MCU Temperament Battle: Tony Stark vs Thanos

Tony Stark and Thanos are great examples of two different kinds of choleric.

Stark is choleric-sanguine, which means his primary temperament is choleric and his secondary is sanguine.

The choleric aspect is clear in his self-confidence, pride and arrogance, and his air of being the smartest guy in the room (even if he is). He has an indefatigable belief that he can fix anything through his own genius and will.

The sanguine aspect comes through in his vanity, his love of acclaim (though he takes it lightly), his “playboy” love of nice things, and even the aesthetic value of his Ironman tech.

MBTI

Choleric-sanguine translates into either an INTJ or ENTJ. The top two functions are introverted intuition (Ni) and extroverted thinking (Te).

Stark’s Ni is expressed through his technology, which he creates and wields with the same intuitive, creative flair. Contrast this with Hank Pym and his inventions, which are depicted as difficult to control, rough around the edges, and Pym himself as testy and very particular.

While Stark’s Ni and technology are flawless and constantly evolving, his Te is prone to create problems – as shown in Age of Ultron and Civil War. If Stark stuck to developing his ever-advancing technology half the plot points of Avengers would never arise. It’s his judgement (Te) that backfires in spectacular ways.

For this reason I would argue Stark is INTJ, Ni his dominant and Te his auxiliary.

Thanos

Thanos is choleric-phlegmatic.

Like Stark, Thanos has an unrelenting self-belief and inner certitude. He is ambitious, though his ambitions are channeled into his own personal crusade to “save” the universe. He is convinced of his own importance as saviour of all life, yet approaches his goal in completely pragmatic and ruthlessly direct ways.

But Thanos isn’t interested in nice things or having fun. His secondary temperament is not sanguine but phlegmatic. His vision of retirement is an austere farmer’s hut. And far from Stark’s impassioned efforts to protect Earth, Thanos slowly and steadily moves his chess pieces into position.

MBTI

Choleric-phlegmatic is either ENTP or INTP. For NTPs the two main functions are extroverted intuition (Ne) and introverted thinking (Ti).

Thanos’ Ne is demonstrated in his eclectic collection of “children” who serve him in a “this kid might be useful one day” way.

It’s also evident in the very unconventional idea of randomly killing half a population to save it.

It’s also evident in his acuity: how quickly he seizes on a single word or reaction from an enemy and infers the bigger picture.

His Ti is evident in his pursuit of his ambition through what is revealed to be a long-term plan of obtaining the Infinity Stones over the course of about a decade.

Thanos is an excellent example of an NTP using external resources as their strength, relying on their own Ti and Ne to wage a strategic war and a tactical battle.

It’s not always easy to pick the difference between introverted and extroverted versions of the same type. It’s ultimately a question of which of the two main functions appears stronger.

In this case I would argue that Thanos is ENTP, because of the comparative weakness of his Ti and his singular focus on his ambition of saving the universe from itself.

Head-to-head

Both Stark and Thanos show poor judgement in their use of auxiliary thinking functions. Stark’s weaker Te leads him to make rash decisions without considering possible consequences or alternatives. He’s so used to being the smartest guy in the room, but doesn’t realise his Ni can be blinkered.

Thanos’ weaker Ti keeps him fixated on his deeply skewed “solution” despite all the self-evident flaws. He is so adamant that his way is the right way, and that the universe ought to thank him if only it could share his vision.

At one point Thanos tells Stark that they are both cursed by knowledge. But Stark’s knowledge was an intuitive vision of an alien threat, whereas Thanos’ knowledge was the subjective theorising of his own Ti.

Ni vs Ne

In their strengths the differences between these two cholerics is instructive.

While Thanos is a great warrior, his true strength comes from the powerful warriors, weapons, and Infinity Stones he has collected and made use of. Even the Infinity Gauntlet he wields is something he himself couldn’t create, but had to use the skills of others to obtain. It’s Thanos’ Ne that allows him to identify and exploit these external powers.

By contrast Stark is the kind of choleric who would do everything himself if he could (and sometimes does, using empty suits as extensions of himself). His power comes from his own Ni, which gives him an intuitive knowing that amounts to genius.

In real life choleric-phlegmatics will have skills of their own and choleric-sanguines will draw on the aid of others, but extreme characters like Stark and Thanos help us understand the core of these temperaments and how they are likely to behave.

Temperament Project 04: Excitability and Duration of Impression

We’ve mostly forgotten how to think like our ancestors, which is why concepts like “heat and moisture” don’t make immediate sense to us.

Jakob Henle

But alongside modern medicine, interest in the four temperaments persisted. That’s how we end up with interesting cases like the 19th Century German-Jewish anatomist Jakob Henle, for whom the Loop of Henle in the kidney is named (and whose marriage to a maid and seamstress was the inspiration for Pygmalion, and thence My Fair Lady).

