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.

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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.

 

Searching for Four Temperaments info?

I’m planning to write a book about the Four Temperaments theory, but in the meantime I notice some of the search terms that bring people to my page, and in lieu of actual questions I thought I would respond to some of them.

choleric sanguine mbti

I use Keirsey’s temperaments to match the four temperaments to the MBTI, though I don’t necessarily follow his system.

Cholerics are Keirsey’s “rational” which is NT in MBTI terms.

Sanguines are Keirsey’s “artisan” which is SP.

My theory is that one’s secondary temperament corresponds to one’s inverse Myers-Briggs Type. So for a person to exhibit both NT and SP characteristics suggests extroverted sensing is in their functional stack, as either their tertiary or inferior function. So if we know that an NT has extroverted Sensing (SP) in third or fourth place, then they must have the inverse in their perceiving function: introverted Intuition. That means a Choleric-Sanguine (as in, a Choleric with secondary Sanguine characteristics) must be an NTJ, either an ENTJ or INTJ.

In theory, an ENTJ will be more Sanguine than an INTJ, because the extroverted Sensing (SP) that makes Sanguines what they are will be tertiary for an ENTJ and inferior in an INTJ, hence more prominent in the former.

is melancholic sensor or intuitive

Intuitive. Definitely intuitive. Melancholics are NF according to the MBTI.

skill and ways of learning sanguine temperament

From the temperament perspective, Sanguines are easily distracted and like “nice things” which includes beautiful objects, fun experiences, social events, etc. In MBTI terms, it helps to consider that Sanguines are defined by their extroverted Sensing, which simply means they are oriented to their sensory input from the external world.

I like to think of Sanguines as being either “entertainment” types or “artisan” types, borrowing from Keirsey a little. Every Sanguine I’ve ever met enjoys a party, but some are more introverted than others and seem more inclined to make things. Bear in mind that Sanguines in the MBTI system can either be Thinking or Feeling dominant, so I wouldn’t generalise about how they learn. The common factor is their appreciation for sensory stimuli.

i am melancholic but i have met some choleric type guys but we always end up fighting why

Because Cholerics are *****.

Just kidding. Some of my best friends are Choleric, I swear!

In the temperament system, both Cholerics and Melancholics form long-lasting impressions of the world. The difference between them is that Cholerics are excitable, which translates into ambition, desire to accomplish things, and pride. Melancholics are not excitable, which translates into hesitancy, rumination or endless reflection, risk-aversion and pessimism. But despite these differences, they are nonetheless on the same “wavelength” when compared to the other two temperaments.

Melancholics and Cholerics will often end up fighting because the Choleric will come across as arrogant, insensitive, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The Melancholic will come across as stubborn, unwilling to cooperate (or be manipulated), and risk averse. Cholerics and Melancholics are most likely to clash when the Melancholic has something that the Choleric wants or needs to accomplish his goals.

By contrast, Sanguines and Phlegmatics can usually be convinced to go along with a Choleric’s plans. They seem more “open-minded”, less risk averse, and often have a shorter memory for the manipulation, forcefulness and deceit that some (many?) Cholerics will use to get their own way.

Ultimately, both Cholerics and Melancholics like to be in control, actively for the former and passively for the latter. Hence conflict is often assured.

intps introverted sanguine

I don’t think so. An INTP should be a Choleric, and extroverted Sensing (SP) should be difficult for them according to the MBTI.

mbti 4 temperaments

I use Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter which does a good job of linking temperaments to MBTI. Just treat the Guardian as Phlegmatic, the Artisan as Sanguine, the Idealist as Melancholic, and the Rational as Choleric.

melancholics and high stress

No thank you.

Actually, Melancholics are quite gifted at creating their own sources of stress. It’s due to the idealism that arises from our lack of excitability and enduring impressions. We don’t get excited by the same things as everyone else, but positive and negative experiences leave a deep impression on us. As a result, we start searching for rules or principles or ideals that can help us to operate more effectively in the world. Unfortunately this very search tends to make us less pragmatic and less tolerant of our own mistakes and imperfections in the world.

In addition, our society tends to be dominated by Choleric and Sanguine and to a lesser extent Phlegmatic influences. We’re told to be more aggressive, ambitious, competitive, and achievement-oriented. We’re encouraged to consume, to have fun, to be easy-going, to smile a lot, and be sociable. Finally, we’re told at the very least to obey the rules, to not make trouble for others, to not stand out, and not be demanding.

