The origin of character: You chose to be who you are before you knew you had the power of choice.

“Why, yes, I am working you. How’d you guess?”

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My taxonomy of kids is Infants, Babies, Toddlers, Children. Infants snooze, Babies observe, Toddlers participate and Children converse.

Children are awake – persistently volitionally self-conscious of abstract conceptual self-consciousness – and hence are adults in every way but accrued experience and sexual maturation.

Younger kids are not awake, and the bright-line division between Toddler and Child is the blinding epiphany that is the birth of consciousness of the self as an abstract idea – as a distinguishable self-referencing concept whose processes and progress can be thought about, remembered, anticipated, planned, dreamed about or dreaded.

So far, I have not seen anything that I would swear is evidence of DISC in Infants. But it shows up bright and clear in Babies, both the cultivation of DISC behaviors by the kid’s grown-ups and the kid’s own steadily-more-practiced propitiation – shaling – of the rewards consequent upon exhibiting that behavior.

Empathy is predictive behavioral modeling: I’m trying to figure out what the other guy is going to do next, so I can figure out what I might do in response. The habituated behaviors you exhibit to your kid are the gradually-more-reliable proxy signals he uses to identify and deliver back to you the behavior he thinks you’re eliciting.

When a Baby works out just this much – how to respond to you appropriately – the smile and giggle loops amplify charmingly. Toddlers toddle, but the birth of participation is here, when Babies start giving back in reliable ping-ponging interactions.

What we have at this point is proto-DISC: The Baby has worked out a reliable empathy strategy for getting positive attention from his grown-ups. (Everything we’re talking about works in the inverse, too, in abusive situations, but I want to talk about normal upbringing here.) More than one grown-up – or older kid? More than one strategy. More than one response-seeking game from one or more up-bringers? You do the math.

Babies learn very quickly how to get their emotional needs met by exhibiting reward-propitiating behavior – by campaigning for affection.

That’s DISC, aboriginally, a reward-seeking strategy the kid sculpts over time in response to emotional incentives promised by his grown-ups. (And you can see why abusive, absent, unreliable or mixed signals would matter hugely starting here.) DISC is how we train our kids.

So what are you rewarding in your kids? What are you praising them for? What are you raving about in your exaggerated mothertongue performances? That’s what your kids are going to feed back to you. It doesn’t have to be reflective of your own DISC profile, but you will be rewarding one or more of the four DISC priorities: Productivity, showmanship, loving or precision. You are quite literally cultivating the qualities of character you are likely to see in that kid from then on.

So what will you do, when you see the values you elicited in your Baby echoed back to you? You’ll reinforce them, of course, with still more effusive praise and affection. You train your baby differently than you do your dog, but you use exactly the same language – mothertongue – to get the job done.

Why? Because it works. Mammals love to be loved, and, accordingly, they love to do the things that earn them more love. A Baby kicks his legs or giggles and a dog flaps his tail around like a banner, but they’re doing the same thing: Delighting in being delighted in. That’s the best life can get for any mammal – including you.

So over time, the Baby learns to actively campaign for your emotional rewards – visibility, acceptance, approval, affection – by pro-actively initiating reward-seeking strategies. This is all still purely mammalian empathy – bilateral and mutually-reciprocal, with emotions being the only currencies in play – but the seed of guile is here, too. You put your kid on an incentive pay plan – straight-commission sales – and he’s ringing them bells.

Why guile? Because mammalian empathy is authentic and organic, arising naturally from the ping-ponging of the interaction. Performance is affected. When a reward-seeking performance is planned in advance – when the kid knows that if he shouts “Squee!” periodically everyone will laugh – we’re seeing an emotional-rent-seeking kind of guile, along with a much deeper understanding of the subjunctive in the kid’s mind.

There’s more here, too, an invalid conflation of quantity with quality and of scale-of-effort with depth-of-feeling: The kid tries to figure out how to turn his reward-seeking strategy into a candy machine, a praxis at least as reliably-predictable as ruffling at the dog’s ears.

And we have now found vice in your Baby: Campaigning for affection by means known to the kid to be affected – more planned than organic.

Your Baby knows how to lie! And you taught it to him!

Do please relax – not alone because things are about to get much worse.

For this is no longer just campaigning: Your kid is by now competing. For what? Your attention. Against what? Everything else that is competing for your attention. Whatever other values you have propitiated in your kid by your habituated interactions, you have shaled up Incandescent need as necessary by-product.

How can you tell that that’s so? Because your kid is competing for your attention, that’s how. We all of us have Incandescent need – mostly unmet – and it starts here for your Baby, in not just playing empathy games along with you but working hard to sway you to make time to play empathy games with him.

But a transaction in which guile is deployed on one or both sides is a fraud, and this is the birth of reptilian empathy in your Baby – the recognition on his part that he can, effectively, cheat you out of the rewards he wants from you. He can trade low-quality performances for high-quality rewards, for instance, or simply ‘flood the market’ with steadily-more-pointless replications of reward-seeking behaviors.

