So you think you might be an Anagreeable…

Arnold Kling has a followup post to his earlier speculation that Ayn Rand’s enduring appeal owes to her being a kind of “ellaborate justification for low agreeableness,” about which I posted some thoughts. In it, he offers advice based on his own experience on how to get by as what I term an “anagreeable.” His sugggestions are useful, as are two of the ones currently posted in the comments. I’ll let you click through for Kling’s advice – it’s the two in the comments that interest me here.

The first is from someone awesomely named Joshua.

Once a decision is made, even if it’s not the one you would prefer, let it go and do your best to implement it (if that’s your job) or ignore it (if it’s not part of your job). One thing that people who are low on Agreeableness seem to have trouble with is dredging up old arguments and disagreements over and over again.

And how. I’m extremely bad about this. I find it very hard to go along with decisions I disagree with – and that cuts right to Kling’s point about Rand, actually. I’m certain that one of the reasons I like her books is that she offers me an escapist world where people are maximally allowed to make their own decisions. Everyone hates groupwork, right? But I’m the kid who makes it work. Which is to say, I’m the kid who would rather just do the whole damn project himself and let other people claim part of the credit than have to sit and discuss things in committee. Joshua’s hit on the main source of problems for anagreeables, I think, and this is very good advice. The first thing any of us should learn is how to move on once decisions are final. With regard to Kling’s point – this gets right to the heart of it. I guess it’s a chicken and egg problem to say whether anagreeables cause Libertarianism or the other way round, but the high instance of anagreeables among Libertarian ranks certainly accounts for our bullheadedness about matters of principle. Libertarians are worse than people of most other political backgrounds at compromising and working with what we have. It’s sad but true: in talking to a Libertarian about policy, you are more likely to get a lecture about where things went wrong historically than what we can do about them tomorrow. There’s definitely a lot of focus on going back to a point in time before some choice bad decision was made and undoing that decision.

The second is from someone who calls himself Horation (no one is ACTUALLY named Horatio, of course!). And his is twofold: learning to accept criticism and learning to praise others.

The first part is interesting to me because I’ve noticed in my own life that I can be quite good at accepting criticism – a champion actually – IFF I’ve been working at it. It really is like exercise. Do a little bit of exposing myself to criticism, and I rapidly get very very good at taking it unemotionally. But if I take a month or two off, it’s like I forget how to control my reactions, and even minor slights make me angry. And I think people around me know this – because I get this weird mixture of willingness to criticise but walking on eggshells when they do it – as if they’re never sure whether they’re dealing with Dr. Jekyll, who will be receptive and actually try to take their advice to heart, or Mr. Hyde, who’s just going to sulk for hours afterward. I can think of a couple of times in my life when I was particularly good at taking criticism. One was learning Swedish, and the other was learning Tai Chi. In both cases I had teachers with complex feelings about whether they wanted me to be learning the subject at all – in both cases because I was a foreigner. And so in both cases I took some pretty brutal criticism until something snapped, and I just decided that I didn’t want positive feedback from these people at all, and I was going to listen to what they said and practice in my spare time until I got it right, even according to the frankly ridiculous standards that were being set for me. I even got to enjoy it in a perverse way, in a “that which does not kill me…” way, as an opportunity to assert control over my emotions and make something positive out of a negative situation. And it worked! Not just at those tasks, but in general. But the effect eventually wore off in both cases too. Moral being – it really is something you have to work at constantly, or you lose it.

The second part is related to the first, I think. I’m very bad at giving praise. Just can’t quite bring myself to do it in most cases, even when I understand that it’s socially expected. And I think that’s because of the strategy that I adopt to dealing with my inability to take criticism. I guess the truth is that there are few, if any, people who enjoy taking criticism, and there are in general two strategies for dealing with this. You can either try to affect your environment, or try to remake yourself. People who heap excessive praise are generally following the first strategy. They’re hoping to make people like them, and hoping that their own readiness to praise will be reflected back at them, providing ballast for what bits of criticism they do have to take. They’re trying to set up a situation where praise is the norm – sugar to coat the eventual pill. These people are a problem for those of us who take the second strategy, because they use praise like a social currency. Our unwillingness to reciprocate gets magnified in their eyes, because they’ve gotten so good at giving praise that they’ve forgotten that it takes effort for the rest of us, especially when we’re asked to give praise that is less than perfectly sincere. For those of us taking the second strategy, since it’s very self-directed – something that we have to work at – I think we get worried about a free rider problem in praise. We’ve made an effort to actively shape our own perceptions of what people say to us, why can’t they? It’s a classic conflict, of course, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that people who adopt the second strategy are overrepresented amongst conservatives and libertarians, and people who adopt the first amongst socialists and liberals. We face the same problem – how to deal with criticism – and it really is the difference between “we all help each other (socialist)” (=”praising others is a moral imperative”) and “we all help ourselves (capitalist)” (=”learning to take a beating is a moral imperative”).

