head start on the predator, as well as energetic resources which could prolong its flight. The behaviour is obviously paradoxical and demands explanation. There is no similar loss of valuable resources on the part of someone expressing admiration for Lynch films: quoting lines from Mulholland Drive does not result immediately and systematically in being socially shunned. It is at most a way of expressing affiliation with one particular group rather than another, as PJ suggests, but any cultural behavior is going to do that anyway. There is nothing obviously paradoxical about expressing one's likes and dislikes, and furthermore it has no obvious direct impact on reproductive fitness. IOW, if you hadn't invented costly signaling theory (or "handicap principle") and came across teenagers quoting obscure references on Myspace, you wouldn't feel compelled to invent that theory specifically.
1TheOtherDave9yI'm no expert on costly signaling theory, but I can't see any reason it shouldn't apply to opportunity costs as well as any other kind of cost. If I see twenty people using a social network to establish themselves as hip, popular kids who like all the cool trendy things to like, and one person using that network to quote obscure references instead, the fact that that kid is giving up the opportunity to cement their status as hip and popular seems noteworthy.
3Desrtopa9yIf everyone is using the same sorts of signals to establish themselves as hip and cool, then it diminishes the value of the signal. That's when countersignaling [http://lesswrong.com/lw/154/why_real_men_wear_pink/] becomes useful.
1Desrtopa9yQuarterbacks and cheerleaders are still treated as archetypes for popularity, but I don't think it's obvious that they tend to have larger circles of acquaintances with positive regard than, say, high profile theater members, who I'd guess would tend to exhibit higher openness. Even anime nerds can have high status and popularity among other anime nerds [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BigNameFan]. What you do to signal status depends on who you're trying to cultivate status with. I would pick out different favorites of mine to convince a creative writing professor that I have interesting and sophisticated tastes than if I were trying to convince an avid follower of anime (although I'd probably bring up Oyasumi Punpun [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OyasumiPunpun] either way.)
1wedrifid9yTvTropes warning: That link just swallowed over an hour. ;)
4pjeby9yThe costly signaling here is social, not health. That is, it's signaling what group(s) you ally yourself with, and the cost is what groups you thereby pit yourself against.
3Desrtopa9yThat doesn't seem like an appropriate use of the term; any signal of allegiance could do the same. Interpreting costly signalling so broadly robs it of its usefulness as jargon. It seems to me that Miller really is saying that we treat memes that are high on the openness scale as risk factors on an unconscious level, and the evidence excerpted here isn't enough to disabuse my skepticism of that.
2dlthomas9yJoining a small group as opposed to a large one may be costly signalling - "My genes are good enough that I don't need so many allies"
3wedrifid9yIt is not inconceivable but I would still bet against it. I would attribute any benefits to joining small groups to any exclusivity that the group, enhanced cooperation within a small group or some innate reason for more potential cooperation with those people than with others.
1dlthomas9yAs would I; from what limited observational evidence I have, it seems far more a matter of wanting to be in-group for the people already in that group than anything more meta. It just doesn't seem outright inconceivable.

My inner Hanson asks me

So you've got a case of the Inner Hanson, eh? My estimation of your psychological fortitude is hereby incremented.

And the best part is, my signalling that is cheap yet credible - the most delicious kind.

0zslastman7yYou have one as well? Thank god I'm not alone. Still waiting for a matching winged figure to pop up on my other shoulder. Grimly suspicious that Inner Hanson may have killed him.

This is interesting, but as has been pointed out, it suffers from some extreme reliance on a rather tenuous analogy between infectious diseases and infectious memes. I think it hard to overstate how dubious and dishonest (either recklessly or negligently) this claim is. Diseases and memes are just not even close to the same thing in an evolutionary sense. There's no reason to think that mechanisms that have evolved to prevent disease infection would have any effect on meme promulgation. Even if a meme spreads "like malaria," that doesn't mean tha... (read more)

[-][anonymous]9y 8

Two points:

1) I wonder if Lonely Dissent is relevant here--people who are more open will sometimes use their openness to gain status in the (smaller) community of open people, lowering their status in the (larger) community of less open people in the process. That would certainly explain a lot of contrarian behavior.

2) The introduction of Spent is fascinatingly Hansonian. Thanks for the link!

If higher IQ is almost always better, why the bell curve? Short people persist because height can have costs.

It's not hard to find evidence that IQ can be fitness reducing.

