Cosmo Kramer: A Personality Psychologist's Analysis

By: Andrew Callahan

Biography

Residing at apartment 5B for the duration of nine hilarious seasons, Cosmo Kramer is one of the most memorable characters in television history. The rather intrusive yet 101% harmless neighbor of Jerry Seinfeld, Kramer will be long remembered for his demonstrative entrances, idiosyncratic behavior and slapstick nature. Born of Babs Kramer and an undisclosed father, Cosmo Kramer is the last living male member of his family (Season 06, Episode 04: The Chinese Woman). A runaway at the age of 17, Kramer eventually earned a GED and for a long period of time was estranged from his mother Babs. Prior to living across the hall at 129 West 81st Street, he was a former resident of Greenwich Village and had actually spent time in the army (08/04 “The Little Kicks”; 09/14 ”The Strong Box”).

A lover of Cuban cigars and entrepreneurship, Kramer often gets himself in highly unusual and tumultuous situations for which he rarely takes the fall. Whether it’s employing three Dominican cigar rollers, adopting and modifying a mile stretch of highway, incidentally burning down a 200-year old cabin or fighting off a criminal while driving a city bus in order to save a friend’s severed pinky toe, Kramer also never fails to supply a good adventure. Although eccentric, the middle-aged single man is supremely honest, friendly and loyal; particularly to Jerry, off whom he mooches food and household items daily. He does not possess as large a network of close friends in comparison to the other central characters, but Kramer makes of for it with his openness and affability, which turn a high number of his acquaintances into immediate friendships.

Trait/Skill Perspective

Stealing a moment to glance through the eyeglass of a trait personality psychologist, we can see Kramer is perhaps the epitome of the main issue often taken up with this approach. You see, even after spending nine seasons and 180 episodes with the "hipster doofus", one can still utilize almost an endless series of adjectives to describe Kramer and thus attribute an impractical amount of traits. However, that is not to suggest that taking such an approach would be entirely useless. In fact, this collective theory has held its own for thousands of years and been modified to the point where it is now greatly data-driven, supported and accepted. Even in the case of the unconventional Cosmo Kramer, we can indeed narrow pin down some trait possibilities and gain some perspective. So, let’s take a quick look.


Now, roughly around 400 BC, Hippocrates became the first man to popularize a personality theory centering around specific traits. He asserted that each person and thus their personality were constituted by an overload or deficiency of four specific bodily humors. They each were each correlated with specific characteristics and went as follows: yellow bile- angry, black bile- depressive, blood- cheerful and phlegm- apathetic (Friedman, 2009, p. 258).

Fast forward, and nowadays we of course know these assertions to be absurd but for analytic sake, we can safely say Kramer would have been assumed in those days to be chock full of blood. Any angry scenes featuring Kramer during the course of the show were very comical and typically short-lived. A shallow and rather joyful fellow, Kramer never had any reason to really be seriously upset, depressive or apathetic.
Hitting reverse on our recent time travel, we are now in the 1960s where we have come across a much more substantial trait theory known as the “The Big Five”. A thoroughly researched perspective, the Big Five Personality Assessment states everyone possesses a certain level of five distinct personality facets known as: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Once measured, these traits can tell you an awful lot about a person and the technique is still referred to and relied upon in modern day (see roughly half of the presentations made in class) because of its’ ability to generalize across time and people.

The first of the five, Extroversion, measures the enthusiasm, dominance and sociability of a given person (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Now, the term for being low in extroversion is introverted, though this should never, ever be confused with Cosmo Kramer. Evidence of his great expressiveness, enthusiasm and sociability can be seen in his many romantic relationships that ranged from waitresses (06/07 The Soup), Latvian Orthodox nuns (05/11 The Conversion) and lab technicians (05/07 The Non-Fat Yogurt). Simply labeling the man as just an extrovert, could very well be a dramatic understatement.

Moving on we arrive at Agreeableness, the second of the components that make up the Big Five. Agreeableness is defined as the dimension of personality that measures friendliness, cooperation and warmth (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Kramer would once again receive high scores in this department, citing his ability to seemingly make friends on the spot and willingness to help Jerry, Elaine or George with any sort of problem or project (04/06 The Watch- Kramer agrees to act as Elaine’s boyfriend to fool her therapist and romantic pursuer Dr. Reston).

