The Higher Dimensions of Style

“Upward, yet not Northward.”

– Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Piers and Pipes - Atlantic City Beach Dec 2012


Question: What do Cee Lo Green, Audrey Hepburn, Vincent van Gogh and Oprah Winfrey all have in common?

Oprah Winfreyvincent-van-gogh-self-portrait-painting-vs-photoaudrey-hepburnCeeLoGreen-Feather-Chainmail-Suit

Answer: They’ve all got a very Expressive style.

To be more precise, each of them is (or was) a human being who cultivated a distinctive public persona which, viewed through the lens of 2×2 human matrix of human personality types, could be categorized as of the “Expressive” type.

(Yeah, that doesn’t sound nearly as cool as saying, “They’re all a bunch of Expressives.”)

Most four-styles-of-people frameworks have something akin to a “high energy” / “passionate” quadrant, and that’s where these celebrity personas could be said to occupy… even though they are (quite obviously) very different from each other.

Depending on which framework we’re using, these personas — caricatures, really — might be labelled “Expressive,” “Influence,” “Fire,” or any number of other derivative concepts from what the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates codified as the sanguine humour:

“The sanguine temperament is fundamentally impulsive and pleasure-seeking; sanguine people are sociable and charismatic. They tend to enjoy social gatherings, making new friends and tend to be boisterous. They are usually quite creative and often daydream. However, some alone time is crucial for those of this temperament. Sanguine can also mean sensitive, compassionate and romantic. Sanguine personalities generally struggle with following tasks all the way through, are chronically late, and tend to be forgetful and sometimes a little sarcastic. Often, when they pursue a new hobby, they lose interest as soon as it ceases to be engaging or fun. They are very much people persons. They are talkative and not shy. Sanguines generally have an almost shameless nature, certain that what they are doing is right. They have no lack of confidence. Sanguine people are warm-hearted, pleasant, lively and optimistic.”

(excerpted from the hive mind of Wikipedia)

So now, the real question is: How real is any of what’s been written so far in this blog post?


This post continues from the previous, Learning and Unlearning the Elements of Style, where we looked at the power and pitfalls of using those “n types of people” models (where typically n=4) as part of any lesson on interpersonal effectiveness, e.g. presenting, selling, negotiating, teaching etc.

One of the ways to make sure that the learner (or the instructor) does not confuse or blind themselves to reality with a beautiful shiny model (aka, vision-correcting lens) is to show possibilities that extend beyond the modelbut don’t conflict (too much) with the model.

In this post, I’m going to take a lesson from multi-dimensional geometry to explore this… and in the process, address some of the issues that come up when teaching about “people styles” and when thinking about how we relate to people who are almost — but not exactly — “our type.” 

Starting Simple

The art of creating a useful framework on human personality is the art of finding the fewest number of most important variables.  Most model makers strive for two variables, which gives them an x and y-axis to plot with.  Once there, they can create a flat, easily understood space — a map —  consisting of a few (usually four) zones.

1 - matrix

Here’s a quick comparison of three popular frameworks, listing the two dimensions (x-axis, then y-axis) being used to construct their space:

  1a - matrix social styles1b - matrix DISC  1c - matrix conflict modes

Notice how all three of these models attempt to measure something called “assertiveness,” which I’ve placed along the horizontal, x-axis…  the left side of each model signifies greater assertiveness, the right side signifies less assertiveness.  Caveat: What the word “assertiveness” precisely means — and what types of situations are being described — is different in each model.

Each of these three popular model cross the attribute of “assertiveness”  against another attribute: “responsiveness,”  “openness” and “cooperativeness,” respectively.  The first two, “responsiveness” and “openness” are more closely related concepts than “cooperativeness.” When we overlay the models directly on top of each other we can see that it almost — but doesn’t quite — work:

1abc - matrix social styles DISC conflict modes

The lower left quadrant in this overlay: Driver / Dominance / Competing are a pretty good match.  That is to say, it’s a plausible generalization to say that the Driver social style (very assertive and controlled)  is highly correlated with the Dominance DISC profile (very assertive and guarded) as well as the Competing conflict mode (very assertive and uncooperative).

However, it starts of falls apart for the other quadrants… it becomes a contrived forcing together of models that were designed for different purposes.

(For more information about each model and the attributes associated with each of the quadrants– e.g. ‘Driver,’  ‘Amiable,’ etc. — go to the Internet… or take a course from  someone like me.)

