A Brief History of People Sorting: Personality Typology & the Secret to

A Brief History of People Sorting: Personality Typology & the Secret to

written by: Mr. Blake Edwards
by: Mr. Blake Edwards
Sorting hat Sorting hat

We love examining ourselves. Just look at the explosion of interest in introversion and extraversion, thanks especially to rock star introvert Susan Cain. There has also seems to have been general expansion of interest over the decades in personality, temperament, and behavior style models, from StrengthsFinder, the DISC, the Winslow Personality Profile, the Birkman Method, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, and the Enneagram, to, of course, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Big Five model, and others. Socrates would be proud.

In addition to examining ourselves, we love categorizing each other, don't we? Oh, you know you light up at the epiphany that your spouse, or child, or boss, or friend is an Enneagram #___ because of how that perfectly explains why he so exceptionally ____________________ but also tends to __________________ under stress.

Many institutions even utilize personality typologies in the course of hiring or professional development of employees. In fact, Isabel Myers, the Myers in "Myers-Briggs," is the one who initially packaged personality typology as the way of the future for industrial-organizational psychology, for helping people find jobs matched to their unique personalities and organizations recruit people who best matched their jobs. I worked for a company that administered the StrengthsFinder with staff, have attended a church that administered the DISC with new members, and several other organizations I've worked for have used less notable personality, strengths, and behavioral style models in the course of their operations. In ancient times, Hippocrates of Kos, a Greek physician during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and a few hundred years later Galen of Pergamon, a Greek physician and philosopher during the second century A.D., divided people into types based on, according to them, a person's levels of what they identified as four vital bodily fluids necessary for nutrition, growth, and metabolism primarily originating in the digestive process. They surmised that the levels and activity of these fluids corresponded somehow to the tendencies a person has toward particular moods or states of mind, commonly known, then, as "humors."

Simplicity, complexity, and the simplicity on the other side of complexity

The four vital bodily fluids are (1) red, hemoglobin-rich blood, resulting in a "sanguine," or cheery, warm, and optimistic disposition - think George W. Bush, (2) yellow bile, resulting in a "choleric," or irritable and hot-tempered, disposition - Donald J. Trump, (3) black bile, which includes brownish-gray sediments necessary for platelets and clotting, resulting in a "melancholic," or generally depressive, temperament - perhaps Abraham Lincoln - and (4) phlegm, specifically in the form of clear plasma, resulting in what they called a "phlegmatic," or emotionally cool, calm, composed temperament - Barack Obama.

These doctors believed that excessive levels of any of these fluids in a person resulted in certain, moderately predictable character flaws and strengths. Over a century and a half later, this model continued to inspire intrigue, and the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1921/1971) found great interest in, for instance, the fact that he and his colleagues Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud reviewed the very same clinical and scientific material and came to very different conclusions, which he wrote about in his book, Psychological Types, a seminal work on personality. The New York Times wrote this about the book—"[Jung] has shown with signal lucidity that each person has a right to live according to his own type, and his presentation of the guiding principles for the recognition of the type is one of the most humanitarian achievements that has become manifest."

Nearly one hundred years has passed since Carl Jung distilled the personality science of the ancients into the profound and soul-searching nuance of a (more) modern psychology, yet Jung's typologies have never been proven empirically. He had based his theories on observation and anecdote and criticized academic science, previously writing, "Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar's gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world" (Jung, 1916).

I must admit: I resonate with Jung's wanderings, and I appreciate his audacity to question the value of reductionist approaches to studying the human soul. Yet isn't typology just another form of reductionism? These models have in common a belief that all people can be divided into a limited number of categories of psychophysiologically influencing temperamental predisposition or overarching, generally observable personality types. There are over 125 distinct chemicals at work in our brains, with vast difference in their activities and relationship to feeling, thinking, and behaving for each person. Let me disclose my bias in thinking that sixteen creatively designed compartments, much less four, are very likely so inadequate in reflecting accurately the nature of a personality as to be nearly meaningless.

However, I'll confess: I recently secured my position within one popular typology, and I must say, it felt good. I left work a bit early to join my wife and daughters at a special Harry Potter event at our local public library. One of the multiple fun activities arranged for visitors included completing a personality trait screener, which was then turned in and scored for sorting to the appropriate Hogwarts house. I tied for Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. They told me that since there was a tie, I got to simply choose. With validation from friends and family present that I had qualities necessary for Gryffindor House, I was official. I have a friend, Kyle, who had another friend who borrowed a socket set over a decade ago. When the socket set came back shortly thereafter, there were spaces for several missing sockets, and several in the set were now duplicates. In particular, Kyle was missing his 9/16 socket, which happened to be the one that we were needing for the project we were working on. I expressed my own gut-wrenching—or shall I say, socket-wrenching?—frustration at his still missing sockets. I proclaimed that I am the type of guy that he could count on to return something in proper order and that if I had lost or damaged something I borrowed, I was the type of guy who would replace what was lost or damaged.

