If a Tree Falls…: Should We Fret About Our Private Indiscretions?

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” From the time someone first posed that question, humanity has struggled to come up with an answer, from scientists and philosophers to theologians and stand-up comedians.

It’s the nature of such an abstract question to have no solution – or at least, no solution that will satisfy everyone. But we can correlate the question to a very real phenomenon of our everyday lives: If we do something that would embarrass us if it were witnessed, but there are no witnesses, then should we be embarrassed by it?

We asked our readers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “You feel very uncomfortable if you do something socially unacceptable, even if no one finds out.” Their responses revealed a significant difference of opinion on the subject. Personality types with the Feeling trait were notably more likely to agree than those with the Thinking trait (71% vs. 54% agreeing, respectively). But it was within the Strategies, which show how we prefer to go about doing things – including socially unacceptable things – that the most significant differences between types emerged.

Which personality types were most likely to feel discomfited by private indiscretions? Let’s find out.


Diplomats and Sentinels (71% and 68% agreeing)

Although they have different relationships with the social order, Diplomats and Sentinels alike are sensitive to their place in it. Diplomats, as Intuitive and Feeling types, can be thought of as internalizing their social morals. Combined with the empathy these personality types possess, this makes them acutely aware of the disapproval of both themselves and others. As the most idealistic of the Roles, Diplomats are also most likely to judge themselves harshly for falling short of the very ideals they are constantly working toward.

Sentinels, on the other hand, can be thought of as externalizing social morals. (“What would the neighbors think?”) As devotees and enforcers of social order, these personalities may feel hypocritical when they transgress rules. This is especially true of Sentinels with the Feeling trait – Defenders (ISFJ) (80%) and Consuls (ESFJ) (68%) – who would be more prone to dwell on emotions of shame and guilt after such transgressions than would those with the Thinking trait. Even so, as a group, Sentinels may very well police their own social behavior more thoroughly than anyone else would, and as such, they agreed with our research statement at high rates.

Explorers (64%)

A majority of Explorers agreed that, even if never exposed, going against society’s conventions would make them ill at ease. As with Sentinels, the Feeling personality types – Adventurers (ISFP) (78%) and Entertainers (ESFP) (61%) – agreed at higher rates than their counterparts with the Thinking trait. Although Explorers have a reputation for being willing to break rules, they typically only do so when it will help them solve a problem or get a job done. They may view something that accomplishes neither of those goals, and that is socially unacceptable to boot, as an entirely different matter. Highly pragmatic individuals, these personalities may be in the habit of “going along to get along,” so much so that, even when alone, they feel askew when undertaking the unorthodox.

Analysts (53%)

Slightly more than half of Analysts agreed that private indiscretions would make them feel uncomfortable, which is no surprise given that Analyst personality types have the Thinking trait at their core. Strongly independent, many Analysts pay little mind to flouting convention even in the presence of others, let alone when they’re by themselves. For some types, particularly Debaters (ENTP) (45%), who were the least likely Analysts to agree, the matter of what is and is not socially acceptable is entirely up for question. How can they feel guilty about breaking social rules that they may not even agree with in the first place?


As previously mentioned, it was within the Strategies that we saw the most striking differences in our readers’ responses. Most significantly, Turbulent personality types were 24% more likely than Assertive types to agree that they feel uncomfortable when they do something socially unacceptable, even if it’s never discovered (75% vs. 51% agreeing, respectively). Furthermore, Introverted types were 11% more likely to agree than Extraverted types (71% vs. 60%). Let’s explore the implications of these results in more detail below.

Constant Improvement (79% agreeing)

As both Turbulent and Introverted types, respondents belonging to the Constant Improvement Strategy agreed with our research statement at very high rates. The relentless and internalized perfectionism that characterizes Constant Improvers may make it difficult for them to practice socially unacceptable behavior, even in private. Constant Improvement personalities may fear that breaking with convention could form habits that carry over into their day-to-day activities.

