TLDR: I suspect that we will generally be intolerant of other people’s personalities when:

  1. We are on the culturally decided “right” side of a particular trait.
  2. And the other person is on the “wrong” side of that same trait.

I have no real evidence beyond anecdotes and wouldn’t be too surprised if I were wrong.

HEXACO

In personality psychology, the dominant paradigm seems to be the Big 5 personality model. I prefer HEXACO, so that’s what I’ll use, but the two are similar, and much of what I write here would also apply to the big 5.

HEXACO stands for Honesty/Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to experience. 

The exact details of each trait don’t matter for my main point, but I’ll copy the descriptions from here for reference.

Honesty-Humility: Persons with very high scores on the Honesty-Humility scale avoid manipulating others for personal gain, feel little temptation to break rules, are uninterested in lavish wealth and luxuries, and feel no special entitlement to elevated social status. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale will flatter others to get what they want, are inclined to break rules for personal profit, are motivated by material gain, and feel a strong sense of self-importance.

Emotionality: Persons with very high scores on the Emotionality scale experience fear of physical dangers, experience anxiety in response to life's stresses, feel a need for emotional support from others, and feel empathy and sentimental attachments with others. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale are not deterred by the prospect of physical harm, feel little worry even in stressful situations, have little need to share their concerns with others, and feel emotionally detached from others.

eXtraversion: Persons with very high scores on the Extraversion scale feel positively about themselves, feel confident when leading or addressing groups of people, enjoy social gatherings and interactions, and experience positive feelings of enthusiasm and energy. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale consider themselves unpopular, feel awkward when they are the center of social attention, are indifferent to social activities, and feel less lively and optimistic than others do.

Agreeableness (versus Anger): Persons with very high scores on the Agreeableness scale forgive the wrongs that they suffered, are lenient in judging others, are willing to compromise and cooperate with others, and can easily control their temper. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale hold grudges against those who have harmed them, are rather critical of others' shortcomings, are stubborn in defending their point of view, and feel anger readily in response to mistreatment.

Conscientiousness: Persons with very high scores on the Conscientiousness scale organize their time and their physical surroundings, work in a disciplined way toward their goals, strive for accuracy and perfection in their tasks, and deliberate carefully when making decisions. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale tend to be unconcerned with orderly surroundings or schedules, avoid difficult tasks or challenging goals, are satisfied with work that contains some errors, and make decisions on impulse or with little reflection.

Openness to Experience: Persons with very high scores on the Openness to Experience scale become absorbed in the beauty of art and nature, are inquisitive about various domains of knowledge, use their imagination freely in everyday life, and take an interest in unusual ideas or people. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale are rather unimpressed by most works of art, feel little intellectual curiosity, avoid creative pursuits, and feel little attraction toward ideas that may seem radical or unconventional.

 

We see some personalities as “better” than others

In my cultural setting, we seem to have collectively decided that for each of these traits, one direction is “better” than the other. Basically we want people to be high on every trait except low on emotionality.

  • Even the words “honest and humble” have very positive associations, whereas “dishonest and arrogant” seem quite bad.
  • People low on emotionality are seen as “composed and even headed” but those high on emotionality are “troubled, anxious or needy.”
  • Extroverts are seen as “exciting and outgoing”, and introverts are “withdrawn or shy.” 
  • Agreeable people are “nice and caring” and disagreeable people are “rude and stubborn.”
  • People high on conscientiousness are seen as “hard working and responsible” and people low on conscientiousness are “lazy and sloppy.”
  • People high on openness are “interesting and creative” whereas people low on openness are “boring.”

At least, this is how I read the general sentiment among the people around me. In this study, American college students also seemed to show these preferences. They  were asked to name a friend’s best and worst characteristics. Almost every single positive characteristic reflected being high on the related trait and low on emotionality. And most of the worst characteristics were related to low levels of each trait except high levels of emotionality.

I’d guess that my cultural environment isn’t so different from those college students. And probably these values match America more generally. But I’m open to the possibility that there are many subcultures in America that differ with regards to their preferred personality traits. Still, within any given (sub)culture, there will probably be a general preference regarding each of the 6 traits.

The most obvious potential exception to my above characterization is openness to experience. I can think of a lot of examples in the US where openness is seen in a negative way (“those damn hippies!”). Openness to experience is the main personality difference between politically liberal and conservative people. So maybe the more conservative places would have different values with regard to openness.

Even if I’m right about America’s desired personality traits, these cultural preferences are almost certainly not the same everywhere in the world. 

For example, I lived on a small tropical island for a while as a kid, and they seemed to have the reverse values with conscientiousness. Better to be “laid back and easy going” than “uptight.” People didn’t show up on time or expect others to do so. Traffic laws were suggestions. And people didn’t expect you to be ambitious. Far better to live in the moment and enjoy nature and the people around you. Maybe opposite views on conscientiousness differentiate tight and loose cultures? (seems plausible)

And French people seem to have a different attitude about agreeableness.[1] I once met a French woman at the gym and told her my (now ex) wife was from Paris. She said, “Oh… I’m so sorry.” I laughed because I knew where she was going, but I asked her anyway, “why do you say that?” She shrugged and said, “Because we’re just mean.”

