Two Miles (and Who Are We, Anyway?)

This morning I ran over two miles (close to four kilometers) for the first time in years. It used to be my minimum distance, but I haven’t reached it in a long while. Biking is different; I can bike a hundred kilometers in a day without much trouble. With biking, the only thing that really tires me is the position: my hands, back, and rump get stiff after a while. But running’s in some ways the opposite; the elongated posture is relaxing, but the stamina takes time to build. Two and a half miles is a great daily standard; if I can keep it up, I will be in good shape. I was ready for it earlier this summer, but the heat kept me to two kilometers daily. Today, in the blustery weather, I kept going and going.

In childhood, I thought I was not only bad at sports, but fundamentally different from the jocks. The jocks were one type of person, I was another. (How wrong that was—but more about that in a moment.) I couldn’t react quickly on the field. If a ball was thrown my way, I panicked. Some adults told me that this was a sign of intelligence: that people who hesitate are brighter than those who don’t. That’s wrong too; quick thinking and reflexes are a form of intelligence. Anyway, I thought that it was my fate to be bad at sports. And then I discovered that I was good at things that required endurance, such as running. A lot of kids hated running so much that a mile seemed way beyond the pale. I started running a mile daily, out on the sports field.

After a while, some of the older girls—whom I admired to the skies—asked if they could run with me, because I could keep their motivation up. This was great for me; I was thrilled that I had something to offer them, something they weren’t as good at. And a sport, no less! We had conversations while running; I still remember some of them.

But I was still considered an “intellectual” type (and therefore not other things). There is a tendency in American culture to divide people into types. There’s a little less of that here in Hungary, I think, but no matter where you live, some form of typecasting happens. It’s limiting and dumb, because no matter what particular talents and weaknesses any of us has, these do not sum us up or predict what we will do.

Self-knowledge: in some ways a futile pursuit. We can get to know ourselves better over time, but there’s more to each of us than the self, and more than we see at any given moment. Recognition happens here and there in life, maybe often. But it is not necessarily self-recognition. It could be recognition of the truth, or of others, or of correspondences between things. I recognize something when listening to favorite music—but not necessarily myself. Maybe I hear something ancient, maybe a hint of a faraway memory, maybe a crack into a new understanding, maybe a basic sorrow or joy or something murky, maybe a cryptic pattern. Maybe sound and rhythm following and breaking their own rules.

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).

 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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