In Control
Introduction to Temperament Theory

Justifications and Criticisms

If you are unfamiliar with Temperament theory, you may prefer to read Introduction to Temperament Theory prior to reading this piece. 

Temperament theory is a psychological model. I contend that it is legitimate science since it allows for testable statements which can be falsified. Furthermore, having read the work of various psychologists who have conducted research in this field, I can find no justification for rejecting its observations at this time. I have examined the key criticisms against it, and find them baseless – but oddly I have also examined the justifications that are advanced to support the theory, and I find these equally dubious. How are we to make sense of this confusing situation?

David Keirsey, one of the most influential psychologists in this field, attempted to justify Temperament theory by tying it back to the theory of the Four Humours used by the ancient Greeks. This is all well and good in terms of making Temperament theory sound convincing to the general populace, but it is hardly sufficient scientific grounds for accepting a theory. 

His student, Linda Berens (whose work I rate very highly) claims that Temperaments are genetically determined based on observations of a dominant Temperament pattern being expressed in children and remaining dominant in later life. I refute this claim as speculative. While I agree that the first Temperament pattern a person expresses remains influential throughout life – I call this a person’s native Temperament – this is not proof of a genetic basis. Alas, this is one of many occasions when scientists presume a genetic basis without any direct evidence. Science has not successfully linked behaviour to genetics yet (remember the embarrassing ‘gay gene’ fiasco), and we should be sceptical of any such claim for the time being.

In this particular instance, how would we distinguish between Temperament being specified genetically, and native Temperament being expressed (say) at random in a young child? The observation that native Temperament persists throughout later life is independent of the cause of that native Temperament being expressed. Furthermore, if Temperament were genetic, a Mendelian study over several generations would provide the requisite evidence – but this study does not exist to my knowledge. I conjecture that it does not exist because Temperament is not genetic in origin. Rather, the first Temperament one expresses (for whatever reason) becomes native. This seems most consistent with the available studies. 

The need to justify Temperament theory probably occurs because critics dismiss psychological modelling of behaviour for various reasons. The renowned skeptic Robert T. Carroll (author of the useful and entertaining website The Skeptic’s Dictionary), for instance, dismisses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test (copyright disclaimer below) because different individuals get different results on different days. Some of Carroll’s criticisms of the test are justifiable, but much of what he criticises is the misuse of typology tests to place individuals into boxes. Ironically, some of his criticisms rest on the assumption he seeks to undermine: that a paper test can sort people into personality boxes. 

You can read his criticisms of the MBTI here. While I agree that using paper tests to discriminate in the work place is ethically undesirable and somewhat ridiculous, equally absurd is his claim that all such personality typing relies upon the Forer effect. It would be rather easy to test for the Forer effect and Carroll’s example that compares the closely related type patterns ISTJ and INTJ constitutes a particularly feeble attempt to falsify the MBTI. His criticisms would be more convincing if he had conducted the study to test for the Forer effect across all sixteen types, rather than simply citing a trivially constructed example which sadly seems to reveal his lack of comprehension in this field.  

Nonetheless, I invite you to read his criticisms for perspective on why people feel the need to advance justifications for their work in this field. Personally, I find both the criticisms and the justifications to be rather trivial and unnecessary. Temperament theory and its relatives strike me as a vast improvement over astrology as a language for discussing personality traits, and anyone who feels differently is more than welcome to choose not to participate.

It has taken me more than a year to muster sufficient confidence to write on the topic of Temperament theory, because of a profound scientific conflict within myself as to the validity of the approach. The inability to coax an opinion out of most psychologists I’ve spoken to further intensified my indecision. But the bottom line for me is that I have found the language of Temperament theory has dramatically increased my ability to understand the behaviour of others, and in this sense I believe it has significant utility. 

Anyone who wishes to reject the theory is welcome to do so – the subjectivity that underlies the modern scientific enterprise means that we must all pick and choose from the available models – but I suggest on the basis of my own research and experience that this is the best model for the differences and similarities in people’s behaviour currently available, and the inevitability that it will be replaced with a superior model at some future point in time is not sufficient cause to reject it now.

Please feel free to use the comments to this post to discuss this issue further. 