Henle was at the forefront of cell physiology using microscopes, became a proponent of the then-unpopular contagion theory of infection, and developed the four basic categories of tissue still used today.

Henle also wrote on temperament, and sought to explain the widely accepted four types in more up-to-date biological terms, specifically in terms of the nervous system.

Excitation

When nerve cells receive a stimulus they become excited. Excitation in this sense simply means activity.

Henle believed that a person’s temperament was a reflection of the tonus of their nervous system: how easily excited the cells are, and how long they remain active or excited after the stimulus is removed.

Cholerics are excitable and form enduring impressions. This means they react strongly and quickly to stimuli, and their reaction lasts for a long time.

Sanguines are also excitable, but their impressions are comparatively short-lived, leaving them susceptible to distraction. They react strongly and quickly to one thing after another.

Melancholics are not very excitable. Our reaction to stimuli is comparatively slow and weak, but like the choleric our reactions last a long time.

Phlegmatics are not easily excited either, but unlike the melancholic their impressions are short-lived.

Worldview

Each temperament’s way of seeing the world can be viewed as an outcome of these characteristics.

Why are cholerics “ambitious”? Because they have strong quick reactions to stimuli and these reactions last a long time. What we mean by ambition is strong desire that endures.

Why do sanguines like nice things and good experiences? Because they too react strongly and quickly to stimuli, but because their reactions are brief they are constantly drawn to new and exciting things.

Why are melancholics “idealists”? Because we aren’t excited enough by stimuli, so we are drawn to ideas that magnify the significance of everyday life. A new car doesn’t excite us much. But a new electric car is enhanced by ideals like environmentalism, game-changing technological advancement and breaking of tired conventions. Now that’s exciting! (And I don’t even own one).

Why are phlegmatics easy-going and rule-abiding? Because they have slow, weak reactions like the melancholic, but these reactions are brief like the sanguine. They aren’t strongly excited by anything, and they don’t dwell on things either. Following the rules is just the obvious thing to do, especially if it helps everyone get along and avoid conflict.

Temperament Project 03: Heat and Moisture

While it’s nice to have observations like “cholerics are ambitious and melancholics are idealistic”, any attempt to truly understand human personality won’t be satisfied until it can reduce these kinds of descriptions to their most basic form.

Ambition and idealism are pretty complicated social, psychological, and behavioural phenomena. You can say that someone is born with ambition, but there’s no substance called “ambition” that we can study and measure.

I’m a cold, dry man

The Greeks had their own complex and interwoven theory on how these things worked.

The four elements and the four humours in the body were each described in terms of heat and moisture, and these applied directly to the four temperaments.

Fire/choleric is hot and dry.

Air/sanguine is hot and moist.

Earth/melancholic is cold and dry.

Water/phlegmatic is cold and moist.

These descriptions can be taken almost at face value if you understand that heat is life, movement, passion and activity, and moisture is pliable, malleable, soft and yielding.

Sanguines are hot because they are passionate, warm, active, energetic and lively. They are moist because they adapt easily, let go of conflicts and problems quickly, and are pretty much social glue holding everyone together.

Phlegmatics are cold because they are (comparatively) slow, quiet, less expressive and have lots of inertia. But they are still moist like the sanguine because they easily let go of things and quite happily adapt or go along with everyone, so long as no rules are being broken.

Neither sanguines nor phlegmatics have “hard edges” and both are relatively yielding under pressure. Like wet clay they can be reshaped without breaking, though both have their sticking points: injustice for the sanguine and rule-breaking for the phlegmatic.

Dry, hard, and brittle

Cholerics and melancholics are both dry, which means they are stiff rather than pliable, do not adapt easily, and like clay that has dried out, tend to hold their shape against other pressures or forces.

The difference is that the choleric is hot – so their dryness is given direction by this more passionate, active, lively, and energetic aspect. Like the sanguine a choleric has a certain zest for life, but where the sanguine energy is more spontaneous and malleable, in the choleric it takes on a hardness and longevity that we identify as “ambition” or “drive”.

The melancholic is cold, and that gives our dryness a passivity, quietness, and almost a heaviness of inertia. Both melancholics and cholerics take on a shape, like hardened clay, but the cholerics’ heat gives them the energy to move and strive, while the melancholic coldness leaves us reluctant to strive and in danger of sinking to the lowest point.

In extreme cases melancholics are described as being close to death, since the Greeks observed that a dead body loses its heat and becomes stiff. At the other extreme, sanguines are the most full of life thanks to their heat and moisture.

Four ways of living

These qualities of heat and moisture aren’t biologically sound in our current paradigm, so we can’t say that they “explain” the four temperaments’ different ways of living.

But they do expand on it, and show how the ways of living might be reducible to more basic factors.

Cholerics are ambitious because their dryness gives lasting shape to their hot, passionate, and energetic nature.