3jsalvatier9yWhoa! Fascinating and terrifying.
1NancyLebovitz9yHowever, it would be interesting to check on the number of children and the number of grandchildren, not just sex and marriage.
2teageegeepea9yGood point. Others [http://carrefoursagesse.wordpress.com/2009/02/21/fertility-income-and-wordsum-scores/] have looked into that.
0[anonymous]8yThere's a Wikipedia article about that [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertility_and_intelligence] (as there is about, well, pretty much everything).

The title had me captivated. However:

This post could use some more exposition in between the quotes. When "parasite load" was mentioned, my immediate assumption was that this was a metaphorical usage referring to "parasitic" ideas or memes, and was quite confused when I encountered a discussion of skin infections and whatnot, suggesting that somehow the literal sense of biological parasites was intended. This was confusing because I wasn't expecting any connection between psychological personality traits such as openness on the one han... (read more)

6gwern9yParasites and infections are really important in evolution; this is maybe not what is most popularly discussed in articles or news, but I'm pretty sure that it is covered in longer works on evolutionary biology like The Selfish Gene. For example, one of the major justifications for the invention of sex (!) is parasite resistance; see Wikipedia [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Evolution_of_sexual_reproduction#Increased_resistance_to_parasites] on the Red Queen Hypothesis [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Red_Queen%27s_Hypothesis] or http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-07/uocp-pmh070609.php [http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-07/uocp-pmh070609.php]
6komponisto9yThat I know perfectly well. That wasn't the problem. What I needed more preparation for was the notion that they are important in the evolution of psychological traits -- which (for me at least) does not follow at all immediately from the premise of their being important in the evolution of "physical" characteristics (such as those shared by organisms that don't even have brains, e.g. sex).
2gwern9yWhy would you expect them to not be? What makes psychology exempt from evolution? (First two words of the article: 'Evolutionary psychologist...')
1komponisto9yNothing; in fact the grandparent specifically assumes it isn't, since I referred to The point was that I expect psychological traits to have different kinds of evolutionary explanations than "physical" traits. I expect evolutionary-psychological explanations to take place on a different level of abstraction, involving environments with other psychological agents. In particular, I don't expect them to directly involve phenomena that also apply to organisms that don't even have a psychology. Keep in mind that I'm talking about my expectations going in. I'm not complaining about how the universe works (if it turns out to work in a certain way); this is simply a matter of exposition: the post felt jarring. This could have been alleviated quite simply by an acknowledgement that something counterintuitive was being claimed.
2pedanterrific9yUm... were you, perhaps, reading out of order? Because "parasite load" is first mentioned in the between-quote exposition immediately after the block quote that is introduced and starts off with and includes the sentence which would be... interesting... if interpreted through the lens of parasitic memes.
1komponisto9yYes, I (first) thought that the purpose of that block quote was to introduce a metaphor.
1CG_Morton9yThe article spends two paragraphs explaining the link between openness and disease, and then even links to the wikipedia page for parasite load. You link to 'Inferential Distance', but this seems more like a case of 'didn't really read the article' or perhaps 'came into it with really strong pre-conceptions of what it would be about, and didn't bother to update them based on what was actually there'.
2komponisto9y...which is no more than a stub, and suffers from the same problem. In fact, I was probably even more irritated by the Wikipedia article than the post. It abruptly mentions "openness to experience" as if the reader were perfectly well expecting a discussion of human personality in an entry on biological parasites. I was able to comprehend the article, but it didn't feel satisfactory. The problem was that I was "offended" by the unprepared juxtaposition of concepts that I wasn't expecting to be juxtaposed. You could call this a "really strong pre-conception of what it would be about", in a negative sense: I didn't think it would be about that. This is exactly what inferential distance is: when the writer is "on a different planet" from the reader.
6Morendil9yYour irritations should be correlated, since gwern is the author of that abrupt addition to the WP article as well as of the above post.

Alternate explanation for openness being lower in regions with high parasite loads-- openness is more costly in terms of energy, and people with high parasite loads have less to spare. I don't know how you'd test that.

As for having had some mistaken beliefs as a result of a high openness level, you take your chances. Have you had unconventional beliefs which turned out to have good evidence for them?

