In the 90’s we were all about Captain Planet and the Planeteers, no? Earth, fire, wind, water and poor, belittled Ma-Ti’s heart. We all had a favourite (or your kids did) no doubt (I was all about the water power). What you may not know is that for a long time, health professionals have recognised that personalities tend to have some distinct characteristics that mirror those of the elements.
Roughly 2400 years ago, arguably the most famous doctor (no, it’s not House) in the Western world thought that our emotional responses were caused by imbalances in four bodily fluids; yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. These were the four ‘humors’. Four hundred years later, another extraordinarily talented physician expanded on this concept and came up with temperaments, which were a combination of the elements. He also named his temperaments after the imbalances in the humors; melancholic (earth), choleric (fire), sanguine (air) and phlegmatic (water).
Since you’ve never been diagnosed as particularly ‘sanguine’ before, you might be aware these particular theories didn’t quite pan out. But, they weren’t too far off a theory we still use today. In the 1950’s well known psychologist, Hans Eysenck, proposed a similar idea; different balances of chemical (rather, activity) in the brain might be responsible for different types of personality.
He suggested that one might have varying levels of extroversion and neuroticism, which would explain our predispositions to certain emotions, moods and behaviour. He then preceded to line these bad boys up behind Galen’s descriptions of those four humors;
- Higher extroversion and higher neuroticism was equated to choleric and fire; strong willed, task oriented, impulsive and passionate
- Lower extroversion and lower neuroticism was equated to phlegmatic and water; calm, peaceful, thoughtful and private
- Lower extroversion and higher neuroticism was equated with melancholic and earth; serious, cautious and conscientious (but also susceptible to depression and/or anxiety)
- Lower neuroticism and higher extroversion was equated with sanguine or air; sociable, passionate and optimistic
Later, Eysenck and his wife (also a prominent researcher) added psychoticism to the scale. This was in response to research that had started to investigate the genetic and biological commonalities between psychosis and thought disorder or traits like impulsivity and sensation seeking. Psychoticism essentially determines where you lie on a scale between kindness to antisocialness.
This kind of dimensional ‘trait’ approach to trying to assess personality types is very influential. Eyesenck’s three-factor model has been adapted many times since his seminal work in 1947. For example Costa and McRae’s five-factor model, or if you work in sales you might come across the DISC model (which is Eyesenck’s model updated for the organisational world).
So I wonder, which are you? Although, if you’re anything like the tragic Nirvana frontman, you’ll probably find it hard to pick just one:
I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own.”
Unfortunately, the neater the theory, the more difficult it is to apply it in all scenarios and a personality type doesn’t really explain those parts of us we steal off other people. Although, there are some particularly neat theories out there, here’s one. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.