What are some useful paradigms for understanding people?
December 25, 2013 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes it can be useful to divide people into categories* for the purpose of understanding the differences in how people behave. For example: *Asker, guesser: Askers assume that it always okay to ask for a favour, guessers feel that one should have a good idea of whether the favor will be granted before asking. *Advocates, truthseekers: Advocates care about winning an argument, truthseekers search for the truth. *Givers, takers, matchers: Givers always try to help people; matchers try to help people, but seek reciprocity; givers only care about what what they can get from others. So, what are some useful paradigms for understanding different people?

*NB: I understand that breaking people into categories isn't a perfect way to understand them. Firstly, categories are never binaries, instead there is a sliding scale. Secondly, I understand that some people may behave one way in one type of situation and another way in other. Thirdly, there will always be some people who fall outside the categories given
posted by casebash to Human Relations (32 answers total) 110 users marked this as a favorite
Belbin team roles?
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:17 PM on December 25, 2013

You might find Eric Berne's book Games People Play a useful read. The games (and his Parent/Adult/Child archetypes) are rough categorizations of ways people can act.
posted by daveliepmann at 3:21 PM on December 25, 2013

Doers and talkers.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 3:27 PM on December 25, 2013

It's pretty old hat at this point, but the Myers-Briggs personality types have always seemed pretty spot-on when it comes to me and the people I know.

Helps me look at people's tendencies in a more positive light too. He isn't a stuffy old bore, he's a Duty Fulfiller! She isn't a spastic windbag, she's a Performer!
posted by johnpoe50 at 3:33 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bartle's types of players describe different archetypes of activity that players take within games. It's been expanded upon by academic and industry researchers to describe more types.
posted by codacorolla at 3:40 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've found the Dungeons & Dragons character alignments to be pretty helpful. Visualization (flawed, but funny and informative!) here.

Alternately, a close friend is a veterinarian. He mentally groups people by what breed of dog they'd be. His bookkeeper is a border collie, his office staff are mostly sighthounds like whippets and greyhounds, his wife is a border terrier and his son is a Plott hound. I haven't asked what kind of dog he thinks I am.
posted by workerant at 3:46 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would say you could divide the world into people who try to fit themselves into categories, and those who just allow themselves to be the messy human beings we are. The first group far outnumbers the second, according to the Forer effect

However, later studies have found that subjects give higher accuracy ratings if the following are true:

  • the subject believes that the analysis applies only to him or her, and thus applies their own meaning to the statements.
  • the subject believes in the authority of the evaluator.
  • the analysis lists mainly positive traits.

As for the tendency to put other people into neat categories, that seems to be a universal human need, with the desire to use the special categories of "us" and "them" equally widespread and achievable within minutes. (In sociology we actually call that ingroup vs outgroup, and the process seems to explain favoritism.)
posted by bilabial at 3:51 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is pretty much exactly why human beings invented horoscopes: to try to put people into categories in an attempt to understand our lives and predict the future.
posted by decathecting at 3:54 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a fascinating question. Obligatory disclaimer (as you said) that these are hard-edged categories occasionally insufficient to describe a continuum of individuals. * I personally find this division exaggerated and reductive, but many people prefer to identify themselves as more creative/artistic, say, or logical/scientific. One could argue all of these are a bit reductive…but hey, they're pretty fun!

I'm not sure what purpose you want these categories for, but I've found that a lot of character sheets (made for writers trying to craft a story and understand their characters) also bring up some interesting ways people can differ.
posted by Sudo at 4:01 PM on December 25, 2013 [12 favorites]

Bilabial, I already added a note about the limitations of these categories.

Here's a link to an explanation of why tests like Myers-Briggs, despite their flaws, can still be useful

"In terms of the way the personality typing systems helps people, these problems may not matter. As long as the types or dimensions divide people into evenly sized groups and lend themselves to meaningful stories, they may serve their purpose. Studying personality clusters and the relationships among "types" will produce insights into oneself and the human population. Furthermore, these insights are packaged into a comprehensible story-telling form that enhances one's intuition for dealing with people.

In any case, the insights derived from personality typing systems like MBTI are real, but they are insights into the human personality landscape and the general revelation other people are not always like you. They are not necessarily insights into the inner workings of the human psyche."
posted by casebash at 4:08 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I love the MBTI. In particular I found the sensing vs intuition dichotomy extremely useful - it explained why I always find a frustrating 'wall' in the conversation with some people when I can never really get as abstract/conceptual as I like, as they stop reciprocating/showing interest. I used to think that this was their shortcoming, but now I see that it's just different preferred styles of communication and I can adjust the way I interact with them. It also helps explain how one may approach problems - e.g. following an instruction manual vs just trying it out, or giving a presentation details first or big picture first, etc. (Yes, generalisations but still some truths.)