2khafra9yCorrelate openness with other drains on energy, like non-communicable, non-immune-weakening disorders. Unrelatedly, I'm still pondering the implications of Limbaugh-type demogagues characterizing illegal immigrants as parasites in evocative language. Probably just a priming thing they aren't even aware of, but it would seem to make their rhetoric more effective.
3gwern9yAlso, IQ. I stressed the lack of correlation with longevity and weak correlation of Openness with IQ because they seemed to me to be evidence against the most obvious confounds.

This discussion hinges on the "level of openness" being a big deal and a common factor explanatory of many different things. I think the first step should be making a case for this concept being useful, rather than a salient but fuzzy label that one likes to attribute and then rationalize as having explanatory power.

You want me to explain, cite, and defend the entire Big Five model with its factorization and the predictive powers thereof?

I'm sorry, I'm not going to do that. The goal of this article was to discuss some research leading to what I considered interesting speculation and questions. I linked to Wikipedia for the massive background such a veiled question wants (or you could read the rest of the book these short extracts were from, whose fulltext I also linked for readers such as you).

4Bugmaster9yVladimir_Nesov does not, but I do. More specifically, I'd be interested in seeing a defence of this or any other model, such as Myers-Briggs or what have you. To me, all these models sound suspiciously similar to each other as well as to horoscopes, but I could be wrong. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking you to do so OMG RIGHT NOW or anything, but I would be interested in reading a post on the topic.
9JenniferRM9yI think you are laboring under a slight misapprehension about personality research. Myers-Briggs isn't solid science. The eneagram isn't solid science. Astrological personality models aren't solid science. I think you have correctly noticed that "psychological traits" are a ripe area for epistemically unsound belief systems that appear to bear on something people hold near and dear (ie understanding other people) so you're justifiably suspicious of a mention of personality, which is laudable. But you're asking for a defense of "all that crazy stuff", and a good defense of "all that crazy stuff" can't honestly be provided, because most of it really is bunk, or at least it has so much bunk mixed in that its only good for psychoceramic [http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notabene/psychoceramics.html] data or maybe to pan for gold that might be hiding in the crazy. The big five personality model is an attempt to do actual science in the same space in order to produce reasonably valid and reliable dimensions of human "personality" variation. The point of the big five is that there is solid research and a deep literature and so on, in contrast to all the crackpot stuff. If someone uses the big five and you're suspicious and ask for a defense of personality systems in general, that's like someone using geometry and you being suspicious because you're only aware of a lot of crackpots who keep trying to square the circle [http://johnnyocoileain.com/crackpotchronicle/what-is-a-crackpot-crank/] and so you ask them to defend the squaring the circle stuff, (which was proved [http://www.cut-the-knot.org/impossible/sq_circle.shtml] to be impossible in 1882) before you'll accept analysis of evidence that legitimately makes use of a "suspiciously geometric" concept like the triangle inequality [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_inequality]. Unfortunately, defending established science quickly is hard because the content of science generally involves real inferential distances
3HughRistik9yYour understanding is consistent with mine. Myers-Briggs is really frustrating, because some of its ideas are anecdotally compelling (Introversion vs. Extraversion, Thinking vs. Feeling), while others are esoteric (Judging vs. Perceiving and Sensing vs. Intuition). At least on the types, INTP [http://intp.org/intprofile] probably refers to a real phenotype (which is common on LW), but I don't know if any of the other type combinations are real. Interestingly, the MBTI seems to almost reduce down to the Big Five according to this study [http://harvey.psyc.vt.edu/Documents/BIGFIVE.pdf]. The way I've heard it explained goes something like this: "you don't like art because you are high in Openness. You are high in Openness because you like art." Of course, since the Openness scale has reliability, you can make predictions about how someone would respond to one question from the scale if you know what they would respond to another item. Whether that's because of one underlying trait, or because of a bunch of converging traits, is an empirical question.
5JoshuaZ9yJust wondering, are you generally classified as INTP? I've noticed that people consistently put in one of the types are more likely to think that their type is real.
3HughRistik9yLike wedrifid, I test as an ENFP on online tests, but if I answer questions like I would have if I hadn't learned social skills, I come out as an INTP. The INTP profile I mentioned [http://www.intp.org/intprofile] is freakily accurate, and not just in a horoscope type of way.
2RichardKennaway9yWow! All that compresses down to just four bits!
4wedrifid9yNo. It compresses into 4 bits plus a whole bunch of extraneous knowledge of humanity and the environment. Sure, you can say it compresses down to four bits so long as you consider the language itself to already know all the basics about humans and the difference between the this and the other 15 combinations.
3RichardKennaway9yI can't see 16 such highly detailed descriptions covering more than a small fraction of humanity.
6lessdazed9yNu, with horoscopes each of 12 descriptions cover all of humanity!
