October 13, 2006
The expression of the Rational temperament
is related to a need for the mastery of concepts, a desire for understanding,
and a drive for competence. Those who strongly express this pattern of emotional
response strive to discover the underlying principles of the
universe, and may go on to develop theories by which to encapsulate their
understanding. It is the driving pattern behind science, philosophy, venture
capitalism, science fiction and the process of game design.
Please read the Statistical Disclaimer before proceeding (which also includes the copyright notices). Remember that what is provided here is effectively a detailed definition of an adjective, ‘Rational’, which has been defined in line with a psychological model.
Conversion from Myers-Briggs Typology
To anyone familiar with the Myers-Briggs inventory, the Rational temperament is expected to be the primary Temperament pattern for any preference code containing NT (Intuitive and Thinking preferences), and a supporting pattern for any code containing ST (Sensing and Thinking preferences).
In the Introduction to Temperament Theory, we saw how the Rational temperament was related to Abstract language use, a Pragmatic approach to taking action and a focus on Structure. We will begin by reviewing these three axis in the specific context of the Rational temperament. Throughout this piece we shall be referencing the work of David Keirsey, marked [K], and his student Linda Berens, marked [B] (complete references are provided in the disclaimer). Where quotes talk of “a Rational” as a type of person, they have been rewritten to talk of people expressing Rational as a pattern, i.e. the use of ‘Rational’ as a noun has been rewritten such that it is used as an adjective.
Abstract language use reflects a mind more
absorbed in ideas than in the tangible elements of daily life:
[People expressing Rational] talk little of what is observable and much of what is imaginable. They are inclined to speak more of what can be seen only with the mind’s eye, conceptual things rather than perceptual things, ideas rather than objects… In conversation, [they] try to avoid the irrelevant, the trivial, and the redundant. They will not waste words, and while they understand that some redundancy is necessary they still are reluctant to state the obvious, or to repeat themselves on a point, limiting their explanations and definitions because they assume that what is obvious to them is obvious to others. [K]
The Rational pattern is also associated with precision in language:
[People expressing Rational] are careful… to avoid errors of sequence or category… For example, it is a mistake to say that “there were weeds among the plants” because weeds are plants, the latter being the category that weeds belong to. [They] frequently note such trivial errors of category in others’ speech, but they rarely comment on them. However, let the error occasion contradiction in an argument being made, and [they] are compelled by their very nature to point out the error.
Many [such people] are obsessed with speculative enquiry, so their speech tends to be laced with assumptions and presuppositions, probabilities and possibilities, postulates and premises, hypotheses and theorems. In such speech data plays only a supportive and secondary role. [K]
Berens summarises this approach to Abstract
language as follows:
In the Rational pattern, abstract language is usually… precise and specific with the goal of increased clarity leading to knowledge… They tend to be sceptical and highly value precision in language. [B]
Abstract language is common to the Idealist pattern as well as the Rational pattern, but while the influence of the Rational temperament is rooted in precision and understanding, as expressed in (say) scientific writing, the expression of the Idealist temperament in language is more prone to abstractions that are open to diverse interpretation, as in the symbolism and metaphor of (say) poetry.
The second aspect of the basic profile is a bias towards a Pragmatic approach to taking actions (or a utilitarian attitude to tool usage). Keirsey views this attitude as being rooted in a desire for efficiency:
[People expressing Rational] are interested in efficient operations. If a given operation promises to be too costly for the results it gets, that is, inefficient though effective, [they] will look for operations that are likely to take less effort to get the same result.
[Such people are attracted to] what might be called “min-max” solutions, those that bring about maximum results for minimum effort. Minimum effort not because they are lazy – this they could never be – but because wasted effort bothers them so much. [K]
His description of Rational pragmatism borders upon the megalomaniacal:
[People expressing Rational] are wont to think of themselves as the prime movers who must pit their utilitarian ways and means against custom and tradition, in an endless struggle to bring efficiency and goal-directedness to enterprise, an attitude regarded by many as arrogant. But if this be arrogance, then at least it is not vanity, and without question it has driven [people strongly influenced by the Rational temperament] to engineer the technology upon which civilization is based. [K]
Berens account emphasises how Rational pragmatism provides a sense of self-control and mastery:
For the Rational pattern, pragmatic roles ensure a focus on the overall strategy and vision and give a sense of mastery and self-control… [They] tend towards pragmatic, utilitarian actions with a technology focus. [B]
This drive for mastery, and desire to remain in control, produce a fairly common pattern of behaviour among those who express Rational strongly: they tend to participate solely in activities where they can excel. This sometimes seems to be highly competitive, but in general terms it is not that the individual in question is determined to win (although some undoubtedly will be!) but rather that their desire to remain in control of any situation makes them uncomfortable when they are not capable of competence. This can be seen as another expression of Rational pragmatism: let everyone attend to whatever they are best at doing.
