A mouse that can't tell a snake from a branch will die. A snake that can't tell the smell of a mouse from the smell of a leaf will also die. We too need to discriminate between things or we'll die.
As soon as we're born we can discriminate the breast and the nipple. We discriminate mothers and other family members. And, if we want to get older, we must learn to discriminate between friend and foe, those who care about us and those who don't. And that's only the beginning.
The flip side is that we have to be able to recognize things. And we've got to learn how some things are similar to others like them — similarities. There's no point in learning that one fire's hot if we stick our hand into the next one.
What is more important for us than to distinguish between the “snakes” and the “mice” around us? If we don't learn, at some point, how to tell a con-man or a liar or a fool or a heel or a heartless vagabond or the emotionally unstable or the addictive personality, our lives won't run too smoothly.
But it's often not that easy. People try to trick you and appear what they aren't. We can invent a thousand psychological tests to unveil whether an angry boy will kill his schoolmates or if a political dissident will become a terrorist, and they can come up with a thousand and one ways to hide their natures.
We are like snakes and mice and are largely dependent on instinct here. However, as soon as we start thinking, how can we help but turn our thoughts to figuring out who are the good people and who the bad? “Will he or will he not hurt me if I trust him?” asks the young woman teetering on the brink of falling in love. “If I hire him will he work hard and get along with other workers, or will he be a burden and a drain?” asks every boss. “Does he care about us or is he after the sensation of power?” we all ask of a man running for president.
In the olden times if we had to know “What kind of person he is?” we'd consult an elder or the priest or rabbi or even an astrologer or the local psychic. Now we look more and more to “expert” psychologists with their tests and diagnoses. But psychology, for all its popularity, is a new science. It has potential for victory more than it has actual victories. After nearly a hundred years of developing and testing tests, as of today, there is still no test that can tell if a person is going to kill himself, and there is no test to tell if a person is capable of murder. No doubt, one day, a combination of lab tests and psych tests and clinical interviews will be able to give us pretty good ideas about these things, but what do we do until then? We can't wait!
We are pretty much back in the Middle Ages or in the Dark Ages or in ancient times when we look around and think about everyone we know, and we just do the best we can. And we discuss it with each other, endlessly! It's not gossip. It's an attempt to figure out about people. “Is she really happy, or is she just naïve and silly?” “Is he really as calm as he looks?” “What's she thinking when she sits there so quietly?” “Is he a depressed personality, or is he seeing things we're afraid to look at?” No one knows. Or it's a matter of intuition, and those who know can't say how they know.
So let's say we want to get a little further than this. This is the age of science. Can't we go a little faster in answering questions like these? Can't we just get a bunch of people together and look at them and come to an agreement on who is who and what is what?
But it isn't that easy. One thing is that we are different, and if I see one thing, you will, without doubt, see another. But let's forget this problem. Let's say, just for argument's, that you are going to make this study yourself, so you don't have to worry about checking your conclusions with other people. You're going to try to figure people out, for your own use. You're not just going to socialize with them and have fun or work with them on a common project, but you're going to observe them, coldly and rationally and scientifically. But you're not a peeper with hidden cameras, and you're not trying to hurt them, so they're volunteers.
But, since they know you're watching, you're almost certain they're on their best behavior, so how do you get through to see what they're really like? Even if you're getting somewhere by watching their behavior, if you want to go further you have to ask them questions. “What are you thinking?” “Why did you wince when so and so said that?”
But then there are new problems. Are they being honest? Even if their being honest, what do their words mean? And how do you know if they even know the truth. “I love people,” says one man, and he seems to mean it, but he looks angry. If you say, “But you look angry,” he might say, “No I'm not! I'm just having a bad day!” And soon you're in a maze, scurrying to figure out what's real and what's camouflage. [And there are many other problems – see the last section here].
So, to me, it makes sense that, if we need to learn about other people, we shouldn't start by looking at them. We should start with the person who we are in a position to know the best. For you that is you. For me it is me. If we look at ourselves we don't have to guess at so many things. We can omit a lot of steps. The assumptions are, “If we can't learn about ourselves, who can we learn about?”, and, “If we don't know ourselves, who do we know?”
We have to be honest, or what's the point? And the questions aren't always going to be easy. “Have I ever stolen?” “Have I ever hurt animals or people?” “If, someday, people around me start doing bad things, will I go along or turn a blind eye?” “Am I smart?” “Am I reliable?” “Am I vain, greedy, an over-eater ….?”
But we also have to wonder if we have more potential than we think, if maybe we're not as silly or neurotic or stupid or selfish as others have said. And these are just a few random question of the thousands that could pop into mind.
