Personality Ambidexterity: Or How to Turn Yourself Inside-Out

Fox and hedgehog are related archetypes that form an archetype schema: a set of related archetypes that arguably covers most of humanity very well. Push come to shove, most people are willing to classify themselves on a good schema, and suspend the instinct to challenge the underlying assumptions and fuzziness in boundaries.

The simplest sort of archetype schema is a binary classification (“there are two kinds of people in the world…”). Developing some capacity to inhabit the other side of a binary schema, within which you see yourself relatively clearly as being on one side, is like developing personality ambidexterity. To do this, you have to understand the symmetries and polarities in a given schema.

A symmetry in mathematics is a transformation that turns one thing into another. For example, a reflection symmetry flips (say) a left-hand silhouette drawn on paper so it looks like a right hand. Any archetype schema is based on various symmetries and polarities, but it may not be immediately apparent how to describe it explicitly as such (a necessary step before you can apply a transformation), or why it is worth bothering.

What operation might turn, say, a fox into a hedgehog? And why would we want to attempt that sort of “trading places” switcheroo?

Fox-Hedgehog Ambidexterity

In the case of fox and hedgehog, the signature distinction lies in whether a messy collection of rough and simple models (foxes) or an elegant Grand Unified Model (hedgehog) is used to process reality. But that’s not enough to figure out a meaningful flip. You need a more complete sense of what an archetype says in order to flip it. Otherwise you might end up attempting an ill-posed partial flip (such as flipping a left-hand silhouette into a right-hand-silhouette without carrying the thumb over) that might turn out to be impossible.

The key is to figure out what part of a fox looks somewhat hedgehog-like, and what part of the hedgehog looks somewhat fox-like.

Usually, this means looking for negative, shadow features that are being under-emphasized or hidden altogether; the no-free-lunch “cost” of the strength captured in the archetype. In the fox/hedgehog description, the hedgehog description is positive (“elegant, grand, unified”) and the fox description is negative (“messy, rough, simple”). So we need to look for the hedgehog’s weakness and the fox’s strength.

We can get to a more complete picture of the scheme (including the “thumb” in the fox-hedgehog distinction as it were) by including the claim that foxes are better at predicting the future than hedgehogs (or “less awful”), and are less likely to ignore significant environment signals as noise.

Now how do we put these features together into “polar symmetry” type descriptions.

Here is one possible solution.

Mental models are representations of reality within your head. If you have a huge sunk cost in a large, unified mental model, you are more likely to prune away parts of reality that don’t fit. If you work with a lot of cheap and poorly integrated models, you can always make up a new model for some fragment of reality.

One way to restate these modes of processing is to say that hedgehogs decide within a singular frame whether or not some observation of the real world is significant. Foxes assume that everything in the world is significant and that they only need to find the right perspective to appreciate it.

So the world to the hedgehog looks like one giant central reality which conforms to the Grand Unified Mental model, and lots of pieces of scrap pruned away as noise, on the cutting room floor. For a fox, there is no cutting away. Nothing is censored out as noise. It is either appreciated with a little local model, or bracketed as “significance not yet understood.” Foxes hoard what they see until they appreciate it and are not too invested in pursuing significance. Hedgehogs prize significance and only add things with a high likelihood of significance into their thinking.

It sure seems, does it not, as though foxes see a single world that they don’t feel right about chopping up into pieces using their own signal-noise significance judgments, and hedgehogs see a fragmented world, with lots of bits and pieces that don’t fit and are therefore eliminated with prejudice as noise.

Now we have an interesting polarity. Hedgehogs are single model/fragmented world people while foxes are fragmented model/unified world people. Both are responses to the overwhelming complexity of the world and the difficulty of processing it all within the limits of the human brain.

We now have a hand with fingers and thumb (this actually works as a decent mnemonic: the fingers represent multiplicity, the thumb represents unity, so a hedgehog can be understood as a person with a thumb inside the head and fingers outside, and a fox as a person with fingers inside and thumb outside).

It’s a speculative theory, but I propose that the fox/hedgehog dichotomy describes a sort of unity/multiplicity dipole in our heads. One pole is directed inwards at models in our heads and is a “multiplicity” knob that modulates our thinking, the other is directed towards the world, as a signal/noise filter.  The more you tune the filter towards admitting everything as signal, the more the multiplicity knob at the other end will swing towards high fragmentation. The more you are tune the filter towards classifying most things as noise, the more the multiplicity knob inside will turn towards “unified.” The only way to break the constraint is to increase  brain capacity. Smarter people can achieve greater unity without eliminating more as noise.

So to turn yourself inside out from fox to hedgehog, you must reinforce a brutal tendency to dismiss as noise anything that does not make immediate sense to you (become more close-minded). To go the other way, you must resist the temptation to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit, and force yourself to manufacture an account of what it might mean, even if you cannot immediately see how to make it consistent with everything else you believe (becoming more open-minded). This might mean putting yourself into highly unfamiliar and seemingly irrelevant life contexts and trying to figure out how to enjoy yourself (a symptom of successful appreciation) rather than merely survive.