Additionally, the Introverted nature of Constant Improvers may cause them to suffer more from the “spotlight effect,” the notion that others pay more attention to them than they actually do. Even if the particulars remain a mystery, Constant Improvers may be haunted by the idea that their every indiscretion is obvious to others.

Turbulent Defenders (ISFJ-T) (87%) were the most likely of all personality types to agree with our research statement. Caretakers and protectors, Defenders take their responsibilities to others extremely personally. If they were to do something socially unacceptable, not only would they feel that they’d let themselves down, but even worse, they would fear that they’d let down all those who trust and depend on them. Consider the example of Queen Elizabeth II – a Defender personality type and true model of social decorum, her entire royal life has been dedicated to serving the British people, a role that she could not effectively carry out without her public, and private, integrity intact.

Social Engagement (71%)

A strong majority of respondents in the Social Engagement Strategy also agreed. Sharing the Turbulent Identity of Constant Improvers, Social Engagers too may worry that even isolated incidents of private misbehavior may spread to their everyday existence. And because they are Extraverts who spend more of their time and energy in social situations, they may think their chances of being exposed are greater. These personality types are perfectionists and very sensitive to what others think of them, so doing something inappropriate in private may cause them to constantly nag themselves with the question, “What would they think of me now?” – even if no one is around to judge.

Confident Individualism (55%)

More than half of types belonging to the Confident Individualism Strategy agreed that socially unacceptable actions would make them feel uncomfortable, whether they were discovered or not. These personality types may be self-assured enough to overlook their own hidden foibles, perhaps assuming that other people are equally guilty of such private misdoings. These Assertive Introverts prefer to keep to themselves, so it may even be the case that it doesn’t occur to them at all to consider how the broader world would view their personal lives. “To each their own,” a Confident Individualist might think.

People Mastery (49%)

The People Mastery Strategy had the lowest share of all Strategies surveyed. People Masters wear it loud and proud. Assertive and Extraverted personalities, they are usually quite comfortable with themselves, whether people know what they do or not. People Masters accept that faux pas happen, both publicly and privately, and there’s little to be done about it but to move on. That doesn’t mean they aren’t embarrassed from time to time, they just aren’t on the scale that Turbulent or Introverted individuals are.

Assertive Entrepreneurs (ESTP-A) were the least likely of all personality types to agree (34%). Adventurous types who tend to make a habit of risky behavior, Entrepreneurs are too busy seeking out exciting new experiences to worry about what other people think of them, never mind analyzing or feeling guilty about their own actions. Jack Nicholson is an example of an Entrepreneur who is famous for his unpredictability and roguish behavior; bucking social conventions is the norm for him, and he seems to take pleasure in it. Such an approach to life is certainly a far cry from the conscientious reliability of Turbulent Defenders.


If we fall from grace, and no one is around to see it, does it really happen?

The answer, much like the question of the tree falling in the forest, has a lot to do with how we perceive things. Those of us who construct our sense of identity by holding ourselves up to the mirror of society, as Diplomats, Sentinels, and certain Turbulent personality types do, may feel as though we carry an inner societal monitor everywhere we go, watching and passing judgment on our every move.

More independent sorts, like Analysts and Assertive types, might have a different take on the matter. Rather than feeling constantly restrained by society writ large, these personalities may feel more like lone individuals who make living their lives a priority, only concerning themselves with “fitting in” – if they do at all – when others are present.

What about you? Are you uncomfortable with doing things that others would find socially unacceptable? Do you think your personality type plays a role? Join the conversation below.

You can see the full set of data, including correlation coefficients, here. Please also consider participating in our Member Surveys!

1 year ago
Yeah, ISFJ-A/T (51% turbulent 49% assertive) here. I can conform that I'd quite uncomfortable doing something that may be considered embarrassing, even if no one else saw.
1 year ago
INFJ-A here. To answer the question, Yes i do feel very uncomfortable if I do something socially unacceptable and it doesn't matter if anyone finds out or not.
1 year ago
INFJ-T. Yes, I am also very uncomfortable if l do something socially unacceptable and it doesn't matter if anyone finds out or not.
1 year ago
This is a very interesting article. I'm glad you published this article.
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