Anyway, fascinating discussion – as are all discussions that I can related to my own character, I admit it! – and I hope to hear some other useful bits of advice from other commenters as the day goes on.

4 thoughts on “So you think you might be an Anagreeable…

  1. Interesting perspective on how personality as it relates to the ability to take and give criticism is correlated with political perspective. I’m fairly libertarian whereas my wife is more liberal (although fortunately for me she’s not a crazy leftist). I am pretty good at taking criticism professionally but more resistant to taking it personally, with the sharpest difference between the two manifesting itself in the most personal of relationships, my marriage. In contrast to me, my wife is an artist and she is not as good at taking criticism either way. It would be interesting to discuss this dynamic given the points you have made.

    In my wife’s case, is she more resistant to criticism due to her political liberalism or because of the nature of her work? The statistician in me leads me to suspect that all three attributes are commonly correlated with more fundamental aspects of her personality as the root cause.

    In my case why the contrast between the professional and the personal? My instincts tell me that the contrast exists for the same reason that the family structure works as more socialized model in the micro, but fails as a full scale economic and societal model in the macro. My personal life is a microcosm of society where the scale and nature of the relationships allow (and perhaps also require) a concept of emotional currency in a way that my professional life cannot tolerate. Attempting to map the emotional currency paradigm in the latter world is a recipe for organization corruption and therefore a hindrance to progress and productivity. A highly developed meritocracy is the only thing that works over the long term at the macro level. I believe that this explains why I intuitively separate the two models and react very differently to the two forms of criticism.

  2. I agree with the statistician in you. I’m just noting data trends here; I’m pretty open-minded about the underlying cause. And, like all things statistical, the mapping is no doubt a tendency rather than a hard rule anyway.

    I really like your point about there being a contrast between the professional and the personal here, and I notice the same in my own life. I’m much better at taking criticism from teachers and coworkers than I am from friends and lovers, and almost certainly because I feel obligated to be good at taking criticism from the former whereas with the latter I expect greater concern for my feelings. So we seem to have yet another example of socialists/liberals wanting the state and the professional world to be like an extended circle of intimates, but you and I know this is a vain hope. To use my favorite quote from Eric Raymond, “love doesn’t scale,” and I do think that one of the big determinants of whether someone is a conservative/libertarian and not a socialist/liberal is whether he knows this.

  3. At the risk of veering off course on your main point, I’d like to expand on your last statement to get your take on these tangentially related musings:


    To use my favorite quote from Eric Raymond, “love doesn’t scale,” and I do think that one of the big determinants of whether someone is a conservative/libertarian and not a socialist/liberal is whether he knows this.

    I agree with this characterization wholeheartedly, but I have always imagined debating leftists on this point as an intellectual exercise to probe it and its implications for what they would think are the requisite weaknesses required to disagree with it. I should really try to move beyond the thought experiment and actually debate someone. However, since leaving college I am (fortunately) not regularly in the company of hard leftists, so the opportunity is rare. Anyway, people who think like we do find Raymond’s quote quite persuasive. I believe that to disagree with it requires a stubbornly obtuse mindset that would except nothing less than a utopian/perfect society where everyone loves each other equally. Therefore I think that an intellectually honest leftist would have to claim to agree with it in principle. But then I would imagine that they would posit that perfect utopia pining idealogues really don’t exist in reality (at least on their side) and to leverage “love doesn’t scale” as a core maxim to argue against their public policy positions is a strawman. They would simply claim that their positions are less about love then they would be about societal progress; hence the term “Progressive” as their political moniker. They would admit that some imperfections and injustices in their ideal society would probably still exist (i.e. nothing is perfect), but that the world would be “more fair”, and therefore more to their liking.

    My counterargument would then have to be that the argument is a strawman if it would be claiming first that “utopian” and “perfect” are the same, and then that their policy positions are in fact that people will be required to actually “love” each other by fiat. The first point is a matter of semantics really. The two terms may or may not be metaphysically identical based on how they are defined, so I will just claim that one can be utopian without necessarily believing that a society can exist where perfect justice will be meted out all the time. Therefore I believe leftists are in fact utopian, but I would have to allow for disagreement just based on how we each would use the term. The second point is where the meat is. I think that to achieve the goals of Progressivism as they are generally accepted by people of that persuasion, I think that it would require policies that would enforce the effects of personal love across the larger society rather than the intent or emotion. The question then becomes, can the first follow without the second? Not really IMO, and that’s the rub is it not? I.e. without the emotional investment associated with love to provide the motivational X factor, people will not by nature focus of the priorities necessary to achieve Progressive society. There may exist real progressives who are sufficiently prompted by their ideals to stake the claim that they love humanity, but for one they are too few in number to make a big difference, and moreover, what would be the effects on the rest of us individuals who are unwilling or incapable of conjuring the levels of emotion necessary to accept the sacrifices that progressive policies would impose? I suppose if you could actually get them to admit it, this is exactly the area where they would except a less than perfect society in exchange for a “more fair” society. So perhaps their quote to counter Raymond’s is “you can’t make an omelet with breaking some eggs”.

