Fluid, Rigid and Flexible Minds
Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.
Attributed to Sokrates
Only a few years ago I would not have thought that it makes sense to categorise human minds. After all, there is such a wide spectrum of variation that it would be possible to slice it in many different ways using many different criteria: emotional vs rational, left vs right-brained, practical vs abstract, neurotypical vs neurodiverse and many more. What’s more, there is often a judgement entailed when dividing up the spectrum of minds, with some minds being better than others. Some minds may indeed be better than others, however, this will often depend on specific tasks and problems to be solved.
From the point of view of evolutionary psychology we can assume that, if there are different kinds of minds, they were designed to solve different problems in the past. Charles Darwin used artificial selection for explaining natural selection and in his spirit, I will explain the difference with minds of man’s best friend: dogs. Dogs selected (artificially bred) for hunting and herding often have very similar qualities and there are some key differences as well. There are a few important skills a dog should possess to be good at hunting: a strong prey drive, receptiveness to training, endurance, and athleticism. Through selective breeding, man has been able to minimise the dog’s natural inclination to treat cattle and sheep as prey while simultaneously maintaining the dog’s hunting skills, thereby creating an effective herding dog. The minds of hunting and herding dogs are largely similar, but are opposites when it comes to treating animals as prey. A herding dog that is aggressive may be less useful for herding than as a watchdog. What’s more, there may be mind-body (software-hardware) correlations. Watchdogs tend to have pointy ears rather than floppy ears. Hunting dogs tend to be the best sprinters. Greyhounds, which were originally bred as hunting dogs to chase hare, foxes, and deer, reach speeds of 40 to 45 miles per hour.
Herding and hunting dogs have different environments in which they are successful. Is the same true for human minds? While googling for “kinds of minds”, I encountered one classification more frequently than any other one.
- A fluid mind is as fickle and impersonal.
- The person does not practice self-reflection and gets carried away by what’s popular, the expectations of others, and also the needs of the moment instead of their own principles and values.
- This way of thinking doesn’t adhere to fixed opinions or compromise.
- The focus of control is external.
- They also have poor levels of creativity because they lack enthusiasm and commitment.
- They are clearly resistant to changing any of their behaviours, beliefs, or opinions.
- It doesn’t matter to them that certain facts can prove them wrong: they stand firm in their points of view.
- They have a very limited range of responses and behaviours.
- Their level of adaptation to their environment is very low- they don’t like new or unexpected things.
- Everything that is different from how they are is “dangerous.”
- The flexible mind is curious, applies a sense of humour and creativity, and likes to try new things.
- They also have clear values and their own opinions but are able to open themselves to other perspectives, understand them, and adopt them if they realise that it can help them grow psychologically.
- They also have satisfying interpersonal relationships because they know how to set limits and because they also understand how to manage friendships, love, and other important relationships.
- The flexible mind is at peace with itself. Thus, the person is able to apply compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and respect for all that surrounds them.
- They control stress and anxiety very well.
Unfortunately, this classification already comes with an evaluation that is inherent in the terminology and even more so in the descriptive traits.. Who would like to have a rigid mind rather than a flexible one? Also, if I’d try to find myself in this classification I would have a hard time identifying myself. Of course, I love to think that I have a flexible mind, but my mind is often not at peace with itself (very often it’s the contrary — I have ADHD) and I certainly can’t control stress and anxiety very well and even suffered from social anxiety during adolescence. While I get along with most people, I have always struggled somewhat with friendships. In certain situations I am rigid and in others I am fairly fluid. I simply do not fall clearly into a single category and often it depends on a task or situation for me to find out where I belong. There are a lot of things I do not feel any kind of enthusiasm or commitment for.
So, is this classification of minds useless? Well to a large extent it is. The way this classification is presented it does not make any sense for evolutionary psychology. There may be certain disadvantages connected with a certain kind of mind in the present, but if different kinds of minds are meant to reflect an evolutionary reality, the important thing would be to show the advantages (and selective pressures) that led to this kind of mind (adaptations).
Before we completely throw away this classification, let’s see what we can save about it, perhaps it does reflect an underlying reality after all. Rigid and flexible is really one dimension with opposite ends. If we look at the associated traits it is easy to find a psychological correlation for it. It is called “openness to experience”, which includes novelty-seeking, interest in new ideas, and seeing many perspectives and possibilities. It also correlates with creativity and, to a lesser extent, with intelligence. Like all of the Big 5 personality factors, it has a very high heritability.
People who like routine, and who aren’t generally very novelty-seeking are conservative. The Big 5 trait that correlates highly with conservatism is conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is something that sounds much more positive than rigid or inflexible. Indeed, given a choice, most people would probably go for a conscientious rather than an open mind. Why? Conscientiousness is the number one factor that predicts academic and professional success. While some jobs, like artists and scientists, require a highly open/flexible mind, most 9–5 jobs are better done by people with a conscientious mind.
What about the fluid mind? Unfortunately, the above description of a fluid mind is simply too negative to make much of it. For reasons I will make clear later in the book, I am going to associate it with another personality trait: extraversion: being spontaneous, gregarious, and fun-loving. Extraversion is generally considered a positive trait in the west, both work and private life. The vast majority of politicians, managers, and leaders are extroverts. Extroverts tend to have more friends, more romantic partners and generally higher life satisfaction.
Now we have got three great minds based on personality traits: conscientiousness, openness and extraversion. Which one would you choose? I am aware that they are not mutually exclusive, but many people, like me, only have one (or perhaps two) of these traits. The question that is even more interesting, which one would evolution choose for which environment ? Evolutionary psychologists have for the most part considered humans rather uniformly as hunter-gatherers when it comes to our minds. However, I think this is a huge error. Most of our ancestors did one of three things in the past 10,000 years: foraging, farming or herding. Our minds would therefore be programmed by evolution to perform optimally in one of those three areas of subsistence.
We can group hunter-gatherers together, who only have an on-demand food economy, whereas food-producing farmers and herders have a surplus economy, with the amount of surplus having a huge influence on status. We can also group sedentary people (farmers, and perhaps sedentary hunter-gatherers) and nomadic people (foragers and pastoralists). Of course, there are also semi-nomadic (slash and burn) horticulturists, who would have some intermediate traits, as well as mixed subsistence strategies (e.g. farming and fishing).
Without unnecessarily making the picture more complex than it needs to be, let’s assume that between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago our ancestors mostly had one and only one job: forager, farmer or pastoralist and evolution had 5,000 years to fine-tune our ancestors’ minds to these jobs. It’s not unrealistic as all around the world both foragers and pastoralists are reluctant to settle down and turn to farming as a mode of subsistence.
Another way of seeing the different minds discussed above is in terms of stability: a rigid mind is a stability-seeking mind, just the kind of mind that served an early farmer well, but wouldn’t have helped survive and reproduce neither foragers nor pastoralists who needed more plastic (flexible, fluid) kinds of minds.
For more check out my book Different Kinds of Minds: The Evolution of Us
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 18, 2022.