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. Their use in this post does not represent a challenge to their copyright.


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I guess one major question concerns your use of words like "type", "character" or "behaviour" and "the way people react".

It seems to me that even quite simple circumstances not considered in your presentation may play a critical role in the picture you seem to present here, e.g. whether a person tries to actively/passively *achieve* something or actively/passively *prevent* something from happening.

Can you supply more details on the context you find suitable for application of this model?

What is your general idea on the connection between "temperament type" and action? What would "as a rule..." mean in this regard?

I see the need to justify, or prove, concepts like Temperament Theory to be futile and rather beside the point.

The goal of most "personality" testing is not to place you within a box. They should not be used to determine action, compatibility, direction. In fact, they shouldn't be used to *determine* anything.

Personality tests are useful as a tool. They can be used for self-analysis – to become aware of how you act, and present suggestions as to why you act. They can be used to predict likely actions of individuals – as much as logical analysis or game theory can. They are a way to profile and understand, in general terms, the actions of someone (or a group of someones). They can also be used to classify groups or actions, so long as they are taken to be broad and incomplete classifications.

No system is going to tell someone (even you) how you will act in all situations, under all conditions. Personalities, while often firm and unchanging, are prone to alteration under the right circumstances.

Temperament Theory seems, to me, to be just a way of looking for recognizable behaviours patterns within human actions. Good enough.

Duncan - I couldn't have said it better myself! I believe "as part of a process of self-discovery" is the phrase Berens uses to describe how this model can best be employed.

translucy - by 'application', do you mean how might it be scientifically employed? In this regard, only ever at a statistical level. This is a model that can be used to help one think about behaviour - but it is not a system for predicting action (or inaction) at an individual level.

That said, as an example of using this model to make a general prediction, I can hypothesise that plumbers (who statistically tend towards Artisan in Temperament Theory according to the data I have) will file their tax returns later on average than teachers (statistically tending towards Guardian). But I could never make an accurate prediction about when an individual plumber or teacher would file their tax return.

Hope this is clarification and not a tangent! :)

(Note: This response was written on the train after a 2-day workshop, so does not take note of other discussion on the thread and may be even more disjointed than usual)

A friend [note to Chris: Malcolm Harwood] pointed me to the DOS version of "Please Understand Me" in 1992. I took the test then and have re-taken it and its variations several times over the intervening years. As far as I know, I still have the detailed logs of most of these if anyone's interested. Typical scores (from memory, there could be outliers beyond these values):

90% to 70% Introverted, slowly decreasing over the years as I learn to get along with people better;
80% to 60% iNtuitive, no obvious correlation with time or mood;
15% Thinking to 15% Feeling, no obvious correlation with age, some bias towards T when I also show symptoms of depression*;
10% Judgemental to 20% Perceptive, no obvious correlation with age, Judgemental bias only appears when I also show symptoms of depression.

So in one sense I can agree with the criticism: over the years, I could have been pigeonholed as INTJ, INTP or INFP (with one dip into INFJ territory with both the F and J barely present). One person, four different temperaments over time - clear refutation of the theory, m'lud.

In another*** sense, however, this provides some evidence for the theory, or at least for a close relative. Firstly, the scores on several different tests over a decade and a half show considerable consistency - more so when you consider that I have an episodic mood disorder and that the variations in two of the axes correlate reasonably well with variations in the strength of that disorder. Secondly, if one considers statements about a personality, one would expect each of those statements to apply to personalities in *some subset of* the 4-dimensional space. There is no particular reason why they should apply only to the extremes. Why should a statement not apply to (say) moderate introverts with no particular bias towards Thinking versus Feeling? I elect to interpret the statements in the results I typically obtain in that light, and statements common to the IN*P or INF* profiles do, indeed, seem to correspond better with my observations of my own personality. Forer effect? Perhaps... let's see if we can construct an experiment that is at least somewhat resistant to that effect, and examine its possible outcomes.

