The urge to classify people into mental types is an old and natural one. We can use physical stereotypes (slim, tall, short, black, white, ad infinitum) for all kinds of useful things like sports selection or the selection of demographically balanced panels. So, could we also use mental types – like a narcissist or a psychopath?
The idea is simple. If we knew what ‘type’ someone was (say, the psychopath type or an extravert) then we would know a lot of useful things about them. We might even be able to predict their feelings or behaviour. If we know that someone is a ‘narcissist’ we ‘know’ that they are selfish and self-centred. That’s the theory, at least.
Personality types – and mental disorder types
Recently, ‘type’ psychology has become very fashionable. There are lots of reasons for this, but it is worth mentioning two important social changes.
The first is the growth of free-to-use social media. Social media platforms earn their income from advertising. And, in theory, they can help advertisers to sell products by targeting the personality types most likely to want them.
The products might range from washing powders to political parties. The scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica illustrates the methods by which advertisers can identify good ‘targets’.
Your typical narcissist
The second social change is a growing cultural view that when people have problems in life, we can best understand them as mental disorders. And, according to modern thinking, it is common for these mental disorders to be linked to specific psycho-types or even brain types. So if a person is an extreme version of a given type, then they are believed to have a disorder. A narcissistic personality is, in extreme, a person with narcissistic personality disorder.
There has been an explosion in mental health ‘types’ over the last 40+ years (for example, dyslexics, autistics, psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, bi-polars, borderlines, etc, etc). These disorder types appear constantly in fiction, medical documentaries and in crime documentaries. And this regular exposure has reinforced them in the public consciousness – at the expense of much more normal explanations. For every one person who has heard of, say, ‘stimulus generalisation’ (a truly important psychological reality), a hundred have heard of narcissists and ADHD.
So when people want to know why other people – or even they themselves – behave in particular ways, they look for a mental illness or personality ‘type’ that seems to fit. And because the types are defined so loosely, this is very easy indeed. Having said that, some personality types are more attractive than others. Most people don’t mind being ‘an extrovert’ or ‘a borderline’. Not many people hurry to be ‘a narcissist’!
But how do we know that these personality types and mental disorder types definitely exist? Can we use checklists of ‘known’ characteristics to distinguish them one from another?
Types and their mental disorders
The first thing to note is that people living in Western societies, especially parents, are keener than ever before to understand the causes of unwelcome feelings and behaviour. And psycho-types and mental disorders offer us very appealing explanations because they seem to offer simple answers… If a person regularly feels bad or behaves anti-socially, what could be simpler than attributing the problem to a fixed personality or brain type (a depressive, a borderline or a narcissist, for example).
And it offers easy treatment too. Once we have identified the type (and the ‘mental disorder’ associated with it), the reasoning goes, we can treat it with the relevant drugs or talking therapies.
One leading enthusiast for this over-simplified boxology is Professor Simon Baron Cohen. He even used to run a 50-minute workshop entitled “How to Spot a Psychopath”. It’s very appealing – selling the illusion that any of us can become NCIS profilers in just under an hour (plus questions).
Unfortunately, it’s nothing like as simple as silly checklists that would not be out of place in a children’s comic. And, apart from that, there are alternative explanations for so-called psychopathic behaviour that are much better.
But these are much less sexy than a voyeuristic courses selling delusions.
So, what is the problem?
Reasons to be doubtful about types
There are good reasons to be sceptical about psycho-types, reasons that are both practical and theoretical.
The main practical problem becomes obvious when people who have been classified as belonging to a type are observed closely. They often do all kinds of things that are not on their type’s checklist.
In a different science, that kind of contradiction might make people wonder about the validity of the type – and try to test it, or even abandon it. But, alas, this is no ordinary science; this is ‘mental health’ science. And rather than surrender their preferred disorders and ‘types’, scientists will often go to great lengths to find excuses for the poor fit: the science is evolving; we need more research; it will all turn out right in the end.
Meanwhile, the data and psycho-types are ‘bent’ to improve the fit between the people and the type.
Bending data and types
The easiest ‘bend’ is to define a psycho-type more broadly – so that it includes more people. And the easiest way to do this is to put the disorder or a ‘spectrum’ so that everyone has it.
Another dodge is classify people into a type even when they only exhibit some of the type’s supposedly ‘known’ characteristics. Sometimes, this can be as few as 4/9!
Broadening catchment in ways like this ensures that marginal cases can’t escape diagnosis. But it also means that vast numbers of quite ordinary people with life problems, especially children, are diagnosed too. Today, everyone, literally everyone, can be identified as belonging to one or more ‘types’. We can all be on ‘the spectrum’… We just need to interpret our behaviour selectively.
