Porpoises and People Personalities

In one study, porpoises were tested for the “Big 5” temperament (or personality) traits. Like humans, they rated high on extraversion and openness. Porpoises rated low on agreeableness, as do many people.

The agreeableness trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals… are generally considerate, kind, generous… and willing to compromise their interests with others.

Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others. They are generally unconcerned with others’ well-being, and are less likely to extend themselves for other people.[Emphasis mine][1]


The Myers-Briggs Take

Another approach to temperament, Myers-Briggs, helps us understand when different personality types extend themselves for others. Dr. David Kiersey explains that the most important factor is whether a person tends to think abstractly or concretely.

Abstract thinkers reason–either by logic or by noticing common factors in a number of data–to see the big picture. They think ahead to the future results of something that might happen now and plan accordingly. Abstract thinkers might support preservation of rain forests if they see maps showing how rain forest land has diminished over time. They might get a COVID-19 vaccination when they read about the number of people who have died from the disease.

Concrete thinkers focus on what is happening around them here and now, things they can see, hear and feel. They might donate to a rain forest preservation fund if they see a picture of a cute little animal that’s dying out. They might get vaccinated if they have lost a loved one to COVID19.

Agreeable abstract thinkers are more willing to extend themselves, for the good of all. They might favor a raise in the minimum wage because, when workers earn more, they spend more. It boosts the economy. Agreeable concrete thinkers are more willing to extend themselves when they personally witness an immediate need, for example, if they themselves, or close friends or family can’t afford basic necessities on minimum-wage.

This doesn’t mean abstract thinkers are incapable of thinking concretely, that they are unmoved by something they perceive here and now. Nor does it mean concrete thinkers are incapable of thinking abstractly. These are tendencies, not absolutes, and the strength of the tendencies varies among individuals.

These temperamental tendencies are biologically driven. We are born with them.

Evolutionary Imbalance?

Abstract thinkers represent only about 16-25% of the human population. Concrete thinkers represent about 75-84%. This proportion evolved in times in when immediate physical threats were numerous. A majority needed to react to them. A group didn’t need as many abstract thinkers to consider what might happen in the future and plan for it.

However, modern humans less often face immediate dangers like predatory animals or ambushes by neighboring tribes. We face dangers like threats to the environment. They are not yet causing severe, tangible problems for short term thinking individuals, so many remain unwilling to reduce their carbon footprint. If a majority don’t make changes until they are actually feeling the pain, it will probably be too late to save the environment. Likewise, it is difficult to appreciate the need to take precautions about COVID-19 without some abstract thinking.

All this is compounded by disinformation widely dispersed by electronic means. Short term thinkers tend to latch onto memes, tweets and soundbites, rather than to read and think about scientific explanations.

Human technological and sociological evolution has outstripped our biological evolution. We could use a higher proportion of abstract thinkers.

What To Do?

I’d like scientists as well as other abstract thinkers to tailor their communications to grab the attention of concrete thinkers. If I were advising a rain forest preservation group, I’d say place a picture of that cute little endangered animal side by side with maps showing how rain forests have diminished. Include something for both types of thinkers.

A sad example of short term, concrete thinking is the recent removal of all COVID-19 safety requirements by the governors of Texas and Mississippi. The numbers of new infections and deaths has gone down. To an abstract thinker, that says, Masking, distancing and hand washing are working, so continue them. However, many concrete thinkers, a majority of the human population, see improvement as a sign that it’s OK to ease up, or even stop, safety practices. This even though, several times, when numbers decreased, people cut back on precautions, causing a spike in new cases and deaths.

Ironically, the number of deaths is now so high, it isn’t meaningful to the average concrete thinker. One can make this more meaningful by relate it to something known and fathomable. Citing The Washington Post, Poynter Institute journalist Tom Jones wrote: “For example: What if your standard city bus held 51 people? To carry 500,000 passengers, that would require 9,804 buses that would stretch nearly 95 miles. That’s like lining up buses from New York City to Philadelphia. Now imagine all of the passengers dead.” [3] He gave the concrete thinkers a tangible mental image.

I imagine a public service announcement showing, side by side, a person in a hospital bed on a ventilator and IVs, and another person wearing a mask. Audio/caption: “Better a mask than a ventilator.”

What about Ordinary Individuals?

Tom Jones is a journalist. What can the rest of us do? Figure out whether you tend to think concretely or abstractly. If concretely, try making the effort to follow the reasoning of abstract speakers and writers such as scientists. Just try it for a while, and see if you learn anything helpful.

If you’re an abstract thinker, add tangible examples to your abstract explanations. You, too, will spend a little more time, but you will find the results worthwhile.


[1] Click here

[2] See Please Understand Me II

[3] https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2021/a-half-million-covid-deaths-trying-to-wrap-our-brains-around-a-horrific-number/