So, Melancholics are left trying to find a place in a society that doesn’t really recognise or understand their temperament, with the additional handicap of not knowing their own temperament very well either, and to top it all off they go in search of answers that tend to exacerbate the problem of fitting in.

infp melancholic temperament

All NF types are Melancholic according to Keirsey’s system. INFPs are more likely to be Melancholic with a strong Phlegmatic influence, because their tertiary function is introverted Sensing – the defining feature of the Phlegmatic.

Melancholic-Phlegmatics are hard to find, perhaps because they’re more likely to be at home on their own.

Their idealistic Melancholic characteristics are influenced by the Phlegmatic’s desire to avoid conflict, follow the rules, and get the details right. I think this tends to conflict with the Melancholic desire for eccentricity, radical change, and frustration at the status quo.

melancholy temperament and worrying

Melancholics worry because the experience of being unexcitable but with enduring impressions is like living in the midst of a thick fog, while you’re assailed from all around by the sounds of people enjoying life, achieving things, yelling at you to get out of their way or cajoling you to follow their lead.

All you can see are the brightest lights and the biggest landmarks, but you’re not even sure how close they are, let alone how to reach them.

Occasionally you work out where you are and what lies in front of you, but then the fog swirls and you’re lost in it once again.

So you worry. You worry about going the wrong way, falling down in a hole, getting in people’s way, failing to arrive at your destination, having the wrong destination, and so on.

In real life you don’t even realise there is a fog. So you experience worry on a more subconscious level with the sense that something just isn’t right, that you don’t fully understand what everyone else is doing and why, and they in turn don’t seem to understand you at all.

strange melancholics

Yes.

Imagine if everyone around you suddenly became fascinated with cat feces. They started collecting it, writing about it, featuring it on the news. Some people accumulate huge piles of cat feces and are celebrated as heroes and pillars of society. Cat feces becomes a new currency, a status symbol, and an object of adoration.

What would you do? Maybe you shrug your shoulders and do your best to fake enthusiasm about other people’s cat feces and amass your own modest collection. After all, there are bills to pay.

But you would never get genuinely excited about it, and so you’d never really be able to relate to others. You’d wish there was something more to life than cat feces.

Everyone else would think you were strange.

 

That’s probably enough for now. I’ll continue later when I have the time…

How we vote: the four temperaments

My latest piece at MercatorNet suggests that differences in temperament may explain why otherwise intelligent and like-minded people have fallen apart over voting for Trump.

Choleric temperaments see the world in terms of achievement and ambition. They excel at rational calculations of whatever is to their advantage. Voting in an election is no different from investing in the stock market – you want to park your money or your vote where it has the best chance of making a return.

By contrast, the melancholic temperament sees the world in terms of ideals. For a melancholic, a vote for Trump implies an endorsement of the man and his politics, with all the accountability such support entails. In an ideal world, voters would take personal responsibility for the moral character of the candidate they support.

http://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/why-we-vote-the-difference-temperament-makes/18928

 

Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.  So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.  For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.  Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.  Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.  They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.

 

Imagine you’re a phleg

Melancholics are the most unusual of the four temperaments, but also the most rare. As a result of their rarity, melancholics tend not to find exemplars or role models; they may not be able to truly relate to any of their peers.

Perhaps for these reasons, melancholics typically do not understand themselves well. They might look at all the sanguines, phlegmatics, and cholerics, and try to emulate the qualities exhibited by these temperaments. But none of them will be a true fit.

In fact, melancholics can come to grief by misidentifying with their closest temperament, the phlegmatic.  The phlegmatic, you may recall, is similar to the melancholic in that neither experiences strong reactions to stimuli. Yet they differ in that the melancholic forms lasting impressions of things, while the phlegmatic’s impressions do not last long. You could say that melancholics are phlegmatics with long memories.

Or alternatively, imagine a melancholic with a short memory and that is essentially a phlegmatic. Imagine if, as a melancholic, you could do things without being assailed by countless deep memories and impressions of every problem, shortfall, and fault in your experience and the experience of others.  It’s not that phlegmatics truly forget things, but these impressions just aren’t as prominent in their minds.  The phlegmatic mind does not regard these memories as especially salient.