We don't have to tell anyone the answers we come up with. Your project is confidential, for your eyes only, and mine is for me. And we shouldn't begin if we're not going to be as honest as we know how to be. We have to the truth to ourselves, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
But there are rewards for this work. One is that, if we learn about ourselves, we will be learning about others also, and so we'll get on better. This is an assumption of the work.
Some will not agree with the project and say the best way to learn about people is to study people, not to study just one person, and especially not oneself where objectivity is nearly impossible. Others, by temperament, will think spending a lot of time looking in a mirror is selfish and self-centered and narcissistic.
Here is my list of Personality Traits, the part that is relevant here.
Some people value objectivity and some don't. – There's zero point ready further if you don't place objectivity high on your scale of values.
Some people want to be good and some don't care. – If you think being good is stupid, please don't read further.
Some people value relaxing; some value work; some value both working and relaxing. – This site is not a fun and games site. But mania is the danger if you don't know how to relax.
And some people think it's useful to examine themselves under an electron microscope and others don't. – This site is aimed at both of these types.
How can I want to write to people who believe in examining themselves and also to those believe in focusing on others? Isn't the gap between the two types too big to be on the same wave-length? I don't think so. The type a person is is more a starting place than an end point. It is like when they built the Transcontinental Railway across the U.S., where both teams of workers had the same goal, but they approached it from different directions, East and West. It's like this in psychology, but we haven't yet come to a place where both sides have met face to face, and there is no golden spike yet joining the objective work of both teams.
And also, neither gung-ho self-examiners nor gung-ho other-people-examiners can hang on to their own position forever. Self-examiners who start by going deeper and deeper into themselves will, one day, run into the enigma of other people. And other-people-examiners who want, above all, to keep themselves out of the equation will, at some point, be thrust by circumstances into their own murky selves and become confused and afraid. I think it is inevitable, psychologically.
Each serious investigator has to start somewhere but then, inevitably, will move and wind up somewhere else.
I am starting somewhere, more on the side of self-examination, but, as you will see if you read on or look at the topics in the Psychological Lessons, l come out focusing on the world. And a goal I have had in setting up the site, is for a person to be able to start from either starting place. Over time, I hope the site will be organized more and more to allow this and be comfortable for people of either type.
Three Critiques within Psychology of attempts to classify people — from the period of my training, the 1960's
1. When I was training in the 1960's, the philosophy of Existentialism was having a strong influence on psychology. At the same time, the drug culture was going full force, and many people (including) psychologists were going to Eastern gurus and reading Buddhist texts. These three related forces all merged in the idea that became dominant in some psychological circles that it was wrong to label people. It was ethically wrong and intellectually incorrect. For example, to stick a label of “schizophrenic” on a person was considered immoral, because it could turn society against the person and condemn the person to a institutional life. It was intellectually incorrect, it was thought, because people are not things like tables and chairs, and they choose who they are and what they become. A schizophrenic is not a schizophrenic like a table is a table. He or she has adopted schizophrenic responses to situations. To label them “schizophrenics” encourages them to think of themselves as objects and discourages them from taking responsibility for their behavior and changing. Combine this with the mystical idea that the Ego is an illusion and that the real Self is eternal and divine, and it is easy to see why a certain group of psychologists felt the whole idea of categorizing is corrupt. Though this criticism has merit in some situations, it should be mentioned that different branches of Buddhism have a very elaborate and interesting system of classification and that they feel it is useful for adepts seeking meditation to understand it.
2. There are also problems classifying people, because it is possible to see people on different levels. There are superficial levels and deeper ones. On superficial levels it is easy to see differences, even if it isn't always easy to label them and to measure them. However, when it is felt that people are being seen on deeper levels, through self reports and empathy, it is possible to feel an identification with them, and to feel that we are all pretty much the same. I am told that in governmental departments investigating fraud, the investigators are changed frequently as they begin to feel a bond with the people they are investigating and begin to understand them. The same thing happens with psychologists who work with dangerous people. After a while, the psychologist begins to feel “close,” to begin to see the person's point of view, to feel there is no difference between the patient and him or her. Whether or not this is true on the deepest levels, it is very dangerous to overlook the superficial differences between yourself and, say, a serial killer. The point I am making here is that, depending how we look at people or into people, we may classify them in different ways.
3. People categorize other people for purposes, and these people can be high or low or relatively neutral. Is it one person trying to navigate the maze of his own experiences? Is it a bank president who has hired a psychologist to come up with a psychological test to help him know who to train for management positions? Is it the Gestapo who has demanded that a psychiatrist review his list of patients and differentiate between those whose “lives are not worth living” and those whose lives are worth living? Is it the school system who has asked its psychologists to try to differentiate between angry students who will kill other students and angry students who won't? Is it a con man trying to devise a few simple questions to determine who is gullible and who isn't? – We all type people based on our needs and our own type and our own goals. A theory of types is like a gun; It can be used for good or for bad.