Trait dichotomies and the storied self

It was at this point that Kyle declared, "You know, Blake—I know I wouldn't have to worry about that with you. There are two types of people in this world: those that irritate, and those that get irritated, and, well, you're my type of guy." His comment threw me a bit. Weren't we discussing sockets? Do irritable people tend to be more conscientious? Did I just get dissed?

It took a few moments to chew on the irony, the accuracy, and the resonance of that comment, because I've never had anyone cast irritability in the frame of a net compliment, and, well, I am the type of guy who both gets irritated and who returns sockets, and the notion of there being these two kinds of people in the world, frankly, sat well with me.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is built on four such dichotomies, divisions representing opposites, tending to lead us toward identifying ourselves with either one trait or another, rather than on a trait spectrum. There is a sort of extreme one-dimensionality in these bi-partitions. And although they are based on Jung's own theory of the dimensions of human personality, Jung himself once asserted that anyone who is only an introvert or an extrovert would naturally be admitted to a lunatic asylum. I admit that I have explained "I am an introvert" to others hundreds of times over the course of my adult life. Yikes!

My friend Kyle had actually struck onto a dichotomy widely embraced in the field of social and personality psychology, one of the "Big Five" personality trait dimensions commonly referred to as "agreeableness," which includes both a person's degree of good-naturedness versus irritability and degree of cooperativeness. The other four "Big Five" trait dimensions are introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, emotionality, and openness to experience.

The initial "Big Five" set of personality trait dimensions was advanced by Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal in 1961. They were derived from a a study of words commonly used by people to describe personality through a statistical procedure called factor analysis. Their model is consistent with what is known as "the lexical hypothesis" in which it is conjectured that personality traits most important in people's lives will have become part of their spoken language, and as popular linguistic usage is studied, clusters of meaning will reveal for us—without the need for individual, psychological analysis—a formula for understanding the breadth, if not depth, of human personality. It's a bold and problematic leap.

So again, just to be clear—this all star team of five is not based in robust psychological study of the complexity of human experience nor even the complexity of human's varying meanings and usages of sorted words from, literally, popular vernacular. And just for the record, neither the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, nor the vast majority of popular people sorters in the market are empirically valid tests of personality. There are, of course, more and less valid tests of personality. I will not attempt to identify the best. I, for one, have found myself intrigued by the Enneagram every since my brother and a few friends became enthralled with this particular (maybe ancient?) model a couple of years ago. Yet I apply the same basic critiques to it and challenge readers to prove me wrong.

Personality psychologist, Dan P. McAdams, has been critical of any approach to understanding individuals in reductionistic, categorical terms and especially of characterizing a person purely in terms of particular personality traits. In reality, people often contradict categories models place them in. McAdams (1995) wrote, "A person cannot be known without knowing traits. But knowing traits is not enough." He contended, "personality psychologists must seek first and foremost to know persons" (McAdams, 1996).

In doing so, according to McAdams, we would best traverse through three-layers of assessment starting with first an assessment of general personality traits, which he calls "Level 1" personality assessment, "the first level of knowing a person." From there, he describes, an astute assessor moves into the second level, knowing personal concerns—

"[Personal concerns] speak to what people want, often during particular periods in their lives or within particular domains of action, and what life methods people use (strategies, plans, defenses, and so on) to get what they want or avoid getting what they do not want over time, in particular places, and/or with respect to particular roles" (McAdams, 1996).

At "level three," we gain insight into a person's sense of unifying meaning and purpose, their own conception of self-identity that comes out especially in the ways that they share stories about themselves. McAdams (1996) explained, "[Modern men and women] construct...more or less coherent, followable, and vivifying stories that integrate the person into society in a productive and generative way and provide a purposeful self-history." By removing the careful nuance of meaningful understanding from the infinite complexity of human being, the commercialization of psychology inevitably reduces and therefore corrupts itself (I find it worth reminding us that it's a multi-billion dollar business). Consequently, as members of a commercialized society, we are ever at risk for living into man-made caricatures of ourselves. Yet personality assessment can indeed be a useful predictor of behavior. At the least, it can help in normalizing anxieties about why we often feel, think, and behave in particular ways. Science, of course, builds and utilizes models itself, engaging necessarily in its own forms of reductionism, just as Jung indicated.