Then, Conscientiousness measures how dependable, organized, cautious and responsible a person is and therefore people who score low would be considered impulsive, disorderly and careless (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Kramer would fall somewhere in the middle with his conscientiousness as it can range greatly depending on what he’s facing. Obviously the slapstick comedy is due to physical clumsiness which in part is due to his lack of mental awareness and in a way conscientiousness. Yet, he once went to extraordinary lengths to preserve a Risk game put on hold between himself in Newman, that included running around the streets of New York with the board in hand, to keep the pieces in place (03/17 The Boyfriend).

Fourthly, we face neuroticism. Neuroticism is considered as the Big Five’s measure of exactly how nervous, moody and tense someone is (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Kramer would once register with a middling score, as while he is typically a happy, healthy person, Cosmo suffers from a few serious phobias such as coulrophobia- fear of clowns (04/09 The Opera). He also reacts gravely at the mention of the word mouse (05/18 The Raincoats) and holds a variety of odd beliefs, some rooted in fear.

Last but not least is the trait of openness, which Kramer would easily be able to produce scores that “sky rocket” high above the normal levels. People who are typically considered high in openness appear imaginative and original, in addition to being open to art and culture (Friedman, 2009, p. 267). Kramer is all that and more as over time a staple of Seinfeld became his wild ideas and concoctions and how they would play out. Take your pick amongst a perfume that smells like the ocean, blacking out divider strips on the highway to make lanes more spacious or designing a bra for men, as evidence for Kramer’s wild imagination and sky-high openness.

Behaviorist Perspective

Taking a page of John Watson’s playbook, we will now take a concerted look at Kramer’s personality through a behaviorist’s perspective. In this approach, one takes the stance that all behavior has been regulated and learned through systems of conditioning and reinforcement. Free will does not exist and anything comparable is simply determined by environment contingencies. A common analogy made in the field is that humans are to life as rats are to mazes (Friedman, 2009 pg. 216).

Now we are not privy to Kramer’s early days as a child and therefore cannot be sure of the conditioning and reinforcement he was subject to, which has led to the content of his character, but we can still gain certain insight through this perspective. You see, having multiple phobias or any phobia for that matter indicates that at a time in his life, a negative stimulus was matched with the entity that now sparks the irrational fear. Thus Kramer, just as all other humans typically have been, was subject to both basic classical conditioning and operant conditioning, which now shapes his personality.

However, given that unconditional honesty conflicts with typical human behavior within the framework of a society, one must wonder if he was at some time positively reinforced to solely speak the truth and nothing else. This is because one of the assertions that lies at the very basis of behaviorism is that behavior is determined by conditions that are supplied by the environment or most often society. Therefore, his 100% honesty must have come from a different source.

Perhaps the best piece of evidence to support a behaviorist’s view into the world of Kramer is seen in the episode know as “The Chicken Roaster”. To summarize, following a series of conflicts, Jerry is forced to live in Kramer's apartment and Kramer in Jerry’s, Then Jerry, bothered incessantly by the problems and peculiarities in Kramer's home, quickly begins acting like his wacky friend, showing that Kramer might be radically influenced by his own apartment. In turn, when Kramer begins living in Jerry's regular and normally arranged apartment, he starts to act more like his calm and comedic friend.

Here we see the blatant effects of conditioning and can see how living inside apartment 5B (for whatever reason) apparently develops the quirks typically exhibited by Kramer or whoever inhabits the place. This would explain the difference in Kramer’s level of wackiness when comparing earlier episodes such as the very first “The Seinfeld Chronicles” and one of the very last, “The Merv Griffin Show”. In the latter show, he discovers the old set to the Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and then reconstructs it in his own home and temporarily lives as a 24-hour talk show host when anyone enters his home. During the pilot, the only action that at all resembles his later character is the mooching of food.

Discussion
He once had his portrait described as something depicting a "loathsome, offensive brute" (03/21 The Letter). Yet after taking some time to take a thorough look at Cosmo Kramer through two distinct perspectives, we know this is anything but true. A caring, goofy and multi-faceted man, Kramer is both lovable and very laughable. Though the origins of his quirkiness are not truly known it is likely that the construct of his personality has been built through many steps including those described by hard-core behaviorists. However, when using the Big Five model, Kramer fits in well displaying at the very least, moderate levels in each dimension.

References


Friedman, Howard (2009). Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Seinfeld seasons 1-9