I call this sort of self-manipulation technique “turning yourself inside out” in some way. It’s a mental analog of a right-handed person teaching themselves to write with their left hand, but much more complex, since it involves your whole brain. You might never get very good at it, but you’ll develop some skill in inhabiting unfamiliar personae and understanding others.

Vizier-Emperor Ambidexterity

When you go from simple and relatively literary/narrative binary schema like fox/hedgehog to more explicitly model-based ones like Myers-Briggs, with more dimensions, things get complex. There are various couplings and constraints, and the polarities are even more obscured, with more hidden phenomena to take into account.

A polarity flip that particularly interests me is the one from INTP to ENTJ, which I think of as vizier and emperor archetypes respectively. Or to over-simplify, from a consultant like me to someone like Steve Jobs. Or equivalently, what Myers-Briggs enthusiasts would call a shift from TiNe to TeNi.

Both are similar in that they share the same dominant and secondary functions (thinking and intuition respectively). But differ in which way those functions are oriented (internal versus external). The second type of subscript notation gets at the underlying “polarity” of the visible personality types (so INTP has a polarity described by the notation TiNe).

The former is a person who thinks logically inside his/her head, using consistent and explicit models, but expresses himself/herself in intuitive ways, using free association and pattern recognition directed at sensory data in the external world.

The latter is a person who thinks intuitively inside his/her head, using subconscious paradox resolution, leading to insights that bubble into awareness accompanied by great certainty, but uses logical thought to express himself/herself in external reality.

I am oversimplifying a bit, but Myers-Briggs is not critical here, except as a scaffolding and vocabulary. What we’re really talking about is a polarity involving free association processes on one end and deliberate reasoning processes on the other, applied to sensory data or memories respectively. To flip it, as I am trying to teach myself to do at the moment, you have to reinforce behaviors that feel very unnatural.

For me, this means making myself comfortable in domains where I have no choice but to reason about external realities. I am learning to sail at the moment, and managing sails, tiller and wind to go where you want involves a whole lot of outside-your-head thinking. If I ever get any good at it, I am hoping that I’ll get mysterious internally generated insights into the right way to improve sailboat design. Or something like that.

I am trying this particular flip because I happen to be close to the cusp on the I/E and J/P dimensions, but have a much more pronounced preference for T over F and N over S. If I can figure out this relatively easy shift, perhaps I’ll try inhabiting an SF persona sometime in the distant future. That would be a major and extremely weird shape-shifting accomplishment for me. The very thought of behaving like the strongly SF people I know makes me instantly uncomfortable.

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  1. Another way to think about this is to ask where judgment takes place. In the Jungian typologies the thinking/feeling functions are the judging functions while sensing/intuition are the perceiving functions.

    For an introverted thinker (Ti), judgments (evaluations of what makes sense and what doesn’t) come from inside one’s own head. An INTP who encounters a particularly elegant theory will generally presume that that theory contains some truth until proven otherwise. If the theory doesn’t immediately fit the external reality he presume that the context/interpretation/application must not be properly understood. If he is eventually convinced that it is incorrect then he will want to figure out how such an elegant theory could be wrong.

    For an extraverted thinker (Te), judgments are observed in the external world. A proposition is either true or false. If it is demonstrably false then it merits no further investigation. When debating an idea, an ENTJ will give you examples, references, facts…they will build a case using “data points”. There are anecdotes floating around about Steve Jobs lobbying viciously for certain products or strategic directions, until other executives finally produced the evidence contradicting his intuitions…at which point Jobs simply dropped the issue.

    To put it somewhat simplistically, introverted thinkers are theorists while extraverted thinkers are empiricists.

    The same is could be said for feeling types. My girlfriend is an ESFJ, an extraverted feeling type. She notices and can recall in great detail what people say and do (social data points), but she rarely thinks (consciously anyway) about the implications of these observations or how they might be integrated into a unified mental model.

    • I’d wager $100 that your girlfriend does think about the implications of her observations and how they’re integrated into a mental model. She’s just doesn’t understand what you’re getting at or is not interested in attempting to answer the question as stated.

      Use an alternate format. Ask her sometime why a coworker she’s talking about doesn’t qualify as “friend”. Ask what she thinks the person thinks of her. Dig deeper. Why does so-and-so deserve in ? Why is X an appropriate gift for ? Why not token gift Y? Why not extravagant gift Z? Why not nothing at all?

      With a good enough lookup table, built over time, you can Google Translate things cross language. One of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard is something like: “I don’t want to, but I have to go along and help, even if I’m not technically needed. If she were to get married, and I hadn’t have done this, then it would be really weird.”