0wedrifid9ySome parts more than others I expect. Each of the details is supposed to be considered separately and with an "are more likely to" attached rather than a strict conjugation. The interesting question is how many compressed bits the 4 bits convey. I'm guessing about 3.
2wedrifid9yAt a guess yes, Hugh strikes me as someone who is naturally 'INTP' like. But the thing with the way the Myers Briggs test questions is that personal ideology and learned skills have rather too much influence. ie. Last time I did one of those tests I came out as ENFP. Which I'm definitely not, and wouldn't have got if I didn't answer the questions strictly literally.
4taelor9yMyers-Briggs ultimately derives from the psychodynamic theories of Carl Jung, who was himself an INTP. Thus, it makes sense that INTP roughly corresponds to an actual personality type; Jung simply described himself, and then turned to his existing theories to explain away why he was the way he was.
1wedrifid9yAnd this is the central point of the whole thing. They aren't meant to represent a deep meaningful biological reality. Just clear correlations that are useful.
1pjeby9yWhy is that a problem? ISTM it simply means that it's not a fixed-at-birth sort of trait. (i.e., like the others, it's learned to at least some degree.)
7JenniferRM9yLack of universality isn't a problem if you understand that the concepts are tricky to use for inference and should regularly, step-by-step, be checked against reality to make sure you're still tracking reality. For example, Openness may actually be the most heritable trait in populations where twin studies were done despite being the least likely to be a human universal (recent mean heritabilities [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits#Heritability]: Openness=57%, Extraversion=54%, Conscientiousness=49%, Neuroticism=48%, Agreeableness=42%). But if we're talking about something that is "not a fixed-at-birth sort of trait" then lack of heritability is one of the things I would have naively expected of the trait, you know? Its hard to shoot from the hip in this area -- the terminology is stable and meaningful, and there is a relatively deep literature, but each new claim will require confirmation by experiment to extend your conclusions with any kind of rigor. Water and milkshakes are both "arrangements of drinkable matter" and I can buy both sorts of matter in a cup at a fast food restaurant in the US. I can also expect to find water on Europa... but if I tried to use the fact that water and mllkshake were both "arrangements of drinkable matter" to predict finding milkshake on Europa as well, I'd have gone wrong in my thinking. It turns out that "arrangements of drinkable matter" isn't a very useful category for naively deploying in sweeping extrapolative predictions. Big five personality traits are kind of like that. From what I've read, they're better understood as mostly-orthogonal surface regularities with causal explanations from many different levels and sources rather than as fundamental causally coherent essences. Lots of people seem to expect [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error] human traits to coherently cause human behaviors, so it is worth emphasizing how liable such thinking is to produce error. That doesn'
0pjeby9yLOL. (ok, more like I went "bwahahahaha.. seriously?") Wow. Yeah, I guess I can see why people might think that way, and I guess I must have thought that way at some point in the past. I can't think that fuzzily about people any more, I've spent too much time inspecting behavior at lower levels. In other words, when I saw the big five, I simply assumed they were summaries of behavioral patterns, and that it'd be daft to treat them as really predicting anything. That is, saying someone has one of the five traits doesn't explain anything, it just says, "this person is likely to do these things, because they've done these other things that seem to go together". (Or at least, if the big five are claiming to do anything more than that, I'd certainly be skeptical.) [Edited to add: I suspect the downvoters have confused my LOLling at an instance of Fundamental Attribution Error [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error] with LOLling at JenniferRM's comment. That is, they have probably failed to notice I am actually laughing with her, not at her.]
2Bugmaster9yCall me "daft", then, because I still don't get it. Does the "big five" model have any predictive power at all ? Does knowing the approximate position of a person in this five-dimensional space help us discover anything else about the person -- specifically, something that we can verify empirically ? I'm not singling out the "big five" model for criticism; I'd ask the same question of Myers-Briggs, or enneagrams, or horoscopes. If your model has no predictive power, then it's not very useful, regardless of how elegant it is.
3pjeby9ySure, but only in the same sense that terminology like "rubes" and "bleggs" does. I more specifically meant that it has no explanatory predictive power -- i.e., it doesn't really tell you that, say, "Openness" is a valid physical construct in people's brains, and not an accidental byproduct of some combination of other factors that are harder for us to notice.
2Bugmaster9yI think this all depends on what your model predicts and with what accuracy. To use an analogy, a thing like "temperature" doesn't really exist -- it's just an illusion caused by the motion of particles -- but it's still a very useful concept. In most cases, we can close our eyes and pretend that "temperature" is a measurement that really does refer to some physical quantity out in the real world. So, is "Openness" (or any other of the Big Five axes) like "Temperature" ? Can we even measure a person's "Openness" value reliably ? If so, what does it tell us ? What verifiable predictions can we make based on it ? In the case of Myers-Briggs, AFAIK, the answers are "no", "nothing much", and "none". In the case of temperature, we can definitely answer "yes" to the first question, and list a whole bunch of things like melting points and specific heat values etc. in response to the other two.
