Universities in the “Show-Me” state of Missouri seem to like studying blogs and the characters of those who write them. Last year, the Missouri State University in Springfield asked me to participate in a student study on media ethics and the “Wild West” of the internet. Yesterday, Tal Yakoni and Dr. Simine Vazire of the Washington University in St. Louis sent me an email soliciting my participation in a personality test to help them study the link between a writer’s personality and the “content and style” of their writing.
I had my choice between a 10 minute, 100 question test or a longer 300 question version. I’m impatient, so I chose the option that took the least amount of effort. I’m pretty sure that psychology would give me a demerit for that, since its a subjective science that seems to use Jesus as a role model — and we all know that Jesus wasn’t a slacker.
As a school of thought psychology, like Jesus’s Christianity, seems to value a sense of altruism and sacrifice in its adherents. It advances a pseudo-religious creed of love for all mankind, unselfishness, and an unbridled spirit of empathy and compassion. It wants disciples who will strive to maintain a happy, positive attitude no matter how wretched or difficult a situation might be.
But are the ideals and expectations of psychology rational? Do the terms and labels employed by psychology work toward better understanding and social enlightenment, or are they simply a convenient way to exclude in some way those who don’t fit the mold?
One of the agree/disagree statements on the personality test was: “You have a good word for everybody”. This is a question meant to measure one’s level of “agreeableness” — the value an individual places on getting along with other people. The higher your score, the more “considerate, friendly, compassionate, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise” you are considered to be. In other words, you’re that much closer to Jesus.
The problem with the “good word” question is that it’s illogical. Jesus might say there’s no such thing as an illogical question, but how rational was a man who believed he could walk on water and rise from the dead? Jesus today would have been locked up or put on some heavy doses of anti-psychotic medication yet the school of psychology, perhaps unwittingly, relies on a role model very similar to Jesus to inform its beliefs on what constitutes the most positive and desirable individual traits.
As a rational person, I don’t have a good word to say about murderers, child abusers, rapists, suicide bombers, white collar thieves, war mongers, wife beaters, and baby slayers. Jesus might have felt a calling to dig into the dark souls of the wretched and pluck out a ray of light — but I don’t see the point. While it pays to understand the why and how of society’s predators so that we can work on prevention, I feel no particular compassion, empathy, or mercy towards the who that committed the crime. A person who can rape a child, beat a woman to death, kill dozens in a bombing — or who revels in the high life after stealing millions of dollars from others — does not, in my opinion, merit empathy, but disdain.
Another unqualified test statement was “You like to make people happy”. I know there are some people who might rejoice (such as neoconservatives and child abusers) if I never wrote another word, but I don’t really care about their happiness. I’m also sure it thrills my neighbor when I clean up his dog’s shit from the communal lawn, but I don’t do it to make him happy. I do it because I have a dog and don’t want the condo association to change its pet-friendly policies.
Jesus would probably clean up after the lazy neighbor as a good deed. Jesus liked to do good deeds even if they weren’t rewarded — but of course they usually were. In fabled stories, the wicked would see Jesus’s good example, have an epiphany, and fall to their knees in gratitude.
In real life, I resent picking up basketball-sized mounds of German Shepherd shit, and the only epiphany my negligent neighbor seems to have had, despite letters and conversations, is that someone else will eventually take care of the mess. I don’t delight in Sunday mornings hunched over piles of dog poop with rubber gloves, but I might feel quite differently if my neighbor was incapacitated or actually needed my help.
Like most people, I also enjoy making those I love, admire, or otherwise value happy. There’s gratification in giving to friends and family members, as well as to those whom I see as deserving but less fortunate. So do I like to make people happy? It depends on who they are and whether or not their happiness is important to me.
The test asked if I agreed or disagreed with the statement: “I am not interested in abstract ideas”. Again, it depends. I met a philosophy student once who insisted that a Pepsi can only existed because I thought it did. He did not believe that material reality could exist outside of one’s own beliefs. I wasn’t interested in his abstract (nonsensical) theory at all. Carl Sagan, though, has put out some abstract theories that are fascinating — and so did Jesus — which is what I believe is at the root of psychology’s odd mix of mysticism and studied rationales.
The “think positive” movement is a prime example of mixing magical thinking with academic study. “Think it and be it” and other reality-defiers are buoyed by massive studies that lead to such sterling conclusions as “happy people are happier”.
The feeling of happiness, despite the reality of circumstances, (think Job, think Jesus on the cross) has, in tides and trends, been sold like a mandate to the masses, and this mandate has diluted even our language — there are no obstacles, only challenges. We don’t have problems, but issues. We don’t have realities, but perceptions. What would Jesus do?
Jesus likely wouldn’t have invented electricity, the telephone, the automobile, or the MacBook Pro that I covet. While I disagree with much of the criteria that psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton used to define genius in his recent book, I agree with his general conclusion that geniuses tend to be “open to experience, introverted, (and) hostile. . .”. In other words, not very Jesus-like at all.
