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Introduction to Temperament Theory

This post contains brief exercises to enable you to make a start in exploring how the Temperament patterns relate to you. I therefore suggest you should have at least 15 minutes of spare time before working through it. 

7b Temperament theory is concerned with identifying patterns in human behaviour. In a certain sense, it is a scientific language game concerned with defining words that relate to psychological observations. It is a largely subjective endeavour, but then, so is most science. The capacity to engage in discussions on topics about which we previously had no descriptive words is the most valuable aspect of Temperament theory, and I heartily encourage everyone to learn the basic terms. It will not take long, and it will empower you to consider your behaviour and the actions of others from a completely different perspective.

This post is concerned with providing a basic introduction to Temperament theory, building up to an introduction to the four Temperament patterns themselves. We will follow its development from Jung, through Isabel Myers (of Myers-Briggs fame), to David Keirsey and finally to Linda Berens. As we go, we will begin to learn the language behind the theory. 

We will do this by identifying the three axes of distinction (that’s the plural of ‘axis’, by the way, not the name of a trio of mystical relics) that are currently used to underlie Temperament theory.

First Axis: Abstract versus Concrete (Language) 

Jung’s work from the early decades of the twentieth century is not popular in modern science for reasons beyond the scope of this post. However, essential to his work was a rejection of Freud’s approach of identifying a single factor behind all behaviour. Many of Freud’s opponents disagreed with Freud’s focus on lust as the single drive, but they still advanced very narrow, reductionist theories based on identifying single motivating factors alone. Jung took a different approach. He suggested that people were different from each other, and attempted to identify factors that constituted meaningful distinctions.

Jung’s distinctions were threefold: Introversion versus Extroversion, Thinking versus Feeling and Sensing versus Intuitive. It is this last distinction which constitutes the first axis of modern Temperament theory. I freely admit that Jung’s theories were incomplete and flawed – but it is ever thus in any nascent field, and this is no more a reason to dismiss Jung’s work than it is to avoid studying (say) Darwin’s or Newton’s theories. 

Rather than considering exactly what Jung meant by ‘Sensing’ and ‘Intuitive’ (which are terms familiar to anyone who has examined Myers-Briggs typology) we shall simply consider the particular aspect of these terms used in Temperament theory – namely the axis of distinction in language use: Abstract versus Concrete. (For reference, ‘Sensing’ correlates with ‘Concrete’ and ‘Intuitive’ correlates with ‘Abstract’).

Keirsey wrote: 

In his Abstract and Concrete Behaviour, Goldstein had some people talking more abstractly than concretely and others talking more concretely than abstractly. Similarly, in his Essay on Man Cassirer has some talking more analogically than indicatively, others talking more indicatively than analogically. In other words, some people are prone to send symbol messages, others send signal messages – signals pointing to something present to the eye, symbols bring to mind something absent from view. 

Berens wrote on Abstract language use:

If you are more abstract by nature, you will usually think and talk about concepts and patterns, referencing sensory details as needed. Implication, hypotheses, or symbolic meanings might occupy most of your free “thought time”. 

And on Concrete language use:

If you are more concrete by nature, you will more often think and talk about tangible realities backed up by sensory observation. Your free “thought time” is likely filled with reviewing events, facts, images, memories, and how things look, feel, taste and sound. 

Consider which of these descriptions fits you best. You might express both – this is perfectly normal – but try to distinguish for yourself which description is your best fit.

Read the descriptions again and take a moment to consider before continuing.  Write down your preference between Abstract and Concrete as we will use it later. 

Second Axis: Affiliative versus Pragmatic (Actions)

Following from Jung’s work, Katherine Briggs developed Jung’s work, along with her daughter Isabel Myers. In the 1940’s, Myers had taken over her mother’s work and this lead to the development of the instrument known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (copyright disclaimer below). This resulted in an inventory of sixteen different personality patterns. 

David Keirsey, working between the 1950s and 1970s, identified common patterns between clusters of the types produced by the MBTI. (His first book on this subject was written with Marilyn Bates; I’m afraid I am uncertain as to her contribution to this work). Although these four clusters form the basis of modern Temperament theory, their definition is independent of the MBTI itself. However, anyone familiar with Myers-Briggs terminology can adapt this understanding to Temperament theory with comparative ease (see below).

Keirsey defined the four Temperaments in terms of two axes – the Abstract versus Concrete distinction we have already seen, and a second distinction reflecting different approaches to taking actions or using tools: Affiliative versus Pragmatic. (Keirsey actually uses the terms Co-operative and Utilitarian, but I have chosen to prefer the terminology of his student, Linda Beren’s, and I have substituted where appropriate). 

