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Changing the Dictates of Inherited Mentality

Changing the Dictates of Inherited Mentality

Ph.D Carol Shumate – Professor of University of Colorado
(Comparative Literature), has taught the course
on psychological type at Pacifica Graduate Institute

A Vehicle for Mentality Change

For almost a century a debate has polarized the field of personality theory as to whether personality characteristics endure across the lifespan or whether they change. Are we fated by our genetic inheritance to display certain personality traits, or can we escape the genetic bonds of fate and change our traits? Decades of research have shown that about half of mental traits are inherited. However, in 2020, an extensive cross-national study of twins found evidence that we are not doomed by fate to display the same mentality throughout life, but that even inherited traits can change. This multi-generational study of more than 7,000 individuals suggested that “heritability is not fixed” but that life experiences can change the given personality and its particular mentality (Kandler et al., 2020).

This is good news, but the more important question is: How is it that some people are able to change the characteristics of their given mentality and create their own fate while others do not change? Although innumerable experimental studies have contributed subtle insights that address the question for humanity as a whole, depth psychologists must find an answer for each patient, and often the answer is different for each individual. Many clinicians have been inspired by the work of Carl Gustav Jung, who created his system of psychological types for the express purpose of helping physicians identify the mentality of each patient. Jung’s mission was to facilitate self-transformation as a way to enable the individual to change his or her fate. He hypothesized a dynamic model of the psyche that could self-regulate, expand, and change. The resulting ideal of self-healing put the patient’s fate in his own hands, and many psychologists objected to what appeared to be a marginalization of their own power (Shamdasani, 2003). Nonetheless, the discovery of the neuroplasticity of the brain is now corroborating this fundamental aspect of Jung’s model.

Jung proposed that the multiplicity of personalities in the population was a consequence of evolutionary biodiversity, a way to ensure survival of the human species by encouraging each member to specialize. Although that diversification advances civilization, it has an unintended consequence: conflict. To address the problem of interpersonal conflict, Jung tried to identify the foundational mentality shared by everyone before differentiation of traits and diversification occurs. His system of psychological types identified what he considered to be the most common kinds of mentality. He sought the constants in the psyche, not psychological traits and behaviors but the mental muscles that produce them. The putative constants that he proposed were four pairs of polarized mental function. He observed that civilization pushes individuals to prefer one or two of these mental functions over others and to practice them to achieve maximum expertise. Although this specialization furthers the collective goal, Jung proposed that specialization hinders individual development, besides exacerbating conflict.

The aspect of Jung’s model that sets it apart from more contemporary models of personality such as the five-factor model is its basis in polarity. The polarity of the functions makes Jung’s model an ideal vehicle for facilitating change in one’s given mentality. By comparing his system to a compass and the functions to its cardinal points, Jung allowed that the number of functions and their associated mentalities could be infinite just as there are any number of directions in a compass, whereas the critical feature of his system, like that of a compass, lay in its polarization. He theorized that the unconscious mirrors and compensates for consciousness, and therefore any mental function in conscious use must be compensated by its polar opposite in the unconscious. The preferred mental functions create a particular worldview, and each worldview has a blind spot, due to the suppression of the opposing mental functions. As with a compass, the individual is free to move in any direction or to use any of the mental functions, but habit creates mental ruts making it difficult to see other directions.

Jung’s system of psychological types suggested the existence of a previously unknown prejudice, the bias against an individual’s mentality. Jungian analyst Rafael López-Pedraza thought that Jung should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for identifying this bias, because it is not limited to a particular race, gender, or class, but affects the entire human race. If Jung was correct, mentality bias (personality bias) is an inevitable consequence of evolution. However, Jung’s system offered a pragmatic tool for escaping fate: a way to understand and deal with projection. Because the mental functions are part of every mentality, they enable us to visualize the mechanism of projection. We project our unpreferred functions in both demonizing and idealizing ways. Identifying our preferred mental functions enables us to identify which functions we are most likely to project in demonizing ways and which in idealizing ways.

It was Jung’s hope that identifying the most common psychological types with their respective worldviews would automatically lead individuals to reduce their subjective biases against other mentalities and to moderate their own one-sidedness. However, he realized soon after his book Psychological Types (1921) was published that recognizing multiple worldviews was a necessary but not sufficient condition to overcome an individual’s bias against another’s mentality. He wrote about his disappointment in the forewords and appendices to subsequent editions of Psychological Types—1923, 1931, and 1936. Individuals were able to recognize themselves in his book but he feared that they only used the information to classify others rather than to introspect about their own one-sidedness.