What label, besides “hostile”, does psychology put on those who are emotionally reactive and therefore more likely to experience “negative” feelings such as anger and frustration? Psychology calls them neurotic. The old testament God would have scored very high in this category but the softer, gentler Jesus would have scored low. According to psychology, the mythical God, creator of the world — the one who was emotionally reactive, moody, and easily irritated – would have a diminished ability to “think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress”. Jesus, by contrast, would be “calm and emotionally stable”.
If Simonton’s personality theory of genius is to be believed, then shouldn’t we be concerned with how much potential is being thwarted in classrooms when non-conforming smart children, who are easily bored and irritated, are taught a curriculum that’s geared towards the average and not the exceptional? What about adults with above-average intelligence who find themselves frustrated by slow thinkers, outdated methods, and irrational beliefs?
The Jesus-model of psychology would have everyone believe that they are special and unique — but no more special or unique than anyone else – which really gives “special” a whole new meaning, one that’ s not quite sameness, but more like same worth. To feel that you may have more intrinsic or social worth than someone else, (no matter how base, unethical, or irrational that someone might be), is considered by psychology to be arrogant, narcissistic, grandiose – even delusional. It’s just not very Jesus-like.
Jesus died on the cross for the sins of others, and didn’t whine enough about it to be considered a martyr or someone suffering from persecution complex, therefore it stands to (psychology’s) reason that people should be selfless enough to see the positives in their own adverse circumstances. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about it. You choose your own feelings. No one else and no other circumstance can dictate the way you feel — it’s a choice — so think positive.
Try to keep that in mind the next time someone slams your finger in a car door or empties your retirement account. What would Jesus do? He’d forgive, of course, and then find a way to make it a positive, life-affirming experience because, after all, happy people are happier. And happier people are just a whole lot more fun to be around than those who are always questioning reason and authority and letting themselves be bugged by facts or circumstances that are not in their milieu or immediate power to change.
Yet no change occurs in a vacuum, and every grassroots social cause begins with disgruntlement or unhappiness over a certain situation — whether or not it is our own, or even on shared soil. Positive changes, in other words, often stem from “negative” feelings and thoughts. While joy is certainly a preferred feeling for its euphoric qualities, this doesn’t lessen the validity or rationality of other emotions, such as frustration, anger, or sadness. That some people might feel these “negative” emotions more often than others might not indicate neuroses, but a heightened sense of awareness of the world outside their own front door.
Another flaw in personality tests is that questions are often asked in slightly different ways in order to measure truthfulness, but for many people, including myself, a change in wording is a change in meaning. “Do you feel that you have had more bad experiences than most other people” is, to me, a totally different question than “Do you feel that you are cursed”. One may be an arguable fact, while the other indicates a belief in the mystical concepts of blessings and curses.
The storied Jesus, while hanging on a cross, went through a range of emotions, at first blaming his father for forsaking him, then believing that he was being tortured so that others could be forgiven. I believe Jesus’s MMPI scores would have fluctuated dramatically given the day. In the end, though, it’s the feel-good story of Jesus — as a simple, self-sacrificing, loving, humble, calm, altruistic forgiver of all wrongs — that seems to inform psychology’s definition of social harmony and mental health. There is no doubt that many people, particularly the religious, find this not only acceptable but somehow perfect. After all, who wouldn’t want to be more like Jesus?
There’s a disparity between Jesus and mere mortals, though, that many seem to forget. Jesus could turn water into wine, heal the sick, stop a storm, and drive the evil spirits out of the wicked and possessed. Is it any wonder he was such a calm, affable guy? I know I’d be much less stressed out if I was capable of pulling off a miracle or forty-seven. I’d definitely be a lot more agreeable.
If psychiatry is to psychology what science is to art, (and I believe there’s truth in that), but both rely on the Jesus model to some degree, then both would seem to be less rational, less tolerant of difference, more bent on conformity, and ultimately much more limiting to the advancement of humanity, than they make themselves out to be.
How many employers are now using personality tests to decide who gets a job and who doesn’t? How many “introverted” people or “hostile” geniuses are being excluded from consideration due to these supposedly undesirable traits? In schools, how many extraordinarily bright but “easily frustrated” children are being labeled with ADD or personality disorders? How many potential “beautiful minds” have we lost by insisting that they are not socially harmonious or agreeable enough for our schools, our workplaces, our institutions?
How many potential Galileos and Van Goghs would the modern day world of psychology have us abandon to the mythical, invisible role model of Jesus?Footnote: The results of the personality test I took determined that I am more neurotic than 63.3% of you, more open to experience than 82.3%, and more extraverted than 63.6% of you. However, 82.7% of you are more conscientious, and 74.3% of you are more agreeable. Which makes most of you much more Jesus-like than me. I’m also an INTP according to Meyers-Briggs, a confirmed caffeine addict, and neurotic enough to believe that most of you won’t have had the interest or patience to read this entire essay.