Do your thoughts create your reality?

The etymology of thought comes from the verb to think:

From Old English þencan “imagine, conceive in the mind; consider, meditate, remember; intend, wish, desire” (past tense þohte, past participle geþoht), probably originally “cause to appear to oneself,” 

So a thought is something conceived in the mind, caused to appear to oneself. In cognitive science or philosophy of mind these are called “mental representations”.

Much of our thinking or representation is done in abstract, but we can also think in sensory forms such as visual and auditory, and in verbal form as well.

In other words, we can picture, hear, smell, taste and touch things in our minds, and we can talk or listen to ourselves in words, and we can think wordlessly as well.

All our thoughts are representations to our own minds. But what is the purpose or use of such representation?

Some argue that mental representation evolved because it allows us to creatively solve problems by imagining how reality could be different.

But philosophers and scientists also recognise that mental representation is to some degree implicated in our experience of reality. We don’t perceive reality directly, we perceive what our brain has processed and interpreted reality to be.

This gets really interesting when we consider the role cognition plays in our mood and overall mental health. Therapies like CBT explicitly try to alter our mental representations to help us feel better. They train us to change the words, images, and abstract symbols we create in our minds.

It turns out that constantly telling yourself “life is just too hard” will make you feel pretty bad about living. Or that traumatic experiences of abuse, threat, and violence can persist for decades in your mind as representations of possible dangers you may have to face at any moment.

Representations are powerful. Thought is powerful. And we recognise most clearly in cases of trauma and mental illness that others’ mental representations are not serving them. But we struggle to recognise it in ourselves, and above all we collectively struggle to see anything awry when our negative mental representations are considered “normal” simply because they are widely shared.

It is inspiring and uplifting to know that when we change our representations we change our reality on a profound level. Not only can we recover from the destructive and limiting stories of the past, but we can surpass or simply discard what others consider “normal” as well.

Making people happy

“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” – C.G. Jung

Neurosis develops when we try to avoid “legitimate” suffering in ourselves or others.

Legitimate suffering is the unwanted conditions of our reality. If I’m poor but don’t want to accept it, sick but don’t want to face it, lonely but don’t want to admit it; in every case it is healthier to admit and face the unwanted conditions as our starting point, rather than twist and writhe in efforts to deny or offset the discomforting truth.

Today I realised that since I was a child I have wanted people to be happy. In all relationships and interactions I took it as unquestionably good to wish for the happiness of others and, where possible, help them in their own striving for a happy state of being.

I took this benevolence for granted, and didn’t even consider it open to doubt.

But I was wrong. We each create our own reality, and the happiness of others is categorically none of my business.

This might sound harsh but the fact is that we all have unwanted conditions in our own reality, and no one can remove those conditions for us. No one can make us happy.

I can’t control other people’s moods, nor they mine. We are each responsible for our own happiness.

And the path to happiness cannot bypass acknowledgment and making peace with unwanted conditions. In other words “legitimate suffering” must be faced for us to move on to genuine happiness rather than neuroticism.

Trying to make other people happy is itself a recipe for neurosis. When we do things for the people we love, it is our own love of them that inspires us. And our inspired actions are best accomplished when we do not carry the impossible burden of making people happy.

How does trauma change personality?

Three years ago I was writing about the Big 5 personality traits and how they might correspond to temperament and MBTI.

In the three years since I’ve done heaps of work on finding relief, focusing on more positive thoughts, and letting go of past trauma.

Today I was inspired to redo my Big 5 test for fun and see if my results have changed. Clearly this is a very subjective test for me to take, but nonetheless the results are very satisfying and reflect the shift in my personality and self-concept.

First, here are my results from three years ago:

Back then I was surprised to see conscientiousness and agreeableness come out so low. I concluded that perhaps trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Now let’s look at the new results:

As you can see, neuroticism is waaaay down (yay!) and conscientiousness and agreeableness are way up!

Openness to experience has also decreased a little, by about the same amount as introversion.

So, at risk of correcting myself again in another three years, what is going on here?

The most significant thing is that I am now better able to tell when my personality is being shaped by a trauma-based response. That’s the main reason why my neuroticism score decreased so much: while I am much more calm and relaxed in daily life, I also know now that calm and relaxed is who I really am, and each day I practice letting go of neurotic responses.

Being less anxious and stressed, I’m also less driven to find new ideas and different perspectives. I’m better able to sit still and appreciate where I am rather than restlessly searching for “new” answers and solutions.

And so, contrary to what I thought three years ago, I am happy to own my conscientious and agreeable traits, untangling them from neurotic impulses as well as neurotic standards of perfection.

My desk is still messy, but in other aspects of life I am the first to tidy and clean and sort. During the past three years I found a way to enjoy cleaning the kitchen, rather than feeling burdened and crushed by the chore. I love being organised…it’s just that neuroticism derived from past trauma vastly increases the internal cost of any such action.

I won’t just tidy my desk one day; I’ll buy a whole new desk that is optimised to meet our needs and be easily cleaned and organised and tidied, a desk that is a pleasure to own and to use.

And ultimately that’s where I hope my future Big 5 tests will go as well: with a self-concept based on the congruence of what feels good to me and what I actually do.