My ex-wife was nothing if not disagreeable. She felt compelled to tell people when she thought they were doing something wrong (no matter how minor). And when she was angry (which was often), you fucking knew it. She once screamed at me in front of our friends for not properly cooking soup. From her volume and red face you’d think I’d pissed in the pot instead of putting in a bit too much salt.

But she and other Frenchies I’ve talked to about this don’t see it as a tradeoff between being nice vs mean. Instead they value genuinely expressing how they feel, as opposed to being fake. There was nothing that she disliked more about America (and there was much for her to dislike) than the common occurrence of someone being nice to your face, but secretly disliking you. When you are unhappy or get angry at someone, you should show it.

My ex-wife was nothing if not genuine.

Of course, not all people from France are disagreeable, but their general value on this point certainly seems to be substantially different to Americans’. (Do any French people care to weigh in on this?)

As far as I can tell, for each personality trait, it’s not actually the case that one direction or the other is absolutely better. Instead there are tradeoffs (This paper has a decent list of some of these tradeoffs). And different cultures put different weights on those tradeoffs. 

Personality and Intolerance

We might expect people to generally be intolerant of those who are different from themselves in personality. But it seems to me that the situation is not symmetric. More extraverts have problems with introverts than the reverse. Agreeable people are less tolerant of people being disagreeable than the reverse.

I suspect that we will generally be intolerant of other people’s personality when:

  1. We are on the culturally decided “right” side of a particular trait.
  2. And the other person is on the “wrong” side of that same trait.

The traits I have the most tolerance for are the ones where I’m on the “wrong” side. I’m:

  • High on emotionality
  • Low on conscientiousness
  • Low on extraversion

I’ve basically never gotten upset with anyone for being either direction on any of these traits. But when people get irritated with me, it’s often because of one of these. 

I’ve lost a couple close (low emotionality) friends when they became irritated with me for complaining too much. 

My extraverted ex often wanted to go to events and bars and shows. I could do those things, but not nearly as often as she’d want me to. I’d explain that that sort of thing took a lot of energy out of me. She thought that meant I had some sort of mental illness.

The traits that I have the least tolerance for are the ones where I’m on the “right” side. I’m:

  • High on honesty/humility
  • High on agreeableness
  • High on openness to experience

I find it difficult to talk with people who are low on openness. In my family we call those people “dry toast.” 

The fact that my ex-wife was very disagreeable turned out to be tough for me to handle. Just as she saw my introversion as some sort of mental illness, I saw her disagreeableness as some sort of disorder. 

Before that relationship, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine any benefits to “not being nice.” Even when I came to appreciate intellectually the French point of view on agreeableness, I couldn’t get myself to truly be comfortable with (what felt like) people just being mean to each other.

But honesty/humility seems to be the factor I care about the most. I’d much prefer spending time with an asshole who doesn’t think too highly of himself than a very nice person with an inflated ego.

Is this model correct?

I’m not sure. It certainly seems much easier for me to think of examples of conscientious people being intolerant of non-conscientious people than the reverse. And the same for all the rest of the traits. And the model seems to describe the preferences of the friends and family I’ve talked to about this stuff.

I have made a brief attempt to find some sort of data that would provide evidence one way or the other on this model, but as far as I can tell there isn’t any. There is some work on personality preference (like the study I mentioned above), but none that I could find where we get both the person’s personality and their views on other people’s personality.

  1. ^

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:56 AM

I find the cultural relativity bit of this the most fascinating. I share your cultural context, and for most of my young life the personality preferences built into this culture felt like facts about the world. Agreeable people were just better, more likeable people, full stop.

After traveling a bit and reading about other cultures I've learned that's not the case, but I still find it fascinating to attempt to "try on" different values. I often need to make an effort to steelman different preferences, as my default (negative) response to cultures/people with different values is so automatic!

I will say though, that I now have a few Dutch friends, and I've grown to love and value their brutal honesty. Their vibe reminds me a lot of your description of French disagreeableness, but with lower emotionality which makes it a slightly smaller gap to bridge from my own culture. I wonder if more exposure to cultures that differ on a single dimension might make it easier to "try on" different values. 🤔

Heh, I got the same feeling from the Dutch people I met. My ex wife once did a corporate training thing where they were learning about the power of "yes and" in improve and in working with others. She and one other European person (from Switzerland maybe?) were both kinda upset about it and decided to turn their improve into a "no but" version.

Ya I definitely took agreeableness == good as just an obvious fact until that relationship.

I'd be VERY happy if more people liked/trusted others based on personality and behaviors, rather than cultural signaling or visible physical distinctions.