Meta programs and personality theories
Meta programs are assumed to be variable depending on the situation. This is quite different from 'personality' which is supposed to be stable over time and contexts. Lately I have been starting to wonder whether the whole concept of personality isn't doing us more harm than good. But that is something I will address elsewhere. All I will say here is: give uncle John four glasses of whiskey and see how stable his 'personality' is...
In spite of all this, meta programs show similarities with types or traits or factors from personality theories. When we are looking for relationships between meta programs and concepts in mainstream science, we end up, whether we like it or not, in the realm of personality.
Clarification by contrast
The good thing is, that when we describe the similarities and differences between meta programs and personality- or behaviour traits, we clarify the definition of our meta program concepts by contrast. I have started to do that for a scientific article on MindSonar.
Theory, concept, measurement
Why is this clarification even necessary? When we want to communicate with the scientific world, we need to explain where our concepts (meta programs, in our case) come from. The scientific model for psychological measurement is: 1. You have a theory, 2. From this theory you derive traits or qualities, 3. You measure those, 4. You use statistics to evaluate how well you are measuring your concepts.
For instance: your theory is that eating a lot of sugar makes people nervous. From this theory you derive the concept of 'nervousness'. And then you devise an instrument, like a questionnaire, that measures this 'nervousness'. If your measurement doesn't work well (judging from the statistics), you go back to the theory for ideas on how to improve it.
NLP is no theory
And here we run into an obstacle: NLP is not a theory. NLP is a collection of presuppositions, skills and techniques. These were derived by observing effective therapists, not from studying scientific research. So when we want to communicate with scientists, we have no theory that connects our concepts and shows us why these concepts are important.
The origins of the Graves concepts are clear, the origins of the meta program concepts have been largely lost in the mists of time. In NLP, sequences of sensory experiences (‘inner strategies’) were originally referred to as mental ‘programming’. Sometimes patterns common to several different inner strategies of the same person were noted during change work. These distinctions were ‘meta’ to mental programming, hence the name ‘meta programs’. The NLP literature does not offer any theories with explicit definitions of these distinctions or statements as to why they are important, how they fit together or what other concepts they are related to. It is my impression that these are distinctions that were popular in the therapy and personal growth culture of California in the 1980’s. They could be said to represent ‘crowd wisdom’ from that era. They were assimilated into NLP by Bandler and later formalised by Cameron-Bandler (1985).
Explaining how meta programs are similar and different
So we cannot point to any theory to explain why we think meta programs are important and useful distinctions. But what we can do, in order to communicate with scientists, is to take concepts from mainstream science and explain how meta programs are similar to and different from these known concepts. As I mentioned, these concepts are mainly personality traits.
Let's have a look at Proactive versus Reactive. There is actually something in mainstream science called 'proactive behavior'. So this is our obvious starting point. Bateman and Crant (1999) describe a type of behaviour they call ‘proactive’, defined as: ‘to intentionally and directly change things in an intended direction’. They also describe the lack of this proactive behaviour, but they do not give it a label. Similarities and differences with the proactive/reactive dimension in meta programs are:
Comparison with mainstream ideas about proactivity
- Both Bateman and Crant and meta programs highlight taking the initiative as an important element of proactivity.
- Bateman and Crant focus on behaviour, meta programs focus on thinking style (patterns of cognition and experience).
- In their definition, Bateman and Crant include the result of the behavior: ‘change things for the better’. Meta programs do not assume that proactive behaviour will change things for the better. Proactive behaviour may change things for the worse. Think of someone who quickly lights a fire to get warm and doing so, sets the house on fire.
- Bateman and Crant include several behaviors under ‘proactivity’ that in meta programs are considered to be expressions of other meta programs:
a. ‘Scanning for (…) opportunities’ would be coded in meta programs as ‘Options’, not necessary proactive. Someone may scan for opportunities in their mind without ever acting upon them.
b. ‘Setting effective change-oriented goals’ would be coded as ‘Towards’ and ‘Change’ in terms of meta programs. Someone may be aware of what they would like to change, without ever acting upon those ideas.
c.’To do different things or do things differently’ would be coded as an effect of the ‘Change’ or ‘Development’ meta programs.
- Bateman and Crant seem to strongly favour proactivity over ‘no proactivity’. In meta programs, the opposite of ‘Proactive’ is ‘Reactive’: needing more time and information before starting an activity. Meta programs assume there are advantages to reactivity in many situations, be they private or work place. Proactive spending f.i., may bankrupt a company, which could have been prevented by reactive thinking.
- Summarizing: Both Bateman and Crant and meta programs highlight taking the initiative as an important element of proactivity. Differences are: Bateman and Crant focus on behavior, include the result of the action and seem to strongly favour proactivity. Meta programs, in contract, focus on thinking, do not include the result of the action and favour proactivity and reactivity equally. Also Bateman and Crant include many elements in their definition that are covered by meta programs other than ‘Proactive/Reactive’.
The Big Five
The five-factor model, or Big Five model, is a trait oriented personality typology, based on relationships within descriptors of common language. It suggests five broad dimensions commonly used to describe the human personality (Saucier and Goldberg, 1996). The five factors are:
1. Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious).
2. Conscientiousness (efficient/organised vs. easy-going/careless).
3. Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved).
4. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached).
5. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).
Of the Big Five, the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor seems most strongly related to the ‘Proactive/Reactive’ meta program. This factor is defined as: “The tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality. Extroverts draw energy from interacting with others, while introverts get tired from interacting with others and replenish their energy from solitude. People high in extroversion are comfortable with others, gregarious, and prone to action rather than contemplation (Lebowitz, 2016a). People low in extraversion are more likely to speak less, be quiet, introspective, reserved, and thoughtful.”
The traits associated with extraversion are:
- Both the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor and the ‘Proactive’ and ‘Reactive’ meta programs define Introverted/Reactive as more introspective and thoughtful. Big Five theory would by contrast see Extraverted as less introspective and less thoughtful as do meta programs.
- Both typologies see ‘Extraverted/Proactive’ as prone to action rather than contemplation, and consequently ‘Introverted/Reactive’ as prone to contemplation rather than action.
- Both typologies see Extraverted/Proactive as drawing energy from overtly doing something (interacting with others, in the case of Big Five).
- A difference is, that the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor is focussed on one single context: social interaction, while the meta programs ‘Proactive’ and ‘Reactive’ may be applied to any context. Opening a door, to give one non-social example, may be done proactively (by immediately turning the handle or kicking the door) or reactively (by first thinking about the way the lock works and what might be behind the door).
- Another difference is that, when we look at the list of traits that are part of extraversion, there are several traits that would be coded as different meta programs. ‘Sociable’ would be not be coded as ‘Proactive’ but rather as the meta program ‘People’. ’Friendly’ would be coded as the meta programs ‘Matching plus People’.’Merry’ would be coded as ‘Matching plus Kinesthetic’. ‘Assertive’ would be coded as ’Proactive plus Towards plus Internally Referenced’. This set of traits being part of the ‘Extraversion’ dimension, makes it much less specific than the meta program ‘Proactive’.
- Summarising: Both ‘Extraverted’ and ‘Proactive’ are characterised by being prone to action, and their opposites ‘Introverted’ and ‘Reactive’ as being prone to contemplation. A difference is that ‘Introversion’ contains a broad set of traits that are covered by other meta programs (or meta program combinations) than ‘Proactive/Reactive’.