Personality models, and the secret to knowing a person

Models help us understand the continuums of personality. We simply must be careful not to assume their precision, or worse, horoscopic meaning. On the other hand, human personalities are not merely irreducible one-offs. Popular personality tests are indeed pseudoscience, but we must be careful not to confuse that fact with the false notion that personality is a myth. It is not. The fact of the matter is that personality traits are a thing. They are not fixed, but they are relatively stable, readily observable, and quite consequential.

The great storytelling British statistician, George Box, famously argued, "All models are wrong, some are useful." In 1976, he wrote, "Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a 'correct' one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity."

Box went on, during a presentation in 1978 (then published in 1979), to flesh this out further, reasoning, "It would be very remarkable if any system existing in the real world could be exactly represented by any simple model. However, cunningly chosen parsimonious models often do provide remarkably useful approximations. For example, the law PV = RT relating pressure P, volume V and temperature T of an 'ideal' gas via a constant R is not exactly true for any real gas, but it frequently provides a useful approximation and furthermore its structure is informative since it springs from a physical view of the behavior of gas molecules. For such a model there is no need to ask the question 'Is the model true?' If truth is to be the whole truth, the answer must be 'No.' The only question of interest is, 'Is the model illuminating and useful?'

C.S. Lewis (1964) once wrote, "No model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get all the phenomena known... and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age's knowledge." He wasn't talking about personality models, but his balanced critique resonates.

Perhaps, in the end, the point is that models have their limitations. Personality models give us lenses and perhaps justifications, in a world too busy for the attention span necessary to truly know a person, to consider one another (or even to consider ourselves!) more deeply with some degree of thoughtful interest. In the grand Socratic cost-benefit analysis, is it better to examine ourselves in tidy dichotomies than not at all, or does the risks of oversimplification lead to flattened judgment, baseless assumptions, and a kind of personality partisanship? But there is indeed an ancient secret to knowing a person.

Almost assuredly, the very best way to come to know the layers and distinctives of one's own, actual personality—and another's—is through friendship. Psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) so wisely suggested, "It is in the company of friends that we can most clearly experience the freedom of the self and learn who we really are." Friendship brings out different parts of ourselves. C.S. Lewis (1960) wrote about how friendship enlivens particular aspects of who we are—"In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets." My friends, for instance, notice that I'm the type of person that gets irritated...

But friendship, I should add, not only helps us know ourselves; it helps us become ourselves. Lewis (1960) posited, "It makes good men better and bad men worse." Among Lewis's closest friends was J.R.R. Tolkien who was not only one in a fellowship of friends (the Inklings, they famously called themselves) whose indelible influence shaped Lewis, but who also poignantly depicted in his epic, Lord of the Rings, the formative role of a fellowship of friends in the course of fulfilling a calling greater than ourselves.

Oh, and finally but not insignificantly, I really enjoy exploring personality models, especially with friends, and I, for one, believe that such enjoyment has merit in-and-of-itself.

Blake Griffin Edwards is a choleric introvert and honorary Gryffindor whose writing has been featured by the American Academy of Psychotherapists, the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice in the UK, the Association for Humanistic Psychology in Great Britain, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Check out Blake's chapter, "The Empathor's New Clothes: When Person-Centered Practices and Evidence-Based Claims Collide," in Re-visioning Person-Centred Therapy: Theory and Practice of a Radical Paradigm (2018, Routledge).


Box, G.E.P. (1976). Science and statistics. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71: pp. 791-799.

Box, G.E.P. (1979). Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building. In Launer, R.L., & Wilkinson, G.N., Robustness in statistics. Academic Press, pp. 201-236.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Jung, C. G. (1916). New paths in psychology. In Collected papers on analytic psychology, edited by C. E. Long. London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox.

Jung, C.G. (1921/1971). Psychological types. In Collected works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, C.S. (1960). The four loves. London: Geoffrey Bles.

Lewis, C. S. (1964). The discarded image. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

McAdams, D.P. (1995, September). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality 63(3): 365 - 396.

McAdams, D.P. (1996). Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295-321.

Tupes, E.C., & Christal, R.E. (1961). Recurrent personality factors based on trait ratings. Technical Report ASD-TR-61-97. Lackland Air Force Base, TX: Personnel Laboratory, Air Force Systems Command.