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
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
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.