You have to hand it to Typologies. They distill complex ideas into handy neat packages, and in some way make life simpler for all of us. Take for example essay writing, so many variations, but at some point someone broke them down into 4 main types: Narrative, Descriptive, Persuasive and Expository. Beautiful, that is so much easier to work with. Mark my words, there are other essay typologies that are completely different, but this set seems as useful as any other. Or take rocks – 3 types: Igneous, Sedimentary and  Metamorphic. All the rocks in the world  – just 3 main types ! Typologies, really good at taking big abstract ideas and categorizing them into handy buckets. Definitely a place for them. But not everywhere surely?

Hippocrates, the legendary Greek doctor, believed that there were four types of human temperaments.  Ambitious, sure, and he used descriptions which are probably not that familiar to us these days viz: sanguine (lively), choleric (ambitious), melancholic (analytical), and phlegmatic (easy-going). Straight-forward and probably forgivable because it was 2500 years ago, but it unfortunately spawned more recent attempts to typologize personality. This is less forgivable, because we know a lot more about personality these days. There are many variations of the Hippocratic typologies. The DISC, for example breaks them down as Inspiring, Depressed, Conscientious and Supportive. The Myers-Briggs reduces personality into a code of 4 letters based on dominance within the following dichotomies: Introversion vs. Extraversion; Intuition vs Sensing; Feeling vs. Thinking and Perceiving vs. Judging. You may have heard of the even further simplified A-type personality (Driven, impatient, highly strung) and B-Type (Easygoing, relaxed). The Enneagram ramped it up with 9 types, with some complexity built in as people can move between types in different situations or if they have actualized within their type. There are many others that I know about and many more that I don’t.

There is no doubt some level of convenience in reducing the rich and infinite nuances of personality into a typology, but does it do justice to the complex beings we are? On the level of novelty, its harmless, kind of on the same level as horoscopes. Pretty fun and there is some utility in people knowing that everyone else is not like them, with some being more similar than others. It becomes less harmless when typologies find their way into selection batteries used to determine who is a better fit for a role or position. To my mind this is irresponsible psychometrics, mostly because the science doesn’t back it up. Its not that there isn’t some truth within personality typologies that people may identify with, but that truth is diluted to homeopathic levels.

Personality without typologies is not without its flaws either. There is significant noise and distortion in scientifically calibrated personality tools, but it is far more contained and visible than the typologies, which mostly don’t report on any elements of distortion, reliabilities or validities. In conventional well researched psychometric measures such as the Hogan or Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ) there are many more dimensions at play which can form into almost infinite combinations. Take for example a personality tool that lists 20 dimensions (e.g. Emotional Stability, Dominance, Conscientiousness, Empathy….etc). Say each dimension is measured on a 10 point scale (called a sten). There would be tens of millions of possible combinations of personality, which fits with our knowledge of differences between people – countless variations. By the same token, a typology with 4 types, rolls up into a mere 16 different combinations. There is no comparison, and the typical typology is just too reductionistic and too blunt to make life and death decisions with.

In sum. Typologies have their place and their use by all means use them for fun, for team building, for lite novelty in seeing differences between groups of people. But don’t use them in serious settings where people are applying for jobs or where any life decisions are going to be made with the results. There are thousands of well-constructed scientifically validated tools for measuring personality. Rather use those.

Author: Dr Hilton Rudnick