Sanguines are moist and so despite having the same kind of heat as the choleric, they don’t form lasting plans or ambitions but are instead continually shaped by their environment. Their hot passions and liveliness draws them to good experiences and nice objects, giving them the air of a bon vivant.

Melancholic dryness makes us hard and unyielding, but in the absence of hot passions and energy we lack ambitions. Instead we are left reflecting on our own circumstances and nature, including our lack of malleability and adaptability. This reflection and passivity draws us to ideals and meaning that promise far greater rewards and satisfaction.

Finally, phlegmatic coldness and malleability leaves this temperament similarly passive, but, unlike the melancholic, able to adapt and go with the flow. In their coldness they look for rules to follow rather than the strength of their own desire like the hot temperaments of sanguine and choleric.

Practical application

I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now consider your own temperament and those of your friends, family, and acquaintances.

Are they “hot” or “cold”? Passionate and energetic like the sanguine and choleric, or passive and quiet like the melancholic and phlegmatic?

Are they “moist” or “dry”? To me this comes across more as a feeling of softness or hardness to the personality.

There are many other ways of explaining or describing these four temperaments, but this is the original. As we look at a few more, we will develop a more rounded picture of each temperament and hopefully understand ourselves and others much better!

Temperament Project 02: the Four Temperaments at a Glance

We have to start somewhere so let’s begin with a brief depiction of each of the four temperaments.

Cholerics see the world in terms of ambition, accomplishment, and standing. They have high self-esteem and naturally put themselves forward. They are proud, and angry when thwarted. They like to compete, love to win, and will gravitate toward success and leadership.

Sanguines are drawn to nice things and good experiences. They love having fun, are quite easy-going, and while they can quickly become angry, especially at perceived injustices, they just as quickly let go of their anger too. Sanguines tend to be more easily bored and distracted.

Melancholics are drawn to meaning and ideals. They are reflective and often hesitant to act, inclined to pessimism and dwelling on their own failures and shortcomings. Melancholics love authenticity and hate inauthentic situations and people, yet they struggle to authentically express themselves and are prone to try to fit in with other temperaments.

Phlegmatics are generally very placid and easy-going. They are not strongly excited by anything, but hate conflict and being put on the spot. They love to follow the rules and will happily do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

More to come

There’s a lot more to come, but this should serve as a basis. Consider yourself and the people you know. Are they:

Ambitious and strong-willed (choleric)

Idealistic and cautious (melancholic)

Fun loving and easily distracted (sanguine)

Placid and rule-abiding (phlegmatic)

These four characterisations aren’t perfect, but we will refine them and expand on them in future posts.

The things I learned on my spiritual quest

I started my spiritual quest 20 years ago. That quest is pretty much at an end, so what did I learn along the way? What would I now consider worth sharing with others?

In the beginning I thought it was simply a matter of reading the right books and following their instructions. I set out to compare and contrast the different religious traditions’ essential spiritual teachings and try to glean from them the essence of a unified spiritual path.

But the most important lesson is entirely the opposite:

a spiritual path must illuminate our individual circumstances, qualities, and experiences.

While I sought the one single universal path, instead I discovered over and over again that what worked for others didn’t work for me.

It’s a lot like learning a martial art or Yoga: I thought that if I just did the training I would eventually master it. But while the training theoretically works the same for everyone, in practice we aren’t all at the same starting point.

With old injuries, underlying weaknesses, bad habits, varying degrees of talent and insight… training can actually do more harm than good for some people.

After many years of training I eventually went to see a sports physio who immediately identified some aspects of movement that were preventing me from fully benefiting from the training.

I’ve learned that the spiritual path is even more like this, to the point that good spiritual teaching assumes none of us is at the ideal starting point.

Individual differences: temperament

Temperament is the first and most significant domain of individual difference.

What works best for a melancholic will not suit a choleric and vice versa. What appeals to sanguines won’t appeal to phlegmatics.

Recently I’ve revisited the spiritual texts I read early in my search, only to discover that those formative guides were predominantly written by cholerics.

I took to heart the overly intellectual and comparatively unfeeling approach of choleric spiritual writers, equating spiritual growth with arcane musings and a disagreeable view of the world.

But a melancholic should instead listen to their feeling first and foremost. Cholerics who elevate understanding or insight over feeling probably don’t have strong feeling to begin with.

In fact, for some cholerics their personal journey is one of learning to embrace the thinking function and not rely on their inferior or tertiary feeling function. The very opposite of my journey as a melancholic-phlegmatic.

Upbringing

The second domain of individual difference is upbringing.

The combination of temperament and upbringing set the trajectory for how we live our lives. In hindsight the story I’ve lived thus far is so heavily influenced by my parents and grandparents…I live out the influences of my early life, both the positive and the negative.

For the first five years of my spiritual quest I had no idea that family relationships and an unhappy childhood played a role in my depression and anxiety let alone my spiritual path.

Now when I look at the writings of spiritual teachers, I take in not only their temperament but their early life. My own circumstances were unusual and so were theirs, but in radically different ways.