2JoshuaZ9yWell yes, but the average kinetic energy does exist. So it just turns out that temperature didn't quite mean what we thought it means.
3Vladimir_Nesov9yI don't want to investigate this issue. But for the reason I gave, I can't take anything away just from reading this post, which excludes me from its target audience. This doesn't make the post bad, but is probably a consideration worth being aware of. (Making the burden of argument overwhelming, as you implied, wasn't my intention in any case.)
7Mass_Driver9yYou're right, of course, but the case has already been made in just about every freshman psychology textbook. It is reasonable to assume that an educated member of the general public will be familiar with the Big Five personality traits, and that a typical LW reader will have noted and remembered the Big Five as one of a handful of psychological 'findings' that actually do have demonstrable explanatory power. There is moderately compelling evidence that they are, e.g., heritable, that they can be affected by drugs, that they correlate strongly across cultures, years, and survey versions, and that they can be used to prospectively predict various mental disorders and success rates. The Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits] does a reasonably good job of documenting this. The Big Five are also the lead feature in Chapter 2 of "Psychology Applied to Modern Life," (10th ed.), which I believe has been strongly recommended on LW before. No doubt you meant well, but by suggesting that gwern used a "fuzzy label that one likes to attribute and then rationalize as having explanatory power," you also suggest that gwern is indulging in sloppy mental habits and that gwern's article lacks an appropriate foundation. Neither suggestion is really fair; the Big Five personality theory is so well-established that there is nothing improper, even among us skeptics, about relying on it and building on it to make a series of interesting points.
9Vladimir_Nesov9yThis shouldn't be a problem, I believe. To the extent it becomes objectionable to doubt anyone's sanity without a solid case, we are losing ability to guard against error. It should be a routine matter, like washing your hands.
4Morendil9yObjections have been voiced and not addressed [http://lesswrong.com/lw/7o7/calibrate_your_selfassessments/503m]. Not just here but on the WP page [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits#Criticisms] as well. Given these, plus Miller's sloppiness in using "costly signaling" verbiage, I must agree with Nesov's objections. The post wants to lead us to some conclusions, but these are only vaguely implied not stated, and the heavy use of quotations from the book, wall-o-text fashion, distracts from noticing that the post doesn't really get to any particular point.
3jsalvatier9yThose WP criticisms seem surprisingly weak.
3Morendil9yWhich ones specifically seem weak? The problems with "garbage in, garbage out" and the lack of explanatory power of factor analysis seem serious enough to me. Basically, the WP page says that there is no "Big Five personality theory", contrary to what the comment by Mass_Driver suggests. What there is is a bunch of questionnaire items, the answers to which seem to somewhat reliably predict the answers to other questionnaire items when subjected to CFA; the label "Openness" for instance is arbitrarily given to one of those five "factors", and if you look at the "Sample openness items" from the WP page it's not clear that any of these questions in fact have to do with a person's being open to new experiences.
2jsalvatier9yIf people claim that it is an all encompassing model, then that would be a serious criticism. I don't actually know if researchers claim that, but it seems unlikely to me. This is a weaker criticism than it seems. It stems from using classical stats. Latent factor (such as FA) models are less confusing from a Bayesian point of view. The particular indeterminacy they are talking about disappears when you specify a model and prior more clearly and try to update in a principled manner. A better criticism would be that the results of personality models might be sensitive to model assumptions. However, that sensitivity is an empirical matter and isn't established by referencing the indeterminacy of FA. Another good criticism of Big Five research might be that factor analysis is not a good tool because it could be hard to figure out how sensitive your results are to the particular analysis. This doesn't seems like a criticism to me.
2Morendil9yWhat I'd like to know, primarily, is whether the Big Five traits correlate with anything other than answers to questionnaire items: in particular, actual behavior. Pointer to studies appreciated; Google hasn't turned up much. Some studies of job performance have C having the kind of influence you'd expect, then there's things like this [http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2009/11/high-conscientiousness-predicts-poor.html] .
6jsalvatier9yI think Bryan Caplan talks about the Big Five some and is usually pretty clear thinking. He has a paper [http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/bcaplan/bsmb2.doc] on the topic which gives some references for correlations between the Big Five and other things. For example: And I'd be interested in hearing if you find interesting results.
0jsalvatier9yI am also interested in that. My impression from hearing people talk about such things is that yes, they do, but I don't actually know much about this area. That result is interesting.
1Vladimir_Nesov9yNot just weak, but confused, and not even clearly criticisms, as they look more like snarky suggestions for improvement (might be Wikipedia page's framing).