The Artisan pattern shares this pragmatic
focus and desire for independent action with the Rational pattern, but for
people expressing Artisan the focus is more upon the freedom to act according
to the needs of the moment. In essence, the Artisan pattern’s pragmatism is
more focussed on the immediate present, while the Rational pattern’s pragmatism
tends to take a more expansive time-independent perspective.
The third and final aspect of the basic Rational profile is a focus on Structure:
In the Rational pattern, the structural attention goes to the abstract and multidimensional, as in logic and matrices, coordinates, and organizing principles. Rational structures provide implementation strategies, and at the same time they provide ways to catalogue and master the principles of how the world operates. The goal is for all to learn to be more competent and efficient within the system. [B]
Once again, we can see how this description fits well with the nature of the scientific endeavour, which is also focussed on uncovering the underlying structure of the universe. However, not everyone who expresses the Rational temperament strongly will necessarily lean towards the scientific – any situation involving the organisation of complex systems (such as the internal operations of a corporation) will also suit this general focus on how things are structured.
The focus on Structure is shared with the
Guardian pattern, but the focus of those expressing Guardian is generally rules
and responsibilities – about defining what is appropriate or what can be
expected – whereas the Rational pattern is more associated with systemic
structures. Indeed, systems are at the very heart of the Rational temperament,
as we shall see from examining the type of intelligence associated with this
2. The Strategic Intellect
According to Temperament Theory, each of
the patterns is associated with a particularly kind of intelligence. The
Rational temperament is related to strategic thinking:
Strategy has to do with identifying the ways and means necessary and sufficient to achieve a well-defined goal. But not just any goal is of interest to [people expressing Rational]; invariably the goal that [they] set for themselves is increasing the efficiency of systems. [Some] concern themselves mainly with social systems, like families and companies, while others are concerned with organic systems, like plants and animals, and still others with mechanical systems, like computers and aircraft and automobiles. [K]
This description rather overstates the importance of efficiency to strategic thinking, but Keirsey’s general position is that the strategic intellect is most interested in science, technology and systems in general. Berens presents a somewhat broader picture:
[People expressing Rational strongly] tend to focus on patterns and “think systems”, both technical and social, and move with ease from the big picture to the minute details of ideas and situations. With such a versatile focus, they often excel at design, schematizing, reasoning, strategising, analysis, synthesis, forecasting, trend analysis, logic, and problem solving… [They] come into a situation with an almost immediate understanding of the overall system, how it functions and the factors at work… Figuring something out means finding more to explore at a deeper level, with their eagerness to explore new or controversial areas tempered by the need for verification, proof, or performance. [B]
The strategic intellect is also inherently connected with a degree of scepticism – a cautious attitude towards whatever is proposed:
One must doubt [says the archetypical person expressing Rational] for error lurks in what appears true just as what appears false. Best therefore to take a long and careful look at any proposed method or objective, otherwise those inevitable errors of order and organization are likely to go undetected… [K]
Berens also sees doubt as a key theme for strategic thinking:
[People expressing Rational] cannot help but play with ideas and test them. With expertise, [they] can introduce radical and insightful changes with ease… With their analytical and sceptical point of view, they can find themselves doubting anything and everything. [B]
In general terms, strategic thinking can be understood as highly complex problem solving. Faced with a well-defined goal, the strategic intellect can identify the ways and means to achieve that goal as best as is possible from the available information – complexity is rarely a limitation. The core competence of those who express the Rational temperament lies in assessing and abstractly analysing situations as completely as is necessary for the goal at hand (being sure to examine all appropriate contingencies, and identify all possible influencing factors) before forming a theory or designing a process that will implement that goal.
Examples include devising scientific
experiments and the formulation of scientific hypothesis, the analysis of
market patterns and creation of collective investment schemes, the creation of
consistent imaginary worlds in science fiction (or fantasy), and both the
design of complex game systems – such as many types of videogames and board
games – and the discovery of the best solutions to the problems presented in
the play of such games.
(I have not yet conducted a research programme to prove that the Rational temperament correlates with the role of the game designer, but anecdotal evidence I have already collected firmly supports this supposition. At this point, I consider it a strong hypothesis).
