Achilles Tendencies

A New Look at the Keirsey Temperaments

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A New Look at David Keirsey's Temperaments

by Roger E. Bissell


The particular inspiration behind this web site is the theory of personality and temperament found in Please Understand Me by David Keirsey and Gifts Differing by Isabel Myers. I am interested in all personality types, but my special interest is in better understanding what I call the Muse-Seekers--i.e. the four personality types whose preferences are N (intuition) and P (perceiving) on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) or the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS)--and the Philosopher-Kings or NJs.

1. Germane's "syncretic" (cognitive) temperaments and the Myers-Briggs function-combinations.

My friend, Janet Germane, refers to these NP types (such as myself, an INTP) as Apollonians (unlike Keirsey who reserves that term for the NF intuitive-feeling types)--and well she might, for Apollo was the sponsor or guardian of the Muses. Similarly, she redirects the term Prometheans (which Keirsey attaches to the NT intuitive-thinkers) so that it applies to the NJs (such as herself, an ENTJ). 

Thanks to the extensive work done on the SPs (sensing-perceivers) and SJs (sensing-judgers), these types are much better understood than their intuitive-level counterparts (above). Everyone seems to agree with the Greek mythological figures and temperament names Keirsey attached to them: Dionysus for the Artisan SPs and Epimetheus for the Guardian SJs. When the discussion turns to Keirsey's other two temperaments, however, there is less agreement.  

Keirsey says that the breakdown of intuitive types is between NTs (intuitive-thinkers) and NFs (intuitive feelers), which he calls Rationals and Idealists, and which he associates with Prometheus and Apollo. As Germane points out in an article in Journal of Psychological Type, however, Prometheus was the brother of Epimetheus (Atlas being their brother), and they were regarded as pillars of society, each in his own way. This being so, Germane says, the SJ Epimetheans should be mirrored by NJ Prometheans. To this, I add the suggestion that the SJ Guardians should be mirrored by NJ Philosopher-Kings. Each of them watch over society, the SJs in a more concrete, day-to-day manner, the NJs in a more abstract, long-range manner, each in the fashion of their associated mythical character. 

Germane also points out the similarities between Apollo and Dionysus and suggests that the SP Dionysians should be mirrored by NP Apollonians. To this, I add the idea that SP Artisans are appropriately mirrored by NP Muse-Seekers. Neither Keirsey nor Germane seems to have noticed that Dionysus and Apollo were half-brothers, their father being Zeus. (For those interested in genealogy, Zeus was the son of Chronos, whose brother Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Atlas. So the Ps [SPs and NPs] are first cousins, once-removed to the Js [SJs and NJs].)  

As much as Prometheus and Epimetheus were committed to establishing and maintaining order in the world, Zeus and his sons were interested in pursuing the flow of experience, whether more concretely with craft and wine as the Dionysians or more abstractly with the arts and sciences as the Apollonians. Or, to put it in a somewhat less flattering light, as Germane does in her excellent article, the order-seeking Js (Promethean NJs and Epimethean SJs) are like the responsible, hard-working ants in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. The flow-seeking Ps (Apollonian NPs and Dionysean SPs), then, are like the spontaneous, play-oriented grasshoppers.  

So, if we regroup the intuitive-level personalities into intuitive-judging (NJ) and intuitive-perceiving (NP), what becomes of Keirsey's quite appropriate labels for the intuitive-thinkers (NT) and intuitive-feelers (NF)? I suggest that we turn to the sensing-level types that Keirsey neglected, namely, the sensing-thinkers (ST) and sensing-feelers (SF), and build a new set of four labels that mirror each other. Parallel to the Rational NTs, I propose the Sensible STs--and parallel to the Idealist NFs, I propose the Sentimentalist SFs. Not only the parallels seem appropriate, but the opposites do, too: opposed to the Rational NTs are the Sentimentalist SFs, and opposed to the Idealist NFs are the Sensible STs. These groups of types are referred to in the Myers-Briggs community as the "function combinations."

2. Keirsey's two temperament systems and their progeny: the Bissell behavioral temperaments.

 There is far more that can be said about Keirsey's temperament model, even though it surely must appear that I have pretty well gutted it here. I repeatedly find myself shaking my head over how insightful and intuitive his ideas are. Considering that they are expressed in a framework that I find a "first approximation" at best, that framework is startlingly accurate. Nevertheless, I have good reason to think that it can be significantly improved upon. In brief, I will make four claims that should make sense to anyone who has studied his books Please Understand Me and Portraits of Temperament, but I will leave a full argument in support of those claims for another time:

 1. Although he probably does not realize it, Keirsey has not one system of temperament, but two, the second one completely mirroring the first. Keirsey contrasts the SJs and NFs, which he regards as Cooperatives with the SPs and NTs, which he regards as Pragmatics. He also draws the distinction between Role-Directives and Role-Informatives. The former include the eight types who are NJs and STs, the latter being the NPs and SFs. Re-arranging the types, we see that the temperament system that divides into Cooperatives and Pragmatics splits up the 16 types as SJ, SP, NT, NF. The unacknowledged, mirror-temperament system that divides into Role-Directives and Role-Informatives splits up the 16 types as NJ, NP, ST, SF. The mirror metaphor could not be more apt in this case.

 2. My own study of the SJs and NFs as Cooperatives shows that their strongest common element is the presence among them of four FJ types--in other words, those with preferences for feeling and judging. And the SPs and NTs as Pragmatics have their strongest common element being the four TP types--i.e. those with preferences for thinking and perceiving. This simple comparison is supported by a more complicated method using preference norms for the 16 types on an expanded version of the MBTI that has 5 subscales for each of the preference dimensions. (E.g., the extrovert/introvert dimension breaks down into gregarious/reserved, enthusiastic/quiet, expressive/contained, participative/reflective, and leader/follower. Similarly, for the sensing/intuiting, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving dimensions.) As yet, the results of this research are unpublished.

3. In parallel, my study of the NJs and STs as Role-Directives shows that their strongest common element is the present among them of four TJ types--in other words, those with preferences for thinking and judging. And the NPs and SFs as Role-Informatives have their strongest common element being the four FP types--i.e. those with preferences for feeling and perceiving. This comparison, too, is supported by my methodology based on the expanded version of the MBTI.

4. In summary, Keirsey's two temperament systems turn out to be startlingly accurate as "first approximations" to an unsuspectedly significant new grouping of personality types. We have the FJ Cooperatives, the TP Pragmaticists, the TJ Role-Directives, and the FP Role-Informatives. In other words, a crossing of the thinking-feeling dimension with the judging-perceiving dimension, something suggested by Marvin Rytting as a possible line for future research. His suggestion seems to have been prophetic, judging by the correlations I have found so far. These behavioral temperaments form a nice parallel and complement to Germane's cognitive temperaments (but referred to by her as "syncretic temperaments"): the SJ Epimetheans, the NP Apollonians, the SP Dionysians, and the NJ Prometheans.

Roger E. Bissell, Muse-Seeker
May 17, 1998