“Ah,” you say, “but these aren’t really boxes…. it’s a really a continuum.”   Okay, maybe you didn’t say that…. but you’d be correct if you did.  Here’s what our 2×2 matrix really looks like:

2 - matrix gradient

..and in the spirit of gradients, perhaps we can now overlay the Social Styles and DISC models with a bit more nuance…

2ab - matrix gradient social styles DISC

..and that’s a bit better.  Of course, something still ain’t right… and we know that the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes doesn’t fit inside this space… yes, on some level we can intuit that someone in the space of “Driver” and “Dominant” style is likely to prefer handling conflict in a “Competitive” mode,  but we’ve all met and worked with some highly Competitive Expressive, Amiable and Analytical social types.

Also, I’m feeling a bit…. unsteady… about where DISC’s “steadiness” is overlapping in this rendering.  I tried using the 2×2 matrix of Keirsey Temperments (Idealist, Artisan, Guardian, Rational) instead of DISC but it was even worse… when I tried to match Social Styles to Keirsey I ended up having to mix-and-match sub-types (Expressive = Idealist-Teacher and/or Artisan-Performer and/or Artisan-Promoter)… too complicated, too contrived.

Like the protagonist of Edwin Abbot’s novella, Flatland, when we try to reconcile a simple 2×2 matrix model with other variables (either observed or imagined) we find ourselves struggling to grasp a reality that has greater depth than what our two-dimensional world can offer us.

Taking the lesson from Flatland, we know that if we want to truly overlap these models — People Styles, DISC, Conflict Modes, whatever — we’ll need to add another dimension orthogonally… upwards, not northwards… to the plane:

3 - matrix 3d overlay

Once we have that, we can take all kinds of 2×2 matrices and overlay them, tilt them, bend and twist them, until we find a fit that works a bit better:

3abc - matrix 3d overlay social styles DISC conflict modes

Now we can go back to our four Expressive celebrity personas and let them float around in this space…

3d - matrix 3d overlay famous expressive people we can see, although they might be said fit into a single space from one perspective, they also occupy different spaces, when viewed from a different dimension.  This is starting to look like a more accurate representation of reality.

Also, you realize (I hope) that I don’t know exactly where Cee Lo, Oprah, et al would actually sit in this theoretical “space”  …this is just an illustration of a concept.  If you tell me that the Cee Lo bubble should sit below the plane and the Hepburn bubble should move upwards and laterally, I won’t argue with you.

Okay, I might anyway.

However, what I do know is that even this tricked-out 3-dimensional space with its fancy planes and celebrity persona bubbles has insufficient dimensions to actually capture the handful of important differences between real people.

Which brings us to the end part of the Flatland story (for those geeks who’ve read it), where the wise Sphere is unable to conceive of a 4th dimension or higher… and unwilling to admit that, being limited to three dimensions, it must be resigned to observe mere projections or instances of the 4th dimension.


Each dimension can only see the shadow of the next highest dimension, projected into its own space.

The zero dimension is a point — when it sees a line (1d), it just sees a points appearing and disappearing.

The first dimension is a line — when it sees a square (2d), it just sees lines growing and shrinking to and from nothingness.

The second dimension is a square — when it sees a cube (3d), it just sees irregular shapes growing, shrinking and rotating in and out of existence.

The third dimension is a cube — when it sees a tesseract (4d), it just sees a weird, shimmering solid that keeps transforming and turning itself inside out.


Seafoam Vista - Atlantic City Beach Dec 2012

How Many Dimensions?  Taking it to the BFF Level

In the current psychological literature there is a strong consensus around what makes for a BFF… the Big Five Factor Model (aka “OCEAN” or “CANOE” for the acronym-lovers), which describes human personality as boiling down to five broad factors:

  1. Openness – (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious).
    • Degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety
  2. Conscientiousness – (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
    • Degree of self-discipline and planned rather than spontaneous behavior
  3. Extraversion – (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
    • Degree of energy, talkativeness, assertiveness, sociability and tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others
  4. Agreeableness – (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind)
    • Degree of being compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others
  5. Neuroticism – (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
    • Tendency to experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety or vulnerability
    • Interestingly, of the Big Five Factors, this is the only one that psychologists have defined by its negative attributes… there’s an interesting topic to explore all by itself…
    • Perhaps we could preserve the OCEAN/CANOE acronyms and rename this factor “Nerve” — signifying the degree of emotional stability, resilience and ability to overcome negative emotions

If we adopt the BFF point of view — and it seems to have a lot of (non-scientific, Nareg) research and support — it means we would need a five dimensional space to view it.