Those who express the Rational temperament as their primary pattern generally display a strong desire for autonomy, tending towards libertarian or even anarchistic political beliefs, or at the very least a desire to be their own master in their workplaces:
To feel good about themselves, [those who express Rational strongly] must look upon themselves, and be seen by others as ingenious, autonomous and resolute… [They] pride themselves on their ingenuity in accomplishing the many and varied tasks they set their minds to… As much as possible, at times even regardless of the consequences, [they] desire to live according to their own laws, to see the world by their own lights, and they respect themselves in the degree that they act independently, free of all coercion… [K]
Berens tracks the root of this need for autonomy to a desire for situations that provide the capacity for independent thought:
[They] have a high tolerance for complexity and are often surprised by others’ resistances to problem solving. Their independence of thought leads to a need for autonomy in the workplace… They most admire will power and genius, the wizards and inventors of the world, and they despise redundancy, incompetence and weak will. They are their own worst critics and are often stressed by a fear of incompetence, loss of control, and helplessness. Rigid, routine, dull environments offend them and may drive them away. [B]
The theme of will power appears intimately connected with the Rational pattern – those that express it frequently do not understand why other people don’t simply behave ‘sensibly’ (a judgement made relative to their own models of the world), sometimes chalking up the differences in other people’s behaviour to stupidity. This view can be held with quite irrational strength: those that express Rational as a primary pattern are rarely able to feel confidence except when they can be resolute:
[They] are self-confident in so far as they sense in themselves a strength of will or an unwavering resolution. [They] believe they can overcome any obstacle, dominate any field, conquer any enemy – even themselves – with the power of their resolve. [K]
The capacity to derive self-confidence from certainty produces behaviour that can be quite frustrating to other people when it is not tempered by prudence. A person strongly influenced by the Rational temperament will tend to use their strategic skills to assess situations in as complete a fashion as they can, exploring and eliminating all doubts such that they can then form a model about which they can be resolute. But the process which provides this confidence is interior to that individual, and may depend upon assumptions which others may not take for granted.
This behaviour represents the motivating
force behind scientific scepticism, and also the reason that so many people who
express Rational tend towards atheism – a metaphysical view about which one can
be more resolute, since most religiously motivated systems of metaphysics
include some element of doubt or uncertainty. (This connection should be
considered hypothetical, but would be comparatively easy to investigate).
All of this represents the degree of confidence that someone influenced by the Rational pattern places in their own powers of reason (and not necessarily the reason of others!) In essence, the Rational temperament seems to be concerned with creating abstract structural models with which to understand the world:
The only thing [people strongly expressing Rational] trust unconditionally is reason – all else they trust only under certain conditions… [They] yearn for achievement… [with] a gnawing hunger to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves… [They] are on the lookout for knowledge… [Their] search for knowledge has two objectives: they must know how to as well as know about… By knowing about and knowing how to, [they] increase their capability to predict and to control events… and they persist in their search for models and maps, for paradigms and algorithms, with which to construe and attack [the problems they have chosen to tackle]. [K]
Berens relates this striving to understand with the core theme of mastery:
The [Rational-expressing person’s] core needs are for mastery of concepts, knowledge and competence. [They] want to understand the operating principles of the universe and to learn or even develop theories for everything. They value expertise, logical consistency, concepts and ideas, and seek progress. [B]
‘Knowledge’ in this context should not be misunderstood as meaning something akin to ‘trivia’ (which is more a concern of people expressing the Guardian temperament). What is being referred to is a kind of systemic knowledge – an attempt to model systems, not an attempt to memorise ‘facts’. Furthermore, the domains that any individual concerns themselves with will often be restricted: as mentioned before, those that express Rational strongly prefer to only participate when they can excel, and in the context of knowledge this often means there are fields where they see themselves as having expert knowledge, and domains about which they have no interest. It is extremely common for those who express Rational to have a circle of friends who share a common domain of knowledge
Everyone is stressed by different circumstances; one of the advantages of looking at behaviour in terms of the patterns of Temperament Theory is the capacity to identify different stressing factors that relate to the patterns.
According to Berens, those who express the
Rational temperament strongly are stressed by feelings of powerlessness
(including facing an activity for which the individual feels incompetent).
Signs of stress relating to this pattern include obsessive behaviour, or a
state of almost robotic mindlessness. This stress can be alleviated by
reassuring such a person’s confidence – perhaps by engaging in an activity they
know they are highly competent at – or by getting them involved in a new
A specific problem that results from an overactive strategic intellect is paranoia. Since strategic thinking is concerned with identifying contingencies and factors, when this is intelligence is not given a task it can set to work identifying things to worry about:
Even though they know some things must happen of themselves, [people strongly expressing Rational] can dread this loss of control. This is why so many [such people] turn out to develop unreasonable fears, especially of germs and other forms of filth, something they have no control over. [K]
In my own experience, I have not encountered this mysophobia in people expressing the Rational temperament, although there are certainly fictional expressions of this in characters such as Niles Crane in Frasier. However, other forms of phobia, or at least paranoid discomfort, are not uncommon, such as fear of flying as a passenger. More commonly, Rational paranoia can manifest in the instantiation of hypothetical scenarios as explanations for otherwise unexplained events. Coupled with the tendency of those expressing Rational to become self-confident in certainty, this can lead to interpersonal conflict – especially when the hypothetical scenarios imply blame where objectively none exists.