Why is this reptilian, as compared with the mammalian empathy we’ve talked about so far? It is unilateral and competitive in its victory condition, not mutually-reciprocal: I want what I want regardless of what you get, not the give-and-take of us both getting what we both want. Accordingly, it is fundamentally solitary and is only social by camouflage, with the other party to transaction effectively being a black box. The affection is faked, affected, and is therefore an expression of aggression or at best indifference. And the value being sought is not authentic emotion but some cypher for it, a metaphorical chiclet of candy-machine candy.

Mammalian empathy is mutually-reciprocal, social, cooperative, affectionate and emotional-reward-seeking. Reptilian empathy is unilateral, solitary, competitive, aggressive and material-reward-seeking.

Are these two very different empathy models biological in origin or are they simply a learned strategy-of-strategies? You decide. They’re both there, in every fully-awake human mind and in the incipient, aborning minds of every normal Baby and Toddler.

I can argue for the idea of a Triune brain, with older brain hardware – simultaneously obviated by and yet blissfully unaware of later, higher-functioning cranial upgrades – always looking for a chance to take over and put things right, at last. So you could imagine the reptile brain bitching out the mammal brain for being gooey, imprecise, unkempt and unproductive, with the two of them bitching in concert about the thinking brain’s pointless obsession with ideas about ideas while ignoring existential reality at least 95% of the time.

But: Even if that’s true in some less-metaphorical sense, I don’t think it is dispositive. Why? Because all purposive human behavior is chosen. DISC is habituated behavior, but that just means the choice was made a long time ago, not that the replica of that choice in use right now is in any way unavoidable or inescapable. No matter how you have always chosen in the past, you can always choose differently now.

But there’s more: In order for a Baby or Toddler to have deployed reptilian empathy, he must understand at some very high degree of subjunctivity that cheating can work – that there is another empathy-modeling strategy, one that seems to turn suckers into candy machines.

Want more guile? Reward counterfeit virtue with counterfeit praise: Lie to be lied to.

Your kid had to discover mammalian empathy strategy – how to keep the give-and-take going – and he had to discover reptilian empathy strategy – how to take without giving. Every bit of this is learned behavior, consciously cultivated from without, consciously nurtured from within, consciously deployed by a will that is free of all external constraints even if it is not yet free in the sense of fully-informed discretion.

Reptilian empathy is how non-human mammals interact with strangers – anyone other than members of their own storgic community, their pack or clan or family. And, of course, it’s how reptiles interact with everyone except their exceedingly-temporary mating partners.

And yet, if there are biological precursors to mammalian and reptilian empathy strategies in human beings, they are being over-ridden by the thinking brain: Both of those types of empathetic modelling are fully understood by the thinking brain, and both are deployed by each one of us in different circumstances and in pursuit of different values. We explicitly and consciously choose the strategy we’re going to use in an interaction – and then we behave as if there could be no possible alternative.

So why does your kid affect surprise when you catch him cheating? Because he knows in advance that he is cheating, and he’s trying to cheat his way out of the consequences of having been caught. When people choose to lie about reptilian empathy, it’s lizards all the way down. There are no mammals.

But now your kid – probably a toddling Toddler by now – has discovered a much better way to compete – to compete for more and better rewards, but also to compete against other kids, other grown-ups and every other competitor for your time and attention.

DISC at this point is a parental-approval-seeking strategy, the means your kid has worked out to best win your favor with the least attainable quantities of either disfavor or neglect.

How much reptilian empathy is in the mix? How’s it paying? If cheating seems propitious to the child – if displaying reptilian empathy produces better rewards, in the kid’s estimate, than does mammalian empathy – that’s what you’ll see more of, over time.

And here come the DISC roles and their comparatives: Busier, showier, kinder, more precise. Kids will express these as competitive profiles – as marketing differentiators – in affected-mothertongue displays (that is, in enacted fathertongue) long before they are able to brag about them in words.

And these are all products of reptilian empathy: If I am kinder, I am not so much kind as I am kinder-than-thou. The purpose of these highly-organized displays is strategic: I want more of the love stuff I crave from the people raising me, and I want to sustain or grow my market-share of that love stuff compared with everyone else who might be competing for it – especially other kids.

And so the kid’s DISC role becomes his play strategy, as well: “When all we’re doing is schmoozing, quibbling or wasting time, I step up to lead us toward a goal.” Or “I make sure everything is just so.” Or “I check to see that everyone is happy and console anyone who is not.” Or “I have a plan.”

The DISC role is an expression of availability: “I am the perfect plug to fit that gap.” This is how the full DISC profile is cultivated anyway: Each new child tends to fill the biggest available priority-hole in his family at that time: “Aren’t you the most hard-working boy?” “I swear, you are just the prettiest girl in the world!” “I love how gentle you are with those kittens. They must love you like their own mother.” “You are so smart!” What you fed them is what they are feeding back to you, and so they are becoming what you have repeatedly expected them to be.

