A Dip in the OCEAN: Divergent Factions and the Big Five Personality Factors.

On her Harper Collins website, Divergent and Insurgent author Veronica Roth declares, “I’m interested in psychology, especially as it relates to personality, brain chemistry, and group dynamics.” Each of the five Factions of Roth’s  dystopian society corresponds to one of the personality dimensions described in the Five Factor Model of human personality. This model has its roots in 1960’s research by Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, through which they identified five measurable dimensions that could be used to describe most variations in human personality. Their work remained largely ignored for 20 years, but was rediscovered in the 80’s and 90’s by a variety of independent research teams. Today, the Five Factor Model is one of the main driving forces in personality research. The component domains, often called the “Big Five Factors,” are today known as Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Psychology students often find the mnemonic OCEAN useful for remembering them.

When the characteristics of the Big Five are held up against the traits typical of the five Factions of the Divergent world, a near-perfect correspondence is apparent. Many of the phrases listed in tests used by researchers to measure the different personality domains could just as easily be used by Roth to describe her Factions. Let us visit each Faction, and each Factor in turn. Spoiler note: I will discuss some of the key plot points of both Divergent and Insurgent; do not continue if you do not want them spoiled.

Openness is considered the inventive or curious dimension; its polar opposite is consistent or cautious. This factor is also called “Intellect” by some researchers; this is obviously the element emphasized by Roth in the Erudite Faction. People scoring high in tests of Openness are intelligent, curious about new ideas, creative, appreciative of art and readily challenge convention. These traits are an clear match for the people of Erudite, who read voraciously, are adept at research and teaching, choose their members and leaders via IQ test scores and invent all manner of handy gadgets. Tris betrays her affinity for Erudite even before her aptitude test begins, with her curiosity about Tori’s tattoos. We even see a hint of their art appreciation, in the form of the blue glass statue in Tobias’s room, a gift from his Erudite-born mother that he, at age sixteen, left behind on his dresser as a final raised middle finger at his abusive, Abnegation father. Erudite’s physical elements: a headquarters with lots of glass windows, an open eye for their symbol and clear water in their Choosing Ceremony cauldron all convey a need for clarity.  Their “openness” to new ideas comes through in their willingness to question convention; the Erudite Faction was the first to challenge the society’s assumption that only Abnegation can be trusted to run the government.  The Erudite leaders also were willing to go to war to avoid the mission decreed for them by Edith Prior’s generation, demonstrating their utter disdain for doing thing their grandparents’ way. Finally, it would be expected that the Erudite would develop a particular animosity against their polar opposite, the cautious and conservative Abnegation Faction.

*If the following phrases accurately describe you, a personality psychologist would likely rate you high in Openness.

  • I have a rich vocabulary.
  • I have excellent ideas.
  • I am quick to understand things.
  • I love to think up new ways of doing things.
  • I love to read challenging material.

Abnegation embodies Conscientiousness, the dimension originally called “Dependability,” known for being efficient and organized as opposed to easy-going or careless. High conscientiousness is associated with self-discipline, careful planning, an organized environment and high concern with conforming to expectations or outside standards. As we see from the very start of the series, the Abnegation are concerned with duty, orderliness and routine. They live in identical, unadorned homes and wear drab grey clothing to deter attention from others. They seek to keep the city streets repaired and distribute supplies to the needy Factionless people of the city. They compose the majority of volunteers for essential tasks like aptitude testing. Within the home, children take their turn in preparing meals, washing dishes and speak only when spoken to at the table. Even their haircuts are scheduled at regular intervals. When we glimpse into Caleb’s bedroom, just as his stack of books alerts us to his affinity for Erudite, his unmade bed demonstrates his unsuitability for Abnegation. Most important, Tris’s constant self-questioning and ultimate decision that she can never measure up to the selflessness standards of her birth Faction is what ultimately clinches her decision to transfer. But, as Tris also notes, she never fully leaves her old Faction behind. When learning knife-throwing, she remembers her mother’s advice in knitting: “Haste will not help.” Her careful scrutiny of Four’s technique and unhurried practice earns her taunts from Peter but pays off when she is the first to hit the target. She performs the thankless task of cleaning up the blood in the Dauntless initiate dormitory after Edward is attacked. Tobias recognizes her ability to observe details when he asks for her help in reading the situation when he is negotiating an alliance with the Factionless.

*If the following phrases accurately describe you, a personality psychologist would likely rate you high in Conscientiousness.

  • I am always prepared.
  • I pay attention to details.
  • I like to tidy up.
  • I love order and regularity.
  • I follow a schedule.

