A Dip in the OCEAN II: Double Dipping Dauntless: Can the neurotic be brave?

In Part One , I argued that four Factions of the Divergent series (Erudite, Abnegation, Candor and Amity) line up with four of the “Big Five” personality dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness, respectively. That leaves Dauntless to be paired with Neuroticism, which seems a mismatch at first glance. But, by delving a bit deeper into both the place of Neuroticism within personality theory and to the reality of the past and present Dauntless Faction, we find that they really do line up as well as the other four.

Individuals with high Neuroticism scores are considered sensitive/nervous versus secure/confident. They are prone to irritation, rage, sadness, and anxiety, which puts them at risk for depression, phobias and panic. They often overreact to difficult circumstances and perceive adversity as harder than it actually is. For this reason, this domain is sometimes called by an alternate name, “Mental Instability.

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

  • I get stressed out easily
  • I have frequent mood swings.
  • I get irritated easily.
  • I often get blue.
  • I get angry easily.
  • I feel threatened easily.

As before, plot points will be revealed. Spoiler warning.

The realities of Dauntless Faction certainly match this description. Though we see some unstable characters in the corrupt leadership of other Factions (e.g., the child-beater Marcus of Abnegation and the murderous Jeanine of Erudite), we see no other Faction who seems to attract so many unbalanced initiates to its ranks. During Tris’s initiation month, certain classmates are threatened enough by her presence to vandalize her property, slander her father with false abuse allegations, physically attack her, sexually assault her twice and attempt to murder her in the middle of the night. Beyond Tris’s tormentors, there is also Edward’s mutilation and Al’s suicide. It is fair to say that Dauntless initiates have more than their fair share of mental health issues.

If only Tris's parents had been a bit more affectionate...

Instability is also suggested by the Dauntless’s physical appearance. Their black clothing, dyed hair, piercings and tattoos remind us of the modern day Goth subculture. Fairly or not, both groups are stereotyped as “hellions.” A 2006 study found that there was an association (though not necessarily a cause-effect relationship) between identifying as Goth and a number of negative mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and suicide.

Finally, the Dauntless are remarkably adept at creating hardship for themselves when none need exist. Schoolchildren dare other to climb too high on metal sculptures, even though they risk breaking legs. Initiates are required to jump off a moving train onto a third story roof and beat each other to unconsciousness during training exercises. Marlene is chided about turning on a flashlight during the capture the flag game, and though she knows the risks, she complies. Early in Divergent, Tris wonders, “what courage has to do with a metal ring through your nostril” (p. 5). During Stage 1 training, an exasperated Al shouts, “This is ridiculous! What’s the point of beating him up? We’re in the same faction!” (p. 95). Tris later observes, “I have realized that part of being Dauntless is being willing to make things more difficult for yourself in order to be self-sufficient. There’s nothing especially brave about wandering dark streets with no flashlight, but we are not supposed to need help, not even from light.” (p. 137).

Another image of the Big Five, with "Neuroticism" reversed to "Stable."

So, if the Dauntless are actually unstable, why are they regarded as brave? To understand, we have to take two other items under consideration. First, four of the Big Five factors are described with reasonably positive terms; Neuroticism is the only one with a name that has inherently negative connotations. For that reason, some researchers prefer to flip this domain to its polar opposite, and assign people a score of Mental Stability. Second, there are actually two Dauntless Factions, who split well before half of them joined the Erudite attack. There are two very different ideas of what “bravery” is, and what Dauntless should strive for, represented by the different leadership goals of Eric and Four.

According to Four, Dauntless changed around six years ago, under Max’s leadership, and the training procedures had become more ruthless. Eric, an elected leader at only 18, is the current protégé of these brutes. Before the initiates’ first training fights, Tris watches Eric and Four argue over whether a losing student should be allowed to concede a sparring round. Eric says no.

“A brave man acknowledges the strength of others,” Four replies.
“A brave man never surrenders.”
Four and Eric stare at each other for a few seconds. I feel like I am looking at two different kinds of Dauntless- the honorable kind and the ruthless kind. (p. 95)

Eric’s idea of bravery is what most people would call recklessness. He forces the initiates to hang from a wet railing over a deadly chasm and serve as human targets for knife-throwers. He also turns a blind eye to initiates who attack their classmates in the dormitory while they are sleeping. Apparently he assumes that, since only half of the initiate class will achieve membership anyway, the strong may as well cull the weak from the herd.

Four, in contrast, has no use for gratuitous cruelty, unnecessary risks or the “survival of the fittest” mechanism of the new Dauntless. The same chasm the Eric sees as an opportunity to punish cowards, Four views as an warning against recklessness.

Is this T-shirt for sale in the Pit?

“The chasm reminds us that there is a fine line between bravery and idiocy! A daredevil jump off this ledge will end your life!” (p. 65). He confesses to Tris that Dauntless used to be different, with teamwork a priority, and he wishes that were still true (p. 142). When judging training fights, Four doesn’t reward battering the weak, but instead calls it cowardice (p. 197). He holds his trainees accountable for their sneak attack on Tris, calling Peter “a miserable coward… afraid of a short skinny girl from Abnegation” (p. 297).

For Tobias, genuine bravery is not a hairsbreadth away from idiocy, but instead resembles Abnegation-style selflessness (p. 336). This recalls the ideals of the Dauntless Manifesto: “We believe in ordinary acts of bravery. In the courage that drives one person to stand up for another” (p. 206). It is little wonder he tells Tris, “I don’t quite belong among the Dauntless. Not the way they are now, anyway” (p. 334). In Insurgent, during his truth serum interrogation at Candor headquarters, we learn that Four had actually given up on Dauntless and had planned to leave, until he met and fell in love with Tris. Tris, of course, shares his ideals, seeing Dauntless as “a faction worth saving. Maybe we can become brave and honorable again” (Divergent, p. 206-207).