It doesn’t matter how good or genuine a spiritual teacher is, they are still an individual in their own circumstances with their own temperament and formative experiences. Their teachings speak first and foremost to their own reality.

It’s up to us as individuals to find what works, and while we may stumble upon a suitable path with ease, it helps to know our own temperament and circumstances from the beginning.

A melancholic with a domineering parent will have a very different path from a melancholic suffering abandonment and neglect, let alone any of the other temperaments under the same conditions.

Life circumstances

The third domain of difference is our station in life.

In the beginning I took for granted that spiritual teachers were naturally inspired to share their insights and wisdom with the world.

Later I went through a cynical stage of assuming anyone with a publishing contract and lecture circuit was financially motivated and not to be trusted.

But more significant than those extremes of credulity and cynicism is the simple reality of a person’s circumstances in life, most importantly my own circumstances.

Who I am, the way I live, what I do day-in and day-out, these are all peculiar to me. I have friends who live very different lives, let alone the spiritual teachers whose works I used to read.

I’m not saying we should disregard people who don’t live like we do; rather that we benefit from appreciating the differences between our worlds and our daily lives.

Esther Hicks is a 70 year old American with an international following who currently gives regular workshops in various American cities and on several cruises each year.

Anthony De Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who gave retreats internationally.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was the one-time scion of the Theosophical Society, groomed and educated to be the next “World Teacher”. He gave public talks, published books and lived with friends in California.

St John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish monk who was imprisoned in a tiny cell by his fellow monks and given weekly lashings, during which time he composed his most famous poem!

The Dalai Lama was never my cup of tea, but again it’s important to recognise the profound differences in his daily life relative to the millions of people who read his books and look to him as a source of wisdom.

I’m not trying to invalidate the wisdom and experiences of these various people, but what they teach invariably cannot be separated or removed from who they are and how they live.

We can benefit from the wisdom of others, but not by imposing their teachings onto our own lives. In fact we can often understand their teachings much better if we understand the teacher’s perspective as well.

The only caveat I’d offer is that there are some people who by temperament would be perfectly content to follow a straightforward spiritual path, but might have been pushed by their upbringing to be innovative, unique, or to try to stand out. (I’m looking at you, phlegmatics!). For such people, it could be a welcome relief to just adhere to a routine they like and not worry about the details or the origins of their method.

What your own life can teach you

The Abraham Hicks material often reiterates that words don’t teach, only experience teaches. 

I can vouch for this in my own life, given the vast quantity and array of words I’ve read from many and varied teachers. It is only through my experience that I have come to learn what does and does not help me to feel better.

Indeed, it is only through my experience of feeling profoundly miserable for twenty years that I decided “feeling better” should be my goal.

While I’ve found the Abraham Hicks material to be tremendously helpful, it’s also because I was ready for it. Just like the sports physio’s advice, it’s only after the prolonged experience of struggle that I’ve decided I just want to feel better, and that would be enough for me.

So that constitutes the end of my 20 year spiritual quest, as I have come to accept and welcome feeling good in my own unique circumstances without trying to justify or reconcile myself to the myriad spiritual teachings and methods that I once turned to for answers.

Introverted Sanguines and Extroverted Phlegmatics: the confusing middle-ground

This piece will get technical, so skip it if you aren’t interested in the minutiae of MBTI and temperament theory.

I’m mindful that when I pick people’s temperament I’m doing so in a subjective way based on my past experiences and the feel I have for people, in addition to more objective elements from a theoretical context.

Cholerics just feel hard and sharp to me. I can compare the feel of each new person to past examples I’ve collected (gotta catch em all!). I can identify patterns and key markers, and I can look at how they behave interpersonally and their overall direction in life.

Ambitious? High-energy? Disagreeable? Driven? The evidence will be there, and if it’s not, there’ll be a reason why it’s not.

I think this dual subjective/objective approach is good because it doesn’t rely entirely on how I feel about a person, but nor does it rely on disconnected data points. It has the strengths of both. It certainly has weaknesses too, but there’s no perfect alternative.

Any theory or system will have limitations. The only truly deadly limitation is to be oblivious to those limitations.

People who are hard to pick

I’ve encountered a number of people whose temperament is hard to pick.

The extreme cases are always the easiest: extreme cholerics, melancholics, sanguines and phlegmatics tend to be living caricatures of their type.

Cholerics in general are easiest to pick because of their disagreeableness and ambition or high self-regard.

Melancholics are probably the next easiest, though their tendency to try to fit in socially sometimes masks their melancholic aspect. Neuroticism is usually the key distinguishing feature of melancholics.

But the truly hard cases are the non-extreme versions of sanguine and phlegmatic temperament.

Sanguines are by nature more extroverted and phlegmatics are more introverted; the hard cases are therefore introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics.

Let’s get technical

In MBTI terms, cholerics are NT, melancholics NF, sanguines Se, and phlegmatics Si.