But for that reason – the omnipresence of your expectations – the DISC role also fulfills your kid’s need for an identity – to have a role and to know what that role is. In that respect, the four-letter notation of a particular DISC profile is an expression of both competencies and deficiencies. It is both a resume and a shopping list: This is what I deliver in abundance because I have an overwhelming need to both procure and produce it in abundance.

Driven people don’t lead because they want to lead. They do it because they can’t stand that something is not done and no one else is getting it done. Sociable people are kind because they’re kind, but also because other people and nature herself can be so cruel.

In that respect, every DISC profile is also a sort of living icon of self-sacrifice: “I will martyr myself for the sake of our desperate unmet need!” The result of that absurd notion is a lifelong feeling of being unseen and unappreciated – even though the precursor to your messianic mania was your perception that no one knew and no one cared about the crisis you so heroically averted.

Each kid’s profile will be a uniquely-concocted ordering of the four DISC priorities: Accomplishment, Appreciation, Affection or Accountability. He’s feeding back the behaviors you and others around him have elicited from him, all based in his conclusions of which kinds of displays are most propitious – most productive of the rewards he values most.

All of this is affected. All purposive human behavior is chosen, but, accordingly, all chosen behavior is purposed – intended, planned and purposefully effected. A DISC profile is an empathy strategy because it is a goal-seeking agenda effected by means of a pre-planned strategy for responding to the other guy’s anticipated responses: “This is the display I intend to make in pursuit or defense of my goal.”

The fact that all of this is being done by Babies and Toddlers can help to explain why it all looks so childish: Your kid sets the course of his life before he can accurately call yesterday’s events to mind, and then he hews to that course with a proud and stoical devotion for the rest of his days.

Yes. For real. Your kid started sculpting his DISC profile when his best way of expressing his emotions was spastically kicking his legs in the air and he is done with it before he is self-aware.

He wakes up already well-habituated in his DISC predispositions. How you react to that notion is your business, but it is a thing to be marveled at, no matter what: This is how we become who we are, by choosing who to be before we knew we had the power of choice.


That’s the etiology of DISC, but it’s also the basis of a plan of action for achieving better results, going forward: Children become what you expect of them, so if you change your expectations, you will change your outcomes.

I get away with saying outrageous things all the time, so I want to emphasize this, for pure effrontery:

“Greg Swann says children can be programmed!”

No. I say children have always been programmed – almost always inattentively and therefore ineptly. I know how we can all do a better job – going forward – of setting our children up for happiness and success in life, instead of graduated obsessive miseries.

There is lots and lots more to talk about, but the place to start is simply to face facts: DISC is the map to humanity and to each individual human being – his present, his past, his prologue. It is the story of his upbringing, of his marriage and of his ultimate demise. He is never once doomed to hew to it, yet he will almost never stray from it – not even when someone like me raves about how easy it is to change.

And yet it changes all the time, at different stages of life and as circumstances change: You adapt when you must, then revert to type when you can. That is, you may seem to change when you are under stress or duress, but you only actually change when you insist to yourself that you must do things differently – usually in the midst or aftermath of a crisis.

You chose to apportion importance before you could reliably comprehend either proportionality or import. So did everyone else. In that respect, everyone is irrational: Cooked up from a recipe concocted by a sensation-drunk kid with no concept of consequences beyond the reward of the immediate moment. That’s how the you that is most-fundamentally you – your self – was born.

And yet almost everyone is clearly rational in the sense that we all seem to make it from dawn to dawn without spinning off into irredeemable madness. We engage, we work, we prosper, we ruminate. We could do all of that, and more, so much better – as we are discussing – but we are sane enough to be having this conversation, so that would seem to make us rational enough, at the least.

But because DISC is cultivated, we can all be better people starting now, just by changing our everyday habits. And we can make our children’s lives infinitely better, simply by displaying and rewarding only mammalian empathy strategies.

But isn’t that a reptilian empathy strategy? It is. And all of child-rearing is subversively coercive – in the nicest possible way. You can cheat your children into a life of goodness simply by cheating them out of the habituation of cheating when they are Babies and Toddlers. You control the currencies they are competing for. Trade only in virtues and only for virtues, rejecting all counterfeit displays, inbound or outbound. Someday they’ll figure out what you’re doing – and how they react will be a good measure of how well you’ve done the job.

Meanwhile, thrive! The DISC map you’re working from is a good one, as witnessed by your being here, and it will only get better as you master better habits, better habits-of-mind and better empathy strategies.

So here’s to you! To the drunk kid you’ve been until now, and to the sober adult you could present to the world as soon as tomorrow. You chose who you have been, and, accordingly, you can choose who who will be.

And that’s what maps are for.

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