Elemental Personalities

November 5, 2020

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Captain Planet and his Planeteers always seemed a little trite to me. Five young people, each with an elemental ring. And each with a personality to match. Seemed like lazy writing but now I'm wondering whether they intended to tap into millennia-old thought on personality styles, or whether it was just a happy accident.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Captain Planet and his Planeteers always seemed a little trite to me. Five young people, each with an elemental ring. And each with a personality to match. Seemed like lazy writing to make the fire guy hotheaded and make the wind lady capricious. Now I'm wondering whether they intended to tap into millennia-old thought on personality styles, or whether it was just the happy accident of some kind of fundamental human orientation. Or maybe it was just lazy writing, but I reckon that was a pretty good segue. Let's talk personality.

There's a strangely compelling amount of convergence on a few key ideas in the pre-pharmacological era of medicine; the interactions of body and mind. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the same ideas are around today. Let's start with the more familiar (to me), the Greeks.

Greek Medicine

Empedocles appears to be the first Greek philosopher on record to explain the operations of the body in terms of the familiar four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Empedocles was more of a shaman than a physician though. His use of the elements to describe the actions of the body was, perhaps unsurprisingly, bound up also in weather-making.

Plato and then Aristotle modified these ideas, eventually adding hot and cold, damp and dry. These overlapping concepts—the warm and dry of fire-like bodily actions, or the damp and cold of those more water-like traits—were modified further, first through Polybus, the son-in-law of the famous Hippocrates, and eventually by the even more influential Galen. We were eventually left with the four 'humors' and their corresponding temperaments—the melancholic (earth), choleric (fire), sanguine (air), and phlegmatic (water).

While these characterisations were often used to diagnose the symptoms of illnesses, they were also used to characterise people's personalities. And these characterisations would appear time and time again in the philosophical works of western cultures over the next 2000 years to today.

But before we go there, let's journey elsewhere briefly to see what other cultures thought.

The elements elsewhere

I won't pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of the Ayurvedic tradition, given it's sprawling history. But tracing a familiar path from the shamanistic to a more rationalist approach to medicine, the eventual integration of a huge number of medical systems also comprised the same four elements of the Greek tradition (earth, water, air, and fire) along with a fifth. The wind, or aether, was (and still is) thought to be a more essential element, acting on the others and causing them to change.

This fifth element often appears with more or less importance in many medical traditions. The Greeks included it, though assigned it less importance.

Chinese Traditional Medicine, unlike the Grecian and Ayurvedic tradition, appears to have resisted the dominance of one particular system over others during its journey of development and kept them all instead. Still though, along with the perhaps familiar yin and yang, and a handful of other characterisations of the body's operations, we also see a familiar attraction to hot and cold, and a distinct similarity in five elemental 'phases'. A resemblance between the actions of fire, earth, and water, and a similarity of the Chinese metal with the more familiar air. We also see wood or sometimes wind as a mirror of the more ethereal fifth element.

Back to personality

Despite the widespread adoption of the four temperaments—so widespread in fact that it spread via Avicenna to the Islamic world—modern medicine in the western world eventually abandoned the elemental approach to medicine. While the famous alchemist Paracelsus was a proponent of the four elements and the fifth 'quintessence', he also essentially created medical chemistry—the isolation of chemicals and minerals for healing purposes. This was the beginning of the end of the dominance of holistic medicine, and thereafter the end of the Western orientation towards the role of the elemental forces in the human character. Although, one wonders for how long.

Yet, this apparently quite universal orientation persisted in the more metaphorically-inclined inquiry into the mind. From Kant to Adler to Fromm, the big thinkers of the next centuries repeatedly came back to the elemental temperaments as a dividing framework for how people express themselves. The sanguine, airy, talkative and social. The melancholic, earthy, introverted thinkers. The phlegmatic, watery, relaxed peace-makers. And the choleric, fiery, ambitious decision-makers.

What is more interesting, however, is that as psychology moved away from philosophy and towards more empirical methods of data analysis, these elemental temperaments remained present.

The most obvious overlap came in the work of controversial researcher Hans Eysenck. Before he started endorsing his very questionable 'disease-prone' personality-styles, and wading ill-advisedly into debates about genetics and IQ—now known to be very choppy waters due to the fundamental limitations of IQ measures, Eysenck was a little less trigger happy with his speculations.

Factor analysis, a statistical method that looks for latent 'underlying' variables that account for groups of data, was a burgeoning interest in psychology at the time. Eysenck found that some combination of two underlying dimensions seemed to account for people's responses to personality questionnaires–extraversion and neuroticism. More curiously, Eysenck noted the similarities between these combinations and the four temperaments:

  • Those higher in extroversion and higher in neuroticism were the fiery, choleric ones; strong willed, task oriented, impulsive and passionate
  • Those lower in extroversion and lower in neuroticism were the watery, phlegmatic ones; calm, peaceful, thoughtful and private
  • Those lower in extroversion but higher in neuroticism were the earthy, melancholic ones; serious, cautious and conscientious thinkers and feelers
  • And finally, those lower in neuroticism but higher in extroversion were the airy, sanguine ones; sociable, passionate and optimistic.

Eysenck went on to try and tie these traits to physical characteristics of the hormone and neural systems, the theoretical framework of which still exists today—those high in extroversion, or at least some proportion of them, need more physical stimulation for a variety of biological reasons, and others need less.

Eventually, Eysenck, along with his wife Sybil, felt the need to extend the model and others adapted it into less recognisable forms or created new dimensional trait models of personality. But each of these holds at their core something very familiar to those with an awareness of the old elemental perspective.

Modern variations on the theme

Marston's DISC is one. Undersold in the recent movie about his alleged polyamorous relationship, the DISC describes the personality traits Dominance (fire), Influence (air), Steadiness (water), and Conscientiousness (earth). Less used now in psychology, but still very popular in the sales and business world—so popular in fact that I learned it in industry-jobs long before I encountered it in my academic life.

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter is another extremely popular assessment, developed itself ostensibly as an abstraction of the undergraduate student favourite, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—though whether this was an association that was designed by David Keirsey or simply noted after the fact is unclear. Regardless, both of these personality assessments are popular because they feel intuitively descriptive. So descriptive in fact that it is not uncommon to see undergrads sign off with their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in their emails to teachers.

Keirsey's artisans (Myers-Briggs sensing/perceiving) have fire-like traits. The idealists (intuitive/feeling) have air-like ones. The guardians (sensing/judging) are earth-like. And the rationals (intuitive/thinking) are water-like. Perhaps it wouldn't surprise you to learn that Keirsey far more explicitly based these on the Platonic interpretation of the four elements.

But the most exciting personality model for psychologists today is the 'big five' model. A model with a unique history, it is the result of running factor analysis on the english language. An attempt to find which underlying variables account for the most words. This idea stems from lexical approach to psychological problems—essentially the more words we have for something, the more important it is to us.

Several groups of researchers, independently or in collaboration, have found five major dimensions that account for the words we use to describe others. These five factors have different names based on which researchers you ask, but the most common (and memorable) acronym is OCEAN:

  • Openness to experience—people who are higher are more likely to seek out new things, be curious and create. People who are lower are more likely to be consistent and more cautious about engaging in new activities.
  • Conscientiousness–people who are higher are more likely to be organised around goals and efficient at achieving them. People who are lower are typically less goal-oriented and instead more extravagent and disorganised.
  • Extraversion—people who are higher are usually more social, energetic, and outgoing. Those lower are generally more reserved and solitary.
  • Agreeableness—those higher are more likely to go along with things, to be friendly and compassionate. People who are lower are more likely to be challenging, combative and less concerned about 'smoothing things over'.
  • Neuroticism—not quite the typical conception of neuroticism. People higher in this trait are more likely to be sensitive to stress, high-achieving, self-reflective and oriented to threats. Those lower are more likely to be ignorant or care less about threats or stress, less reflective, and may be more resilient.

What is most interesting about this model is that it didn't arise from big thinkers or the questionnaires they designed. It arose from the statistical interactions in our language use. The more words, and the more related, the more they contributed to one of these factors. Essentially, rather than being a theory-driven creation, it was a statistically-derived one. And though it has some critiques, it is also one of the most well-studied and applicable personality models we have—both across people and across the lifespan.

And yet, even within the mechanically generated OCEAN, we see the elements peering out at us. Extraversion and Neuroticism here behave much as they did in Eysenck's model. When we consider that people score somewhere on each of these dimensions, we can see that our elemental personalities can be more clearly captured in this extended model. Our water-like people will be agreeable, conscientious, open, but perhaps lower in neuroticism and extraversion. Our fire-like might be less agreeable, less conscientious, but open, extraverted and low in neuroticism. Our earth-like people could be higher in neuroticism, but conscientious, less extraverted and less agreeable. And our air-like people might be more extraverted, but less agreeable, more neurotic and open.

It seems prudent of course, to point out that this OCEAN model seems to vary from culture to culture. Elsewhere we might get honesty traits, or humility ones. In some cultures masculine and feminine. But my guess would be that there too, as we have for millennia, we would still come to recognise our familiar and stead-fast elemental personalities.

After all, what are we all but wet star-dirt, imbued with fire, and breathing air.

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