  4. I think that to achieve the goals of Progressivism as they are generally accepted by people of that persuasion, I think that it would require policies that would enforce the effects of personal love across the larger society rather than the intent or emotion. The question then becomes, can the first follow without the second? Not really IMO, and that’s the rub is it not?

    This is very interesting – and I think I disagree a little bit. Actually, I’m not sure if I do or not, so let me think out loud a bit.

    It’s always seemed to me that there are two kinds of Socialists in the developed world, which I will call National Socialists and Bourgeois Socialists out of convenience. (For real Marxists are rare in the developed world.)

    By “National Socialist” I mean roughly the kind of system that Nazi Germany would have been if not run by the well-known syphilitic loon and associated posse. Naziism without the crazy, in other words. I think this is actually roughly the current system of government in Germany and Japan.

    By “Bourgeois Socialist” I mean all the fuzzy socialist societies that are so well-admired by the left here. Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, etc.

    This difference isn’t real – it’s merely one of focus and style. If I were a PoliSci Prof, I would just call it “National Socialism” and try to rehabilitate the term.

    Anyway – the (long-winded) explanation is that National Socialists tend to frame things in terms of the health of the nation, and the welfare state is a technical solution to practical problems. We have a social safety net because if we didn’t there would be social costs for externalities like crime, we follow environmental policies because we don’t believe the market can properly capture and distribute the external costs of pollution, etc. It’s a highly unsentimental approach to Socialism, and perhaps because of my character as an anagreeable I find it a lot easier to stomach.

    What I’m calling Bourgeois Socialism is the kind of feel-good, spread-the-wealth, emotional, concern for “fairness” socialism that’s ubiquitous among academics, and it really rubs me the wrong way.

    The only honest concrete POLITICAL difference that I can see between the two is that National Socialism tends to prefer crony capitalism and generally avoids nationalization, but Bourgeois Socialist countries have at least flirted with nationalization – some having done it on a large scale in the past.

    But that’s neither here nor there. What I’m getting at is that I think your argument only applies to the Bourgeois Socialists. And I think here we get into territory where there’s a difference between the letter and the spirit of the law as to what’s a staw man (which, if I understand you correctly, you are also saying). By the letter of the law, my assertion that these people are trying to generalize love is a straw man, yet. But I since I just don’t believe them when they say that’s not what they’re trying to do, then as far as I’m concerned it’s actually NOT a straw man in spirit (even though I can’t prove intent to the public’s satisfaction, etc.), and the fact that they’re trying to scale up love is my primary objection to their enterprise – and one of the reasons I object so strongly is the one you give, which is that they haven’t solved the compliance problem. In any case, their constant focus on attitudes and “sending messages” gives away their hand as far as I’m concerned. If I were more diligent, it would be worth assembling a case that they’re lying about this in book form. But I don’t mind going on record all the same: the idea that Bourgeois Socialists are not trying to scale up love to a national level is A LIE. That IS what they are trying to do – even if I understand that the rules of the game won’t let me make that claim outright in a public debate.

    However, I do believe that there is a large contingent of National Socialists in the world, and they are not trying to scale love up. They may be trying to scale fairness up, but I can’t really object to that since that’s what I’m trying to do as well – just with a different concept of what’s “fair.” And I guess these are the people that actually are your hypothesized objection. Taunting them with “love doesn’t scale” is a straw man both in law and spirit, and they could honestly reply “can’t make an omelet…” to counter it.

    But this is why I say I disagree with you slightly: I don’t think the National Socialists have a compliance problem. So, the idea that you can’t legislate love is inapplicable to them. It’s ironic – but they’re more dangerous BECAUSE they’re less objectionable. I guess what I mean by that is that because their approach makes more sense, it ultimately poses a more serious threat to the kind of limited-government, market society that I favor. And for this kind of socialist, I take your warning more seriously – because they are aware that love doesn’t scale, and so I can’t dismiss them with Eric Raymond’s clever one-liner, right.

    So, hmmm, in the final analysis I guess that’s a “99% agree with a small rider attached.”

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