“Five dimensions??” you say, “That’s just crazy talk!!” 

No, it’s not crazy. It’s just very advanced geometry.

This is what a 5-dimensional cube (“5d hypercube”) looks like, as it passes through 3-dimensional space:

Yes, trying to make sense of a 5-d hypercube is about as easy as trying to make sense of a person: even if you’re able to break it down to a few simple variables, the object / person appears as an ever-changing, shifting apparition.   We are indeed stuck as Flatlanders, and must be resigned to view snippets of higher dimensions as they “pass” through ours.

(Side note: Further complicating matters is the notion that each of us has our own unique space where the view of others is being projected. Those of us who sell and teach these people-style models are competing for the screen rights to play our particular version of shadow puppet theatre on the back wall of Plato’s proverbial cave…. not to mix metaphors or anything…)

In other words,  all models of human personality type  (or “people styles” frameworks) are flattened projections of models that exist in many higher dimensions… in all likelihood, infinite dimensions.  If you take every
“there are two kinds of people in the world” statement and render each dichotomy as its own orthogonal geometric axis, you’d still have only a rough outline.

Yet that’s exactly what we do when we say things like, “that person is my type.”


How to Make the Model Simple Again… and How to Make People Neurotic

Five factors are too many for soft skills training purposes.

If you want to learn how to connect better with others, you need maps that are relatively flat.

I’ve experimented with a 3-dimensional framework of trustworthiness based on theories of social engagement,  and I’ve read some neat stuff by Dr. Robert Cloninger that uses three-dimensional maps of human temperament and character, but for the time being, I’m sticking with the 2-d models.

For one thing, they’re easier to teach and use — not all learners have the spatial visualization needed to navigate a 3-dimensional framework.    Also, precisely because these models exist in such a limited, lower (“Flatland”) dimension, I’m better able to suggest ways that the model might get combined,  contrasted or extended with other models, how other variables or real world observations play into it. By not using all of my available dimensions, I’m in a better position to “step outside” the model with the learner, without having to throw it away.

As for the value of the BFF — those five factors that psychologists have elevated as most parsimonious — I really do think it can be simplified further, for operational purposes.  This is why the most useful frameworks use hacks like “assertiveness,” a nominally subordinate factor of the Big Five which, nonetheless, links pretty strongly to a broad range of personality factors.

Looking at the Big Five, I can see some pretty strong links between some of the factors, such as between Conscientiousness and Neuroticism.    True, these are completely different concepts and attributes… yet, if you’re going to be very conscientious, it helps to be a bit neurotic about it, too.

This works on the level of stable personality — neurotics might excel at vocations or tasks that require high levels self-discipline  — as well on the level of social situation — a particularly detailed and constraining  job or project can make you even more neurotic than you already were… and of course, you can make a person (yourself or others) neurotic by teasing and testing that person’s self-control until they break down into a whimpering puddle of mush.

It’s all very complex and interdependent, innit?

In the final analysis, the framework-maps only get us so far.  We still have to navigate the world with our bodies….  put down the map, enjoy the bumps in the road, the scent of the roses, the feeling of the sand against our bare feet.

Then, as the bubbles of other people’s personas suddenly appear before us — like quantum sea-foam from the depths of a vast, multi-dimensional OCEAN with seemingly endless possibilities —  we can more fully appreciate them.

Seafoam Closeup - Atlantic City Beach Dec 2012



About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 25, 2013, in Cartography, Collaboration, Communication Skills, Information Design, Instructional Design, Learning, Metaphors, photography, Psychology, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. as fascinating as i find personality tests to be…

    (i did mine right after reading this… and this is how i seem to picture myself – because let’s face it, this is about our self-perception and not our personality per se… which might be different, with different people, in different situations…)
    O 90
    C 46
    E 48
    A 69
    N 7

    i keep on wondering what’s the applied value of it. how reliable is the data to make inferences from it?

    would you change your teaching style based on the numbers? hire someone based on the numbers? does it mislead more than lead? is it more accurate with some people and less with others?

    • Thanks for sharing your aspirational picture of yourself, Nareg… 🙂
      According to your numbers, you are almost as open to new ideas and experiences as I am, but a little more organized about it, generally less extroverted and agreeable, and also a bit less neurotic.

      But we already knew that.

