Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Tale of the Big Five’s Dark Side

The Five Factor Model(FFM) is more or less what you get after a century of applying the lexical hypothesis to English speech. It’s a nice model of personality, but there’s just one snag: It only works if you have the right words for the job. In the case of extraversion and neuroticism this is not the case.

The problem with extraversion can be remedied relatively easily by calling it “surgency”, one of the original names for the trait.

The issue with neuroticism is a bit more complicated. While neuroticism is a genuine behavioural trait with its own quirks, under the current model it also serves as a grab bag for the negative aspects of the other traits. As someone who is generally neurotic, I feel that’s a shame because the trait also has its positive aspects and these deserve to be noticed.

So what do we know? Well, speech is a social behaviour; you don’t need your mouth to talk to yourself. Thus, insofar as the FFM traits manifest themselves through speech, it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re likewise expressions of social behaviour. Given that humans are social animals that depend on each other for their survival, it’s fair to say that our social behaviours are actually survival behaviours; the instincts that help me survive would also help you survive if I have the presence of mind to act on your behalf.

Given that social and survival behaviours are both ultimately regulated by the amygdala in mammals, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the two sets of behaviours might be more fundamentally related from an evolutionary perspective. And if we suppose that the negative behaviours of any particular trait exist to aid in the accomplishment of the instinctive goals desired by the trait, then we could say that the positive Dr Jekyll manifestations of the traits generally show themselves in situations where you’re able to juggle all the spinning plates that life throws at you, while Mr Hyde reveals his darker self when you have to start making choices about which plates you have to sacrifice to keep the important ones in the air. And actually, I think it’s pretty easy to spot the alter-ego of openness, agreeableness, surgency and conscientiousness.

Openness to Experience/Freeze:

At first glance freezing might look like the dumbest survival behaviour ever. I mean, what could be more stupid than a deer frozen in the beams of a car’s headlights? And it’s not like we’ve got spots or stripes that lets us hide in the grass, so one would think that we’d be better off trying *something* in a panic situation.

But consider the chameleon. Camouflage is an active process for a chameleon. Blending in requires not only the careful observation of the environment, but also requires reducing the information about the environment into a sensible pattern that the chameleon’s skin can replicate. The better the pattern, the better the disguise. Indeed, if the chameleon does this perfectly it disappears from view. In fact, the only difference between us and the chameleons is that we share the knowledge of these patterns with each other. The better the pattern, the more useful it is to others. In fact, science is basically one big exercise in pattern recognition if you think about it…

On second thoughts, there could be worse ways to react to a disaster than stopping to think when uncertainty strikes; as they say, “cooler heads prevail”. And is it any surprise that openness to experience is so hard to pin down as an observable trait when the very pinnacle of the trait is being able to hide in plain sight at the drop of a hat due to a constant hunger for discovering new patterns? The only downside to this is that freezing behaviour isn’t very useful when the pattern has found you.

Agreeableness/Fawn:

This one is pretty self-evident. Dr Jekyll will generally want barriers to be erected that preempt the possibility of harm. But put the target of the caring behaviour in a situation where they’re experiencing distress and watch Mr Hyde squash whatever barriers stand in the way like a bug to ease the pain, even if it’s supposed to be a bug you don’t step on. Or alternatively, if the source of the distress is more because of self-interest, Hyde will likely attempt to placate aggressors in the hopes that they will be satisfied even if other choices might prove to be more fruitful.

Surgency/Flight:

Some people call this trait “extraversion”, but I think that’s a mistake. This trait goes much deeper than that, and you can find highly introverted people who nonetheless have a very high degree of surgency in their personalities. Basically, a person high in surgency is always on the lookout for opportunities no matter where they might come from. A person who’s good at offering others opportunities is someone who is themselves a source of opportunity, and this is the goal that Dr Jekyll strives for as a social strategy.

As a survival behaviour, fleeing successfully means you’re more proficient at navigating the environment (i.e. faster) than whatever is chasing after you. It may be hard to see how this behaviour could morph into a social behaviour, but consider this: If you know you’re faster than the thing that’s going to be chasing you, then you have no reason to fear the thing if it chases you. If you have no reason to fear the thing chasing you, you have no reason to fear provoking the thing that would chase you. And if you don’t have to fear provoking the thing that would chase you, well then you’re presented with an excellent opportunity for a prank at the expense of your target, and not only is pranking fun but anyone else who sees it will likely laugh too, to boot. Win-win, so long as you aren’t the monster getting his nose tweaked.

Surgency’s Mr Hyde, on the other hand, just wants to get away from the problem. Indeed, you might hear something like, “New opportunities will always crop up tomorrow, so why dwell on the fact that today’s attempts to exploit opportunities may not have worked out for the best? And ugh, don’t give me that tired old refrain about consequences; there are always consequences. If we always worried about consequences nothing would ever get done.” So long as Mr Hyde can escape the situation or merely believes he can escape the situation, he’ll refuse to see what the problem is. It is the combination of the opportunism and the escapism that causes people high in surgency to focus so heavily on the perceived positives in their  style of speaking; there is an innate urge for them to present what they consider to be their best selves. However, the fact that a person high in surgency instinctively knows that people can serve as a source of boundless opportunities to be exploited should not be mistaken for a desire to be friendly and outgoing as such. Similarly, surgency does not have a monopoly on good feelings in general. The other traits each have their own set of feel-good emotions that emphasise the value of critical successes.

Conscientiousness/Fight:

Conscientious people are natural enforcers of social order. While they operate in Dr Jekyll mode they’re the custodians of the social dominance hierarchy. Violence cloaked in legitimacy equates to authority, and if a line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere, the lines might as well be drawn clearly so that everyone knows exactly where they are. Some things in life are only true by virtue of our efforts, and conscientious people have a strong drive to put effort into realising the truths that need to be maintained so that social order is realised for all to see.

Mr Hyde, however, doesn’t care a fig for whether or not the violence can be justified. If he’s on the warpath, watch out, because chances are he’s not going to stop attacking whatever he has set his sights on even if it kills him, much like alpha males of other primate species will directly engage threats to the troop irrespective of the cost to themselves in doing so. This instinct plays itself out subjectively as a profound sense of duty.

Which brings us finally back to neuroticism. With these “negative” aspects of the other traits removed, you might wonder what’s left. Well, I would say two things remain. First, some people are genuinely more sensitive emotionally to positive and negative stimulus. It’s relatively easier for such people to be pushed into behaving like Mr Hyde, but these people are also generally more sensitive to good solutions. However, this sort of neurotic behaviour is a sort of pseudo-trait in that it is a manifestation of the dark side of the other traits.

The other part is that fight/freeze and fawn/flight behaviours instinctively pull in opposite directions as motivational drives. Fight acts first and asks questions later, while freeze wants to ask questions first and act later. Fawn drives people to make sure that no negative emotion goes unchecked, and flight doesn’t even want to consider negative emotions so long as the good outweighs the bad. Someone high in openness and conscientiousness or high in agreeableness and surgency is bound to have difficulty navigating the emotional conflicts that the two traits will bring to bear on any high-pressure situation, and is therefore more likely to identify with neurotic feelings.

The bright side to this is that generally speaking such neurotic urges tend be aimed at the best of both worlds wherever possible. Thinking and acting at the same time, or maximising reward while minimising exposure to harm might sound like impossible sets of targets to hit simultaneously, but insofar as neurotic people hit the mark, their solutions are generally parsimonious yet elegant; the sort of thing that might make you say, “Well why didn’t I think of that?”

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