personality goes a long way…

in this past sunday’s linkfest, i posted a link to an article about how some researchers found that the ‘big five’ personality traits don’t really seem to apply to some south american hunter-gatherers — the tsimané. i have to admit that i didn’t really pay close attention to the report until jayman commented on it (thnx, jayman!). what the researchers apparently found is that tsimané personality traits don’t fall into a big set of five categories, but rather a ‘big two.’

from the original research article [pdf – pg. 10+]:

“Evidence for the five-factor structure of personality among the Tsimane of Bolivia is weak. Internal reliability is generally below levels found in developed countries. The five-factor model did not cleanly emerge in any of the exploratory or confirmatory factor analyses, and Procrustean rotations did not produce strong congruence with a U.S. sample. Procrustes analysis, which is arguably the most forgiving test for replication of the FFM (McCrae et al., 1996), yielded an average congruence coefficient of 0.62. This is well below the benchmark of 0.90 and considerably less than most congruence scores found in other cross-cultural applications of the Big Five (McCrae et al., 2005; Schmitt et al., 2007)….

“Exploratory factor analysis yields a personality structure that is largely distinct from the Big Five….

“The internal reliability of the first two derived factors in Table 5 (five-factor solution) and Table S1 (unrestricted factor solution) is high, supporting the possibility of a ‘Tsimane Big Two’ organized according to prosociality and industriousness, as described above. These two factors show significant response stability; response stability for the first derived factor is stronger than for any of the Big Five…. However, these Big Two are not the two higher order factors of Digman (1997), characterized as stability and plasticity by DeYoung (2006), which neatly subsume the Big Five by merging Extraversion with Openness and Agreeableness with Conscientiousness and Neuroticism. Our factors instead cut across the Big Five domains. These results are consistent with the findings of Ashton, Lee, Goldberg, and de Vries (2009), where higher order factors emerge because lower order facets load onto multiple factors. Not only do we find that items load onto multiple factors, but the loading coefficients in our exploratory factor analyses are generally lower than those found in previous studies of the Big Five.

“Our findings provide evidence that the Big Five model does not apply to the Tsimane. Our findings also bring into sharper focus past reports from developing societies where the FFM was not clearly replicated. Of the 50 countries reported in McCrae et al. (2005), only India, Morocco, Botswana, and Nigeria produced average congruence scores less than 0.90. The lowest congruence scores reported by McCrae et al. are 0.53 and 0.56 for Openness in Botswana and Nigeria, respectively. In the African and South Asian countries from Schmitt et al. (2007), internal reliability for Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness is similar to what we report for the Tsimane. Because the samples from the developing countries in Schmitt et al. and McCrae et al. are
primarily college students, more representative samples from these countries may have produced even lower congruence scores and internal reliability.”

so, the big five maybe don’t fit some other populations, either! hmmmm. curiouser and curioser.

again, i have to admit that i haven’t thought very much about this, but i feel kinda dumb right now in that i think i’ve been forgetting first principles when it comes to these personality things, namely, human biodiversity! why should we suppose that all human societies everywhere will fit into the big five categorizations? we shouldn’t be assuming that at all!

but jayman’s already neatly summed up the problems with personality research and hbd, so there’s no need for me to repeat what he’s said:

“While the HEXACO model is interesting, and certainly feels more ‘complete’ than the Big Five, I will say that personality research in general still has a *long* way to go, hence I don’t put too much faith in such models (or most ‘models’ in social science, for that matter). A big part of the problem is that too much of psychological research has been done on WEIRD people, and even then on the segment of those who are college students, and this has been a major stumbling block in trying to gauge the gamut of human behaviors….”

just to note, in the tsimané article, the researchers point out that “most studies of the FFM have been restricted to literate, urban populations, which are uncharacteristic of the majority of human evolutionary history.” they also say that their study of tsimané personality types using the five-factor model is the FIRST done on an illiterate, indigenous society. oh, dear.

more from jayman…

“HBD Chick, more than most, has demonstrated the importance of sometimes very specific behavioral traits, which are quite heritable. Muslim honor killing is one such example (where does that fit in HEXACO?). It’s very clear that standard personality tests do not capture heritable behavioral traits that are of great significance.

“Indeed, it may turn out that it may not be possible to boil down human behavioral traits into simple dimensional systems because the range of behavioral traits is so great, and encompasses behavioral responses designed for fairly specific situations (which sounds almost like a sacrilege coming out of a reductionist like me); for example, how does one account for the ideological divide between libertarian liberalism of Anglo societies and collectivism/communism of Eastern Europe and China on the other (a divide, which, itself, is really only relevant for highly organized societies with a long history of civilization and agriculture)?

“Perhaps one day they’ll cook up a system that can broadly encompass the range of behavior, but that day is not today.”

(note: comments do not require an email. tsimané fellow.)


  1. I think that kind of makes sense. If you imagine personality traits as a set of survival tools then in a very simple h-g society there may be very strong selection pressure *against* traits that don’t help. The traits may still evolve randomly but the strong selection pressure against them spreading leads to them only surviving in small quantities.

    For example say there are five personality traits A, B, C, D, E where A is strongly positive in a HG setting and the other four are all moderately negative. The other four may still arise over time randomly but can only survive in people who *also* have above-average amounts of A i.e. the 20% of people on the right-most side of the trait A bell curve can survive with a little B, C, D or E but not the rest.

    Then say the environment changes (e.g. farming) and A becomes mildly negative, B and C strongly positive and D and E still moderately negative. Those people with some B or C become reproductively successful until you get a new status quo where the average member of the group has lots of B and C and varying small amounts of A (as it’s only mildly negative) with the D and E only surviving in small quantities among the 20% or so people with the most B and C (as positives from large quantitiies of B and C can outweigh the negatives of small amounts of D and E).

    Then imagine a third shift into an environment where there is far more specialization where it turns out all five traits are positive in varying quantities for *different* specializations. Lots of A is good for one specialization, lots of B and C is good for another, lots of D and E for another.

    (This suits the way i see the evolutionary mechanism working i.e. probabilistically, with hundreds of dice being thrown combined with strong selection *against* changes that are negative in that environment – however those changes can still survive (in case they come in handy later) in people who are otherwise well-endowed with positive traits. If true this might imply the village chief is more likely to show signs of the big five personality traits.)

    Another way of looking at it might be a tree diagram with the root human personality being the H-G personality and then branches off it as society evolves and other specific personality traits which would have been a handicap once become adaptive.


  2. To illustrate the idea about personality traits as survival tools say
    – the h-g personality is the bow and arrow
    – the farmer personality is the plough and axe (bow and arrow still useful)
    – the industrial personality is the pen and the slide-rule

    In the last case the h-g and farmer personalities may still be useful in say 10% and 30% of the population while 60% develop the industrial personality whereas the industrial personality was mostly no use at all before its time.


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