However, in the absence of this self-confidence born of resolution, those expressing Rational easily fall into depression, especially as regards their own accomplishments:
[People who express Rational may] demand so much achievement from themselves that they often have trouble measuring up to their own standards. [They] typically believe that what they do is not good enough, and are frequently haunted by a sense of teetering on the edge of failure. This time their achievement will not be adequate. This time their skill will not be great enough. This time, in all probability, failure is at hand.
Making matters worse, [they] tend to ratchet up their standards of achievement, setting the bar at the level of their greatest success, so that anything less than their best is judged as mediocre… Constant self-doubt and a niggling sense of impending failure [are not uncommon experiences]. [K]
Another cause of depression among those who express Rational is the sense of isolation that can result from accepting that one’s models of the universe cannot be shared:
To [people expressing Rational] events aren’t of themselves good or bad, favourable or unfavourable. It’s all in the way one looks at things… all is relative to one’s frame of reference… [this can also give them] a solipsistic view of the world, [a belief] that others… cannot really share our consciousness, cannot know our mind, cannot feel our desires and emotions, much as they might wish to. Each of us is alone in an envelope of consciousness, marooned, as it were, on the earth as its sole inhabitant. [K]
This relativism is an ironic counterpoint to the problems of certainty associated with this Temperament. It seems that those who express Rational are wont to fall prey to thinking in terms of extreme positions – either certainty, or total doubt. Either objectivism or relativism. Finding a balance point between such extremes is a challenge perhaps best addressed by individuals dominated by the Rational pattern taking the time to explore how their other temperament patterns can be expressed in a supporting role.
The Rational temperament is defined as abstract pragmatism with a focus on systems. It drives those affected by it to seek mastery and competence, and often to avoid those areas where they cannot be capable. The strategic intellect associated with this pattern is capable of analysing complex situations and devising models or processes in order to reach goals. This intellect appears to drive both the scientific endeavour and the field of game design.
Stressed by feelings of powerlessness, the
Rational temperament is also associated with paranoia and depression when it is
out of balance. Caught between a sceptical desire to examine all doubts
carefully and a self-confidence born from resolute will, the powerful strategic
skills of those who express this pattern strongly should be tempered by an
understanding that their way is not the only way one might think or act.
Nonetheless, when people have complex problems that need solving, it is those
that express Rational most strongly that should be turned to for assistance.
Do you recognise yourself in this pattern? Feel free to share your perspective in the comments. Don’t recognise yourself? Check out the other three Temperament patterns and see if they fit you better. For more information, see BestFitType.com or check out the books referenced here.
Note: If you have any comments specifically regarding justifications or criticisms of Temperament Theory, please use the comments to the post entitled Justifications and Criticisms, which has been set aside for that express purpose. Thank you!
The opening image is Though Only for a Moment, by Todd Bellanca, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
According to Berens, those who express the Rational temperament strongly are stressed by feelings of powerlessness (including facing an activity for which the individual feels incompetent). Signs of stress relating to this pattern include obsessive behaviour, or a state of almost robotic mindlessness.
I'm not sure how much of this pattern applies to me, but this bit is dead on.
Please continue; I like your approach to this (which is rather more balanced than the advocates of a specific theory tend to be).
Posted by: Jon Mann | October 17, 2006 at 03:08 AM
Thanks for the comment, Jon. I don't believe in reducing complex situations to single theories - there's always room for multiple interpretations in psychology as far as I'm concerned :)
When I get around to the other patterns, I hope you'll let me know how you feel they relate to you.
Posted by: Chris | October 17, 2006 at 09:20 AM
I'm waiting to examine the other patterns. Probably 90% of the text above applies to me; the other 10% *very* definitely does not. There is almost no "might apply" middle ground. I'll be interested to see the proportions in the other temperaments.
Oh - ref "In my own experience, I have not encountered this mysophobia in people expressing the Rational temperament." You know at least one mild case :-).
Posted by: Peter Crowther | October 18, 2006 at 04:40 PM
Hi Peter, wondered where you got to. :) Keep trying to email you, but keep getting no response. :( Not sure what the problem is.
