Sep 6, 2009

Socionics on the PCT

Some of my readers may know that I spent the summer hiking the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), a 2660 mile long trail through the great coastal ranges of the West that starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian border. My journey lasted over four months and provided ample time to reflect on many different things, including socionics and other psychological topics. Here's my write-up of the adventure, if readers are interested. 

I began the trip alone but quickly met dozens (actually, over 100) of other long-distance hikers who began the same day I did. I noticed that while I was in the stage of just getting to know people, the mere half-thought of trying to guess their socionic types was revolting to me. This continued for quite some time; I actually began to wonder if perhaps socionics had finally lost all relevance to me. People's types clearly weren't important to me. I needed to make some friends and alliances quickly, and doing so based on instincts and largely unconscious criteria is the best way to do that. 

However, in just a couple cases, a kind of "deja vu" sensation would strike me when found myself talking to someone in a very familiar and intimate way. "Probably, this is a dual," I would think, particularly after noting some common SLI traits such as practical-mindedness, an affinity towards animals and the natural world, an ability to simultaneously bring out both my intellectual and my comical sides, etc. In all other cases, however, I didn't care to even think about socionics. 

At first, I found it a challenge to connect with other thru-hikers (the standard term for long-distance hikers). I didn't know what to talk about and was turned off by many of them, especially those who quickly banded together in groups or seemed to focus too much on smoking or drinking. I was quite often lonely and keenly felt my lack of belonging to any group. Events near the start of the hike had also put me days behind all the people I had begun to make friends with, so what few connections I had made were promptly lost for the time being. 

After a few weeks, things began to turn around. The "herd" had had the chance to spread out a bit, and the number of thru-hikers in my immediate vicinity dropped to a low enough number that I was starting to recognize people I had met before. No longer did I feel I was trying to break into a hopelessly large group of people; instead, I was seeing individuals with whom I might or might not have something in common. 

Somehow, I gradually learned how to talk to other thru-hikers. Over the next few months, starting a conversation became more and more natural, and just a month or so into the hike, I was able to dispense with all typical formalities when meeting other thru-hikers. Introductions were shortened and often just skipped over until the end of the conversation, and I (and other thru-hikers) would begin expressing our true thoughts and feelings almost immediately, even if we had never met the other person before. So, a conversation might go like this:

- Hello.
- Hi. You must be a thru-hiker.
- Haha, of course. How's your hike going?
- It's going great. I just had the most awesome experience...

This openness and spontaneity would also often carry over onto interactions with day-hikers, weekend hikers, and people in trailside towns. Needless to say, it brought a freshness to conversations that I had rarely experienced before outside of close friendships. I hope it stays with me. It feels like a more harmonious state of mind that is less concerned with appearances and conventions and more centered on emotional experience and realizing one's personal desires. 

After a month, I was more or less at the front of the pack and had just a dozen or two other hikers in the vicinity. I soon built up a history of interaction with almost all of them and felt comfortable (though in slightly different ways) with each of them. At some point, the thought of identifying their types occurred to me naturally, and the typings came easily. From here to the end of the trip I was able to identify the types of people around me with fairly little effort, provided I had time to have at least a few good conversations with them.

What I found was that every, or almost every type could be found among thru-hikers, even though, on the whole, most thru-hikers shared a pretty specific set of traits: intelligent, articulate, individualistic, liberal, anarchistic, agnostic or atheist, interested in natural science. Yet these same general traits could be found among many different types. There were also differences between hikers at the front of the pack and those who were in the middle of the "herd." Those at the front tended to have even more of the listed traits, and also to have a more serious attitude about their hike, having generally done more planning, training, and more careful gear selection. 

The only types I do not recall meeting (but could easily have missed) are EII and LII. Unexpectedly, I discovered an apparent predominance of irrational types -- as much as 2/3 of the thru-hikers I got to know. Among these, base extraverted intuition and introverted sensing types seemed most common. Irrationals seemed to be very flexible in their group alliances and more prone to join up with or ditch someone on the spur of the moment, whereas rationals seemed to hike much longer with the same person, or to even do the entire hike without ever teaming up with anyone for more than a few hours, because they would not adjust their pace or schedule for anyone. Irrationals, on the other hand, tended to fall out of spontaneously formed groups not because of their rigidity and singlemindedness, but because of their ever-changing sleep schedule, daily mileage, eating habits, hiking speed, etc. I myself was a perfect example of this, never permanently settling on any particular hiking style. Instead, I tried to learn to adjust my speed and schedule to what my body felt like doing rather than try to have my body do what I decided it ought to do.

