Gender, Personality, and Social change

I have recently been reading David Keirsey‘s book Please Understand Me II, having read Please Understand Me in the first edition many years ago. He uses the Myer-Briggs personality categories to describe four basic temperaments and 16 role variants. His main point is that much of our differences in communication and the way we interact with our environments is due to our personality differences. As I read this book, I have thought about this in reference to my own area of expertise in gender and care work, and how personality as described by Keirsey could relate to this on both the small and large scale. But first, a crash course in personalities.

Keirsey on Personality, Gender and Social Change

According to Keirsey, there are four basic temperaments (with Myer-Briggs category in brackets), which he names the Artisans (SP), the Guardians (SJ), the Idealists (NF) and the Rationalists (NT). It is quite fascinating to also explore his discussion of the 16 role variants, for example, the extroverted Guardian with a preference for thinking over feeling in decision-making (ESTJ), or the introverted Rationalist with a preference for keeping possibilities open rather than scheduling (INTP). But for this post I am mostly interested in the basic temperaments.

In his discussion of the temperaments and personality, Keirsey almost completely ignores gender, except for a few places where he describes slightly different behaviours for males and females  of particular role variants or temperaments. He most certainly ignores culture, and makes no observations or references to the many different cultures in America, which I presume he would also have had a chance to observe. He has a clear interest and preference for examples from war and American history (particularly presidents), but he does branch out occasionally into other parts of the world (Gandhi is the example of an Idealist leader, Elizabeth I an example of a Guardian, Henry VIII an Artisan etc). Most of his discussions and examples are clearly written from what we would normally consider a ‘Masculine’ perspective, illustrating the traditional preoccupations and interests of the males of our species, and making little reference to the lived realities of women’s lives either today or traditionally. For example, in his discussion of the preferences of the Rationalist temperament and their ‘strategic’ intelligence, he uses the imagery of engineering, architecture and science and makes no reference to the fact that despite equal numbers of female Rationalists, these careers have been mostly male-dominated, and in fact the very characteristics of the Rationalist temperament are often associated with men. My own observations have included many women of this temperament unhappily but efficiently administrating offices or large institutions.

(As an aside, I must say this is not a criticism necessarily of Keirsey — he knew his area and did great work in his specialty and suited to his temperament! As an Rationalist Architect (INTP), his focus is probably on setting up the framework within which we might explore further topics in more detail with more concrete data. There is certainly room for further work here around gender and culture, perhaps from Idealist scholars. As you can see, I have a soft spot for INTPs, having married one myself.)

One of the only times where Keirsey does explore gender and social change is in a small paragraph noting that that a high proportion of second-wave feminists in the 60s and 70s were Idealists (NF), with a generous helping of Rationalists (NT). He is mostly discussing the sexual revolution, and feels compelled to explain the apparent contradiction that the romantic Idealist female (prone to holding on to ‘one great love for life’) would take up the cause of sexual freedom. Male Idealists, it must be noted, have apparently throughout history been one of the most likely people to stray in a relationship — once the romance and mystery has waned, they feel disillusioned and are prone to fall in love all over again with someone else. It seems clear to me that this is an example of where gender (as in the social system based on sexual difference) comes in — why the different behaviours for apparently identical personalities? The social pressures of gender where women and men are subject to different expectations around love, romance and sexuality.

I am more interested in gender, care work and social change, however. So I wonder how might we think further about the interaction between personality and gender in the particular area of care work and changing norms of ‘social reproduction’ (Marx’s term for all the things that have to be done after knock off and before work starts to make sure the worker can keep going).

One of the things that struck me in Keirsey’s book was the high proportion of Guardians and Artisans in the population (combined, up to 85% according to Keirsey, so presumably in the US?). This is interesting with regards to gender and social change because the Guardians (SJ) and Artisans (SP) share a preference for the concrete and using their senses (S) over the abstract and using intuition (N). Guardians are the keepers of tradition, who like to cooperate with others to keep society going in much the same way. Artisans are likely to give less than two hoots about tradition, but are also likely to be pragmatic and individualist — thinking, ‘society is like this, I just have to deal with it’ (often by taking off and doing their own thing). Keirsey makes a pointed effort to value the stabilising role of Guardians in society, using the examples of Elizabeth I and George Washington as Guardian leaders who stabilised their respective country’s economies and societies after huge changes. I appreciate the point. But what struck me was that such a large percentage of the population are potentially not that invested in or interested in change. I guess I have invested my life in thinking about good change, particularly in the relationship between gender and care work, and also capitalist economies and the environment. I suppose it is a very Idealist thing to say, but I didn’t want to believe Keirsey on this point at all.

