The MBTI Craze in Korea and the Explorer Temperament
The psychological assessment designed by Meyers Briggs (MBTI) has become the single most talked about thing in Korea. One of the lures of MBTI is certainly that most people find the description quite accurate and the excitement of finding out that your best friend has the same or a similar MBTI. As a Google Trends search shows, there has been a worldwide rise in interest in MBTI, despite the best efforts of serious psychologists like Steven Pinker and Adam Grant to point out that MBTI has very little scientific backing compared to the Big 5 personality inventory, which is considered the gold standard.
Should we tell South Koreans, who might not have heard about that? Well, while it’s true that methodologically the Big 5 test is vastly superior over a test that was developed mostly on intuition, it doesn’t mean it does not have validity in reality. What’s more, the popularity of the MBTI is due to its convenient labels such as INTJ and “architect”. Who would go around and ask people “What percentage have you got on openness, conscientiousness, etc.?” More importantly, is MBTI really merely a “fad that won’t die” as Adam Grant called it?
If we look at MBTI from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, things might not look good for MBTI initially. Firstly, most species show some natural variation: animals can be more timid or more bold, more or less sociable, etc. The reason for this is that the environment in which a species evolves is not fixed and fluctuates and therefore allows for not just one optimal value in a given trait but for a range of values. Moreover, any given environment may allow several optima, or different survival and reproductive strategies. Secondly, MBTI posits 16 personality types. You could potentially see each type as an evolved type, e.g. ISTPs “virtuosos” have evolved to become good craftsmen and ESFPs (e.g Elvis and Freddy Mercury) have evolved traits that make them good entertainers.
Apart from having to question the survival and reproductive functions of the “entertainer traits”, we run into a huge problem here: there is no way the same environment could produce 16 different types as genetic traits would constantly get reshuffled. This is actually a problem for the Big 5 inventory itself, as subsistence-level societies (e.g. horticulturalists) show only two factors, one that is “provisioning” (more often males) and one “prosocial” (more often females). This is very likely the evolutionary origin of MBTI T/F (btw, the Big 5 inventory can’t distinguish between evolutionary provisioning and prosocial profiles).
What this means: the Big 5 is not a human universal and MBTI types are likely not to be universally found either. If we find profound differences with bundled traits, we have to look for environments that provide reproductive separation and different selected pressures. I have argued that these are our ancestral subsistence strategies. Until about 5,000 years ago our ancestors tended to belong to a long line of foragers, farmers or semi-nomadic pastoralists. I have already often enough argued that the temperament called “sentinels” or “defenders” or “guardians” (SJ) correspond to evolutionary farmer types who are good at long-term planning and routine jobs, have high self-disciple, and are dutiful and do well in hierarchical structures like bureaucracy or the corporate world. Explorers are often the opposite: egalitarian, freedom-loving, curious, spontaneous but also impulsive and risk-taking:
Pastoralists often have the same distinct qualities of personality regardless of the region of the world in which they live. Specifically, men in a local group tend to be cooperative with each other and aggressive towards outsiders. They usually can make important economic decisions quickly and act on them independently. They have a profound emotional attachment to their animals. A pastoralist leader needs to be a man who can direct the movements of his herds and decide on an optimum strategy for using scarce resources without having to first consult others. He needs to make decisions easily and to act on them without hesitation. He needs to be able to take the initiative and to be a leader in aggressively defending his herd by expanding territory at the expense of others. He must always be realistic in his appraisal of the world. To do these things, he needs to have an attitude of self-containment, personal control, and bravery. These typical pastoralist personality traits are related to subsistence success. As a consequence, boys are encouraged to emulate them as they grow up.
The picture we get from history of pastoralist tribes:
*craftsmanship (from metallurgy and weapons to rugs and textiles and ornamental artefacts)
*warriors (ancient Athens’ most prized soldiers were Scythian Steppe pastoralists)
*loved lavish feasts (partying)
We could use those characteristics to describe the explorer (pastoralist) types, e.g.: ESTP = trader, ISTP = warrior, ISFP = artisan.
It should be clear that sedentary farmers and nomadic hunter-gatherers required very different personality traits for survival, e.g. long-term planning vs the ability to react quickly and spontaneously to danger and problems. There may well be evolutionary factors at play, namely life history strategy (LHS = r/K selection). If many historians and anthropologists have called the transition from foraging to farming a risky subsistence strategy, the transition to pastoralism was all the more so. Besides chronic undernourishment, pastoralists had to face increased risk of infectious diseases derived from domestic animals and constant raiding from rival clans, a fallback strategy for pastoralists.
Evolutionary psychologist Marco del Giudice characterises LHS like this:
According to this model pastoralists/pastoralist types should have the following traits: earlier puberty, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, and be a bit less faithful in romantic relationships, with the female (evolutionary prosocial) profile being artistic, creative and seductive. And voilà, here we arrive at the ESFP profile, which I left out above.
One reason why I chose the explorer temperament: one of the first people writing to me when I started publishing my ideas about the evolutionary origins of our temperaments was an ESTP from South Korea. The country itself is quite interesting: farming started relatively late, the language is possibly part of the Altaic language family (Mongolian, Turkic), suggesting a strong connection to pastoralism and the country produces a unique and creative popular culture that has become known all over the world (Korean Wave) and which is indicative of the presence of a lot of intuitive types.
For more on the four temperaments check out my book: The Magical Number Four Plus or Minus Two: The search for our evolutionary temperaments and our true
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on August 2, 2022.