Note that cholerics and melancholics are defined by the combination of intuition (N) and Thinking or Feeling respectively, whereas sanguines and phlegmatics are defined by the orientation of their Sensing function – sanguines have extroverted Sensing and phlegmatics have introverted Sensing.

What that means is that while cholerics are always intuitive and Thinking, sanguines and phlegmatics can be Sensing and Thinking or Sensing and Feeling.

The functional stack

The standard MBTI labels like INFP immediately tell us a person’s top two functions, their dominant and auxiliary.

But in practice we all use four functions consciously, though with decreasing levels of ability and effort.

The label INFP tells us that this person has a dominant of Fi, and auxiliary of Ne. This means they must have a tertiary of Si and an inferior of Te.

In theory, at various stages of life and especially under pressure, people will resort to their tertiary and inferior functions.

So although an INFP is a melancholic (NF), under pressure they will draw more heavily on Si and Te as a complementary pair of functions.

Si and Te working together would resemble an STJ type… a phlegmatic, because of the introverted Sensing function.

We can therefore say that all NFPs have a secondary temperament of STJ, hence they are melancholic-phlegmatic.

Secondary temperament

We can extrapolate these tertiary and inferior pairs for all the MBTI types and thereby work out the “secondary temperaments”:

NTP->SFJ = Choleric-phlegmatic

NTJ->SFP = Choleric-sanguine

NFP->STJ = Melancholic-phlegmatic

NFJ->STP = Melancholic-sanguine

STP->NFJ = Sanguine-melancholic

SFP->NTJ = Sanguine-choleric

STJ->NFP = Phlegmatic-melancholic

SFJ->NTP = Phlegmatic-choleric

Bear in mind that these are just general rules of how the functions work together. Individuals might have developed or emphasised different combinations of functions.

For example, I’m an INFP, but due to peculiarities of my early life I learned to develop my Te and sometimes use it in conjunction with Ne while suppressing Fi.

In temperament terms I’m still clearly a Melancholic-phlegmatic, but the Ne-Te combination resembles a minor choleric influence that manifests as an internal pressure to get things done and achieve something.

Incidentally, combining two extroverted or two introverted functions like Ne-Te is considered unhealthy and unsustainable.

Introverted Sanguines

An ISTP friend once referred to himself as a “chameleon”, because he felt he could adapt his personality to changing circumstances with relative ease, though he noted that some adaptations were more taxing than others.

This same friend was difficult to type in temperament terms, as he appeared to lack extremes of any temperament.

Any STP should have NFJ as secondary temperament: Sanguine-melancholic.

But looking at the functional stack of an ISTP in particular, something unusual happens:

Ti – Se – Ni – Fe

The Se is what makes someone sanguine, but in an auxiliary position the Se is subordinate to the dominant Ti, and so its effect is muted.

Initially I would have been content to describe an ISTP as a Sanguine-melancholic. But the melancholic aspect is not as pronounced, and it can be confused by the strong influence of dominant Ti.

If we go only by the dominant function, then the ISTP shares Ti with the INTP – a choleric-phlegmatic – but without the Ne (extroverted intuition) that gives full flight to the INTP’s Ti.

The same pattern applies to ISFPs.

They ought to be simply sanguine-cholerics, since they have an NT combo in their tertiary/inferior positions.

But an ISFP has dominant Fi, a function that is shared by INFPs like me.

A sanguine-choleric ought to be the exact opposite of a melancholic-phlegmatic, yet I can relate to their Fi function.

Extroverted Phlegmatics

The same pattern applies to ESxJs, because the overall extroversion of the E-types shifts Si into an auxiliary rather than dominant position.

ESFJs ought to be phlegmatic-choleric, and they share dominant Fe with ENFJs who are melancholic-sanguine.

ESTJs ought to be phlegmatic-melancholic, but they share dominant Te with ENTJs who are choleric-sanguine.

A more balanced temperament?

What this all suggests to me is that the introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics are the most balanced of the temperaments. Lacking strong intuition they are missing the edge or “enduring impressions” that both cholerics and melancholics possess, and which can be understood as a kind of unconscious processing of the world around us.

Sanguines live more in the present moment of sensory stimulation while phlegmatics live more in the past of memory and experience. Cholerics and melancholics live more in the abstract world created by the unconscious processing of their intuition.

But for introverted sanguines and extroverted phlegmatics these sensory orientations are subordinate to their dominant judging functions.

Why INFP = Melancholic-Phlegmatic

Keirsey is the go-to guy for linking the four temperaments to the MBTI, and while his views apparently shifted in the course of his career, this table seems right to me.

Phlegmatic = Keirsey’s Guardians = SJ

Sanguine = Artisans = SP

Melancholic = Idealist = NF

Choleric = Rational = NT

I was already pretty sure I was an INFP based on tests and self-typing, and it didn’t take long to conclude I was melancholic-phlegmatic either.