So, how would Four return the Faction to the Dauntless of the past? Look at what he tells his initiates is the most important part of Dauntless training:

Learning how to think in the midst of fear is a lesson that everyone, even your Stiff family, needs to learn. That’s what we’re trying to teach you. If you can’t learn it, you’ll need to get the hell out of here, because we won’t want you (p. 237).

I told you before that the third stage of initiation focuses on mental preparation… That is because it requires you to control both your emotions and your body- to combine the physical abilities you learned in stage one with the emotional mastery you learned in stage two. To keep a level head. (pp. 296-297).

In other words: Mental Stability. Tobias’s ideal for Dauntless is the polar opposite of Neuroticism, the positive view of that personality domain. Mental stability plus selflessness is his formula for true courage, but the current training system promotes neither. As Tris observes, “Dauntless was formed with good intentions, with the right ideals and the right goals. But it has strayed far from them” (p. 206).

To be fair, the other Factions have also fallen short of their ideals. Erudite has become so enamored of its own intelligence that it feels is entitled to control not only the government, but the very brains of the other Factions. It has also reached a height of hypocrisy; though it worships knowledge as the loftiest of goals, it has no qualms about releasing false information to further its agenda and would deny the entire population any knowledge about their true ancestry.

Abnegation has moved beyond self-discipline to extreme self-denial, to the point where mirrors, birthday parties and even hamburgers are forbidden indulgences. The have become convinced that they know how to best govern and, as the example of Marcus shows, there is a potential for abuse when someone in power can act unchecked for “someone’s own good.” Through their constant and public self-sacrifices, they hamper their own ability to feel affection for each other and actually draw more attention to themselves than a regular glance in the mirror would or a piece of artwork would.

Candor claims to value honesty, but emphasizes it so much that it has abandoned tact, courtesy and any rights to privacy of actions or thought. They may murmur “Thank you for your honesty” after their forced interrogations, but really, what choice did the person have? Worse, they used their commitment to the truth as excuse to turn over the Divergent to Erudite for execution, conveniently saving their own skin in the process.

Amity Goes to War.

Amity’s stress on agreement above all else also has a downside: they have no leadership in times of crises and no choice but to try to appease anyone who makes demands of them, no matter how tyrannical and no matter who might need their protection. Finally, both Candor, with its truth serum, and Amity, with its tranquilizer-laced bread, resort to pharmacological short-cuts in their efforts to force their citizens to live up to the Faction ideals. In doing do, both Factions rob people of their free will, as much as the Erudite’s simulation serum does.

During the Choosing ceremony, Marcus states that war is “the fault of human personality- of humankind’s inclination toward evil in whatever form that is” (p. 42). This truth applies to the current society as much as to the past that the Five Factors Factions had hoped to leave behind. But, while Erudite, Abnegation, Candor and Amity erred by exaggerating their chosen personality domain (Intellect, Selflessness, Extraversion and Agreeableness), Dauntless underwent a typically Neurotic mood swing. Somewhere along the way, they jumped on a zipline** and slid down to the opposite pole, from Stability to Instability and, in the process, from Bravery to Bravado.

Will they get a chance to swing back? At the end of Insurgent, of course, everything has changed. Dauntless could potentially be off to a good start with their three new leaders: Tori (former Erudite, should deter stupidity), Tobias (former Abnegation, should promote selflessness) and Harrison (largely unknown, but he’s middle-aged, so perhaps he remembers the Old Dauntless). But, a couple of literal and figurative bombshells have also been dropped. Edith Prior’s tape has revealed the truth about what is outside the fence.  The Factionless have rather inconveniently seized all the weapons, leaving the Dauntless, at the very least, having to worry about whether they will get unemployment insurance.  We’ll have to wait for the next book to find out how they cope.

In Insurgent, Tris tells Fernando, “Sometimes personality has nothing to do with a person’s choice of faction. There are many factors to consider.” (p. 459-460). While that may be true for Tris, there is evidence that personality theory had everything to do with Veronica Roth’s choices for her Factions, and that she gave particular consideration to the Big Five Factors.

*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. FYI, they score Stability, not Neuroticism.

** I don’t think it is coincidence that Tris’s zipline trip, the first sign that she could be accepted by the “native” Dauntless kids, starts at the top of a building named for a courageous patriot of the American Revolution.


  1. Another home-run here, Prof. Louise! Thank you for sharing your insights into the Five Factor psychological template behind the Five Factions of the Divergent dystopian world — and for saving Dauntless its own post apart from the other four. The nuances here deserved and received the special focus and attention they merited, which brought the upside down world of all the factions into tight focus.

    I hope you’ll share some thoughts consequent to this exegesis about how much (if at all) this world is a transparency through which we are meant to see the castes of our own culture. Are academics the Erudite world of intellect upside down? Candor the fourth estate? Abnegation the pietist religious and Amity the sentimentally pacifist? Dauntless the cult of masculinity, power without conscience?

    Your thoughts on the twin possibilities of Roth’s writing up a mirror for our collective reflection or personal experience and transformation seem tpo be the next step!

    Again, many thanks for sharing these insights as lucidly and with the sensitivity to important distinctions you have.

    In admiration,


  2. Louise Freeman says:

    I don’t know, Headmaster, it seems that you have some interesting ideas of your own to share next. The mirrors I am most eager to talk about next are mirror neurons.

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