This is what gives the phlegmatic their easy-going nature. They aren’t easily excited, nor are they internally driven by deep impressions. They are usually happy to go along with others, avoid rocking the boat, and can be left to their own devices.

Because they are not excitable, phlegmatics often present as introverts, and because of this apparent introversion, melancholics may incorrectly identify with them. This mis-identification is problematic because in social contexts melancholics are always looking for clues as to the ideal way to behave. A phlegmatic may appear to be socially adept, good natured, well-liked, relaxed, happy and comfortable; all qualities that can seem just out of reach for the melancholic.

Yet phlegmatics differ from melancholics in two very potent ways. Firstly, phlegmatics are not assailed by enduring, pessimistic impressions of things that have gone wrong, could go wrong, and probably will go wrong. Their easy-going nature is not a skilled, careful poise between enjoyment and disaster; they are, if my phlegmatic friends will excuse me, a bit like human potatoes – comparatively impervious to the fears and anxieties that wrack the melancholic.

When, as discussed in the previous post, a melancholic is considering attending a normal social gathering, we tend to regard ourselves as if we were not melancholics at all, but mysteriously anxious, awkward, or depressed phlegmatics. That is, we wrongly imagine ourselves to be phlegmatics – easy-going, unfazed phlegmatics – who will surely enjoy whatever social environment we end up in if we can somehow shake this irrational sense of pervasive dread at the thought of going out.

But the fact that the mere anticipation of some soiree, concert, or festival can leave us grappling with the meaning of life, reality, and existence itself is a fairly strong indicator that the phlegmatic approach to life is not for us. If I were truly honest with myself, I would have to admit that these conventional social outings were an added burden on top of a hundred other obligations, and that the effort of voluntarily celebrating in some minor, insignificant form would betray my profound sense of dismay at life more generally.

Or to put it another way: it’s bad enough that I had to stumble through the obligatory, banal demands of school, university, and working life, but on top of that I had to attend voluntary social functions and pretend to be happy about it all?

But even so, opting out is not a satisfying answer. Melancholics do care about their friends, but what can you do when your friends are socially avid sanguines, cholerics and phlegmatics, who interpret opting out of social events as a rejection of friendship? Perhaps that’s why the melancholic (second from left) is always depicted as such a relaxed and happy fellow:

Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic

 

That’s the face of an irresolvable internal conflict.

But it’s not all bad news. The second major difference between phlegmatics and melancholics is that phlegmatics lack the powerful idealism of the melancholic. To emulate a phlegmatic would be to deny this powerful aspect of our own temperament. Without idealism, the melancholic temperament would indeed be as miserable as a depressed phlegmatic.

The idea of ‘artistic temperament’ often pairs great creativity with bouts of misery, but in the melancholic temperament this relationship is much easier to understand: we see the world through the lens of ideals, and while the ideals can be the most perfect and inspired visions, the reality usually falls short. Trying to fit into an imperfect world, a society ruled by other temperaments, is a source of distress and misery. But the bright side can more than compensate for this distress if we invest in our ideals rather than investing in conformity.

After all, the phlegmatic may be easy-going; he may even achieve great things in music, philosophy, writing, or other creative and intellectual pursuits, but he is not driven, impassioned, and inspired by profound ideals. He is not moved as the melancholic is moved; and ultimately it is our enduring impressions, the ‘long memory’ that assails us when we contemplate some social gathering or work event, that is equally responsible for our most meaningful and potent ideals.

Our deep, enduring impressions extend the range of our inner world, lending us an expansive, complex domain we seek to conquer or transform.  Our long memory moves us to seek not easy answers but ultimate ones, answers that are powerful enough to give meaning to the whole of life, reality, and existence.

I think that to really understand our struggle with everyday life, we need to recognise firstly that our ‘everyday life’ is lived in the shadow of our inner search for meaning and answers; yet it is a search carried out by a rare minority, and one temperamentally inclined to introversion and withdrawal from society.  As such, this ‘inner meaning’ is less and less present to everyday life. The two are increasingly polarised, and it can seem to the melancholic that they are entirely alone, merely disqualified from a normal existence by some yet-to-be-identified fault.

I think it is up to us, then, to start to bring our ideals back into everyday life. It is up to us to more openly reject and push back against the conventions established or shaped by other temperaments – not in a hostile manner, but merely by making space for genuine idealism that is not subordinate to the approval of other temperaments with their vastly different motivations and values.