I think categorising people is useful to make you realise that there are people who think in different ways to yourself (which sounds obvious, but a fact that required a conscious recognition for me) and that you therefore shouldn't project your anxieties/perceptions/annoyances on others. It's made me more at peace with myself and others.
posted by pikeandshield at 4:15 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Satisficers vs. maximizers is another one for the pile.
posted by un petit cadeau at 4:44 PM on December 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

sudo has it. i'd add things like:

body type: ectomorph, etc.
birth order
family roles in dysfunctional families
the 4 humors: phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric, & sanguine
spiritual types: mystical, sacramental, communal, prophetic (see: ed leidel or corinne ware)
posted by wildflower at 4:51 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Overbuyers, underbuyers (per Gretchen Rubin).

Planners, spontaneous people.

Rule-followers, rule-breakers.

Overachievers, underachievers.

Pessimists, optimists.

Believers, skeptics.

Theodore Isaac Rubin's book One to One divides us into 3 categories: "people who move toward people" (self-effacing, compliant), "people who move against people" (narcissistic, expansive), and "people who move away from people" (detached, aloof).
posted by John Cohen at 4:58 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a big fan of sports metaphors. In any team, you need your superstars, your everyday players that may not be the best but can hold it down year after year after year, your specialists that can do a particular thing really well but may be hopeless otherwise, and your chemistry/clubhouse guys that contribute through mentoring or keeping the team motivated or otherwise being the glue that keeps everyone working together.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:05 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

People whose perspective is different than yours. It includes everybody (even you, at different times of your life), but it is still a useful distinction.
posted by Good Brain at 5:12 PM on December 25, 2013

People who divide everything into either "shit" or "awesome", vs. people who have a continuum of evaluations.
posted by Jabberwocky at 5:20 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Scanners and Divers
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:36 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatic ... Cretins don't even talk; they sort of slobber and stumble ... Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation ... Fools don't claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation, and when they really offend, they're magnificent ... Morons never do the wrong thing. They get their reasoning wrong. Like the fellow who says that all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, therefore cats bark ... Morons will occasionally say something that's right, but they say it for the wrong reason ... A lunatic is easily recognized. He is a moron who doesn't know the ropes. The moron proves his thesis; he has logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic on the other hand, doesn't concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars ... There are lunatics who don't bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious. At first they seem normal, then all of a sudden ...
— Umberto Eco
posted by adipocere at 6:33 PM on December 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:38 PM on December 25, 2013

The ¨Big Five" personality traits are worth a look. In my opinion, they are the best personality measures psychologists have come up with.

posted by zscore at 10:04 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I sometimes when traveling devide people into queuers and shovers, people who obey the rules but try to game them and enforce the rules around them vs. people who try to upend the rules and move outside of them, betting they won't be called on it.
posted by The Whelk at 11:30 PM on December 25, 2013

How about the DISC assessment? Or the Gallup/Clifton Strengths Finder?
posted by skye.dancer at 7:52 AM on December 26, 2013

I secretly divide people into "dogs" and "cats." I guess it's not a secret anymore. It's not about whether people prefer dogs or cats; it's about whether they behave like dogs or behave like cats. Dogs are more enthusiastic and extroverted; cats are slinkier, quieter, more idiosyncratic people.
posted by millipede at 8:37 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

In their 1993 Neanderthals At Work, Bernstein and Rozen divided office workers into three categories: Rebels, Believers and Competitors.
posted by Rash at 8:41 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's the Enneagram theory of personality. (IME, a reasonably useful tool for being aware of things like "when [X type] situation happens, I usually react in [Y way], so when I'm under stress I want to remember to do [Z] instead".)
posted by Lexica at 10:42 AM on December 26, 2013

I just happened on this article on guys-as-brands-they-are-loyal-to and thought it might be of interest.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:50 PM on December 26, 2013

There are Jungian archetypes (which are part of the underpinning of the Myers-Briggs types, I believe).

There are also all of those categorization snowclones like "There are two types of people in this world: Those who love U2 and those who don't." I thought that sounded incredibly pithy when I was 11!
posted by limeonaire at 8:08 PM on December 26, 2013

Love languages:
  • Words of affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Receiving gifts
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch
Love Style:
  • Eros - passionate, emotional love. Gives fully and takes risks
  • Ludos - love as a game to be played out with different partners. Quantity is often more important than quality
  • Storgic - friends first - chosen based on similarity
  • Pragma - shopping list partner selection
  • Manic - intense, possessive, dependent love. Low self esteem and so place a huge value on the relationship
  • Agape - self-sacrificing - partners viewed as blessings. More pleasure from giving than receiving. Marriage and children are sacred trusts

posted by casebash at 11:10 PM on December 31, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut was once asked ‘[if] the world was divided into only two kinds of people, not counting the sexes, what would they be?’ His reply: ‘Roundheads and Cavaliers.’
posted by misteraitch at 2:04 AM on January 2, 2014

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