Tupes and Christal originally gave the name of “Surgency**” to the domain now called Extraversion, which is represented by the Candor Faction. Extraverted people are outgoing and energetic as opposed to solitary or reserved. Extraverts are talkative, comfortable interacting with strangers and thrive in the attention of others. We see this in the school cafeteria, where the Candor boys are enjoying a friendly argument, emphasizing their points with “wide gestures with their hands.” Christina, who becomes Tris’s best friend in her initiate class, hails from this Faction, and relentlessly tries to pull Tris out of her reserved, Abnegation shell. For instance, when applying eyeliner to Tris for her first trip to the tattoo parlor, Christina answers Tris’s objection that she will never be pretty with “Who cares about pretty? I’m going for noticeable!” High extraversion scores are also associated with an eagerness to join in high-energy or thrill-seeking activities; this likely explains the high percentage of Candor transfers in Tris’s Dauntless initiation class. In the Candor Faction, sharing your thoughts with others is not just a choice, but a requirement. Children are trained to recognize body language associated with deception. A Candor will confront another person at any hint of withholding the truth, even if the person’s motivation is simple politeness. Candor initiation involves lie detector tests and, eventually, the complete sharing of a person’s deepest secrets through a truth serum interrogation. Not even the outgoing Christina was willing to undergo that; it would be sheer torture for a person with any sort of introvert tendencies.

*If the following phrases accurately describe you, a personality psychologist would likely rate you high in Extraversion.

  • I am the life of the party.
  • I feel comfortable around people.
  • I start conversations.
  • I talk to a lot of different people at parties.
  • I know how to captivate people.

The peace-loving Amity Faction corresponds to the Agreeableness personality domain. Agreeable people show friendliness and compassion rather than coldness or unkindness. Certainly the Amity compound, with its lush gardens and orchards and happy, banjo-strumming inhabitants who greet each other with hugs, superficially seems to epitomize the ideal peaceful society. The top priorities of Agreeable people are conflict reduction, social harmony, kindness to others and fostering relationships, but these emphases often come at the expense of leadership skills. The reaction of the Amity to the attacks in Roth’s series clearly illustrates these tendencies. On the one hand, they are the angels of mercy after the attack on Abnegation, warmly greeting the refugees with “Let us take care of you.” When the Dauntless and Factionless attack Erudite, a subset of Amity led by Johanna Reyes moves in and tries to provide medical help to the injured on both sides. On the other hand, they are devoid of any sort of formal leadership. Their insistence on lengthy discussion and reaching consensus on every decision, even when war is breaking out, renders them incapable of choosing a side and puts them on a futile quest for “neutrality” even when there is clearly an aggressor who should be stopped. As Tobias says, “They don’t care about efficiency. They care about agreement.” Ultimately, their emphasis on harmony at all costs makes them ineffective protectors of those who most need their help.

*If the following phrases accurately describe you, a personality psychologist would likely rate you high in Agreeableness.

  • I love to help people.
  • I have a good word for everyone.
  • I am on good terms with nearly everyone.
  • I know how to comfort others.
  • I feel others’ emotions.

There is one Faction left: Dauntless and one of the Big Five dimensions left: Neuroticism. Hold on a second! Courage = neuroticism? Do I dare characterize the brave souls of Tris’s chosen home, the sometimes brutal, but always courageous soldiers of the Pit, who strive to fear no fear but fear itself, as neurotic?

Yes, I do. The connection is more complicated and not as obvious as the four, but it is there. I will elaborate on the Dauntless-Neurotic integration in the second part of this post, assuming I am not blinded by butter knives or tossed into a chasm first.

*All personality test items are adapted from the International Personality Item Pool, one of several tests developed by psychologists to measure people’s tendencies in the Big Five domains.  Complete test and scoring key are available on the website.
**If Roth ever decides to write a book with a Candor protagonist, this would make a very good title.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Prof Louise! I think you’ve turned the ‘hidden key’ to the Divergent sub-creation, namely, Veronica Roth’s psychology studies and projection of personality types into the caste fabric of her dystopian Chicago.

    I’m looking forward to the Dauntless-Neurotic integration post to come, but I know I’ll be reading (and quoting from ) this post for a long time, especially in the lead up to ‘Detergent.’

    With admiration,

    John

  2. An exchange posted yesterday on the ‘Contact’ page of this site:

    Hello, John,

    I am so glad you shared your ideas about the big 5 personality traits in today’s HP. I’m actually starting a unit on Divergent with my students on Monday. I had planned on using an article from About.com with them. I hadn’t read the Wikipedia article. I must admit, I still do not feel completely at ease using those with my students since I tell them to be wary of Wikipedia.

    Anyway, I really appreciated your explanation aligning 4 of the factions. How do you see Dauntless fitting in with this? You did say the factors didn’t align exactly, but you didn’t say anything about Dauntless. Neuroticism isn’t entirely off is it? They certainly are not always healthy in their passions. I don’t want to force something that doesn’t fit, but I’m not a psychology scholar. What do you think?

