The four temperaments theory is a proto-psychological theory which suggests that there are four fundamental personality types.

The four fundamental personality types are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

Most formulations include the possibility of mixtures among the types where an individual’s personality types overlap and they share two or more temperaments.

Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) described the four temperaments as part of the ancient medical concept of humorism, that four bodily fluids affect human personality traits and behaviors.

Modern medical science does not define a fixed relationship between internal secretions and personality, although some psychological personality type systems use categories similar to the Greek temperaments.

History and development

Temperament theory has its roots in the ancient theory of humorism.

It may have originated in Ancient Egyptian medicine or in Mesopotamia, but it was Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 BC) who developed it into a medical theory.

He believed that certain human moods, emotions, and behaviors were caused by an excess or lack of body fluids (called “humors”), which he classified as blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.

Galen (AD 129 – c. 200) developed the first typology of temperament in his dissertation De temperamentis, and searched for physiological reasons for different behaviors in humans. He classified them as hot/cold and dry/wet taken from the four elements.

There could also be “balance” between the qualities, yielding a total of nine temperaments. The word “temperament” itself comes from Latin “temperare“, “to mix“.

In the ideal personality, the complementary characteristics were exquisitely balanced among warm-cool and dry-moist. In four less-ideal types, one of the four qualities was dominant over all the others.

In the remaining four types, one pair of qualities dominated the complementary pair; for example, warm and moist dominated cool and dry. These last four were the temperamental categories which Galen named “sanguine“, “choleric“, “melancholic”, and “phlegmatic” after the bodily humors.

Each was the result of an excess of one of the humors which produced the imbalance in paired qualities.

Persian polymath Avicenna (980–1037 AD) extended the theory of temperaments in his Canon of Medicine, which was a standard medical text at many medieval universities. He applied them to “emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, self-awareness, movements, and dreams.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) suggested that the humors acted as governing principles in bodily health, with astrological correspondences, and explained their influence upon physiognomy and personality.

He proposed that some people had a single temperament, while others had an admixture of two, a primary and secondary temperament.

Modern medical science has rejected the theories of the four temperaments, though their use persists as a metaphor within certain psychological fields.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), Alfred Adler (1879–1937), Erich Adickes (1866–1925), Eduard Spranger (1914), Ernst Kretschmer (1920), and Erich Fromm (1947) all theorized on the four temperaments (with different names) and greatly shaped our modern theories of temperament.

Hans Eysenck (1916–1997) was one of the first psychologists to analyze personality differences using a psycho-statistical method called factor analysis, and his research led him to believe that temperament is biologically based.

The factors that he proposed in his book Dimensions of Personality were neuroticism (N), the tendency to experience negative emotions, and extraversion (E), the tendency to enjoy positive events, especially social ones. By pairing the two dimensions, Eysenck noted how the results were similar to the four ancient temperaments.

Other researchers developed similar systems, many of which did not use the ancient temperament names and several paired extraversion with a different factor which would determine relationship and task-orientation.

Examples are DiSC assessment, social styles, and a theory that adds a fifth temperament. One of the most popular today is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, whose four temperaments were based largely on the Greek gods Apollo, Dionysus, Epimetheus, and Prometheus, and were mapped to the 16 types of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator.

They were renamed as Artisan (SP), Guardian (SJ), Idealist (NF), and Rational (NT).

Four fundamental personality types

Most individuals tend to have aspects of their personality which identity with each of the four temperaments.

However, there are usually two primary temperaments that are displayed at a significantly higher level. An individual could be any combination of the following four types.

The personality type of Sanguine is described primarily as being highly talkative, enthusiastic, active, and social. Sanguines tend to be more extroverted and enjoy being part of a crowd; they find that being social, outgoing, and charismatic is easy to accomplish. Individuals with this personality have a hard time doing nothing and engage in more risk-seeking behavior.

Choleric individuals also tend to be more extroverted. They are described as being independent, decisive, and goal-oriented, and they enjoy being in charge of a group since they have many leadership qualities as well as ambition. Choleric personalities also have a logical and fact-based outlook on the world.

Melancholic individuals tend to be analytical and detail-oriented, and they are deep thinkers and feelers. They are introverted and try to avoid being singled out in a crowd. A melancholic personality leads to self-reliant individuals who are thoughtful, reserved, and often anxious. They often strive for perfection within themselves and their surroundings, which leads to tidy and detail oriented behavior.

A phlegmatic individual tends to be relaxed, peaceful, quiet, and easy-going. They are sympathetic and care about others, yet they try to hide their emotions. Phlegmatic individuals also are good at generalizing ideas or problems to the world and making compromises.

Modern views

Waldorf education and anthroposophy believe that the temperaments help to understand personality. Christian writer Tim LaHaye has attempted to repopularize the ancient temperaments through his books.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed the trio sonata in c minor „Sanguineus et Melancholicus“ Wq 161/1. Émile Zola employed the four temperaments in Thérèse Raquin. Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2 is titled and structured upon “The Four Temperaments.


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