      As for your questions, here’s my take on the OCEAN assessment:

      Applied Value: Its biggest value is in terms of self-reflection and personal development, due to its number of variables and self-reported nature. In contrast, some of the simple 2×2 matrix models can be administered by 3rd party observation — with zero self-reporting — and therefore be useful for quick “people reading” and situational adaptation. I could also see OCEAN being useful between two or more people in a longer term sharing discussion / development of mutual understanding.

      Reliability of Data: It all depends on how the assessment is administered. In an ideal universe, it would be a forced choice (e.g. paired phrases) assessment with a 5-point Likert scale taken under controlled conditions where the choices are phrased in a way that removes social desirability bias. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

      I’ll let you answer the rest of your own questions… 🙂

      ..and add a couple more:

      How stable is a person’s score on each of those 5 factors? How easy it is to genuinely “improve” one of the scores… or at least bring actual performance closer to self-perceived/idealized performance?

  2. or maybe i’m more delusional about myself than you are… or not.. 🙂

    along the lines of your 3d matrix…

    i can see the big5 changing within a person, based on circumstance.

    i might be totally open in general, but completely closed when it comes to religion… or womens rights… or whatever specific issue.

    i might be organized in everything, except my work.
    agreeable to everyone except my coworkers…

    so the “nareg experience” would be different based on the person experiencing nareg.. and even different based on the context the same person can be experiencing. (danny’s awesome to hang out with, but a total ass to go on a run with him… etc..)


    to jump into a more abstract level,

    from a bayesian perspective,

    the big5 could be the “prior” of a person. the base probability of being a specific way, which would be coupled with the situational evidence to produce the “posterior” probability.

    in a way, the prior determines the level of evidence necessary to change our beliefs:
    “Danny’s really open to new ideas (prior), so im surprised he is against inquiry based learning (evidence not strong enough to change strong prior)… let me go talk to him (acquire more evidence)”
    “oh yah, Danny’s really disorganized (prior), i’m not surprised he forgot about your appointment (evidence). you should always reconfirm with him (reinforces prior).”


    How easy it is to genuinely “improve” one of the scores… or at least bring actual performance closer to self-perceived/idealized performance?

    that would assume those scores are a proxy to “something”, and that “something” is desirable. this comes back to the model v/s reality thing. it’s good to know the models. all the models. but assessment needs to be done from a place of complete ignorance (no priors), lenses off, sensor only.

    oh and.. thank you for replying to my comments. (does this boost my agreeable score up?? 🙂

    • Okay, fine… since you twisted my arm with your agreeableness, I’ll go back to your original comment and give my $0.022222 on your other questions:

      “Would you change your teaching style based on the numbers?”

      YES (..and then adapt further, based on what I see)

      “Hire someone based on the numbers?”

      NO. (not at all)

      “Does it mislead more than lead?”

      Depends on the quality of the assessment and the input process — if done well, then it leads more, if done poorly, then it misleads more.

      “Is it more accurate with some people and less with others?”

      I don’t know. My gut tells me that for certain people, some of the OCEAN factors will be less accurate / difficult to measure than others. For example, based on a sample of two people (me & you), I’d say the version of the test you & I took is largely predictive of the “Openness” factor for us… but I’m sensing that the “Conscientiousness” factor has a wide delta for the two of us, based on context, application & motivation. So for that factor, you & I would need a better set of questions to establish a good ‘prior,’ as you say.

      Speaking of priors and posterior probabilities, I keep thinking about this favorite graphjam:

      So yes, I think your bayesian perspective describes it well. And yes, I’m a huge fan of inquiry based learning… and yes, I carefully manage my appointments….. with a calendar…. and reminders. 🙂

      One last thought (for now): For me, one of the most important and predictive elements of human personality — especially in terms of how a person forms and maintains relationships — are the personal narratives that a person carries with them: the set of beliefs, affiliations, cognitions, values and so forth that can serve as the ‘script’ (or at least ‘guide’) for how they behave in certain situations. Interestingly, the more ‘primitive’ personality instruments (think astrology) address those narrative elements better than the more ‘scientific’ modern instruments that focus on stable traits that may have a strong chemical and/or genetic component (e.g. novelty-seeking, extroversion, etc.).

      Hearing the stories that a person tells about themselves (or noticing which stories they don’t tell) may be the best assessment of all.

  1. Pingback: Learning and Unlearning the Elements of Style | Meme Menagerie

Leave a Reply -- for humans only, no spambots

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: