Early Classifications: “Fate” and “Chemistry”

It is instructive to take time to review some of the classification systems that have been developed since ancient times.  To begin – ancient civilizations viewed one’s psychology as a matter of “fate”. In Egyptian and Babylonian times astrologers were consulted to assess whether and individual would succeed or fail in an endeavour.  The oldest astrological document extant is the work called “Namar-Beli” has been dated back over four thousand years ago. This foreshadows the zodiac and the classification of people into twelve groups.  For example Cancers would be most influenced by home and family, Leo’s by pleasure, Capricorn’s by social status and Aquarius by friends. The ancient astrologers were not afraid to dispense advice on people suitability for a particular challenge or relationship. Although astrology has not been respected scientifically for some time its influence continues today. Are there any similarities in the role of the ancient astrologers and the work of people advisors today?

Hippocrates’ – First Theory of Types

Approximately two and a half thousand years ago the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 400 B.C.) described four temperamental types. Humorism remained a popular school of medicine throughout medieval times and there are frequent references to the four humours in the plays of Shakespeare. While the underpinnings of his classification was bizarre * (given our understanding of medicine today) the classification itself remains popular.

Hippocates based his classification on how imbalances in our chemistry (mixes of four bodily fluids) affected our behaviour. Each fluid was associated with a particular temperament. For example an excess of phlegm was associated with a steady or tranquil personality (phlegmatic). The other three types in this model were melancholic, sanguine and choleric).

Hippocrates work was re-popularised by William Marston in his 1928 publications Emotions of Normal People. Marston rebranded the 4 bodily fluids as four distinct behavioural styles (see overleaf). People are classified in one of four quadrants depending on whether they have a favourable or unfavourable view of the environment and whether they are disposed to be proactive in their environment.

In the twentieth century Marston’s work brought this framework to a wider audience and it is the basis for one of the most widely marketed personality questionnaire internationally. (Thomas International certifies that more than a million Thomas International delivered assessments are completed each year). The Thomas International DISC questionnaire is widely used as a framework to help recruiters differentiate people’s work personality and to facilitate team placement.

MARSTON / Hippocrates: 4 Quadrants of Behaviour


The four temperaments are today generally described as classified by the Thomas International DISC. This is based on the work of Marsden and classifies people into four distinct types.

  • Dominant (active orientation where the world is seen as unhelpful/ unfavourable)
  • Influential (active orientation where the world is seen as helpful)
  • Steady (passive orientation where the world is seen as helpful)
  • Compliant (passive orientation where the world is seen as unhelpful/ unfavourable)

Does the DISC theory of types offer anything useful for you in classifying differences between people? What do you believe is the relative importance of people’s “temperaments V their abilities” in determining fit to careers or particular types of jobs?

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