Keirsey writes:

[People expressing Affiliative] try to get where they want to go by getting along with others, that is, by being law-abiding and accommodating with those around them, so that they are in full accord with the agreed-upon rules and mores of the social groups they belong to. In contrast, [people expressing Pragmatic] tend to go after what they want in the most effective ways possible, and they choose tools that promise success with minimum cost and effort – whether or not they observe the social rules.

Not, mind you, that the habitually [Affiliative people] don’t care about useful and effective tools. Certainly they do, but they consider the effectiveness of tools as secondary to whether they should be used, or how they will be regarded by others – in other words, whether they are socially acceptable, or morally correct. In the same way, it is not that the habitually [Pragmatic people] refuse to cooperate with their social groups, but they see pleasing others and observing rules as secondary considerations, coming only after they have determined how well their chosen tools will work in accomplishing their ends. It’s a matter of priorities. Most of us learn to get along with others most of the time, and most of us opt for effective action, but our first instinct is to pursue our goals according to our habit of [preferring Affiliative or Pragmatic.]

Berens discusses the matter in terms of roles, rather than tool use, per se. On Affiliative roles she writes:

Affiliative roles require that people act in community, with a sense of what is good for the group. They may be people or task focussed. They may be practical or idealistic. No matter what, there is always some sense of cooperation. 

On Pragmatic roles she writes:

Pragmatic roles require that individuals act in accordance with what they see needs to be done to get the desired result. They, too, may be people or task focussed. They, too, may be practical or idealistic. When a decision needs to be made or an action needs to be taken, their first inclination is to act more independently regardless of norms or consensus. 

Do you recognise yourself in one of these descriptions more than the other? It’s quite possible to express both, but you should attempt to distinguish for yourself which is your best fit out of Affiliative or Pragmatic.

Read the descriptions again and take a moment to consider before continuing. Write down your preference between Affiliative and Pragmatic as we will use it later.

Third Axis: Structure versus Motive (Focus)

Since Temperament theory involves only four patterns, two axes are sufficient. However, working with only the first two axes caused Keirsey to erroneously assume that there were two pairs of Temperament patterns that were diametrically opposed, and that had nothing in common. Conversely, Berens identified a third axis which related these previously disparate Temperaments. 

The three axes therefore not only separate the four Temperament patterns, but also connect them – each single Temperament has one property in common with each other Temperament pattern. This interrelation does not undermine the orthogonally of the patterns, since each pattern has two distinguishing traits between each other pattern.

The final axis concerns where people focus their attention. On the one hand, people who focus on Motive are concerned with why people choose to act, or what they have to gain, while people who focus on Structure are more interested in rules and principles. 

Berens suggests that people whose preferred focus is based upon Structure wish to “have a measure of control over life’s problems and irregularities rather than be at the mercy of random forces.” She suggests that such people “ask or wonder about how things are organized or sequenced” and “notice and refer to methods and requirements or rules.” She suggests such people are “more comfortable when the order of things is clear” and “detect the details of the content of a communication [while potentially] missing the real purpose behind a behaviour.”

Conversely, people whose preferred focus is tied to Motive are more concerned with “why people do things.” She suggests such people “ask or wonder what is motivating someone” and “notice and refer to ‘what’s in it’ for the other person.” She also suggests that such people are “more comfortable when others’ motives are clear” and “detect the purpose behind a behaviour and missing pieces of the content of a communication.” 

Does one of these descriptions sound more like you than the other?

Read the previous two paragraphs again and take a moment to consider before continuing. Write down your preference between Structure and Motive as we will use it later.

The Four Temperaments 

At this point, we are ready to specify how the four Temperaments relate to the three axes of distinction discussed thus far. Detailed descriptions of each Temperament must wait for a future date – I will be writing about each in turn – but a brief description (taken from Berens) is provided here for context.

Remember that we all express all four Temperaments, but to differing degrees. Therefore, you should not be surprised if you recognise yourself in more than one Temperament pattern (although it would be surprising if you found yourself equally represented by all four patterns!) 

If you have made a note of your preferences with respect to the three axes, above, you should be able to home in on a ‘best fit’ pattern directly. It is possible that your expression of multiple Temperaments means that your axis patterns do not identify a single pattern – this is what happens to me when I try and use the axes in this manner. At the very least you will be able to eliminate your ‘worst fit’ pattern in this case.

Here’s the key: 

  • Concrete-Pragmatic-Motive – your best fit pattern is probably Artisan
  • Concrete-Affiliative-Structure – your best fit pattern is probably Guardian
  • Abstract-Pragmatic-Structure – your best fit pattern is probably Rational
  • Abstract-Affiliative-Motive – your best fit pattern is probably Idealist
  • Concrete-Pragmatic-Structure – your weakest pattern is probably Idealist
  • Concrete-Affiliative-Motive – your weakest pattern is probably Rational
  • Abstract-Pragmatic-Motive – your weakest pattern is probably Guardian
  • Abstract-Affiliative-Structure – your weakest pattern is probably Artisan

(Basically, if you do not match one of the ‘best fit’ patterns, invert each of the axes values to determine your weakest pattern instead). 

