Ed Giese's Web Log

The Evil of the Five Factor Model

Posted on 2020-11-29 17:40:00 in Culture

Rod Dreher has a great article in The American Conservative. It is good enough that I'm going to forward links to several friends who rarely receive links from me. It is especially poignant for anyone like J.D. Vance, and Rod Dreher himself, who has struggled with his roots while crossing class boundaries. That hasn't been my experience by and large, but in my case, I think a kind of cluelessness saved me from painful situations.

Dreher makes the point well, similarly to Glenn Reynolds -- who has written similar claims many times -- that current issues with race are really about class:

Put more bluntly, I think the “privilege” discourse among middle class educated white liberals is mostly about rearranging prejudices to make lower class white people deserving of the scorn of the uppers.

Read Dreher to see the point made, illustrated with a review of Netflix's "A Hillbilly Elegy," and also some powerful comments about balancing mercy and accountability, as well as the baleful effects of reverse snobbery. Enough good writing that I'm going to be checking in there more often. I'm not going to try to summarize Dreher here -- as they like to say, "read the whole thing."

Instead, I'd like to respond to something that Dreher discusses in passing, which is the correlation of a personality trait called "low openness" with conservatism. This "trait" comes from the so-called Five-Factor Model. Dreher appears, on a certain level, to accept that much conservatism in middle America arises from this personality trait, although he claims that he is still a conservative even though he is quite open to new experiences and things.

Consider for a moment the stunning condescension implicit in defining a term like "low openness" in a personality. While the term can be defined neutrally, and it appears to be in the 5-factor model -- inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious -- it rarely stays that way. It isn't that there aren't variations in curiosity or caution, or that some people may be more inclined to be one way than the other. Rather, it is that there is a subtle value judgment even in the terms themselves. No one writes stories or makes movies about consistent, cautious people. In fact, in stories and movies, it is the cautious who act as foils for the curious. The hero, in other words, is always open. A person may be relatively incurious or cautious, but few people would admit this.

Some people see the glass half full, and others half empty, the saying goes, and while this is undeniable, I've never met a person who willing calls herself a pessimist. That is a label others may use, but the term has negative connotations. The analogy is exact. The "openness" trait in the five-factor model is value-laden and judgmental. Its uses are often evil, a way to dismiss people.

I recall one protagonist whom one would describe as incurious: the copyist Akakiy Akakievitch in Gogol's "The Overcoat." This description of him has stuck with me:

One director being a kindly man, and desirous of rewarding him for his long service, ordered him [Akakievitch] to be given something more important than mere copying. So he was ordered to make a report of an already concluded affair to another department: the duty consisting simply in changing the heading and altering a few words from the first to the third person. This caused him so much toil that he broke into a perspiration, rubbed his forehead, and finally said, "No, give me rather something to copy." After that they let him copy on forever.

"The Overcoat" is dark comedy, and while the story itself is immensely influential, its protagonist was anything but. No one would aspire to be this protagonist, even in an age of anti-heros. This despite the character's positive qualities, which were definitely there. But Akakievitch's picture could be next to the definition of "consistent/cautious" in the 5-factor model.

Given its post-culture-war progeny, the entire 5-factor model appears to be a weaponization of anodyne observations about personalities into a cudgel. No one starting in the 1980s could credibly claim to be neutrally improving on a mother-daughter application of Jungian theories with the same naive innocence. No one today could try seriously to discuss intelligence differences between "races" without being -- rightly, in my opinion -- booed out of the public square. Whether one can write down the numbers of individual tests and categorize them to draw conclusions is irrelevant, since it has evil results. It leads to individuals being dismissed by facile and deceptive generalizations. It is apparently just fine, though, to do similar "innocent" groupings of people by their response to questions such as, "I prefer to do things the same way as my father did," and imply that they are hapless losers whose highest life aspirations could be fulfilled by a photocopier.

It is certainly convenient for supercilious mediocrities hanging on the ever-growing edges of a bloated academia to say that it has been "scientifically proven" that people who disagree with them politically are more likely to be prejudiced and bigoted, and that the root cause is their oppenents' own inherent inferiority in a changing world. Left unasked in such rushes to judgment are questions like, how does someone who is "closed to new experiences" ever gain a tradition to prefer? Also unasked is, how quickly should a huge group of people adopt a new approach or value system without trying it, given the stakes of failure? Far easier it is simply to say, "closed to experience" and stuff the pigeonhole with something close to half the population.

Doubtless the purveyors and supporters of the 5-factor model would say that they imply no value judgments. I'm not buying it -- and even were they to prove their own neutrality in the matter, they cannot control the endless stream of pseudo-scientific pontification from left-leaning publications celebrating conclusions that are unwarranted. It is a nearly exact parallel to talking about race and intelligence, but it will never be treated that way. It is just too convenient.