Temperament and ‘temperament’

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People often ask me about various other ‘temperament’ models and how they relate. Years ago (in the pre-internet mid 1980’s) when I was going to the post office frequently to mail my dissertation drafts back and forth to David Keirsey for review, the postal clerk asked me what I was mailing so often. Then he asked me what it was about. When I told him temperament, he said his wife had one of those! Over the years as I’ve researched more and more about temperament I discovered that in general the term means something different in the mainstream psychology literature than the way David Keirsey wrote about it

Mainstream Definition

Classic ‘temperament’ theory goes back to the belief that there were different humors in the body, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile that were at the root of differences in human behavior. There was a search for physical basis for behavior. Over the years, longitudinal studies have been done with children into adults and certain characteristics seem to have remained throughout the research subjects’ lifetimes. The most researched characteristics have been with the Eysenck definitions of introversion and extroversion, with support for there being a biological basis for these ‘traits’. (Note that Eysenck’s definitions are different than Jung’s.) Typical ‘temperament’ characteristics include activity, reactivity, regularity, initial reactions, adaptability, intensity, mood, distractibility, persistence, attention span, sensitivity, easy, difficult, slow to warm up to others and other traits. The Five-Factor Model is based on a factor analysis of personality characteristics including the ‘temperament’ ones and then clustering them in five groups. Some of these ‘temperament’ models seem to be pattern related, but they focus mostly on mood, emotionality, and energy. These relate more to the Interaction Style model than Keirsey’s temperament model.

Keirsey® Temperament Theory

I’ve heard Keirsey explain and discuss his model in college courses on psychopathology, in full day workshops and at conferences. My first exposure was about four different clusters of psychopathological symptoms. In these classes, the assertion was that people engage in dysfunctional, symptomatic behavior to defend themselves against a threat to their core psychological needs. In later years, Keirsey focused mostly on behavior patterns since these are observable. His descriptions cover a wide range of psychological characteristics that are more psychological than physical.  In his book, Please Understand Me® II, he described each temperament in terms of language, Intellect (talents), interests, orientations (time and place) , self-image (self-esteem, self-respect, self-confidence), values (being, trusting, yearning, seeking, prizing, aspiring), and social roles. None of these seem physiological in the way the classic temperament theory is currently described. Yet, there is support for Keirsey’s interpretation of the classic ‘temperament’ theory. It is just different than the way others have described it.

My View of Temperament Theory

I’d not use the name temperament at all if the model wouldn’t lose the rich contribution of David Keirsey and the many people who think of his descriptions as the four temperaments. What I’ve come to understand about the patterns Keirsey suggested is that there is a different kind of information involved—Conation. The conative aspect of our being is about our will. That is why I say it is about  Why We Do What We Do. It refers to core psychological needs, values, and talents, so something more than behavior.


Does this fit with your understanding of how Temperament theory works and what it addresses?