      There are observations here. There are mental models here. Just nothing too clean or unified.

      • [Site mangled the comment due to my use of gt/lt symbols. Should be:]

        Use an alternate format. Ask her sometime why a coworker she’s talking about doesn’t qualify as “friend”. Ask what she thinks the person thinks of her. Dig deeper. Why does so-and-so deserve [required-burdensome-action]? Why is X an appropriate gift for [person/occasion]? Why not token gift Y? Why not extravagant gift Z? Why not nothing at all?

        • This is why I included the note “(consciously anyway)”. It’s not that she is incapable of answering such questions. If pushed she would surely have answers. It’s just that these aren’t the kinds of questions that naturally seem to her to be worth contemplating. The mental models are there – they have to be – but they are largely subconscious. She can pull them into consciousness when necessary but generally she does so *only* when necessary.

          • When you say “pushed”, I think “pushed to answer from your point of view”. A point of view that she is probably barely literate in. And “surely [has] answers” vs “has answers” indicates that you haven’t actually tried all that hard.

            People don’t just do things for no reason. It may be tempting for you to frame it as such, but I don’t buy it.

            It seems to me that, much in the same way she has failed to answer, you have failed to appropriately question. Question in __her__ language.

            I’m in the same boat as you, but I’ve drawn different conclusions. I’ve learned her language and now speak it. It’s made my life much richer.

          • In answer to the comment below, which seems to have reached the thread depth limit…

            Yes, when I say “pushed” I do mean “pushed to answer from my point of view”. That has been my meaning throughout – that certain perspectives (or “languages”) come naturally while others are (must be) implicitly present but are rarely accessed consciously.

            That said, I think you may be reading a bit too much into my comments. I never meant to imply that I refuse to learn her language or that she refuses to learn mine. I am simply talking about natural inclinations, setting aside any external push or encouragement to think differently. Obviously being in a relationship *is* one of those external forces that encourages you to try on unfamiliar perspectives.

  2. Could you please elaborate on outside-of-your head thinking and how you see sailing as something that will help you shapeshift? What other activities would work in this way?

    • Any martial art that includes sparring
      Flying a plane or helicopter
      Pruning an extremely overgrown bush or tree
      Skateboarding or mountain biking
      Going to a death metal show in a sketchy neighborhood
      One on one conversational Korean lessons once per week
      Cooking $300 of the best food you can find on a hot grill in front of a judging crowd
      Going to sports matches and sitting right next to supporters sections
      Learning to snowboard even though you’re old and suck
      Adopting a random psychotic cat off of the street

      If I need to continue, let me know.

      • ~13.8 billion years ago: BOOM! Before you know it, genocidal muck on an obscure planet. Before you know it, genocidal monkeys.

        Vertebrates steal stone molecules and encase their most important organ in it. With the rest of it, they literally make a tree of sorts and surround the outside with whatever they can harvest. They keep their young literally inside themselves. You gotta go through mama hen (and probably pops) for the egg on these guys.

        So humans come along and are literally Satan’s own little murderous bastard machines. This literally happened less than 70 years ago: (69 years, 10 months ago)

        Somewhere in the last 70 years things have chilled out a bit. Not everybody. Not everything. Slowly. But anyways, you should realize that you are literally a murder machine without the activation code punched in.

        You are literally an infected skeleton zombie that doesn’t realize any of this. You may be the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation to be permitted to opt out of genocidal bloodletting.

        From this perspective, what big deal of it is to simply choose to ride a board on snow down a mountain, sometimes falling on your ass?


  3. Havent paid much attention here for a few weeks, interesting discussion :)

    I am now thinking a lot about thinking versus feeling modes of processing. Seems to explain a lot about the difference between divisions that matter in elections versus legislation in politics.

  4. Two books that are somewhat related:
    Cognition in the Wild – I’ve seen this recommended on ribbonfarm, and it seems relevant here. The main idea seems to be that tools and artifacts are in a sense externalized thoughts/physical metaphors. The specific artifacts discussed were for ship navigation, which (on large ships) can require several people coordinating, some of whom may not have a lot of experience. I read another book on prototyping shortly after this (Serious Play), where artifacts and tools are captured experience, prototypes are a means to develop experience.

    Diaminds – Not great book, but interesting. One of the ideas discussed is recording thought processes, looking for certain patterns of thought, and then going back and examining how else it could be thought about, which might be useful here. It seems like it would be easier perhaps to “turn yourself inside-out” through a written record rather than real time, at least at first.

    As far as other activities that might develop outside of the head thinking, I took a class in sign language awhile back and it might do the trick. I know learning a new language in general can be a good brain workout (particularly through immersion), but for me that really made me think in radically different way than I was used to.

    • Yup. Still on my to-read list for that very reason. Now that I can sail, the book should be a better read.