The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

Libel in Fact: Personality Judgment by Analogy

Judging by Analogy: More Like Mao Tse-tung or Humpty Dumpty?

When we encounter a new person, we construct a mental model of that individual to help us describe, understand, and predict the individual's behavior. We construct an instance of what Kenneth Craik, the Scottish philosopher, called "models" of the outer world: in this case, inner, mental representations of whatever we can grasp about another person. 

Sometimes we might take a shortcut: We might borrow a model we have created of someone else, and fit it by analogy to the new person. Drawing such an analogy ("He is like his brother") saves us from the trouble of thinking through what the new person really is like.

This judgment-by-analogy arose multiple times in the 1964 Fact poll of psychiatrists. The poll had asked psychiatrists about the personality of Senator Barry Goldwater, who was then running as the Republican candidate for US President. Political passions over the election were high, and this passion (and the poll's bias) were reflected in some of the analogies drawn by the psychologists:

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"I believe Goldwater has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders."

"I feel that were Goldwater to become President he would use nuclear weapons in a fit of rage much as Adolf Hitler used his hostility to launch World War II."

"...[Goldwater] accepted and is advocating the...Mein Kampf platform..."

"...Since his nomination, I find myself increasingly thinking of...Adolf Hitler."

Comparing a person to Hitler has become so common (and so plainly in error) that some commentators now describe this as the logical fallacy of "Reductio ad Hitlerum" (Dog Latin for "Reduction to Hitler"). It is so common today that Godwin's Law states that, "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

In 1964, however, Hitler's bitter and vile acts were fresh in the public mind, and using such an analogy represented especially strong words, given the visceral reactions that his name could call forth.

Returning to the 1964 poll, not all the respondents saw Senator Goldwater's resemblance to Hitler. Others wrote:

"He resembles Mao Tse-tung."

"His use of language resembles Humpty Dumpty... ‘When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'"

Other analogies were to "Senator McCarthy" , and, "a latter day Miniver Cheevy."

Miniver Cheevy was the misfit character of a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. One relevant verse was:

Miniver loved the days of old
      When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
      Would set him dancing.

Analogies from Hitler, Humpty-Dumpty, and Miniver Cheevy reflect culturally-shared mental models of important individuals, both real and fictional. They convey meaning quickly and efficiently, and often with passion.

In terms of accuracy, however, analogizing between people - fitting a mental model of Hitler, say, to Goldwater, leaves much to be desired. Such comparisons may raise alarms about the Senator, or ridicule him, but they hardly characterize him accurately.

If we seek accuracy, we need to build a mental model of a person beginning with the facts of the case. Goldwater was a distinct person, no matter how much he might have reminded people of someone they knew.

We cannot see anyone directly; we cannot absorb them or "take them inside us." We know people only through the mental models we construct of them. We can judge someone quickly and passionately, by intuition, or by analogy. To truly understand and predict other people, however, we need to check such reactions against more carefully constructed models.

Notes

Craik, K. (1943) The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A consideration of the definitions and characteristics of mental models can be found in: Doyle, J. K.; Ford, D. N. Mental models concepts revisited: Some clarifications and a reply to Lane. System Dynamics Review, Vol 15(4), Win, 1999. pp. 411-415.

Comparisons to "...Hitler, Castro, Stalin..."(p. 26), to "I feel that were Goldwater to become President...Adolf Hitler,"(p. 36), "...Mein Kampf platform..." (p. 54), "...Adolf Hitler." (p. 56). "...Mao Tse-tung," (p. 46), "Humpty Dumpty... ", (p. 43),  "Senator McCarthy" (p. 41), and, "a latter day Miniver Cheevy" (p. 58) are from Boroson, W. (1964, September/October). What psychiatrists say about Goldwater. Fact, 1, pp. 24-64.

Corrections/edits: The page number for "Humpty Dumpty" was added one week after the original post.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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