Personality Dispositions and Social Change: Openness and Conscientiousness


I am sitting on my flight to San Antonio to join the State Policy Network for their Annual Meeting where I will be speaking on the role of movements and “remnants” in social change. I’ve written about the topic of the remnant here, here, and here. A good example of a modern American remnant that is incredibly effective at social change without a large, complex, organized movement around it is homeschooling. Homeschooling increases year-over-year in the US and laws across the country continue to liberalize. The only major organization making a concerted effort in this reform is the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which really only follows homeschoolers where they need it. I want to focus a number of long-form pieces on what can be learned from homeschoolers for implementing significant social change in the future. This post, though, is about personality dispositions and social change.

Most personality indices are not effective and amount to little more than modern-day astrology. The exception is the Big Five personality test. The Big Five scores people on a percentile for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. There’s a strong correlation between high Openness and political liberalism and a strong correlation between high Conscientiousness and political conservatism. People who score high in Openness are more trusting of the differences that Openness brings and optimistic about the benefits gained from those differences and that creativity. They are skeptical of the value of order over openness. People who score high in Conscientiousness esteem order over openness and are skeptical of the proposed benefits of openness. Jordan B. Peterson gives the example of border policy as a strong illustration in this lecture. Of note is the role the Big Five played in the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States.

I generally hold the stance that appealing to people’s stated preferences is, all else equal, not worth the time and energy when attempting to implement social change. Rather, it is more productive to appeal to revealed preferences by presenting new options in a marketplace. The question we’ve continually come back to, though, in some of our discussions on social change before the SPNAM is how do you market those options? and what about cases where markets are closed off by regulation? On the latter question, secondary and tertiary markets usually provide excellent entry points to bring forth new options in the primary market (i.e., black cars as a secondary market to taxis). The former question is a bigger question mark for me, though.

The Big Five index could provide a solution.

Examine a case for homeschooling from both an Openness perspective and from a Conscientiousness perspective.

For Openness, homeschooling provides any number of options for education (in fact, the “how will children learn X, Y, Z?” concern stems from a more conservative concern grounded in Conscientiousness). The Openness-based case turns on something like whether or not all homeschoolers churn butter at home and walk around in denim skirts going down to their ankles. Somebody who operates with high Openness is going to want to see that it’s not too restrictive and that it is a more varied and open alternative to traditional schooling.

You could argue with a high Openness individual that there are many reasons why people homeschool and that it provides a number of beneficial options and creativity over a traditional schooling system. Or you could show them examples of Openness flourishing in the homeschooling environment and let them meet homeschoolers who are not churning butter at 4 AM.

For Conscientiousness, the concern is usually one of whether or not children will be properly disciplined and learn prerequisite skills. They want to see that children will be “properly socialized” and will be able to get by in work and life after leaving school.

Instead of arguing with this person about whether or not those prerequisite skills are really valuable or whether they're learned in the alternate environment (i.e., traditional school), you could introduce them to homeschoolers who are well-socialized and operating above the level of expectation for this person.

To answer the marketing question, then the Big Five lets us understand that what must be played up is dependent on the primary disposition at play, not any point on persuading intellectually. Individuals pick and choose intellectualizations that fit their natural dispositions. Somebody who is high in Openness will pick an intellectualization that fits Openness. Somebody who is high in Conscientiousness will pick an intellectualization that fits Conscientiousness. Better to sidestep these intellectualizations and provide a narrative that conforms to their disposition.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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