Today marks the 5 year anniversary of an often underappreciated article by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, entitled “Chaos Theory: A Unified Theory of Muppet Types”. If you haven’t read it, you should (bearing in mind this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek by design). But, in the meantime, to understand what I’m about to say, here’s a very brief TL;DR: People tend to be either Order Muppets or Chaos Muppets. (The Muppets are incorporated as illustrations of the dynamic — Bert for Order, for example, and Cookie Monster for Chaos.) If you have an accurate and updated to-do list, you’re probably an Order Muppet; but if you don’t need or use one, because you just do what needs to be done (or what you want to do) in the moment, well, you’re probably a Chaos Muppet. The core of Dahlia’s theory is that two people in a relationship, whether personal or professional, tend to find the most success when one is an Order Muppet and one is a Chaos Muppet.
I don’t think many people celebrate Muppet Theory in the way that I do. When I read that piece, it struck home for me immediately. You see, I’m an Order Muppet. My wife, who I married a couple years before that piece, is pretty much a Chaos Muppet. And at the time I read that article, I shared a large cubicle in the Department of State with a gentleman who was then, is now, and forever will be, a prototypical Chaos Muppet (though he’d be the first to take issue with my referring to him as a ‘gentleman’… but that’s another story). Both of these personal and professional relationships worked extremely well, and under Muppet Theory, that success is because of — not despite — the differences.
I started telling other people in my field — tech policy — about Muppet Theory. Others validated it as well. It has spread a bit in fact, and has come back around to me a couple times from others, who heard it from their friends who heard it from mine, etc. If you’re in tech policy, particularly in Washington D.C., and you’re aware of Muppet Theory, there’s a decent chance it’s my fault.
Anyway, some folk I talked to pushed back. They perceived themselves taking on varying levels of Order and Chaos Muppet-ness depending on their circumstances. Some were Order Muppets at work but Chaos Muppets in their personal lives. Some felt they were Order Muppets in some relationships and Chaos Muppets in others.
Most people would have set aside Muppet Theory at that point. They would have begin viewing it as an interesting exercise, but one that has its limits, like the Meyers-Briggs test (and my favorite, the “Star Wars” interpretation of same — I’m Emporer Palpatine, for the record), the Enneagram, Insights color energies, and every other personality typing I’ve ever encountered.
But — for better or for worse — I’m not most people.
I think the binary ‘order and chaos’ test offers incredible bang for the buck in making sure that teams of real humans work. And, in my experience, it’s more powerful than just two-person relationships. It fits for groups as well. A group of all Chaos Muppets will struggle; so will a group of all Order Muppets. No Muppet type is superior, and Muppet Diversity is critical. And to make it a reality in practice, we must delve deeper into understanding our innate Muppet-ness.
I thus present to you for consideration “Muppet Theory 2.0: A Grand Unified Theory of Muppet Types”. My innovation on Dahlia’s baseline is a second-order tendency, one that characterizes how people’s default Muppet-ness may change based on their circumstances.
Under the Grand Unified Theory, an individual still has a baseline ‘order’ or ‘chaos’ designation, which predicts how the individual makes decisions and takes actions that involve only herself. But, when presented with another person or a group of people, one of three second-order tendencies will predict how the person reacts to that context. Contrarian Muppets (perhaps a more charitable label would be ‘balancing’?) tend to react to a Muppet by becoming more strongly its opposite. Sympathizing Muppets react to a Muppet by becoming more its type. And finally, Stubborn Muppets are what they are, and nothing and no one will change them.
To me, the 6 Grand Unified Muppet types (2 base, 3 tendency) are best illustrated using the characters of a modern, timely cultural context: CBS’s very popular show The Big Bang Theory.
- Order, Stubborn: Sheldon. (Come on — that one was easy.) Sheldon literally does not know how to handle chaos, and fiercely fights to impose order on it. He engages with other order Muppets by attempting to outdo them and impose even more order. And he usually wins.
- Order, Sympathizing: Leonard. By default, Leonard is driven by order, but at the same time he is capable of sympathy with chaos Muppets. He succeeds with other order Muppets by embracing, critiquing, and improving their order — for example, he didn’t run away screaming from the Roommate Agreement. And he succeeds with chaos Muppets by injecting a little bit of order, while fundamentally embracing and enjoying the chaos (e.g., on every date with Penny).
- Order, Contrarian: Bernadette. Bernadette herself seems driven by order and predictability. But she recognizes order displays in others, especially excessive ones — and she cuts through, rather than amplify or support. She can and does inject chaos and balance where it adds value.
- Chaos, Stubborn: Penny. (Again: easy.) Penny is chaos, through and through, in all of her life and professional decisions. Regardless of who she is interacting with, she bristles at order and embraces chaos. Unquestionably, it makes her the life of the party.
- Chaos, Sympathizing: Raj. Raj is chaos driven. He is very presentable and capable of logical and rational analysis, but in life and professional decisions, he follows his instincts and the push of the moment. However, he is heavily influenced by order Muppets like Leonard and Sheldon, and appears pulled to be more like them in his interactions with them. Heck, he even managed to share an office with Sheldon — not successfully or for long, but still, it’s more than I could do.
- Chaos, Contrarian: Howard. Like Raj, though more visibly, Howard is chaos at heart. And yet, he effectively manages Raj in their direct friendship and crafts order for the both of them. Much like his spouse, he embraces his opposite type when the need arises. The couple’s frequent role shifting between chaos and order (and, some would argue, other kinds of roles as well!) is, to me, one of the show’s more entertaining and evergreen plot lines.
Maybe you think this is all just silly. (Though not too silly to finish reading, apparently!) Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll never think about the Big Bang Theory, or the Muppets, or the interactions of your friends and colleagues the same way, ever again.