Kelly on Personality, Gender and Social Change

A couple of years ago, I was in Bolsena, Italy, with a group of scholars from the Community Economies Collective. Somehow, a few us got to discussing personalities and we got to discussing the components that make up the Myer-Brigg’s personality. Some of them have likely become clear already, but here they are just so you know:

  • I – Introverted OR E – Extraverted
  • S – Sensing (concrete) OR N – iNtuitive (abstract)
  • F – Feeling OR T – Thinking
  • P – Probing for Possibilities OR J – Judging a schedule

Your own combination of these preferences gives a sense of ‘your personality’, your likely behaviours and preferences and skills and so on. For example, I am an ENFJ — I am extraverted, use abstract communication, make decisions based on values (feelings) and have a preference for knowing when things are going to happen. But more than this — as this combination seems to lead on to a whole other host of behaviours that may not be immediately evident here. Firstly, the presence of the N and the F preferences means I am of the temperament NF – the Idealist. Secondly, other ENFJs and I share many things in common, the main thing being we are natural educators.

In this discussion, we explored the fact that some people just seem to ‘get’ the work of the Community Economies Collective and become really excited about the possibilities of a world beyond capitalism and industrialisation. And others, equally committed to alternative economies, just could not grasp that it was at all possible for them to be anything more that just ‘alternative’ to the bigger, depressing, reality of capitalism. Ethan Miller  suggested that perhaps people in the Community Economies Collective were attracted by the possibilities of a world beyond capitalism, so were likely to be all have the P preference for probing for possibilities in our personality make-up. As I thought about the different preferences and capabilities of those around us on the retreat, it quickly became obvious that there were many among us with a preference for scheduling but also a deep commitment to a better world. At the time, it was many years since I had last read Keirsey’s work but I still had a sense that it might in fact be the ‘N’ intuition that we all had in common. I did remember that people with an N preference (Idealist and Rationalists) were among the minority of the population Keirsey was familiar with. When I shared this with the others, we all found that a bit depressing, since that put potential collaborators at a much lower percentage than if they just had to have the ‘P’ preference of possibilities (potentially up to half the population).

I now take up that conversation again and think through what role personality might still play. We know that throughout history visionaries have spearheaded changes in our society — think of William Wilberforce and the Abolitionist movement for ending slavery, Gandhi and the peaceful resistance to British Imperialism, and of course, the real changes that have already been made through first, second and third wave feminist movements. Community Economies Collective founders JK Gibson-Graham, in their book The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A feminist critique of political economy, also took inspiration from the second-wave feminist movement. They celebrated the way in which widespread change took place without one central organising theory or organisation — but through the ubiquity of women everywhere pushing for change in a diversity of ways. While there is clearly work to be done, it is also undeniable that widespread changes have happened. As we now know from Keirsey, it is likely that many of the inspiring leaders of second-wave feminism were of the Idealist (NF)  temperament, which are apparently in the minority. Yet still change happened.

I don’t think we (the Idealists?) need be depressed then, that the majority of people may be temperamentally uninterested by idealistic change. I have plenty of friends of the Guardian and Artisan temperament who take it for granted that women and men should have equal access to employment, and should both participate in childcare, for example. Perhaps forty years ago, people of this temperament may have been more likely to accept that women should care for house and children and men for work and outdoors or something, but once a critical mass was reached it becomes the new reality that these temperaments accept. The Guardians probably began to work to conserve and stabilise the gains that have been made, and the Artisans accept it as their new reality within which to play and/or rebel. In fact, I can also see this working in the churches I have been a part of, and it partly explains why radical Idealist-led church plants come to be fairly conservative and wary of change after 40 years or so without ever changing their beliefs or values as such!

So my idea – once the idea that capitalism is not the only way to organise an economy, and real alternatives are made more visible and possible to more and more people, non-capitalist and community-based forms of organising the economy may come to be stabilised by our Guardian friends. Hopefully in partnership with other temperaments too — we could all do with the balance that different personalities provide in our churches, community organisations, homes and society.

Different personalities also have different leadership styles
Different personalities also have different leadership styles

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