    Janice Hill

    Hello, Janice,

    I actually wrote the Big Five article, not John. I am glad you found the article useful… at what level do you teach? I think I can address your concerns.

    First, you need not necessarily fear Wikipedia. A 2005 study by the journal Nature found its accuracy level similar to Encyclopedia Brittanica. The cruel fact is, there is inaccuracy in a lot of published reference guides, whether online or in print. Errors are no more likely to show up in Wikipedia than in other secondary sources such reference books or textbooks. A certain level of wariness should be employed with all of them, not just Wiki. Verification with multiple sources is always best practice.

    For the record, I am a psychology professor and I choose to link to the Wikipedia article after I reviewed it because I thought it was a good overview of the topic, well-suited to a lay audience, with plenty of helpful links to primary resources to back up its claims. When I teach college freshmen, I tell them Wikipedia is often a good starting point for getting a basic picture of a topic they are unfamiliar with. Where they are likely go wrong is if they make it their finishing point for research that is supposed to be more in depth.

    My guess is the about.com article is equally good; I’d be happy to take a look at it if you will send me the link. Most introductory psychology textbooks also have an overview of Big Five theory, if you are interested in multiple sources.

    As for Dauntless, I will hopefully get the second part of my post up soon. Yes, I do think Neuroticism is appropriate for them. The key comes in how the Faction’s definition of “bravery” may have changed over the years. Is it Tobias’s level-headedness in the face of danger and willingness to take risks to protect others? Or is it Eric’s reckless competitions which only the strongest survive? Neuroticism is also known as “emotional instability” and sadly, today’s Dauntless has that in spades. But did it always?

    Stay tuned.

    Louise
    PS. Here is an article about the Wikipedia study.

  3. Janice Hill says:

    Thanks so much. I orignally read the post on my phone, and couldn’t see your name, so sorry. I apologize for crediting John with your ideas.

    Thanks too, for the wikipedia article. Actually, I tell my students pretty much what you said. It’s a great beginning source to “get the lay of the land” especially with an unfamiliartopic. Then, the citations are great sources to continue the search. However, my 8th graders usually see it as a starting point and the final say, so I have had to discourage it when that is their plan.

    I am so eager to read your post about Dauntless. Could I use the original post with my students when we study the book?

    I really appreciate your sharing your psychology expertise. 🙂

    Janice

  4. I would be honored if anything I’ve written is helpful. Middle school English teachers have always been among my heroes. It’s such a critical period for shaping analytical skills. Please let us know what your students think of the books!

  5. I see the Erudite as neurotic and the Dauntless as extroverted. The Erudite
    are too much in their heads. They project their dark side onto Abnegation.
    Dauntless are the partying type who have no social anxiety. Candor is
    openness, Amity is agreeable and Abnegation is conscientious. Kate Winslet
    was a good choice to portray the Erudite. She channels the essence of
    neuroticism and close mindedness and bigotry. The story mirrors such
    classic sic fi as Star Trek (logic vs. emotion) and Star Wars (don’t try, do
    and trust in the force. There is also a parallel to the Wizard of Oz and
    the virtues of Mind, Heart and Courage.

  6. Thank you for such an enlightening article. We just watched Divergent last night and my wife and I immediately saw the connection with the Big Five factors. I agree, the Dauntless Faction, as depicted in the movie, really do line up with Neuroticism!

    Having said that, the segregation of people into groups based on their most intense or prominent personality trait will always show different degrees of intensity within each individual. For example, while I may be suited best to Amity, I can show less intense behaviours that match up well with any of the other four factions. Ah, we humans are complex!

  7. Louise M. Freeman says:

    Thank you, Brian. Actually, this article was written in response to the books, and well before the movie was released, but I thought the movie followed the personality model nicely, as well.

  8. i think candor is neurotism,erudite is openess,abnegation is conscentiousness,amity is agreeableness and dauntless is extraversion

  9. Louise M. Freeman says:

    There are definitely some overlaps among the personality factors. The Dauntless, for instance, have the typically Extroversion trait of risk-taking and thrill seeking (e.g. zip-lining, train-jumping)… I think that’s why Candors made up the most of the transfer initiate class. And Amity and Anegation share the Agreeableness trait of charity to others.

    I stick with my characterization of Dauntless as Neurotic, though. The NEO-PR (the 400-item gold standard test for the Big Five factors has the statement “I have fewer fears than most people” as something that is typical of the low-Neuroticism person (or the high-Mental Stability person… the epitome of the ideal Dauntless. Four was the most successful Dauntless initiate ever, and his low number of fears is his defining trait, even to the extent of giving him his nickname.

    See my follow-up post, Double-Dipping Dauntless, for more on this.

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