One of the great fields of psychology is the study of personality.

However, when looking for ways to classify and describe the style of behavior and thought of human beings, not only has there been talk about personality, but there is another concept that throughout history, has also been used to try to capture the particularities of each person. This concept is called temperament , and tries to give an account of those inclinations and tendencies of each person that are more fixed, invariable and difficult to change.

What are temperament types?

The type of temperament of each person is usually understood as the basic structure on which the personality of each one is built , with all its details and particularities.

In recent decades this means that the term temperament has been used to refer to one’s genetics, the inheritable part of the personality, which means that one’s temperament would remain more or less unchanged regardless of what happens to us, how we learn to manage our emotions, etc.

But… how did the idea come about that human beings have different types of temperaments that differentiate us from one another? The answer is in the theory of the 4 basic temperaments , which is based on the idea that our way of being depends on several types of substances, or “humors”, that circulate in our body.

The theory of the four humors

One of the first historical personalities to develop the theory of the 4 humors that would later give way to that of temperaments was the Greek physician Hippocrates .

Around the fifth and fourth centuries BC, in ancient Greece, which was inhabited by Hippocrates, the belief that everything in the world was composed of a few elements combined with each other was very important. Hippocrates adopted this view by defending the idea that the human body is made up of 4 basic substances, also called humors.

For Hippocrates, these moods are as follows :

  • Blood , whose associated element is air.
  • Phlegm , the element of which is water.
  • Yellow bile , which corresponds to the fire element.
  • Black bile , associated with the soil.

But Hippocrates was still a doctor, and therefore made this humoral theory enter more into the field of medicine than into that of psychology and personality . According to him, the fact that in our body all these substances are in balance makes us healthy, while a decompensation in the levels of humors would produce diseases.

It was Galen of Pergamon who, in the second century B.C. made the greatest effort to transform the theory of humours into a theory of basic temperaments.

The theory of basic temperaments

Galen started from the idea that everything is constituted by the mixture of 4 elements and that each one of them corresponds to one of the humors of the human body to end up applying this vision to the primitive psychology of that time.

For this Greek physician, the levels at which each of the humors in a human body are present explain the personality styles and temperament of the body, which means that by observing the amounts of these substances one could know the style of behavior of a person, how he expresses his emotions, etc.

The 4 basic temperaments proposed by Galen were the following.

1. Blood temperature

The blood people are characterized according to Galen as being cheerful, optimistic and always seeking the company of others .

They show warmth when dealing with other people, their way of acting is more in line with feelings than with the conclusions generated by rational analysis. In addition, they change their minds easily and are little given to disciplined behavior, because they are guided by the search for immediate pleasure. That is why they often leave things unfinished.Their associated element is air.

2. Phlegm temperature

The phlegmatic temperament expresses a propensity for a calm and serene way of behaving and a persevering and rational approach to goals .

According to Galen’s theory, people who stand out for this kind of temperament place a high value on accuracy in thinking and doing things, rarely get angry and don’t show their emotions much, even seeming somewhat cold. They also tend to be somewhat shy and avoid being the center of attention or holding a leadership role. According to the theory of the 4 temperaments, these people had the element of water.

3. Choleric temperature

People who stand out because of their angry temperament are especially energetic, proactive and independent. They show a tendency to always be engaged in an activity or undertake projects and defend their opinions and positions with determination in the different situations they experience.

Furthermore, they trust their own judgment and are not afraid of confrontation with others, so they are assertive and do not shy away from leadership positions. However, if this type of temperament is very extreme, it can lead to many conflicts and hostilities. The element with which they were related was fire.

4. Melancholic temperament

People with melancholic temperament are characterized, according to Galen, by being emotionally sensitive, creative, introverted, self-sacrificing and perfectionist . In some way, this type of temperament can be related to the recent concept of Highly Sensitive People (HSP), although defined in a much more ambiguous way.

Although they find pleasure in tasks that require effort and personal sacrifice, they find it difficult to decide when to initiate projects precisely because of this perfectionist spirit and because of the concern produced by the insecurity of not knowing what will happen. Their moods vary easily and they show a propensity for sadness. Their element is the earth.

The theory of the 4 temperaments and psychology

Galen’s work has been a reference for many centuries of history, but today it is not considered valid either in medicine or in psychology .

The reasons are that, on the one hand, it was not formulated on ideas and philosophical positions accepted today (the humoral theory) and on the other hand, that the way in which the different temperaments are described is very ambiguous. This means that although it may be inspiring to see one’s own personality reflected in one of these temperamental types, it is quite possible that part of the interest in this simple system of classification is due to the Forer effect, as is the case, for example, with the personality enneagram.

In the end, in Galen’s time psychology as a science did not exist , and we were just beginning to understand the functioning of the world and the human body by resorting to poorly defined concepts, composed of various ideas that, although we could intuitively relate them to each other, beyond this it cannot be justified that they are united. For example, there is no reason why within the phlegmatic temperament the serene character and the rational way of thinking should appear united. Could there not be a serene and non-rational temperament?

Galen’s Inspirational Potential

However, the fact that the theory of the four temperaments no longer has scientific validity does not mean that it has not served as an inspiration for various personality theories in modern psychology. Many personality scholars have relied on the concept of temperament to develop their tests and personality measurement tools, and today it is considered that genetic inheritance plays an important role in our way of being.