Temperament theory: does 5 = 4+1?

This is mainly for commenter Josh, who thinks that the addition of a fifth temperament is a positive innovation over the traditional four temperaments.

I’ve written previously about the “fifth temperament”, which is the invention of a husband and wife team of Christian counsellors, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno.

My objection to the creation of a fifth temperament is that it’s essentially an entirely new system that nonetheless uses terminology from the traditional four temperaments system.

This isn’t unusual. There are potentially infinite ways to slice up personalities and categorise them and many people have interpreted and used the traditional temperament theory in their own ways over the centuries.

But it’s simply not the case here that five is the original four plus one. You can’t cut a cake into four pieces and then “discover” a fifth piece. All you can do is cut the same cake into five instead, but now all the pieces will be different.

But is five better than four?

In China they have five elements. The Big Five factors of modern psychology have five factors. Even Ancient Greek cosmology actually has five elements if you include ether. So isn’t five a more appropriate number than four for a personality theory?

If you feel that five is a better number than four, then by all means use five. But that doesn’t change the historical fact that the traditional temperament system has always had four.

Why assume that the Greek system should match the Chinese one? Why not the other way around? Perhaps the Chinese five elements hampered their interpretation of temperament? Maybe they should embrace the more parsimonious four elements with regard to human temperament?

As for the Big Five – it’s not a temperament theory, merely a measure of personality traits. It doesn’t mean there are five types of personality. I’d love to see research into different personality types based on various permutations of the Big Five, since that would more closely approximate the purpose of the Four Temperaments theory. What I have found so far are people attempting to match the Big Five factors to MBTI functions: intuition seems to correspond to Openness, for example.

Regarding the Greek fifth element: according to wikipedia

“[in] ancient and medieval science, aether (Ancient Greek: αἰθήρ, aither), also spelled æther or ether and also called quintessence, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.”

Aether was not part of the terrestrial sphere, perhaps why it was not included in the makeup of human temperament or biology.

Four is better than five

Four is better than five because it can be reduced to a two-factor analysis. Occam’s Razor inclines us to accept the more parsimonious solution.

The thousands of years of temperament observations continued into the modern era with various attempts at identifying the underlying biological basis of temperament and the high point of this research came with Jakob Henle’s proposal that temperament was reducible to inherent qualities of the individual nervous system: the relative ease of nervous excitability versus the duration of this activity.

Excitability and duration of impression provide a parsimonious two-factor biological basis for the four extremes of temperament:

Choleric – excitable with enduring impressions

Sanguine – excitable with fleeting impressions

Phlegmatic – unexcitable with fleeting impressions

Melancholic – unexcitable with enduring impressions

By contrast, the Arnos’ five temperaments theory evolved from the FIRO tool developed by William Schutz

based on the belief that when people get together in a group, there are three main interpersonal needs they are looking to obtain – affection/openness, control and inclusion

I have no strong opinion on the FIRO tool, but it should be obvious that it’s attempting to measure complex behavioural traits in interpersonal contexts. According to wikipedia, Schutz himself did not think the FIRO should be used to determine personality type:

Schutz believed that FIRO scores in themselves were not terminal, and can and do change, and did not encourage typology; however, the four temperaments were eventually mapped to the scales of the scoring system, which led to the creation of a theory of five temperaments.

The Arnos are the ones who mapped the four temperaments onto the FIRO tool, and subsequently decided a fifth temperament was necessary.

It’s a personal choice

People who like Arno’s theory might well argue that the creation of a “supine” temperament better or more usefully describes a group of people who were perhaps previously included as a subset of melancholic or phlegmatic.

But it could equally be due to a weakness in the original FIRO tool, or the fact that the FIRO was a much broader attempt to explain or quantify all human interaction, not to simply describe temperament.

Regardless, the so-called “Five Temperaments” is an amalgamation of the FIRO tool and the four temperaments concept, but should be considered a deviation from the traditional four temperaments framework.

Ultimately, it’s up to you if you want to subscribe to a particular theory of personality or temperament. But it’s also good to know what you are actually subscribing to.

I’ve found the four temperaments theory to be extremely powerful in categorising and understanding people. But at the same time, there are many superficial and inadequate renditions of the four temperaments out there. I can understand why some people might think the four need amending or supporting with other theories or tools.

I wouldn’t go so far as to innovate a new temperament, but I’ve found great benefit from Keirsey’s bridging of the four temperaments with the MBTI functions. Even so, there are aspects of Keirsey’s work that I don’t use. I use the MBTI to flesh out or add more detail to the four temperaments’ foundation. I don’t try to alter the four temperaments on the basis of the MBTI.