The Myers-Briggs and Keirsey work was undertaken before the present explosion in automated information processing and communication, and may have been limited because of the difficulty of gathering and analysing large data sets. Given the Internet, we can (and arguably should) try to gather the data for a finer-grained approach. I suspect that a modified theory which represented scores as points within a four-dimensional space and associated statements about people with (say) an ellipsoid within the same space would provide a reasonably good match to a personality. That hypothesis is testable fairly easily. One could construct an experiment where all subjects took a test; all then received statements matching some random point in the space. Subjects could then be asked to mark each statement on an agree / neutral / disagree, and the number of agreements could be tested against the distance between the point identified by the test and the point where the statements were presented to the subject. While not bombproof - some care would have to be taken to avoid statements being presented that matched questions in the test, for example - this could provide a more sensitive experimental base than the present typology.

Setting up the initial site to ask questions and gather raw scores would not be hard; neither would presenting a random selection of responses and asking people to
rate them. Detecting systematic fraud (noise) due to deliberate mis-filling of the questions would be harder, I suspect. For maximum amusement, such a site could
be used to *infer* the positioning of statements relative to M-B scores once a certain number of ratings had been received, simply by examining the two sets of results
and correlating appropriately. That would in itself be an interesting use of such a site, as the set of inferred areas corresponding to statements could then be treated as a set of hypotheses, to be reinforced (but never confirmed) or falsified by subsequent observation and tests. If the site continued to emit a proportion of random results, a figure**** for the probability of the Forer effect coming into play could be calculated.

Hmmm. I feel a project coming on. If I could only construct a set of questions that was not considered derivative of the Myers-Briggs or Keirsey questions... That said,
this is an obvious experiment and has almost certainly already been done. Can anyone point me to the results?

* I can recognise** at least three episodes of major depression during the time I've been aware of Myers-Briggs typology and occasionally taking the tests, of which the most recent two episodes have been independently diagnosed. There is one other possible episode that may have been sub-clinical.

** My GP accuses me (with a smile on his face) of being one of the most self-aware patients he's ever treated.

*** And to my mind more valid, but feel free to disagree.

**** I'm not stating that the figure would be *accurate*, owing to possible systematic biases introduced by those taking the test - an ever-present risk when you have a self-selecting population of subjects.

Peter: I also tend to see the Myers-Briggs axes as defining a four dimensional "personality space", although I'm not certain how helpful this model is in general terms.

Psychologists who are pro-Temperament theory generally lament paper tests as so wildly inaccurate as to not be worth using any more (although to my knowledge no-one has attempted a long term correlation of data from paper tests). An additional problem is that the commercial exploitation of the Myers-Briggs model renders this untenable as a research concern - expect lawyers. :(

This is one of two reasons I now favour Temperament Theory, which still lies in the public domain, and Berens addition of Interaction Styles provides a complete correlogue for the Myers-Briggs scales. Unfortunately, learning that she has trademarked the Interaction Style terminology is a frustration. That said, I can render the same system in a public domain form and, quite frankly, may have to.

All this being said, if you are happy to wait for me to finish going through the Temperament and Interaction Style work on the blog as a preliminary step, I would be happy to work with you to build a long term online personality study - especially if we can also (voluntarily) collect data on what people are playing at the times they are tested (data regarding games of all kind, including sports, puzzles etc) so that I can use this in my professional research.

I already have some experience constructing and calibrating tests, and don't see this aspect as a problem. The calibration is tricky, though, as one must choose to correlate with something - either MBTI itself, or an independent evaluation. In other words, we might need another Temperament theory-literate psychologist to help with calibration unless we can come up with a reasonable compromise. There may be an argument that any personality instrument is its own point of reference, in which case there may be other legitimate approaches.

Happy to discuss this with you further once I've finished chewing through all the Temperament Theory work on the blog (which is a preface for the next round of research I'm planning anyway). It should only take a few months, I think, and I would like to have everything straight in my head before proceeding.

We should get together and discuss this at some point. I did email you about this weekend, but I guess you didn't get the email in time. :( No matter - some other time, no doubt.

Best wishes, and look forward to talking to you more about this at some future point!

Addendum: When I said 'four dimensional personality space', I actually meant 'eight dimensional personality space'. Each axis is best understood as two independent factors, not as a single measurement, since people may express the contrary elements strongly or weakly in an independent fashion.

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