53. Eating brunch, with keen social observers.


A five factor system based on skin conductance, showing that shy and bashful are not the same

Fed up with being an armchair sociologist, at the weekend I did some field work in Camden, in search of Hipsters. Accompanied by expert guides, we went to a comedy club, the Norfolk pub and Food Lab for brunch. From time to time I asked my guides if there were any Hipsters around, and they would discreetly point them out. It’s a lot better than birdwatching or trainspotting, because Hipsters are found in warm places with excellent coffee, rather than flooded wetlands, or Stevenage Station.

In Islington, at brunch time, most restaurants are full and we are turned away a few times. In Food Lab, to get us in, a bloke with a Macbook who has probably been there for hours, has to be moved on. My guide points out a girl near the window in a brown hat, with a boyfriend who looks like Brad Pitt. The girl is a Hipster, but not the boyfriend, I am assured. I remain puzzled.

It’s always been difficult for psychiatrists to categorise types of people. We mainly look for familiar patterns – people who look and behave like patients we have seen before. In Camden though, that’s practically everyone.

For decades, psychologists attempted to measure personality, using various scales and measuring techniques. The most surprisingly successful of these is the so called Myers Brigg Type Inventory, which is widely used by business types, and hardly at all in clinical work. Myers Briggs was not trained in psychology and it shows.

To be fair, psychology is a young science, and plenty of people dabbled in it who’d struggle to flip a burger through 180 degrees. The Myers Brigg system is based on the work of Jung, who was also not trained in psychology (and it shows), and divides people into 16 different types. You will get a four letter code, like ISTJ, at the end of it, which is about as useful as knowing you’re a Gemini. Try telling your hairdresser you’re an ISTJ for instance.

The Myers Brigg inventory struggles when it comes to validity and reliability, just like horoscopes.  And four digit codes are so difficult to remember. I get mine confused with MDMA, which is ecstasy, and NMDA, which is a nerve cell, not to mention CSNY, which is Crosby Stills, Nash and Young.

Briggs Myers’ only work of fiction, the novel Murder Yet to Come, published in 1929, won the National Detective Murder Mystery Contest for that year. It applies her ideas about personality type into a murder mystery and sounds like she foresaw Minority Report.

In parallel with Myers Brigg, we had the ‘16PF’, which also attempted to divide people into 16, and the MMPI, which had no particular core theory of personality, except to establish how similarly you answered questions to a group of 1940s  american psychiatric patients.

By the time MMPI -2 came out, in the eighties, all this statistical pomposity had been swept aside, by the Mister Men books. This established a series of simple, face-valid types, each with good graphics and the behavioural phenotype explained in a brief, amusing narrative. There are at least 49 Mister Men books, with a further 42 in the Little Miss series, giving at least 90 categories.

Unlike the four-capital-letter systems, the Mister Men series could easily replace the ICD-10 diagnostic system. Instead of which the NHS has gone for a clustering system with 21 categories. Don’t they realise that dice only have 6 sides? There are certain numbers that are used for systems like this, we know this from Ancient Babylon. Useful numbers must divide into 60. Just look at Time and Money.

If 90, or even 16, is too many categories to bother with, how about using just 3? Shortly before he died in 1997, Hans Eysenck gave a talk in Sheffield and our clinical tutor hired a coach for colleagues and trainees to go and see him. On the night of his talk there was dense freezing fog and only two of us turned up. We went anyway, arriving very late and missing most of his talk. Worse still, we were welcomed enthusiastically to the front of the hall by the chairman, like being picked on at a comedy gig, and the talk was about support groups for cardiac patients rather than anything controversial, like personality typing.

Eysenck used a two factor system to describe personality, these being Extroversion and Neuroticism. Much later he added a third dimension, called Psychoticism, adding a bit of chimp. Again, popular culture was way ahead of psychology. The beat generation had developed an axis which ran from Cool to Square. This was almost sufficient to describe what a person was like, but it proved necessary to add the dimension of Geekiness, which runs at 90 degrees to Cool-Square, or ‘orthogonally’, as a geek would say.

One of my proudest moments was when I was buying some pipe insulation at Pipeline Center, note the edgy use of US spelling, and the assistant, who was called Clinton, pointed excitedly at my watch and assured me it was the geekiest thing he had ever seen. Scoring Low on Cool, Low on Square even, but high on Geeky. A new dimensional system was born.

Which brings us back to Hipsters, who could almost certainly be defined as people who would never visit Pipeline Centre, unless they were sculptors working with tubes.

Hipsters are mainly cool, but a little bit square in some ways, and quite geeky. The web is full of Venn diagrams explaining all this. It’s been said that Hipsters cannot be categorised, since this would, of itself, make them too mainstream.

If Jung and Myers Brigg had spent more time in Islington and Pipeline Centre, they could have saved themselves a lot of time and trouble. Roger Hargreaves has made them look Silly. Apologies to the guy who was moved on at Food Lab, I’ve just realised you were probably doing field work too, but without guides.