If and when we encounter intelligent aliens, a new scientific discipline will spring into being: Exopsychology – the study of alien intelligence and personality. But even before first contact we can make a start on alien psychological profiling based on the intelligent creatures we are most familiar with: ourselves.

If you have ever worked in a large corporation, the chances are that you will have taken the Myers-Briggs psychometric test (my code, for example, is INTP). One way of understanding your four-letter Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is that it locates you in a four dimensional space like this.

1. Extraversion vs. Introversion: (E-I)

When faced with a novel situation in nature, some animals will bravely approach to check out the new thing; others will hang back in case it’s dangerous. Either strategy can be an asset or a liability in particular cases, so it pays a species to maintain a continuum of brave-timid responses. In humans, extraverted individuals are more socially-dominant, attention and thrill-seeking while introverts are quieter and more cautious.

2. Sensation vs. INtuition: (S-N)

S-people are more rooted in the practical here and now; N-people are more interested in ideas, abstractions, systems, causes and campaigns. For almost all non-human animals, this dimension is redundant as they are uniformly S, rooted in their immediate situational context.

3. Feeling vs. Thinking (or Tough-Mindedness): (F-T)

If you are on the feeling side (F) you are relationship-oriented, placing great value on inter-personal harmony, caring and mutual respect. If your tendencies are more abstract (NF rather than SF) you tend to the adoption of values-driven, moral causes. If you are a T person, you tend to value objective interests and truth with less regard to the impact on interpersonal relations or people’s feelings; you will argue that omelets don’t get made without breaking a few eggs.

In sociobiological terms, this dimension reflects the objective conflict between the need to keep a group intact and working harmoniously together vs. the need to avoid groupthink and to advocate tough decisions, which, although right, may be unpopular.

4. Perceiving vs. Judging: (P-J)

A P-person tends to be rather flexible and reactive to circumstances. A J-person tends to pre-plan and to want an organized world where things are predictable.

In most non-human animals, P is preferred as the animal has to react to circumstances and is seldom able to impose its will on its environment. Humans, however, get benefits from the more conscientious J approach: sometimes having a plan and sticking to it genuinely gets results. But flexibility is also necessary, which is why evolution has left us with a spread-out dimension where different people tend to score differently.

My description of the MBTI above is almost ludicrously oversimplified but it’s sufficient for our purposes. Academic psychology, for various historical reasons, doesn’t use the Myers-Briggs approach but prefers a five dimensional space called the Five-Factor Model (FFM). We can think of the FFM as Myers-Briggs + an additional dimension of “Neuroticism vs. Emotional-Stability”. This additional dimension measures the extent to which inner emotional turmoil (anxiety, jealousy, fear, desire, etc) directly translates into behavior (Neuroticism) or is controlled, presenting a more even temperament to the world (Emotional Stability).

For most animals this is another irrelevant dimension as the biological imperatives which generate emotions in humans tend for them to be immediately channeled into action – so they all classify as more or less ‘Neurotic’. It takes complex, intelligent, social creatures to create circumstances where the repression of immediate, situationally-driven responses has adaptive value.

The Five-Factor Model uses the acronym OCEAN for its five dimensions, which connect with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as follows.
O (Openness to Experience) = N
C (Conscientiousness) = J
E (Extraversion) = E
A (Agreeableness) = F
N (Neuroticism) = (no corresponding Myers-Briggs dimension).

Let’s return to the aliens. Dr Christopher McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Centre, has defined intelligence here and elsewhere in the universe as the ability to build a radio telescope. To appreciate the neatness of this definition, consider this. To build a radio telescope you need to know a lot of electromagnetism theory (and you don’t get far with Maxwell’s Equations without smartness and a capacity to handle abstraction) plus you need to have assembled a pretty formidable technology base, requiring a society with a degree of stability. Radio telescopes don’t grow on trees, even alien ones, and a fair amount of conscientiousness and self-discipline is needed to execute a plan to build one.

Of course, if you have the capability to design and build radio telescopes (which serve a space-exploration function), you will also have the capability and, no doubt the intention, of building spacecraft and weapons systems and, in due course, going visiting.

So consider an alien species which builds radio telescopes and intends to go visiting. It’s intelligent, open to experience (O), conscientious (C), no doubt somewhat exploratory (E), social (A), and presumably its members are conflicted between their immediate emotional desires and the demands of level-headed duty (Neurotic vs. Emotionally-Stable).

So it seems that OCEAN is going to take us a long way in analyzing the aliens, as it already has with a variety of non-human animals (PDF from the University of California at Berkeley). Perhaps a friendly billionaire could endow the world’s first Chair of Exopsychology?