The long term goal of healing from trauma is to have no uncertainty as to how I really am, because I do what feels good to me.

More resistance to meditation

This morning I woke up and found myself resistant to meditation.

I went through my morning practice of reading a script I’ve written to focus myself, but instead of focusing I felt more resistance to it.

I don’t want to just push against my resistance. After all, I’m creating it. I’m actively creating the resistance to my own desire.

Since my intention to meditate is so conscious, it’s natural to take its side and see the resistant part as an obstacle to be overcome.

But experience has shown that these less-conscious parts of me are older and have been around longer. It’s like wanting to knock down a wall inside your house only to discover that it’s load-bearing.

In that case, bear in mind this older part of me doesn’t exist to resist efforts to meditate. It probably came into existence before I’d even heard of meditation. No, that part has its own aims and reference points that just happen to interfere with my intent to meditate.

So the real question is why, at this time of day and in this context, does part of me not want to just pay attention to a sound so as to suspend thought?

And the answer taking shape is that part of me really hates being told what to do, and would rather idly do nothing at all than go along with someone’s orders or commands.

Apparently that defiance extends to some of my own conscious intentions.

As with yesterday’s post, this older part of me doesn’t feel good. It’s a reaction to unwanted circumstances from the past where I was ordered around and coerced to such an extent that I resolved to fight it wherever I could.

But this defiance or passive non-compliance has continued despite changing circumstances. It’s no longer relevant, but has been running in the background anyway, clamping down in response to perceived orders, commands, and coercion…including my own “order” to practice meditation first thing this morning.

So, ironically, this part of me actually is resistant to meditating, because it’s resistant to all impositions of action, all perceived coercion.

What next?

This might seem a bit disheartening but it’s actually evidence of meditation working, by bringing up resistant elements and allowing me to become conscious of them.

Because it’s a part of me, albeit forgotten by me, to furiously resent coercion and retreat from it into a kind of pyrrhic isolation.

Meditation brought this part of me to the fore, and it is clearly a lot bigger than just the subject of meditation.

It explains, perhaps, why I struggle to stick to a schedule. Why I enjoy endeavours in the experimental and exploratory stages but completely lose interest the moment those endeavours become structured, organised, and formalised with some kind of external accountability – real or imagined.

I vowed to never again put myself in a position where I could be coerced or ordered around, then forgot my vow and went on with life.

What comes next is allowing this question to become fully conscious in my current life and circumstances: is coercion really a threat to me? Do I want to continue seeing the world through the lens of defiant self-sabotage?

Practicing happiness 07

The answers come when you surpass them.

When you feel good, answers come without effort.

Last night I managed to feel better by letting go of my old internal struggle, and within minutes I discovered something remarkable.

If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know I’ve been obsessed with mysticism for more than twenty years, and in the past week or so I’ve been writing about disorganised attachment.

So imagine how I felt when I came across this study into mystical experiences among people with disorganised attachment.

The paper argues that people with disorganised attachment have a propensity for mystical experiences due to trait absorption.

I just found my deeply personal lifelong efforts to transcend the paradoxical injunction of disorganised attachment written up in a Swedish psychology paper.

The authors are at pains to say this doesn’t delegitimise mystical experiences, in fact they argue it may be a worthy therapeutic goal.

For me it validates my deeply felt need for transcendence, and at the same time it helps me release that need a little.

Once again I credit my persistent work at feeling better for this insight. I can enjoy the insight because I feel better, not the other way around.

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.

Thus spake Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is in Australia, and my editor asked if I could explain the psychology professor’s global appeal:

Jordan Peterson is much more than an impassioned participant in the PC cause célèbre, and those who went looking for more information on the humble professor who sounds not unlike a Canadian Kermit the Frog soon uncovered a wealth of content…

Peterson turned out to be a charismatic and impassioned lecturer drawing upon his expertise in psychology, his ambitious yet idiosyncratic ambit in mythology, literature, religion and philosophy, and undoubtedly his many years of clinical therapeutic work to exhort his students and viewers to take responsibility for the meaning in their own lives.

There’s always more to be said, but I’m particularly glad my Nietzsche and Kermit intuitions bore fruit!

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

OCEAN follow-up: disorganised and disagreeable

I did an online test for the Big 5 personality traits just now, and the results were interesting:

As expected, I’m both extremely Introverted and extremely Neurotic.

In my previous post I suggested that I might be high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, but I also noted that these qualities felt forced and unnatural.

I subsequently read the actual criteria for the two traits, and concluded that I’m practicing “pseudo-” Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, attempting to mimic traits I don’t actually possess.

In other words, I’m not naturally an organised, disciplined, tidy person, but I put pressure on myself to be organised and disciplined where it counts.

The results of the online test corroborate my suspicions.

Openness to new experiences was surprisingly high, but that could be because the trait is manifested differently between introverts and extroverts. An extrovert might be open to “new experiences”, but an introvert can be open to “new ideas”, ways of thinking and seeing the world.

So I think I’m on the right track: trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Being less agreeable and more disorganised might not change my other traits, but it would be more authentic, and, if I’m right, authenticity could be the key to ameliorating neuroticism.

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.


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.