I met many people who seemed to be "typical" representatives of their type ("typical" is in quotation marks because anyone is atypical when viewed from a certain angle), such as ESEs who welcome vast numbers of thru-hikers into their homes and treat them with great hospitality and unwavering good cheer, or a voluptuous, husky-voiced SEE girl whom others assumed (wrongly) was "sleeping her way" down the trail. However, even more common were the openly atypical: an oldish ILE with a very muscular, chiseled frame, an effeminate LSE male, a rail-thin ESI girl with incredible speed and stamina, etc. Who's to say what is typical and atypical in socionics, though? What I mean to say is that while there is certainly -- theoretically, at least -- some elusive set of "core" traits for each type, experience with real people constantly whittles away at any preconceived notions about what the types should look like, what things they should be interested in, what talents they should have, etc. 

I found that in the setting of a long-distance hike, type did not seem to be as important for establishing a connection with someone as shared attitudes and shared hiking styles. Simply for practical reasons, another hiker who walks the same pace you do for the same amount of time each day will be easier to connect with than one who hikes faster or slower, no matter how psychologically compatible he is. If another hiker has chosen to use ultralight gear, like me, that automatically gives us something to talk about. Furthermore, by this time in the hike we have all been through so many similar joys and tribulations that there is enough material to talk about with nearly any other thru-hiker for at least an entire day. 

This and other thoughts left me in a quandary. I still don't know to this day whether socionics is at all worth promoting. To so strongly oppose faith-based worldviews on philosophical and psychological grounds and then promote socionics seems hypocritical; as no proper proof of socionics' claims exists, adherents must take large portions of it on faith, which spawns a culture in which people declare things as if they were true and easily forget that no one actually knows for sure that they are. Socionics' proper place in science is as a conjecture -- a hypothetical answer to the questions "how do people differ?" and "why are some relationships good and some bad?" To promote socionics as something much more than a conjecture would be intellectually dishonest of me. At other times, I would think about approaching the subject in the spirit of classical socionics, but with copious reminders that this is just a hypothesis that remains to be proven. Still other times I would think, "to hell with socionics!" and prefer instead go back to square one -- the basic questions of personality and interaction -- with a purely empirical approach, speaking of socionics only in a critical light.

Some of the books I read or listened to this summer during my hike have strengthened my interest in the third approach. For instance, I have read William James' famous work The Varieties of Religious Experience and was quickly convinced of the superiority of the strictly empirical method of study, applied with unwavering neutrality to even such subjective phenomena as religious experience. Certainly that same kind of thinking could shed much light on the muddled topic of individual differences and varieties of interaction. I have read (listened to) Nietzsche's The Antichrist and have reflected upon the general effect of socionics upon the human spirit: is it something that strengthens the spirit -- the "will to power," as Nietzsche would put it -- or weakens it? The answer seems to be that it largely depends on the person; socionics can be a tool to achieve a useful end, or a means to reaffirm one in one's weaknesses using a whole new set of excuses clothed in fancy technical jargon. Yet I can't help thinking that there is something in socionics that generally spawns weakness. Perhaps it is the tendency it brings to analyze what must be lived -- to apply conscious thinking in place of instinctive doing. Surely this cannot be an effective formula for augmenting one's personal power. Unless, that is, the student of socionics previously suffered specifically from a lack of mental analysis regarding himself and his interactions. 

In a word, I'm more uncertain than ever about what to do with socionics. I don't know if there is much personal value left in it for me. My hike left me with a resolve to promote ideas of real importance, such as routes to achieve greater personal freedom and happiness, reconnect with the natural world, and increase overall fitness and health while reversing our society's runaway consumption. Now, socionics appears to me to be an intermediate step towards something greater, a temporary training ground for bigger and better things. If socionics were widely accepted as the final answer, our world would quickly become intolerably stuffy and restrictive. 

 I find myself increasingly drawn to wholly suspend socionic categories in my analyses of things, because there is more to be learned that way (for me at least). And yet, socionics has trained me to pay close attention to psychological phenomena in the first place.