To allow all of the mental functions to develop within oneself requires accepting other mentalities as equal to one’s own. Even Jung himself experienced difficulty in adopting other mentalities, as his contentious correspondence with Hans Schmid-Guisan demonstrates. In 1915 as Jung was researching psychological bias, he initiated a correspondence with Schmid-Guisan for the explicit purpose of trying to understand his colleague’s mentality and to build bridges or find common ground; nevertheless, the differences in their respective positions increased as their correspondence continued (Beebe & Falzeder, 2013). One could even conclude that Schmid-Guisan was more successful than Jung himself at overcoming his subjective bias. Nevertheless, Jung credited the exchange with Schmid-Guisan as contributing significantly to his typology in the first Swiss version of Psychological Types (1921/1971, p. xi-xii). Through these and other experiences, Jung realized the inevitability of projection, as well as its connection with the transference and countertransference in analysis. From that he concluded that, although projection is a delusion, it has both destructive and constructive effects, and he came to see projection as one of the stages of liberation from one’s fated mentality.

The invisibility of the mental functions and consequent untestability of Jung’s type theory has relegated it to a lower position than trait theories like the five-factor model or its offshoot assessment, the Hexaco personality inventory. Nonetheless, Jung’s theory is unique among personality systems in being personality-agnostic and that neutrality makes it a useful vehicle for self-transformation. The implication of Psychological Types is that the goal of psychological knowledge should be to acquire the versatility to use any and all mental functions, and therefore all personality types. Although there is no evidence for the existence of Jung’s mental functions, there is evidence for the traits that derive from the functions (e.g., Moyle & Hackston, 2018), and there is evidence for a midlife shift (Kiesow et al., 2021). There is also evidence for the polarized nature of some of the mental functions (Empathy represses analytic thought). Moreover, the 2020 twin study on heritability appears to corroborate Jung’s speculation that mentality can be changed and that maturation increases one’s ability to change: “With advancing age comes increasing autonomy … and the opportunity to actively shape and regulate one’s own development” (Kandler et al., 2020, p. 11). To take advantage of that opportunity, an external perspective outside of one’s own mentality is mandatory. Jung’s compass of mental functions provides just such an external perspective. It constitutes a map to one’s own mentality and that of others, and therefore it can help individuals identify which parts of the psyche they have suppressed.

Unfortunately, the barrier to identifying one’s psychological type is much higher than the barrier to identifying one’s traits, because self-report type assessment instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® only reflect the current stage of development rather than the innate or childhood mentality. Challenges and life experience push the development of many mental functions as individuals mature, which tends to obscure the baseline mentality. Nevertheless, individuals who can overcome the difficulty of self-assessment and identify their own psychological type or baseline mentality (and therefore their own subjective bias) can independently plot a trajectory of development for themselves and escape the bonds of fate brought about by sociological, psychological, or genetic conditions at birth.

Aspiration as a Two-Edged Sword

Aspiration appears to offer a way to counteract the fate of genetic inheritance, but aspiration often carries the seeds of its own destruction. The temptation to rise too high can become a narcissistic inflation that undermines the individual’s intention. When is aspiration psychologically healthy and when does it become unhealthy and counter-productive? This was a question Jung grappled with, both personally and in his patients. He answered the question with reference to the Greek term enantiodromia from Heraclitus, “the view that everything that exists turns into its opposite” (Jung, 1921/1971, ¶ 708). Jung applied this term to the reversal that occurs in which the degree of success in an endeavor is inversely proportional to the degree of effort expended. Jung attributed this counter-intentional result to excess or extremism of any kind: “This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition builds up which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control” (Jung, 1921/1971, ¶ 709). This perverse principle derives from Jung’s model of mentality as a self-regulating system whereby the conscious mind is mirrored and compensated by an unconscious mind. Consciousness and the unconscious are polarized, pulling in opposite directions, in order to maintain psychological balance.

The principle seems absurd: How is it that conscientious effort could be self-defeating? And yet, examples abound. In the American presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton experienced enantiodromia when she went into overdrive and over-prepared to become president. Donald Trump, by contrast, did not expect to win: he began complaining that the election was rigged several weeks prior to election night. Many thought his campaign was only a publicity stunt. Clinton raised approximately one billion dollars, whereas Trump raised only $600 million. Clinton’s website listed 37 issues of policy statements, whereas Trump’s website listed only seven. In fact, Clinton began preparing an extensive economic plan for the country two years before the election.