Why would an INFP be melancholic-phlegmatic?

Look at the functional stack: FiNeSiTe

That means my two strongest functions are introverted Feeling and extroverted Intuition, making me melancholic.

My two weaker functions are introverted Sensing – which is what defines a phlegmatic in Keirsey’s arrangement – and extroverted Thinking.

So if I use all my functions in their order of strength, I’ll be foremost melancholic (NF) and with a secondary phlegmatic (Si) temperament.

But in my case I also seem to have put a bit of extra emphasis on my inferior function Te. I’ve gone through phases of being very Te oriented, in terms of setting myself goals, seeking to be efficient, driven, and effective.

When push forward with Te, I go into uncharted territory where my Si isn’t especially helpful. That leaves me forming a weird combination of Ne and Te, a kind of makeshift choleric influence.

It also seems to trigger bouts of stress-related illness, suggesting an imbalance from all that extroversion.

But all of this taken together is why I would describe myself in temperament terms as a melancholic-phlegmatic with a bit of choleric thrown in.

When I compare myself to other melancholic-phlegmatics, they seem to lack my awesome yet debilitating penchant for intense thinking, and my bootstrapping attitude to getting s*** done…within my otherwise very melancholic-phlegmatic parameters.

They don’t seem to know how to push themselves in that turn-yourself-inside-out way I’ve grown to love.

I wouldn’t recommend doing what I’ve done, but it’s nice to know where the differences lie.

OCEANs of meaning for the INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic

I’ve been delving deeper into the MBTI system and in particular the dominant introverted Feeling function of the INFP.

The developing theme in either temperament or MBTI terms is that I tend to suppress my normal way of functioning in favour of more pro-social functions.

Eg. as a Melancholic-Phlegmatic temperament, the phlegmatic desire to follow the rules and avoid conflict is more socially accepted than the idealism and search for meaning of the melancholic.

As an INFP, my tertiary and inferior functions of introverted Sensing and extroverted Thinking are more respected, more ‘useful’ and easier to communicate than my dominant function of introverted Feeling, and auxiliary function of extroverted Intuition.

The curse of the INFP is that society encourages us to use our ST functions, but over-reliance on these functions at the expense of our FN makes us feel bad. Really really bad.

Because (ironically) the core value of introverted Feeling is authenticity, and nothing harms your authenticity more than systematically ignoring and deprecating the call of authenticity.

OCEAN and the Big 5

My wife showed me this TED talk by Dr Brian Little on personality.

In it he refers to the Big 5 personality traits, a data-driven set of personality traits that are observable in normal distribution across the population.

Unlike the MBTI, the Big 5 is widely accepted in psychological research. However, what the Big 5 measures is different from either the MBTI or the temperaments theory.

In effect, the Big 5 provides a kind of ‘snapshot’ of these five traits in your personality: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I’ve not paid too much attention to the Big 5 because what it doesn’t tell you is the underlying logic or rationale behind your personality. It doesn’t necessarily tell you why you are introverted and neurotic, just that you are.

But at the end of the talk Dr Little said something very interesting.

He observed that acting in ways that contradict your personality comes at a cost. He gave the example of himself as a professor acting in more extroverted ways to keep his students engaged, despite being extremely introverted himself.

After a bout of “pseudo-extroversion” he needs to take time to rest and repair himself.

Why is this interesting to me? Because acting contrary to my underlying personality traits is exactly what I’ve described above, in terms of suppressing or neglecting my dominant function of introverted Feeling, or pushing my phlegmatic traits ahead of my melancholic ones.

Usefully combining the two approaches

If I reflect on the categories of the Big 5, I would say that I am low in Openness, extremely high in Conscientiousness, low in Extroversion, high in Agreeableness, and extremely high in Neuroticism.

As a snapshot of my personality traits, what stands out to me is that both Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are things I try to foster. Or to put it another way, they are sources of fatigue and exhaustion for me.

Introversion comes naturally, by contrast, and Neuroticism is a weird category that – to me – feels like an aspect of existence that is only observed in the negative…a lot like introverted Feeling.

Unpacking that last sentence:

Neuroticism is a tendency to experience negative emotions like anxiety. For INFPs these negative emotions are experienced via introverted Feeling. Introverted Feeling is the function that facilitates strong and pervasive emotions – both positive and negative. Not all Neurotic personalities are INFP, but I’d bet that the majority of INFPs are Neurotic.

If I’m right then Neuroticism is an expression of introverted Feeling in response to negative stimuli such as chronically ignoring and suppressing one’s introverted Feeling, or trying to live according to lesser parts of your personality. Being inauthentic.

That being so, the OCEAN view of my personality provides significant clues to what is going on, as opposed to the temperament and MBTI perspectives which show instead the underlying logic or principles of my personality.

Where does this ocean go?