My mind fell out years ago. That's why I'm here.

8byrnema9yThe first year I spent time reading Less Wrong, I had to deliberately pull back and carefully moderate my time on Less Wrong because I saw the signs that it was affecting my mental stability. A large component of this was the new ideas, but also culture shock and another large component was getting used to the strange social interaction -- the drawn-out timescale and the feel of an anonymous, infinite audience is quite different in comment threads than anything I'd been used to. When I first started writing comments, I wanted to train myself to speak more bravely, but I actually grew more sensitive before growing more brave. Now, probably a good 2-3 years later, my interaction with Less Wrong feels more or less 'normal' and the probability of instability is much lower. I got over my culture shock ...
2Normal_Anomaly9yThis sounds interesting. Would you care to elaborate?
6byrnema9yI would say that I am generally confident and extroverted in person, but leaving comments on Less Wrong in contrast often left me feeling very exposed. The comment would just sit there, awaiting judgement and I would find myself worrying about hypothetical reactions and possible interpretations. I realize that in person I feel comfortable relying on body language and other cues to see if my comments are accepted. I was missing these cues on Less Wrong so for a long time I felt that LW was cold, harsh and unwelcoming. I would compose comments and then hesitate to post them. When you are speaking, a bit of error and nonsense 'fluff' is expected, whereas in writing a sloppy thought just keeps on sitting there. While writing it is expected you've 'thought out' your response but actually in practice I couldn't spend an unlimited amount of time composing a comment. For over a year, I would limit the amount of time I spent per comment and I shelved 4 out 5. Interestingly, the ones I sent weren't my 'best' ones but the just the ones I wrote when I was feeling especially extroverted and imperturbable. Perhaps dozens of times over a period of a few months, I overestimated how extroverted and imperturbable I felt and would post a comment only to experience immediate, crushing anxiety about my comment. I immediately deleted them, and (I believe correctly) rationalized that if anyone knew how miserable I felt they would forgive the deletion. Another, simultaneous factor was the exposure to new ideas, some of which seemed to have a potentially dangerous aspect, either socially or technologically. I began to imagine what the world would look like if AI had already been developed, and what might be the role of LW in that case, and a component of my brain (not the whole thing) became paranoid and gave me panic attacks. I handled this by simply never touching certain topics, and I now include this in a broader repertoire of 'useful boundaries' that I set so that my experience with
4XFrequentist9yThis here is the sanest place around, it's everyone else that's crazy!
4gwern9yNice try, memeoid!
1Normal_Anomaly9yI think that's one of those things you can't consistently assert.
1CronoDAS9yWell, did I ever say I was consistent? ;)

I am a little troubled because as a child I was interested in such alternative things and the Occult as well

Children have very little resistance to this sort of thing. I doubt it's a good indicator of anything except your openness - not, say, high schizotypy.

The link to the book pdf seems to be broken now.

1FiftyTwo8yThat was fast. Thanks!

Re: parasite load and xenophobia/lack of Openness: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111201174227.htm

What I'm hearing: in the ancestral environment/memetic isomorph I'm the guy who flay himself alive and then try to wrestle a Komodo dragon and a Tasmanian devil at the same time. In the middle of a plague. After not eating anything for half a year.

Sure, I managed to prove myself pretty insanely sturdy and fit by even finding those in the same place, especially after bleeding that much, but the whole having no skin and getting eaten by a giant lizard sort of ruins the point.

EDIT: "while on fire" should be in there somewhere to.