Then, in the 2020 election campaign, Donald Trump exhibited the same kind of overdrive and experienced the same kind of reversal of expectations as Clinton in 2016. He made extensive efforts all year to over-determine the outcome of the election. Most notably, he attempted to extort the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to produce damaging information about Hunter Biden, the son of his chief rival. He then fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, for having forwarded to Congress a complaint from a whistleblower about his efforts in Ukraine. Trump spent most of the year 2020 firing staff to ensure a favorable climate for his election campaign. In the end, he lost not only the election but the one thing he most valued, the Trump brand. His efforts to overturn the outcome of the election caused an enormous exit from anything Trump-related by corporations: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Shopify, Twitter, Snapchat, Youtube, and Reddit among others. Of course, elections are won and lost for many reasons due to many factors. Nevertheless, political leaders often manifest the psychological principle of enantiodromia because leadership magnifies an individual’s behaviors, easily leading to psychological excess.

The precise symmetry of Jung’s model whereby the unconscious exactly matches and mirrors consciousness has sometimes been considered more hypothetical than real. However, in the 1990s MIT psychologist Daniel Wegner conducted a series of experiments that corroborated both the symmetrical, polarized nature of Jung’s model of the psyche and the resulting phenomenon of enantiodromia. Wegner found that the mind has two “cognitive processes” that work in opposite directions, an exact replica of Jung’s model of the psyche. Wegner (1994) said that the conscious process “searches for the mental contents that will yield the desired state” while an unconscious monitoring process “searches for the mental contents that signal failure to achieve the desired state” Wegner’s conclusion echoed that of Jung’s: “Attempts to influence mental states require monitoring process that … act subtly yet consistently in a direction precisely opposite the intended control” (Wegner, 1994, p. 34). Wegner called his explanation of this phenomenon ironic process theory, described in his book titled The Illusion of Conscious Will. Wegner credited his work to the research of Ukrainian-American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, and unlike Wegner, Libet had considered his experiments compatible with the notion of free will. Jung differed from Wegner also in proposing that extremism was to blame for the reversal of intentions. Although Jung found will to be problematic, he did not share Wegner’s conclusion that free will is an illusion. Jung believed that humans always have the power to change their fate.

Surprisingly, Jung did not recommend moderation in all things as the solution to enantiodromia. He saw that moderation, like any other quality, could be excessive. An individual who exhibits no desires, no attachments, and no aspirations could fail to develop. The push-pull of the mental functions—the oscillation of consciousness and the unconscious–is necessary; it leads to excess but it also provides energy to the psyche. Instead, Jung found an antidote to enantiodromia in the Asian philosophical concept wu-wei, sometimes translated as “effortless action” (Slinglander, 2003). Professor of religion Siroj Sorajjakool has described wu-wei as a willingness to have faith in natural processes: “In learning to sit down and do nothing one learns how to move along in the flow of gravity. To move along smoothly, one needs to learn to not tell life how it should be” (Sorajjakool, 2001, p. 126). For Jung, wu-wei did not equate to the Buddhist ideal of desire-lessness. Rather, wu-wei was a way of accepting one’s aspirations while relaxing the reins on the horses of desire, refraining from trying to over-direct the outcome. One could say that Jung advocated aspiration without coercion, or aspiration accompanied by faith.

It often seems that the unconscious hinders self-determination, but Jung saw the unconscious as the route to psychological freedom. The mental state of wu-wei was a catalyst to allow the unconscious to emerge periodically so that it would not erupt explosively in the kind of dramatic reversal represented by enantiodromia. Jung advocated intentionally lowering the threshold of consciousness in order to allow the unconscious to emerge, the opposite of what was called in the 1960s “consciousness raising.” Unconsciousness had generally been considered a sign of dysfunction before Jung adopted Pierre Janet’s term abaissement du niveau mental to describe the kind of lowering of consciousness that precedes creativity and psychological transformation. For Jung, wu-wei was also an indicator of the paradoxical combination of humility and confidence that characterized the unified personality. An individual who exhibited a willingness to go into his or her area of inferiority trusted that his aspirations could be realized without the exercise of force. From that low place, Jung thought, the transcendent function could manifest, bridging the opposites. From that low place, faith could emerge, and then the individual’s aspirations might be fully realized.



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Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the making of modern psychology: The dream of a science. Cambridge University Press.

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Sorajjakool, S. (2001). Wu Wei, negativity, and depression: The principle of non-trying in the practice of pastoral care. Haworth Pastoral Press.

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