Thinking about OCEAN in terms of authentic and inauthentic personality traits, it’s immediately obvious that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are forced. They represent the phlegmatic traits of diligence, following the rules (or expectations) and avoiding conflict.

The harder I try to be Conscientious and Agreeable, the worse my Neuroticism becomes. In effect, I’m only pretending to be Conscientious and Agreeable, and the pretense exhausts me and makes me feel inauthentic…hence the Neuroticism.

To complicate matters, my Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are motivated in part by Neurotic concerns like anxiety. They build on each other, creating a vicious circle.

The solution therefore is to stop being Conscientious, and stop trying to be Agreeable.

For an INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness offer a false promise of relieving anxiety and attaining peace. But instead they merely heighten our inauthentic mode of behaviour, leaving us Feeling worse than ever.

How many INFPs throw themselves into Conscientious effort, only to collapse afterward, feeling not only physically exhausted but somehow mentally or emotionally damaged by the whole process?

Being inauthentic and exhausted discourages us from exploring and being more outgoing. Our Openness to experience suffers as a result.

Pseudo-Agreeableness and Pseudo-Conscientiousness

Wikipedia describes Agreeableness as:

Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentativeness or untrustworthiness.

Conscientiousness is described as:

Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubbornness and obsession. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are obviously pro-social and valued qualities to possess. The trouble is that INFPs don’t really possess them.

Instead, more often than not I think we’re beating ourselves into submission, aping these desired qualities in deeply inauthentic ways.

Why do we do this? Why do we practice fake Conscientiousness and false Agreeableness? I think it comes from the slow and often nebulous qualities of our dominant function: introverted Feeling. From an early age, we are either slow to work out how we feel about the things going on around us, and/or unable to communicate or justify the conclusions we reach.

Even as an adult, introverted Feeling is very hard to describe. It’s immersive but impossible to communicate without experiencing it, and hard to describe even to one’s own satisfaction.

So how could we resist the pressure from parents, peers, authority figures and society generally to try to adopt or emulate “desirable” qualities like Extroversion, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness?

And how could we stand by an authentic self or cognitive function that seems so hard to pin down, even for ourselves?

Even in writing this, I’m resisting Conscientiousness impulses to check things, work caveats into the text, and arrive at “appropriate” conclusions that will hopefully please the reader.

Ironically, for an INFP it can be the hardest thing in the world to just not give a ****.

More to the story

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said, for instance: being introverted means people can easily project desired qualities onto you, especially when you’re young. So the mere fact that INFPs are quiet and slow to reach conclusions, means that people will praise us for being good listeners, or being polite, or being agreeable.

We may well seize upon these false affirmations as validations of an identity we don’t really possess. We find it easy (at first) to fill the expected shape that society offers of being a well-mannered and quiet child, and then find it hard to break out of that container, or to even realise that it’s not who we are.

Because INFPs don’t really understand themselves very well either. Maybe I really am a good, conscientious and agreeable person? How do I know that I’m not? How do I know that anxiety and Neuroticism aren’t “normal” for conscientious and agreeable people?

I won’t finish with a neat conclusion because I’m resisting the compulsion to be conscientious and agreeable.

A brief history of temperament

The four temperaments theory is the oldest and most consistently utilised theory of personality in the Western world.

Its origins lie at least as far back as the 5th Century BC when Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, described human health and composition in terms of four humours or bodily fluids: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile.

The four temperaments were further developed and codified by Galen, personal physician to Roman Emperors in the 2nd Century AD. Galenic medicine remained the authoritative medical paradigm in Europe until the 18th Century, and his texts were still studied as late as the 19th Century.

But even as Galen’s theories about the human body were slowly discarded, his observations of the human mind continued to fascinate philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists even to the present day.

What underlies temperament?

Various theorists have attempted to define the temperaments in terms of more basic physical elements.

Galen described them in terms of heat and cold on the one hand, and moistness and dryness on the other. The Choleric is hot and dry while the Melancholic is cold and dry. Sanguines are hot and moist, while Phlegmatics are cold and moist.

But with the advances of medicine people have sought to describe the temperaments in ever more up-to-date terms, corresponding to changes in medical or psychological paradigms.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant described the temperaments in terms of either feeling or activity that was short-lasting or long-lasting.  A Choleric is characterised by long-lasting activity while a Melancholic has long-lasting feelings. Sanguines have short-lasting feelings and Phlegmatics have short-lasting activity.

A generation later the German “father of psychology” Wilhelm Wundt described the temperaments in terms of either strong or weak emotion and slow or rapid change. Cholerics have strong emotion and rapid change, while Melancholics have strong emotion and slow change. Sanguines have weak emotion and rapid change, and Phlegmatics have weak emotion and slow change.

Another 19th Century German, the physiologist Jakob Henle, suggested that the temperaments might arise from the inherent activity or tonus of the nervous system.

