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The Earliest Personality Quiz: The Four Temperaments

June 22, 2017

graphic of different living situations

It’s no secret that online personality quizzes have become popular in recent years. From Myers-Briggs assessments to viral tests to find out “What Your Favorite Color Says About You,” people love to discover information about themselves that might provide insight into their likes, dislikes, and characteristics.

Of course, some methods are more accurate than others. From a clinical standpoint, psychologists and other health professionals use a wide variety of complex methods to profile individuals and understand their behavior. Such tools are far from a modern development, however. In fact, one of the first incarnations of personality identification, the Four Temperaments, was introduced more than 2,000 years ago.

What Are the Four Temperaments?

The concept of the Four Temperaments began as a medical diagnostic method. The Greek physician Hippocrates included them in his work as part of humorism, which stated that the balance of four bodily fluids could have either a positive or negative impact on health. Hippocrates theorized that an excess or lack of blood, yellow bile, black bile, or phlegm could cause illness and disease. Later, humorism evolved to be primarily concerned with a method used to determine behavior and temperament. As a result, each of the four humors became associated with a predominant personality type:

  • Sanguine (blood): Adventurous and fun-loving
  • Phlegmatic (phlegm): Agreeable and relaxed
  • Choleric (yellow bile): Direct and goal-oriented
  • Melancholic (black bile): Reserved and analytical

According to Psychology Today, “Classical medicine was all about balancing these humors, by changing diet, lifestyle, occupation, climate, or by administering medicine. Balancing one’s lifestyle, therefore, was central to one’s emotional well-being.” While later discoveries in biology and biochemistry have disproven the humors theory as a basis for medical treatment, the idea of the Four Temperaments has persisted as one of the many ways of understanding human personality. It is important to note that no one fits into one temperament exactly; they are to be taken as general guidelines.

Sanguine Personality

Those with the Sanguine temperament are “high-energy, fun-loving, outgoing people,” according to Personality Plus: How to Understand Others by Understanding Yourself by Florence Littauer. They thrive on attention and the approval of others. As pleasure-seekers, Sanguine personalities are optimists who enjoy adventure and prefer to be busy. Ideal activities for this personality include travel, social events, concerts, and impromptu plans. Because of their social nature, Sanguine personalities are well-suited to careers that allow them to work closely with others. Examples include customer service, sales, and creative services such as interior design.

Sanguine Personality

Phlegmatic Personality

This temperament is calm and unassuming. They are seekers of peace and relaxation and tend to be sensitive to change. Phlegmatic personalities are very patient and prefer close relationships rather than large social circles. According to Littauer, “Phlegmatics dislike risk, challenge, and surprise and will require time to adapt to changes. Although they avoid situations that are too stressful, they can work well under pressure.” These individuals might enjoy going to the museum or doing volunteer work in their free time. Careers in nursing, counseling, and teaching are a good fit for Phlegmatic personalities because they allow them to meet others’ needs and practice patience.

Phelgmatic Personality

Choleric Personality

Choleric personalities are driven by goals, along with being organized and in control. They love a challenge and are highly self-disciplined, Littauer notes. One of the hallmarks of this temperament is the ability to think logically and analyze situations. Ambition and personal success dictate their actions and thought processes, and Cholerics can be both straightforward and critical in their dealings with others. In their free time, Choleric personalities might participate in sports teams or complete home improvement projects. They are likely to excel in leadership roles and jobs that require self-starting, such as entrepreneurship.

Choleric Personality

Melancholic Personality

Finally, the Melancholic personality is analytical, pragmatic, knowledgeable, and wise. They prefer solitude and work best by themselves. “Melancholies need sensitivity and support from others. And they require space and silence in which to think before they speak, write, or act. These perfectionists thrive on order, and you can depend on them to complete a job on time,” Littauer says. Individuals in this category prefer to work alone on individual projects, with popular hobbies including reading, drawing, and hiking. Careers such as accounting, data analysis, and information technology are a good fit for this personality because they require strategic thinking and close attention to detail.

Melancholic Personality

Examples in Popular Media

The trope of the Four Temperaments is one that appears frequently in movies, literature, and other popular media. One of the most prominent examples is the four houses of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Students at the magical school are sorted based on their personality and innate characteristics. Sanguine students, who are courageous and ambitious, are sorted into Gryffindor house. Ambitious and cunning students, who might be considered Choleric, are put in Slytherin house. Ravenclaw students are detail-oriented and studious, common traits of the Melancholic temperament, while students sorted into Hufflepuff could be considered Phlegmatic due to their loyal and trustworthy nature.

Another prime example from popular media is comic book heroes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Michelangelo is a fun-loving Sanguine personality, and his brother Donatello is Melancholic due to his cautious and reasonable nature. As the leader of the group, Leonardo exhibits classic characteristics of the Choleric temperament, while Raphael is a people-pleaser who often worries about the well-being of others. This makes him Phlegmatic.

Finally, the popular 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off also features characters who can be categorized into each of the Four Temperaments. Main character Ferris is happy-go-lucky and social, making him Sanguine. His best friend Cameron is classically Melancholic with his reserved nature and analytical approach to situations. Sloane is calm and relaxed amidst the chaos of the day, which means she’s likely Phlegmatic. Finally, Ferris’ younger sister, Jeanie, is Choleric due to her critical and direct interactions with others.

The fact that the Four Temperaments are still relevant in modern culture despite their long history indicates that, though they are no longer used as a diagnostic tool in the medical field, these categories still provide valuable insight into human behavior and motivations.

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