Adapting from Myers-Briggs Terms

If you are unfamiliar with Myers-Briggs terminology, skip this section. 

If you have already identified a Myers-Briggs type for yourself, you can use your personality code to suggest a best fit pattern and a secondary pattern or yourself as follows:

  • If your code includes SP, your best fit pattern is probably Artisan
  • If your code includes SJ, your best fit pattern is probably Guardian
  • If your code includes NT, your best fit pattern is probably Rational
  • If your code includes NF, your best fit pattern is probably Idealist

Remove the letters for your suggest best fit pattern (above) and the I or E at the start of your Myers-Briggs code and you will be left with a single letter. This may indicate a secondary pattern for you: 

  • If you are left with P, your secondary pattern is probably Artisan
  • If you are left with J, your secondary pattern is probably Guardian
  • If you are left with T, your secondary pattern is probably Rational
  • If you are left with F, your secondary pattern is probably Idealist

Armed with some indication of your Temperament preferences, we are ready to examine the four Temperaments briefly. 

The Artisan Temperament (Concrete-Pragmatic-Motive)

People preferring Artisan… 

Want the freedom to choose the next action. Seek to have impact, to get results…. Are absorbed in the action of the moment. Are oriented toward the present. Seek adventure and stimulation. Hunger for spontaneity. Trust impulses, luck, and their ability to solve any problem they run into… Are gifted tacticians, deciding the best move to make in the moment, the expedient action to take. 

The Guardian Temperament (Concrete-Affiliative-Structure)

People preferring Guardian…

Want to fit in, to have membership. Hunger for responsibility, accountability, and predictability… Tend to… serve and to do their duty. Establish and maintain institutions and standard operating procedures. Tend to protect and preserve, to stand guard and warn. Look to the past and tradition… Want security and stability. Generally are serious and concerned, fatalistic. Are skilled at ensuring that things, information, and people are in the right place, in the right amounts, in the right quality, at the right time. 

The Rational Temperament (Abstract-Pragmatic-Structure)

People preferring Rational… 

Want knowledge and to be competent, to achieve. Seek to understand how the world and things in it work. Are theory oriented. See everything as conditional and relative… Trust logic and reason. Want to have a rationale for everything. Are sceptical… Hunger for precision, especially in thought and language. Are skilled in long-range planning, inventing, designing, and defining. Generally are calm. Foster individualism. 

The Idealist Temperament (Abstract-Affiliative-Motive)

People preferring Idealist… 

Want to be authentic, benevolent and empathic. Search for identity, meaning and significance. Are relationship oriented, particularly valuing meaningful relationships. Are romantic and idealistic, wanting to make the world a better place. Look to the future. Focus on developing potential, fostering and facilitating growth through coaching, teaching, counselling, communicating. Are gifted in the use of metaphors to bridge different perspectives. Are diplomatic. 


Temperament theory provides us with a language for discussing and understanding how and why people behave in certain ways. By acquiring these terms, you will not only be able to better understand your own behaviour, but perhaps more importantly understand why other people behave in ways quite different to you. 

This piece is merely an introduction to the subject, attempting to give you a starting point for examining your behaviour in terms of Temperament theory – either by identifying a possible ‘best fit’ pattern, or by identifying a possible ‘worst fit’ pattern.

We will proceed to look at all four Temperament patterns in turn, to examine how these have been described by Keirsey and Berens, and to explore the implications of each of these patterns of emotional response both for individual behaviour, for play and for society in general. 

All quotes from Keirsey are taken from Please Understand Me II (Prometheus Nemesis Book Company 1998, ISBN 1-885705-02-6).

All quotes from Berens are taken from Understanding Yourself and Others: An Introduction to Temperament 2.0 (Telos Publications 2000, ISBN 0-9664624-4-0). 

All references to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test or MBTI should be understood as references to trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust, owned by Consulting Psychologists Press.

In all cases, the use of copyrighted material or trademarked terms in this post does not represent a challenge to the intellectual property rights of the respective owners.

The opening image is Russell Maier's Colours of the Moment, taken from his website and used according to the terms  of use stated at this site.


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I think I may be of the Idealist persuasion, with the secondary pattern of an artisan. I'm rational in the sense that I rate as an NT on the MB typology, but the rest breaks down as such. Its kind of a sticky model, but it has some illustrative power.


I fit the "Abstract-Pragmatic-Structure" pattern- in fact, I think (based on how you described them) I'm an extreme example of all three, to the extent that I have difficulty comprehending concrete examples, social rules and motives. But I do not fit the "Rational" Temperament very much. I desire neither knowledge nor competency, I do not trust logic, and I despise long-term planning. The rest I can relate to -theory, relativity, a fondness for rationalizing- but overall I think I'm much closer to the Artisan mold.