Henle described each temperament in terms of the speed and the duration of reactions within the nervous system. Cholerics have quick reactions of a long duration while Melancholics have slow reactions of a long duration. Sanguines have quick reactions of short duration, and Phlegmatics have slow reactions of short duration.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also studied the nervous system and he too drew on the ancient four temperaments to frame his theories.

For Pavlov the Choleric has a strong but unbalanced nervous system while the Melancholic has a weak nervous system. Both the Sanguine and the Phlegmatic are strong and balanced but the former is fast while the latter is slow. Though his studies focused on dogs, Pavlov applied his observations to humans also:

The melancholic temperament is evidently an inhibitory type of nervous system. To the melancholic, every event of life becomes an inhibitory agent; he believes in nothing, hopes for nothing, in everything he sees only the dark side, and from everything he expects only grievances.

The choleric is the pugnacious type, passionate, easily and quickly irritated. But in the golden middle group stand the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments, well equilibrated and therefore healthy, stable…

The phlegmatic is self-contained and quiet, – a persistent and steadfast toiler in life. The sanguine is energetic and very productive, but only when his work is interesting, i.e., if there is a constant stimulus. When he has not such a task he becomes bored and slothful.

The psychologists

While the physiologists were studying nervous systems and linking their findings to the four temperaments theory, the new field of psychoanalysis founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud approached the same questions of personality and temperament from a more psychological, clinically-oriented perspective.

Freud’s collaborator and contemporary Alfred Adler developed a personality theory that mirrored the four temperaments system.

Adler described each type or temperament in terms of high or low energy and high or low social interest. Adler’s Choleric equivalent has high energy and low social interest while his Melancholic equivalent has low energy and low social interest. Sanguines have high energy and high social interest, while Phlegmatics have low energy with high social interest.

Other psychoanalysts broke away from the four temperament model as they delved deeper into their own theories and observations. Carl Jung, for example, described a more complex range of cognitive functions and mental predispositions that were later codified into the famous Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most popular personality theory in operation today.

Yet the four temperament model was not entirely forgotten. It was retained primarily in the work of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who described the four temperaments in terms of extroversion and neuroticism. Extroversion refers to how outwardly oriented a person is, while neuroticism is defined as a tendency to worry, anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and jealousy.

In Eysenck’s model the Choleric has high extroversion and high neuroticism while the Melancholic has low extroversion and high neuroticism. The Sanguine has high extroversion and low neuroticism, while the Phlegmatic has low extroversion and low neuroticism.

Temperament today

Modern trends in psychology and medicine make researchers wary of trying to match their research to pre-existing ideas and concepts like the four temperaments.

Contemporary psychology does draw on the concept of temperament, but it avoids the original four in favour of a research-driven approach. Psychologist Jerome Kagan is one example of an influential researcher on temperament, demonstrating throughout his career that key biological/behavioural traits in infants persist throughout adult life.

Kagan’s work focused on high and low reactive children, and he acknowledges that there are many other ‘temperaments’ or aspects of temperament yet to be studied.

Conclusion

For a lay person like me, learning about these different theories and approaches to the four temperaments adds to the sense that there’s a central phenomenon behind the archetypal four, and help us clarify exactly what the differences between them are.

As Kant wrote:

In this way the ancient forms can be preserved, and only receive a meaning better suited to the spirit of this doctrine of temperaments.

I still believe that Henle’s two-factor model of excitability versus duration of impression is the most fundamental, yet it helps me to have the others available too.

How better to explain a melancholic than “low energy, low social interest”? That’s me in a nutshell.

Other theories may seem more or less apt, but at the very least they show how different people have perceived the temperaments. We can also see where they have gotten it wrong, describing temperaments in ways that don’t at all accord with our experience, or letting their own temperament blind them to the true nature of the others.

Temperament Tests

I just came across this temperament test created by a historian of ideas from Paris.

Her book is a history of the humours in Western medicine and culture, and that includes the temperaments.

Have a go at the test. Every test has its limitations, and I did this one a couple of times because I had conflicting responses to some questions.

Regardless, I ended up predominantly melancholic each time, as expected:

http://www.passionsandtempers.com/v1/page.php?l=en&p=test

As a bonus, she offers some historical medical advice for balancing out your humours! Mine included taking a one hour walk every day, to which I had an immediate visceral reaction of opposition and incredulity. So it’s probably good advice.

 

This next test was sent to me by a friend some time ago. As with all tests, I found the questions a little hard to answer. For example, when it asks whether I prefer novelty or routine, my first thought is that of course I prefer novelty. But that just means I like the idea of novelty. If I look objectively at my life, I obviously don’t like novelty…I am a terrifyingly routine person.

http://personality-testing.info/tests/O4TS/

This test was created using self-descriptions from people who already knew their temperament – which explains why I laughed so hard at some of the criteria, such as “I radiate joy”.

Yep, that’s me alright.

The actual explanations of the temperament aren’t amazing, but it’s still one of the best tests I’ve seen.