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The Charlie Brown Theory of Personality

The Five Factor model of personality, exemplified by Charlie Brown characters.

There are those who say there is nothing to be learned in the comics section of the newspaper.

We don't talk about these people.

To everyone else — yes, of course the comics can teach us, but did you know they can teach us about personality psychology?

It's true. Rather than actually proving this in any kind of systematic, empirical, or scientific fashion, I will instead propose the Charlie Brown Theory of Personality — which quite closely mirrors the Five Factor Model. Developed and tested by such personality luminaries as Digman, Goldberg, Costa, and McCrae, the Five Factor Model has, curiously, 14 factors. No, wait — it actually has five. (sorry).

This model reduces all of the different possible personality variables into five broad factors: neuroticism (now more politely called emotional stability), extraversion, openness to experience (sometimes just called openness), conscientiousness, and agreeableness. These factors are sometimes called the "Big Five," kind of like the Five Families in The Godfather but with more data and fewer button men.

The names of these factors convey their meaning. Neuroticism measures an individual's emotional stability (or lack thereof). Extraversion is how outgoing and sociable someone is, whereas openness to experience conveys someone's intellectual and experiential curiosity. Conscientiousness taps into one's discipline, rule-orientation, and integrity, and agreeableness is friendliness and being good-natured.

Ah, you might say, that's too complicated. Well, voila! Enter the comic strip Peanuts.

The Charlie Brown Theory of Personality

Charlie Brown = Neuroticism

Charlie Brown is a model neurotic. He is prone to depression and anxiety and paralyzing fits of over-analysis. Constantly worrying if he is liked or respected, he has a perpetual, usually dormant crush on the little redheaded girl, taking small joys in her foibles (like biting her pencil) that may make her more attainable. He is noted for his inability to fly a kite.

Snoopy = Extraversion

Snoopy is a typical extravert. Flamboyant, daring, and outgoing to a fault, he tries to join in every activity and conversation. He (perhaps fictitiously) flies gallant missions against the Red Baron and then brags about his exploits. For reasons potentially stemming from his long-ago abandonment of his mother, he aggressively pursues friendship and food (not in that order). Snoopy is Joe Cool, the life of the party.

Lucy = (Dis)agreeableness

Defined by a single word (crabby), Lucy revels in her disagreeableness. Typical portrayals of Lucy feature her bossing around her friends, dominating her little brother, mocking Charlie Brown's self-consciousness, and generally being a pain in the ass. Her attempts at psychiatry generally involve misguided advice delivered loudly and angrily. One recurring interaction is Lucy pretending to hold a football out for Charlie Brown to kick, and then pulling it out at the last minute. Brown goes thump and Lucy preens.

Linus = Openness to experience

Linus is clearly the brightest of all of the Peanuts gang. Witty and knowledgeable, he is prone to passionate monologues. He has invented his own creation, the Great Pumpkin, and faithfully waits in the pumpkin patches for him every Halloween. Linus has his own idiosyncrasy, an ever-present blue security blanket — but he does not seem particularly sensitive about it. It's who he is. Too young to active try new things, he must instead use his intellect to mull over new and interesting ideas.

Schroeder = Conscientiousness

Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and even Lucy are fairly well-developed characters. Schroeder is equally (perhaps more) lovable, but most casual readers know him for one thing: his piano playing. Yes, Lucy has a crush on him, but that's about her — he will have none of it. He is always practicing. Disciplined and focused on his passion for classical music, one can imagine him setting his alarm clock for 7 a.m. on weekends to try Autumn Sonata one more time. His one other preferred activity is playing catcher for the baseball team — again, the sturdy, reliable director of the action on the field. Schroeder would offer to help you move and show up 10 minutes early.

I have always loved comic strips. When I was a kid, I wrote to all the greats and asked for artwork. I was amazed at who wrote back — legends such as Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible), Bil Keane (Family Circus), Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Johnny Hart (B.C.), Brant Parker (Wizard of ID). Then-recent favorites like Bill Amend (Fox Trot), Greg Evans (Luann), Bill Holbrook (On the Fastrack), Tom Batiuk (Funky Winkerbean). I got to interview the lovely Brad Anderson (Marmaduke) in person.

My sole professional contribution to the field of comics lies in my role as narrator of the Chris Brandt-directed documentary, Independents (highly recommended, although I admit I'm biased). Independents is more focused on graphic novels, my current comics interest. But I will always have a soft spot for the old fashioned funnies.

So it was my civic duty to write this post. The next time you're at a cocktail party (or rave, or whatever you young whippersnappers do these days) and someone starts to insult the daily comics, you have some new ammo. They're not just (sort of) funny — they're educational.

See more posts on my website.