Glad to hear 90% of this pattern description is a match for you, since from what we already know this should have been a good fit to your personality. Of course, there were bound to be 'misses', because a statistical pattern is never going to match an individual perfectly. Out of interest, which elements are a definite miss?
Should have the next pattern description up on Friday if all goes well.
Posted by: Chris | October 18, 2006 at 05:34 PM
I think Keirsey over-emphasises efficiency (as I think you do, Chris, reading between the lines of your article). I min-max (shamelessly in games), but do not think of myself as struggling to bring efficiency to enterprise - largely because I do not think of [an] enterprise as anything more than an emergent property of the people who affect it. Enterprises, in their guise as companies, are convenient social fictions - ways of accounting for value, in the same way as money.
Keirsey and Berens both appear to see rationals as admiring resolution in themselves and in others. In me, this is tempered by seeing what tends to happen to those who are resolute: they typically break rather than bending, and/or their constructions (whether technological or social) end up expressing a partial solution rather than a complete solution as the inventor has progressed resolutely without considering the alternatives. I don't admire weak will; I don't admire strong will; I *do* admire a willingness to base actions on that which is, rather than that which might be in some imagined parallel world. Mind you, I used to be more resolute. Failing - badly - in some endeavours, coupled with bouts of depression, takes the shine off idealism.
"most religiously motivated systems of metaphysics include some element of doubt or uncertainty."
They do? Maybe I've only encountered the folks who express their beliefs strongly, then; but the majority of the self-identified religious people I know hold their beliefs more strongly than any atheist I have met, and those beliefs leave no room for doubt or uncertainty.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | October 22, 2006 at 01:25 PM
Thanks for expanding on your comments here. The issue of efficiency is one that I have been examining closely; it's a key theme in Kiersey's account, but it hadn't been in mine. As I say above, I believe Kiersey overestimates its importance. However, I agree with Kiersey in placing systems at the core of the Rational pattern.
I'm not sure Kiersey or Berens account necessarily emphasises admiration of other people's resolution - it is more that self-confidence for an individual strongly expressing the Rational pattern is drawn from being resolute. This is a behaviour I see a lot, since the Rational pattern is very common inside the games industry.
Regarding doubt and religion, it's a common view expressed by theologians of numerous belief systems re: the importance of doubt to belief. However, here in the UK most people hide their religious beliefs and don't share them publically; those that are willing to publically express their beliefs tend to be extremely entrenched (as you intimate) which creates (I suggest) a distorted view of those who practice religion. I have certainly encountered more writings on doubt and religion than doubt and science. :)
Posted by: Chris | October 23, 2006 at 10:47 AM
Doubt is the basis of science, and as such writing about "doubt and science" is like writing about "belief and religion". I won't insult you by assuming infamiliarity with the scientific method here.
[They] typically believe that what they do is not good enough, and are frequently haunted by a sense of teetering on the edge of failure. This time their achievement will not be adequate. This time their skill will not be great enough. This time, in all probability, failure is at hand.
This got a chuckle from me. As a student, I recognize that pattern of thought as a dominant one in myself. Yes, I passed that exam, but that could be luck. Yes, I'm playing to my strengths, but there might be something I've overlooked - that one... crucial... detail that I might've missed... Time to shape up, work up some discipline. This time I will work hard, and succeed...
Posted by: EKH | April 26, 2009 at 12:45 AM
EKH: Thanks for your comment! New voices are always welcome here.
I must disagree with your position on doubt in science. The idea that doubt is the basis of science was rather roundly discredited for me on my astrophysics degree... Producing expected results was the behaviour that was trained into the students - showing doubts or investigating anomalies was a good way to get failing grades. In the research community at large, securing funding seems to trump doubt any day of the week. :)
Besides, people have very different ideas as to what "doubt" means... Skeptics, for instance, seem to believe that "doubt" means "disbelief", yet active disbelief is a form of committed belief (faith in that which is not to be disbelieved, and thus the unreality of anything outside of this narrow remit), and quite distinct from doubt in the sense deployed by, say, Descartes.
You must have considerable faith in science to believe that doubt is the basis of science as it is actually practised today. :)
See also the piece I wrote ages ago on the Ganzfeld experiment. I believe this experiment is especially valuable for showing the extent that doubt is simply not permitted on certain subjects in the current epistemic climate.
Posted by: Chris | April 29, 2009 at 11:20 AM
Skeptics, for instance, seem to believe that "doubt" means "disbelief"
I do? That's news! Or maybe I'm merely a skeptic (small s).
Posted by: Peter Crowther | April 29, 2009 at 12:55 PM