Broadening the disorder categories has also made multiple diagnoses possible. So, if John isn’t doing stuff that fits with him being autistic on a given day, he’s probably doing stuff that fits him into one of the other psycho-types – ADHD, for example. In a world where stereotyping and diagnosis is entirely subjective, there is no escape.
Later I will present an alternative to the ‘type’ thinking that has ‘a disorder for everyone’.
So why have western societies embraced these types?
The reasons for the social trend towards more (and broader) disorder types are complex – much too complex to describe fully here. Changes in social attitudes mean that we often look for no-blame explanations that might have relatively simple solutions – like drugs and talking therapies. And the appeal of types owes something to our innate and universal attraction to stereotypes and labelling.
Types are also very useful and even satisfying. There is a kind of ‘closure’ in deciding that someone we don’t like very much is “a narcissist”. Types also enable us to explain our own feelings and behaviour (to ourselves and others). ‘I’m not lazy, I’m neuro-divergent. My brain doesn’t work like yours.’
In other areas of life, the attraction is more obviously cynical. For lawyers, especially divorce lawyers and personal injury lawyers, the capacity to interpret behaviour as, for example, the behaviour of a ‘narcissistic’ is a fantastic asset. And when there is enough money involved, lawyers will pay expert witnesses to appear in court to present such nonsense as ‘evidence’.
Alongside the practical problems with identifying an individual as belonging to a type, there are theoretical problems. And the main theoretical problem is that there is no scientific proof that many of the most ‘popular’ disorder psycho-types exist at all.
Proof for psycho-types is almost invariably circular. (Why is John’s behaviour odd? Because he is autistic. How do we know that John is autistic? Because his behaviour is odd.) Despite the popular misconception that objective and reliable tests for disorder psycho-types exist, they do not. There are no ‘brain tests’ for disorders such as ADHD.
So, instead, psychiatrists carry out interviews… or, much more often, they ask people to complete questionnaires that – supposedly – measure the disorders and types. Unfortunately, the design of these questionnaires is often very amateurish indeed. [There will be a post about these problems – and how to solve them]
But although the science of ‘types’ is a very dodgy science, our innate and cultural liking for types is great. Innately, we all create stereotypes that explain the world simply. Culturally, they are attractive too; without concrete disorder types, our movie-makers could not give us the deranged nutters of NCIS. And, as noted earlier, lawyers love the pseudo-science of mental types that they can deploy in courtrooms.
In short, we like mental types because they are easy to use. They give us the simple boxes that make life seem simpler. And with these types we can delude ourselves that we have an explanation for differences between people.
It is a context in which people rarely ask difficult questions like: “Are you completely sure that this type actually exists”?
The alternative – psychological processes
But if explanation by psycho-type is so unhelpful for understanding, what is the better alternative?
In my view, our inbuilt psychological processes provide a much more useful explanation for human (and non-human) differences than rigid ‘types’. Although these processes are universal, they combine with culture and learning to make us all different. Let’s consider an example…
Everyone has an ability to learn things because that process is inbuilt. Learning, in fact, is unavoidable – it’s like a reflex, you just can’t stop doing it. And among the many things we all learn are which things we should be afraid of.
Some of us learn to fear public speaking; others learn to fear onions, snakes or malicious gods. But whatever fears we develop through life, ALL those fears have resulted through the inbuilt process of learning; we do not develop ANY fears because we are ‘a type’.
When we psycho-type people – clumping their fears and anxieties together to give us fixed ‘illness’ types (borderlines, phobics, anorexics, etc, etc) – we miss this important reality. And to the extent that fixed disorder psycho-types distract from the real causes of our long-term fears and anxieties (often developed early in life) they actually reduce understanding.
To put all that very simply and clearly, if you don’t understand the inbuilt (and sometimes subtle) mechanisms through which learning works, you cannot understand the causes of ‘bad’ feelings and behaviours. No ifs, no buts.
In the last twenty years, there has been increasing enthusiasm for reducing psychological phenomena (and its supposed psycho-types) to ‘brain-types’. People have seized upon the terms ‘neuro-divergent’ and ‘neuro-typical’ in the hope that such brain types will explain in simple black and white terms why they feel different from others. “My brain is wired differently”.
Reading websites, especially those concerning ADHD and ‘borderline personality disorder’, makes it clear just how emotionally invested many people are in their brain-types and disorder-types. It provides a sense of meaning and certainty.
However, and without wishing to ‘invalidate’ anyone, I must respectfully point in a different direction… Becoming concreted into the idea of divergent brain-types (that then create psycho-types) may not be the best way for them to achieve long-term happiness. And who wants to acknowledge being a narcissist or a psychopath?
So, I urge people to learn about psychology’s inbuilt mental processes instead. That’s where a real understanding of individual differences in behaviour and feelings can be found.
For all but a vanishingly small number of people, psychological life cannot usefully be understood with psycho-types. Understanding lies in understanding our psychological processes.