So I don't know what to make of this whole theory.

Very Abstract.
Mostly Pragmatic.
Flick between Structure and Motive depending on the situation. If I'm coding, I'm Structured. If I'm teaching, I'm generally around Motive. In social situations, it depends.

M-B: INXP (the X denotes sitting on that rather thin boundary between T and F).

This puts my strongest temperament as Rational (accurate) and my weakest as Guardian (also accurate). In my case, my secondary is probably Idealist, usually when teaching or in the more touchy-feely social situations (I spend considerable time as an informal counsellor).

Patrick, Mory: don't take your self assessment by axis as anything but a general indicator at this point in time; a starting point, not a conclusion. You can't skip the process of self discovery if you want to get the most out of this system. I would wait until I've written the pieces on each of the individual Temperaments before rushing to any conclusions.

And Mory, you may not think you fit the Rational temperament very well, but on the basis of your comments thus far on my blog I would say you show a lot of indicators for Rational. (The presence of "Modeling Test Responses by Multivariable Polynomials of Higher Degrees" on your desk would also seem to be confirming evidence! ;> )

In fact, the vast majority of people who come to this blog express Rational very strongly - and since that is what I consider to be my native Temperament, this can hardly be considered a surpise. I look forward to hearing your thoughts after I've written in more detail on the Rational Temperament, which for this very reason is the first I'm going to tackle - although I expect you will have a very guarded, one might say sceptical, attitude to the whole affair! ;)

Also, please remember the goal is not to place oneself in a labelled box but to see what one can learn about one's behaviour as a product of the interaction of these four observed patterns. You seem to match yourself up to Artisan to some extent, so I'm going to have a guess that your best fit pattern will be Rational with Artisan, or INTP in Myers-Briggs terms.

But my guess means absolutely *nothing* - see what you think when I get to the more detailed profiles. :)

Peter: I also come out INXP by Myers-Briggs. In Temperament terms I see myself as having Rational as my native Temperament, with Guardian and Idealist as my supporting Temperaments. It has taken me a while to get to this understanding - talking to other people about how *they* see my behaviour has been a factor in recognising that although I express Idealist strongly in my own view of myself, but when other people look at me, what they see is Rational and Guardian (INTJ by Myers-Briggs).

My habitual dislike of the Guardian pattern throughout my teenage years was probably a barrier to my accepting how much this pattern expresses itself in my life. :(

Take care everyone!

Chris, I don't see how "self-discovery" fits into your assertation that TT should be taken as a science. A system which produces an incorrect result, of which we are meant to hold on faith that it will make sense in the end following a personal and subjective experience, is not scientific.

"The presence of "Modeling Test Responses by Multivariable Polynomials of Higher Degrees" on your desk would also seem to be confirming evidence! ;>"
Now this I don't understand a bit. What the heck are you talking about? I have no such thing on my desk. On the other hand, I have no idea what that phrase means, so maybe you're talking about something like a yo-yo, which I do have on my desk. How can I know what you're talking about when you use language like that?

Sorry Mory! My mistake! I must have got you mixed up with someone else with the same name. :( Hazard of the blogosphere, but I do apologise profusely for my mistake.

In answer to your specific question: how does one interpret psychiatry if not as a discovery process assisted by science? Behaviour interpretation is not and never has been an objective process - we have no tricorder we can point at people and get definitive measurements. (For that matter, a large portion of all medical diagnosis is in the same space).

We use humans as our measuring instruments in many sciences - no more so than in evolutionary science. The entire interpretation of the fossil record is entirely subjective, for instance; the Burgess shale is the classic example usually cited.

Subjectivity is inherent to much of modern science. (In fact, I have argued earlier that it is inherent to all science).

It is a general position within psychology that *self*-assessment is both subjective and inaccurate. But that does not preclude people from participating in it. And it does not exclude the methods employed by psychologists from science, per se, it just places any *personal* psychological discovery process outside of the domain of scientific research. I find no contradiction in this.

The scientific validity of Temperament Theory rests at a statistical level. It's employment at an individual level must necessarily be a more subjective concern. This is true of a great many sciences including much of psychology, sociology and especially economics.

Hope this clarifies.

Wow, Rational describes me to a frightening amount of detail. I would probably put "strongly agree" behind each sentence if the paragraph describing rational was a phone poll. Especially being calm. And wanting precision. And especially everything ;)

I stumbled upon this blog when I tried to find out if Sid Meier had really ever said "a game is a series of interesting decisions"--clearly I was looking for precision in thought there. Now I'm curious to see how these temperament types can be mapped onto gaming.

This is great stuff. Its seems I have reading material for the next few days.

Daniel: thanks for dropping by! Hope you will find the oddities here to be of interest.

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