If anyone wants to argue that the “fifth temperament” is a legitimate and organic development of the traditional four temperaments theory, I would challenge them to present a case.

A fifth temperament?

So apparently in the late-twentieth Century a husband and wife team set out to create a:

scripturally based therapeutic procedure that would produce effective, positive, and more immediate results with those needing guidance/counsel.

Along the way, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno discovered the existence of a fifth temperament which they named “supine”.  I’ve come across this innovation a couple of times in the past, and the other day a reader expressed some surprise that I haven’t mentioned it on my blog. I promised to do a post on it after I’d done a little more research, and accordingly, here are my observations of the fifth temperament.

While Wikipedia has an entry on “five temperaments” there is little information on the concept beyond the Arnos’ work, which appears to be focused on their own enterprises in the US. I’m not hugely familiar with the intricacies of protestant Christian denominations in the States, but I did find that the Arnos not only run, provide certification in, and charge for reports from their Arno Profile System, they also founded and run the National Christian Counselors Association which provides training and certification for Christian Counselors, in association with various tertiary institutions.

As far as I can tell, this is the sole origin of the “fifth temperament” idea.

How does it relate to the traditional four temperaments system? Is the fifth temperament a genuine discovery?

As readers may know, the traditional temperament theory is a two-factor system. That is, each temperament is a combination of two variables: excitability and the duration of impressions. Cholerics are excitable with enduring impressions, Melancholics are not excitable with enduring impressions, Sanguines are excitable without enduring impressions, and Phlegmatics are neither excitable, nor do they form enduring impressions.

The Arnos also utilise a two-factor system as the basis for their temperament theory, but instead of excitability and duration of impressions, they utilised the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation system or FIRO-B, created by William Schutz in 1958.

The FIRO-B is two-factor in that it measures expressed behaviour – how much a person expresses to others – and wanted behaviour – how much a person wants from others. These two factors are applied across three domains of interpersonal need: inclusion, affection/openness, and control.

The four temperaments were at some point mapped onto Schutz’s system. This is not unusual, people have done the same with the Myers-Briggs types. And while directly correlating “expressed behaviour” to excitability and “wanted behaviour” to duration of impressions is not self-evident, the first problem to capture my attention lay in the inclusion of “moderate” categories along with the high/low dichotomy.

In the traditional temperaments theory, it was accepted that a person may be more or less melancholic without this signifying a difference in temperament. The four temperaments are extremes that can be combined, but also present to greater or lesser degrees.  Two pure cholerics can differ in the degree of their choleric tendencies. From the humourist perspective this could be understood as a person in whom yellow bile predominated, but with the caveat that yellow bile could still predominate to varying degrees.

For some reason, the FIRO-B describes the phlegmatic as having moderate expression and moderate wanted behaviour. This decision establishes a gap for a fifth temperament in the FIRO-B system. By contrast, the traditional system has no place for an “in between” temperament. Such an in-betweener would be perfectly balanced, an ideal balance of the four humours, a perfectly healthy human being.

The decision to create a space for a moderate temperament in the FIRO-B is not simply an error. Rather, it shows the disparity between the two factors of the traditional model and those of the FIRO-B. They may have some similarities, and they may result in similar temperament types, but ultimately they are different models that just happen to coincide at key points.  Excitability is not the same as expressed behaviour, and endurance of impressions is not the same as wanted behaviour.

In fact, if we examine more closely the combinations of the two factors within the different systems, it turns out that a direct correlation is not even possible. The FIRO-B shows the melancholic temperament as having low expressed and low wanted behaviour. But in the traditional system the melancholic has low excitability but “high” endurance of impressions.

One of the particular merits of the traditional temperament system is that it reduces aspects of personality to fundamental biological constraints. Excitability and endurance of impressions are not concepts, but facts of individual biology; tendencies towards degrees of expressed and wanted behaviours is, by contrast, highly conceptual and dependent on additional levels of theory about behaviour and social interaction.

Whatever its actual merits, the five temperaments theory is giving a different meaning to the traditional vocabulary.  It is therefore not accurate to say that a new temperament was discovered in the late-twentieth Century, but rather that a new system emerged and took on some of the language and concepts of the traditional temperaments theory.

This is not a big deal; there are a plethora of personality theories out there, and ultimately what matters is whether they are useful to people.  These systems are all imperfect ways of cutting up reality to make it easier to comprehend. However, it is good to be clear about the provenance and limitations of the theories we use. No one owns the traditional temperaments theory, but those of us who find it useful have a role to play in researching and understanding it, and laying out its strengths and limitations for others to see.  Avoiding confusion with new theories that use the same terminology is part of that role.